My original intent was to provide a daily recap throughout the rally, but about 3 hours into the first day, I realized how naïve that was.
The race stages were long and grueling, taking between 8-12 hours each day. Arriving exhausted each day we had limited time to find our hotels, shower, do basic maintenance (fluids and filters) and fix whatever broke during the stage. By the time we were done, it between 9pm-1am, depending on the stage. With Roadbooks being distributed between before 5:30AM the next day, there just wasn’t time to ‘blog’.
So, here’s a LONG post-race recap instead. (Note: I’ll have a separate ‘Lessons Learned’ post, so don’t judge some of the obvious ridiculous oversights I will mention below.)
Rally Day 1 – ENSENADA ~ SAN FELIPE
The first day was one of the shortest of the rally; it was as though the organizers wanted to ease the competitors into the event. Stage 1 consisted 261km of Special stages (over 3 sections) strung together by 88Kms of Transit and took 6 hours.
EDIT: Rally 101 – Rally Navigation Stages are made up of SPECIAL (timed) sections and TRANSIT (connecting, not timed liaisons) sections. Essentially, you are racing on the Specials. During Transit riders have to keep a reasonable pace to arrive in a prescribed time window at the next Special, or Finish, etc.. There could be between 2-4 SPECIAL sections on each Stage, ranging from 20kms (which was an ultra-short stage on day 5) to 320kms (day 3).
Starting right outside the Rivera Convention Center, we received our roadbooks at 5AM (like in the Dakar, so top teams could not use map men to gain any insights overnight); we loaded them up and nervously awaited our departure times. Riders were spaced out by 1 minute intervals to separate the competitors. As I watched the top riders embark on the first transit, I wanted to pink myself; ‘Am I really doing this?’
Right off the bat things got interesting. The first Transit took us over the mountains, and into the wine valley of Ensenada. The fog in the mountains was so thick, we were instantly soaked to the bone, shivering the remainder of the Transit. Then the gas station at end of the Transit (before beginning of the first Special) was out of gas(!) I panicked. (During my hurried prep for this event, I could only get my hands on a 3.5 gallon gas tank, not the 5.1 gallon tally tank I really needed. Combined mileage of the first Transit and Special would put me dangerously close to my puny 150kms mileage limit.) My Canadian teammate was in a similar predicament. So, we rode the first Special together, and fortunately we were able to bum some gas from a random chase truck INSIDE the stage, causing us to lose some time, but ensuring we were able to complete the Special. As the day went on, together we pushed ahead, getting more comfortable with the navigation. The first day was over just shy of 3pm.
Stage 1 also brought my first, and thankfully only, mechanical complication. About 2/3’s of the way through the day, I noticed oil spewing out of my oil filler cap. Oil was still registering on the sight glass, but alarm bells were going off in my head. Not knowing how oil was escaping or why, all I could do was check periodically and hope the bike would make it to the end of the stage.
Once at the hotel, I did an oil change measuring the dirty oil to see how much I actually lost…. Turns out, not much, at least as best as I could tell using spent water bottles and a makeshift drain pan made of a Downy detergent container to measure the fluids. (It turned out we all assumed that our chase guy would have an oil pan and measuring container in his truck … which he didn’t.) After analyzing the situation, I deduced that the O-ring in the oil filler plug was the culprit, but had no way to fix it at the time, so I tightened the plug as much as I could and planned to take a bit of extra oil with me on Day 2.
Rally Day 2 – SAN FELIPE ~ GUERRERO NEGRO
Second day was the HARDEST day by all accounts. Long special stages 398kms combined and long liaisons beat me up. Navigation through open, vast lake beds were tricky and the dunes at the end of the stage were punishing for those that have not experienced deep sand before. I managed to catch a couple of riders in the last stage as I found the dunes easier than some; I guess even limited practice in Nevada paid off.
Throughout the day my oil was still seeping, until I managed to get some silicone from an Italian support team waiting for their riders to come in to re-fuel. Magically, my leak was fixed and at the next re-fuel I asked Harry and Trent to find me some silicone in the next town. (I’d need to re-apply after each night’s oil change.) I also tasked them with finding a proper oil pan. 🙂
Day 2 was the first time we had to really navigate for long time based on nothing but CAP headings (compass) and distances. In El Diablo Lake bed, there were no tracks, roads or trails to follow (before that we were following a combination of track and CAP headings together). Instead, here the notes would simply say something to the effect of:
NOTE 68: KM 268, OP (off track), turn right to CAP 185.
NOTE 69: KM 271, OP Turn left to CAP 150 after crossing a sand wash (or some other ambiguous landmark).
NOTE 70: KM 274 Masked Waypoint (800m Radius), Proceed onto ‘less visible’ trail exiting the lake bed…
In this situation, you would be praying that you got your compass headings right on notes 68 through 69 and approaching KM 273.3-ish you would be in the radius of the Masked Waypoint (WPM) so the arrow on the Stella device would open up and guide you to the right trail to exit the lakebed… if not, some searching would be in order.
