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WORDS: Russ Atkinson
It should stand to reason that when you’ve worked toward and achieved a personal dream, it feels like a dream afterwards, too. But somehow, as logical as that seems, the reality is actually a little underwhelming. What I’m getting at, is that the six thousand seven hundred plus kilometre, seventeen-day journey that’s just come to an end, with all of its highs and lows – the realisation of a dream that started eighteen months ago – feels just so. A dream; distant and intangible.
Along with two other local riders, James Knight and Matthew Coote, having first met in a pub just four months ago following introductions from mutual friends, we’ve just finished competing in the Hellas Rally-Raid; a 1,700km off-road motorbike race in Greece spanning seven days and reaching altitudes of over 8,200ft that sees over 200 riders, both amateur and professional, in the saddle for upwards of thirteen hours non-stop some days. It’s a conflicting combination of joy, pain, fatigue and exhilaration that almost convinces you that you’ll finish just this one, but never attempt another – right until you cross the time control banner that marks the end of each stage, at which point you’re hungry to start the next and, ultimately, begin planning your next rally in the very next breath after swearing it’ll be your last.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of rally-raid; where you crash, ricocheting off of rocks and trees, before picking the bike up and continue as if nothing happened and spend hours colouring in a lengthy roll of paper full of symbols and numbers before decoding it all to decipher the course as you ride at speed over rocks, gravel, snow, mud and sand, through rivers and over mountains come rain or shine – all against the clock, competing against hundreds of other riders set amongst some of the most beautiful scenery you could ask for. It’s a lot to digest. As is the 5,000 calorie dinner you force down each evening in the absence of time for lunch after hour upon hour of physical exertion.
As complete amateurs, we threw ourselves in at the deep end with absolutely no idea about the logistics of how an FIM-sanctioned event like the Hellas Rally ran. Even the most straightforward-sounding of things like lining up on the start line for the first stage were anything but. It was carnage. Was each rider’s start time posted on the noticeboard late the night before the time they were due to leave the bivouac and transit to the first time control point, or the exact time they were due to cross the time control point and start the stage? We didn’t have a clue. Imagine the scenes you’ve seen on news reports from the US depicting store openings on Black Friday, then imagine every person waiting to cross the threshold is on a motorbike. In searing heat. And they’re all jostling to have their time-card marked by the one person tasked with that responsibility before setting off at 20 second intervals. That’s what it was like.
In complete contrast to what we experienced at the start line, once out on the stage there are times where you mightn’t see another rider for hours. It’s surreal, and as the fatigue compounded I found myself daydreaming at times, before inevitably being snapped back to reality by the necessity to concentrate on the crucial navigational aspect of racing; the mental workout to complement the physical workout. There are no signs on the course telling you the way, you see – just the symbols, distances and compass headings printed on the sheet of paper you’ve diligently coloured in the night before, mounted inside a special holder with buttons that allow you to scroll through as you progress. It’s a long-game, with anything from hours to mere seconds separating consecutively-placed riders, and unless you’re at the front of the pack you soon learn that stopping to scoff down a couple of cereal bars when you’re flagging or make a repair to your bike probably isn’t going to cost you the race. That was good news for all three of us, as I managed to have a couple of almost game-ending crashes as well as having my handlebars try to make escape plans during a timed stage, James’ navigation bracket snapped on the second day, followed shortly by a puncture and his headlight failed towards the end of the longest day – long after the sun had set – and Matthew ran out of fuel just three kilometres from the end of the very same stage. A combination of bodging things to effect a trackside repair, following another rider close enough to follow their headlight and enough determination to push a motorbike for three kilometres at the end of a thirteen hour day of racing saw us all through – this is a sport where a strong mind is paramount, followed closely by the requisite amount of physical endurance. They were idols beforehand, but I now have the utmost respect for the incredible athletes that compete in this discipline for a living.
It rained, we rode through mountains with snow drifts that had only been cleared the week before, the sun beat down on us as heat rose from the engines sat between our legs by day, and we drifted off into two degree celsius cold in our tents at night. As an entirely self-supported trio we’d already driven the length of both France and Italy on very little sleep with no time to spare before even reaching Greek shores; before fixing and servicing our own bikes each evening rather than paying for a technical assistance package from a larger team. Suffice to say, it was a fairly tiring affair whether you were out on a stage racing or just preparing for the next day. The cure for all ails during the race though, in my eyes, was the people. Not just the camaraderie between competitors and the positivity of the race organisation staff and marshals, but that of the Greek public. In stark contrast to the negative press that motorsport often suffers locally, in every village you rode through between timed stages people young and old would smile and wave at you – it makes you feel like a rockstar, even if you know you aren’t, and is a morale-boost that can’t be bought. Locals would thrust cold bottles of water or sweets at you, insisting on nothing in return – even though over 200 noisy vehicles had just interrupted their day – and I couldn’t thank them enough for their kindness.
At times, I told myself that the entire experience was unnecessary, both physically and mentally, yet at no point did I want to stop riding. It’s conflicting, but the mix of fatigue, adrenaline and determination is infectious and it’s shared by everyone you speak with whether they’re at the start line, a fuel stop in the middle of nowhere between stages or at the finishing ceremony. The feeling that you get when you cross the finish line and start to digest it all on the liaison section back to the bivouac for the last time to celebrate with friends both new and old is electrifying. As a sport, it certainly isn’t for everyone; but for those that it is, it’s an induction into a dysfunctional but welcoming family that I’m proud to have become a part of.