Tuareg Rallye Day 3, Circuit Merzouga.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comfficeffice" /><o></o> Another early start and it was time to crawl out from our tents..all night long, the team truck behind our temporary home had been working on their countless bikes and putting the engines on the limiter with fantastic regularity! After the howling, barking, packs of dogs in Missour, then this was a blessing! Everyone dragged themselves over to the hotel for breakfast, and to check yesterdays’ results / start times for today. Dax and I were starting 2 minutes apart, so, no doubt we would be catching each other at some point. Sean had a really good day yesterday and would be starting a couple of minutes behind me, with the rest of the team spread throughout the following rows. The usual routines were handled in the paddock and I found myself drifting into my reclusive state again, as everyone was getting ready for the day ahead. Dax looked ready to go, so we rode together to the start of the day’s racing. Circuit Merzouga would be the first of the long, sandy days, with 230km on the chart, at first glance, it didn’t seem like it would be too much... but it was nearly all sand and dunes! Profi class were told to expect 8-10 hours in the saddle today! We rode out onto the open plain, in front of the hotel, lining up for the start and collecting our timecards for the day. Gradually, the rest of the bike field started to arrive, as the cars were sent onto the special test. The time came and we were off, firing the bikes up and along some very fast, dusty trails. It was quite easy navigation to start with, even though the roadbook was a total lie for the first few directions! I have the feeling that the Orga were starting to play games with us at this point, as from now on, there were some very unnecessary tracks to follow. For those that were familiar with the quirks of the Rallye, then I’m sure they would have just fired straight through, ignoring all the funny parts. Dax and I had caught each other quite quickly, as we had taken different tactics, I was chasing Bearings and Dax was chasing roadbook instructions..stopping for a quick chat, I said we should just go on bearings to waypoints, using the roadbook if and when it tallied up..Small comments like 350km of dunes ahead made me think that today was going to be full of this kind of thing.. We found our way through the first section of the day and approached what Rainer had so happily referred to, as, “the labyrinth”. Having already seen the virgin forest and the oued of flowers on roadbooks, it was easy to dismiss this as another silly name. What a mistake that was! It seemed like we had just been dropped into the middle of all hell! As far as the eye could see, we were in a floodplain, which was heavily eroded with braided streams, roughly 3-4 feet deep, sometimes more and there was not one track that cut through! Dust was everywhere and it was impossible to see more than a few hundred meters away. Instructions on the roadbook had said to hit every waypoint or we would be punished today, so trying to follow a bearing in this chaos was nothing short of a bloody nightmare.. trying to endlessly trials ride a fully fuelled rally bike is not my idea of fun, but it is all part of the challenge, so in a masochistic kind of way, you do look back with fond memories of it! Dax and I had, by now, been split up in this labyrinth, having taken slightly different paths at one point. I was doing my best to close in on the next waypoint and guarantee to have it tagged on the GPS. [The GPS would autoselect the next waypoint if you got to within 80-100m], The washouts kept turning every direction except where I wanted to go.. then, as I was parked up on the edge of a drop, trying to catch my breath and take a gulp of water, the dust cleared just long enough to catch a glimpse of a red flag above a couple of motorbikes. Thank Christ for that! I could see that first secret CP of the day and my perseverance had paid off, no penalties just yet! Making my way as close as I could get to the flag and remembering the words of Zippy, always think about your next move, always park in a way to make leaving seamless. I parked the bike in a wide washout that looked like it would take me the right direction for the next waypoint and then scrambled across to get my card marked, before jumping back on the bike and getting as far from this bloody place as i could! It was a reasonably easy blast back towards Merzouga from here, with CP1 on the edge of the dunes at Erg Chebbi. I figure I lost about 20 minutes in the labyrinth, with doubling back and messing around, so there were quite a few bikes checked in already, but the real face of the Tuareg was about to show itself. 