DOING THE MINI-DAKAR
MCN heads to the Merzouga Rally to find out just how hard this rallying lark really is!
The Dakar is the stuff of legend but the leap from keen clubman or serious adventure rider to the world’s toughest off-road race is huge. To help bridge the gap ASO, the organisers of the Dakar, run the Merzouga rally in Morocco, which is designed to help give riders the experience they need. There’s also the extra incentive that if you finish the Rally class without too many penalties, you’re guaranteed a place at the Dakar. With this in mind, we headed to Morocco to spend time with the five Brits taking on the challenge.
Learn by doing
The Merzouga is the exact opposite of the Dakar as many of the riders are relatively inexperienced and, on the whole, normal folk like you or me. Most of the British riders this year were middle-aged with regular jobs and a just a few years rallying experience. While there was idle talk of misspent youth on crossers from some, Jonathan Blackburn didn’t even have that.
“I was riding overland down through Africa on a KTM 690 when I bumped into Lyndon Poskitt [British Dakar rider] and a bunch of other guys,” says Blackburn. “They said ‘Come to Merzouga’, which sowed the seed. I carried on riding down through Africa and over that time I did the research into what equipment I’d need, how I would bolt it on etc. Then when I got to South Africa I entered the Amageza rally and it just snowballed from there. I’d had no formal training or experience.”
Back to school
Part of the Merzouga experience is learning from the greats. Dakar legend Marc Coma was on hand to give riders help, including a few evening workshops. Also available for more practical advice were Giovanni ‘Joe’ Sala, a sixtime World Enduro champion, and Jean Brucy, who has completed 12 Dakars.
As an additional part of the learning process James Ford, Andrew Newland and Richard Dors were out there with Desert Rose Racing, who provide rally assistance. Run by Dakar veterans Patsy Quick and Clive ‘Zippy’ Wood, Desert Rose transport your bike and kit to the rally, then provide mechanical assistance and advice. Also with Desert Rose was an American, Mike ‘Pin-itto-win-it’ Skurkis, who earned his nickname on day one when he picked up 11 speed penalties in just 40km.
‘Riders were just normal guys with regular jobs’ Continued over
Come back tomorrow
At the Dakar, if you break down on day one then your race is over and you go home. At the Merzouga the rally operates from a central location with circular routes, so if you crash or have a mechanical, the organisers will recover your bike and you can return to the fray the next day.
There were no major bike smashes for the British riders but the big bike damage was done in the most innocuous way. When Skurkis stopped to help another rider, his bike fell and sand poured into the exhaust. Righting the bike brought the sand up to the header where it entered the valves and brought his day to a swift end. Zippy said he could get Skurkis back on the road but that it would be a time consuming job involving a whole new engine, four hours labour and six or seven cold beers.
Whatever the weather
The weather report had suggested there would be rain and what else could that dark cloud on the horizon be? As it drew nearer it became obvious: it was a sandstorm. The wind steadily began to build until we were engulfed in a swirling mass of sand and dust. Visibility was reduced to a few metres while flags, fences and shelters were torn from the ground. Those who could, sought shelter behind a car or under a tarp but as the grains lashed at my face, I could only think of the riders who were either just returning from the end of the morning’s stage or those who had just headed out into it.
The second major sandstorm was more alarming than the first because it was accompanied by an electrical storm. Unluckily for Richard, Andrew and myself, we were by the van when it hit and the task of holding down the metal-framed gazebo fell to us. Despite the obvious risk this posed Zippy pointed out that we were less valuable than the bikes, so carried on sipping his tea and working away. Just like the Dakar then.
By the time I parted ways with the riders, what little of their faces were visible through the dust had visibly aged. The race had taken its toll but it was clear that they were learning more and more every day. Only Richard Main immediately staked out his de- sire to race the next Dakar but there were murmurings of interest from the others. In the meantime registration for the 2018 Merzouga opens soon and you’ve got 12 months to prepare, so what are you waiting for?
‘Through the dust their faces had visibly aged’ ‘As the sand lashed my face, I could only think of the riders’
Richard Dors works in construction but also makes a mean brew Andrew Newland inspects his blistered hands Brave Brits: Ford, Newland, Dors and Main
Jonathan Blackburn unravels the mysteries of the rally roadbook
Bivouac on the marathon stage, this is no luxury holiday Storming the desert. It’s less tough than the Dakar but no bed of roses Civil servant versus the sand: Richard Main in rally mode