In the lake bed we encountered a few broken-down riders, stopped to offer help and carried on. We also got caught by 3 Trophy trucks at the end of the stage, which was a death-defying experience each time they passed us. It was a proper rally stage we were told.
Rally Day 3 – GUERRO NEGRO ~ LORETTO
Day 3 was the LONGEST day at 555km total (401km of special stages and 154km of transits). Comically I managed to almost get lost literally 3kms out of the start. It wasn’t funny at the time and I was happy to regain my bearings (and pride) just seconds before Miguel, who was starting after me that day, passed me. This meant that again we’d be riding together most of the day.
Right off the bat we were reminded that racing was serious business and our experience was very susceptible to suddenly ending in agony, as it did for an injured rider we encountered. Lying on the ground, tended by 2 other competitors, was a fellow rider. Apparently the poor guy hit a depression (marked on the roadbook as Danger !!) and flew 30 feet over the handlebars. The rider was concussed with a broken upper arm bone sticking through the flesh… Not able to offer more assistance than was already there (SOS on the Stella was activated and 2 competitors were staying with the rider), we carried on, trying to re-focus on the navigation and the ride.
On a much less serious note, but nevertheless also very frustrating, we passed a few broke-down riders that day. Each was out for either the race or at least at risk of not finishing the stage. They would have to wait for the sweep truck to pick them up late in the day, ensuring a very long day in the heat.
A large part of last stage on day 3 section was super rocky. The roadbook called out rocks for ‘next 30km’ and then ‘next 50km’. During these sections it felt like the front rim was ready to explode at least a few times after especially large impacts on hidden or unavoidable rocks. Much like in the sand, I kept standing up, shifting my weight back while trying to steer the front wheel clear of at least the largest of obstacles. Doing that for 50+ kms at high speeds made me wish for some Pivot Pegs. Rocky, mountainous terrain also brought with it quite serious “Danger 3” encounters. Many sections were off-camber, washed out and bordering the side of a cliff, so going off meant a flight of 5-10 stories down the mountain side. Needles to say, I kept an eye out for the “!!!” marker that denoted “Danger 3”.
After Day 3, we had a logistical complication with our team splitting up between two (very far from one another) hotels. It was also the day I had to change my wheels, so Neil had to run back and forth between his hotel (where Miguel was staying) and mine to bring back the oils, tires and other supplies. Needless to say the maintenance took longer than needed and I wasn’t in bed until almost 1AM. Tomorrow was going to be exhausting.
Rally Day 4 – LORETO ~ LA PAZ
Despite my lack of sleep, Day 4 was when I started to feel like I was enjoying the experience.
The day started with needless stress when I got a text from Miguel that overnight someone had stolen his boots, so his rally was ‘OVER’. Luckily I was already at the start line with my roadbook loaded and could devote time to helping fix the issue. I managed to find a competitor that was out of the rally who agreed to lend Miguel his set of boots. (This probably deserves it’s own story, but that’s for another time. We did find the boots on Day 5. They were apparently ‘stolen’ by local dogs…).
Day 4’s 421km of special stages were fast, open and enjoyable. This rally thing was really happening.
On the second special of the day, riding along with a few other guys, we got lost, picked-up 3-4 others and for a while tried to find our way to a tricky control (small radius) waypoint though desert and waist-tall vegetation. Eventually we got it, speeding off to the next set of notes and stringing out based on each-others speed and riding abilities.
Day 4 introduced silt or ‘fesh-fesh’, which is a pain to ride in unless you keep your speed up at all times. For my Canadian partner, this brought some new challenges and I had to stop a few times to help, or make emergency maneuvers to avoid crashing into him.
Rally Day 5 – LA PAZ ~ SAN JOSE DEL CABO
Day 5 was the final day and felt like the home stretch. The day started with a painful 63km Transit followed by a short 28km rocky Special stage, another Transit and then a final 100KM Special into the finish line.
The rocky trail of the first Special was carved into ocean-side cliffs, so the scenery was spectacular. It felt more enduro than rally, so I really enjoyed it (while being mindful of the fact that it would suck to break the bike on the last day). The final stage was a delight, probably the most enjoyable, fast special of the rally. It was the first (and only) day that had a big, wide river-bed that was wide enough to have multiple parallel tracks in it… It really felt like the Dakar with riders (or their tracks) converging from multiple paths generally aimed in the same direction. It must have been a treat for the spectators too. In fact during this part of the special, there were so many notes to follow in sequence that I gave up and just ‘navigated’ at full speed from one set of spectator tents to the next, generally following what I thought was the correct path, waiting for a waypoint to beep (control) or open-up (masked) in order to orient myself. Probably not the best, but the most fun.
And then came the finish!