20 minutes was nothing in the greater scheme of things. Diving into the small dunes at the front of Erg Chebbi, I immediately found cars and bikes scattered everywhere! John, who had come down with our team, was driving a red Toyota Hilux and as I came over a dune top, saw him and his navigator digging under the truck to try and get it back onto 4 wheels, from where it lay on its’ side, after attempting to crest a dune! A quick wave and a hello and with a twist of the throttle, I was gone, leaving them to their own battles..god I love being on a bike! It was early in the day and the dunes had only just started, so I wasn’t too worried about the amount of tracks I could see.. I was behind a little, but we had a long way to go. After a few stuipid drops at the start, I got my ‘sand head’ back on and settled into a wonderful rhythm. Flowing through the dunes, following the bearing given by my GPS, reading the tops and connecting spurs as far as i could.. When this wasn’t an option, I just treated it like a training ride with Patsy.. up and over! If it was in the way, don’t mess around, just get over it! I find myself riding alot better, when i’m relaxed and enjoying it, and if you’re not dropping the bike by pushing too hard, it’s surprising how much time and energy you conserve, by being smooth and maintaining a rhythm. As I found myself getting deeper and deeper into the dunes, picking off successively bigger mountains of sand, the tracks on the ground became fewer and fewer. I continued chasing my GPS bearing until eventually pulling up on a secret Checkpoint round the back of the dunes, parked on top of tiny dune, made of really soft sand, was the Marshalls’ vehicle..Cameramen at the ready, to catch any daft moments from people getting out of shape on this supposedly simple, little climb! Blasting onwards to the next CP, I chose to stay away from the dunes, to make as much speed as possible on the hardpack, it was a longer path, but far quicker than the direct bearing. I had caught up with a Bowler from the Race 2 Recovery team and a couple of bikes, who were picking their way back into the edge of the dunes for the next CP, choosing to carry on with the higher speed tracks, I darted along on my own.. this worked fine until I got into a small set that had to be crossed.. just as I saw the Bowler blast across in front of me, on a lovely wide open track. Bugger! Oh well, it was worth a go, you don’t know unless you trust your instincts. Pulling up at the CP, I was stunned to see Clayton there, looking like he’d just had a nice ride along in the sunshine. I was stunned. I’d been riding beautifully, no mistakes except for the labyrinth and I’d been cracking along where I could...how did he get here so quickly!? I remembering saying this to Clayton, as he was taking a drink next to the CP car, all I got in return was a confident smile and the Ozzie stuck it to me, with “ oh, you know, I heard a voice in my head.... I thought you were a man of the desert!?” bastard. Hahah I was spitting nails..he must have been tanking it. I didn’t stop for long, before making a move, and Clayton jumped on his bike to chase me down.. running along some crests and then taking on the dunes, once again, we made a beeline for the next waypoint.. After a few minutes I looked back, to see if Clayton was there, but no sign..he must be doing his own thing..I carried on, to within 4-500m of a waypoint, and then for some reason my GPS jumped to the next one, which I started to chase down.. I should have questioned it, and stopped to check the order of the waypoints , or even if I had tagged it. I didn’t. 4 or 5 kilometers of dunes later, I had a feeling something was wrong , when I started coming up behind really slow riders, before realising I had come back to one of the earlier waypoints from before the secret CP. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. What a stuipid mistake. Quickly taking stock of the situation, zoomed the GPS out, to correlate my next waypoint with the roadbook and could see I had at least 10 or 11km to get to the next CP, I found a really nice sand track running around the periphery of the dunes and absolutely pinned it. I was furious at myself for making such a cock-up, but no time to dwell, just deal with it. Looking across into the dunes, I could see a few bikes navigating their way through, as I flew along the outside.. at least I was making ground up. Making it into CP3, I had been seeing very few tracks in the sand, which I was starting to become quite pleased about. I could see from the tracks and the way they picked their way through the dunes, that it was someone pretty good, riding alone, with another 2 riders that were riding together.. I kept on top of my GPS work, but was happy to chase these tracks down for a while, things were flowing beautifully. There were instructions in the roadbook, but all I was interested in today was chasing bearings. The trails were fantastic, really nice, flowing tracks and you could really open the bike up. I was absolutely buzzing by this point, the girls at one of the secret CP’s had told