DO­ING THE MINI-DAKAR

MCN heads to the Merzouga Rally to find out just how hard this ral­ly­ing lark re­ally is!

Motorcycle News (UK) - - This Week - By Jor­dan Gib­bons SE­NIOR RE­PORTER

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.

Les­son learned

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

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