me I was one of the top 10. I couldn’t believe it. How the hell did that happen, after the mornings’ disasters?! I kept on doing my thing, not pushing any harder than I had been, and little by little, I was gaining on the bikes ahead of me. CP4 came into view, way out the back of Erg Chebbi, there was hardly any sign of activity, as I popped over the top of one of the last dunes, before the service area.. Picking my way along some hardpack, between the dunes, I could see a photographer shooting straight at me, as the back end started to break out on a corner.. feeling good I gave it more and got the back end drifting massively, with full lock on the bike. My best ever powerslide! I was chuckling away to myself, but really shouldn’t have been messing around like that..I gave the timecard in at the CP, before finding Martin with the service van.. I think he was a bit surprised to see me! John Freeman was at the van next to Martin and took off as soon as I pulled up.. Martin asked if I needed anything, fuelled my bike and said to me “youre doing really well, Ive only seen about 5 bikes so far” I was stunned, I could not believe what was happening here, Zippy and the others had said, “watch them drop like flies in the sand”, but this was unreal! Not wanting to lose any ground, I took off after John into the dunes.. a couple of KM later, a bike that looked like him, was pulled over on the side of the track, fiddling with his bike as he waved me on.. felt sorry if it was John, but I was very happy to see another bike on the side of the track. These dunes were different to the ones of Erg Chebbi, they seemed alot softer and were only a few metres high..perfect for catching you out! Nipping up a small dune, to ride along its’ crest, I flew over the handlebars and ended up slumped like a sack of shit in the sand! What the hell just happened there?! Looking back, I could see my bike had buried both wheels, to the top of the tyres. Nothing would move. I couldn’t waggle the bars, I couldn’t push it over. The bike was well and truly stuck! If i hadn’t been so focussed on racing hard, I would have taken a picture as I’d never seen a bike so stuck! Getting down on my knees, I dug the sand from one side of the wheels so I could push it over. Eventually getting free and continuing, I dropped the bike a few more times in this crazy soft sand, before getting away onto some more trails away from the dunes. This is where it really got interesting. I recognised parts of the trail from training trips, so knew I could follow the bearing, without paying too much attention to the roadbook.. There was a small ridgeline that the roadbook said you needed to stay one side of, but with 10km+ to the next waypoint, I knew there would be a way through at some point, so stuck to the good track I was on and pinned it. There were absolutely no trails on the ground, I was way off course, but still making a perfect beeline for the waypoints. Choosing to slow down a little, rather than risk a mistake / crash, I continued hunting down the waypoints, until hitting some palmeries and a well known oued in the area. I had no idea where I stood for the day now, i was just hoping that my judgement had worked! Blasting along the oued on my own was awesome, some bikes from a tour were coming the other direction and gave a wave as they stopped to take some pictures. I was flat out and the back end of the bike was skipping all over the ruts, it must have looked awesome! Eventually my GPS pointer was showing to go dead right, which was my signal to come away from the fast tracks and get back into the dunes, I knew all that was left, was to cross Erg Chebbi, once again and then it was onto the final test for Profi only. Cutting into the dunes, I could see another bike picking his way through, we shadowed each other for a while, but I could see he was struggling with his lines. I chose to stay high and ride the crests, while he was in the bowls, going up and over..must have been hard at this stage in the day! Eventually, I found my way through and could see the water tower getting closer and closer, I was really enjoying this now, 25km special section and then we were home and dry. Pulling into CP5 for my timecard stamp, the marshalls told me, that’s it, its over for you. I didn’t know what to say, what do you mean it’s over? I’m doing really well, there’s no way i’ve been timed out..It was then that the marshall told me to turn around and look at Erg Chebbi.. there was a pretty decent sandstorm blowing at the top, it had been windy and a bit grey, but i didn’t think it was too bad..The marshalls said the rest of the rally was cancelled and I should head back to the camp. Pulling in, it was about 2pm and there was hardly a soul to see. John, with the hilux, was there, alongside his mechanic and co driver, having a drink, after being timed out earlier in the day, I was high as a kite on adrenaline and smiling from ear to ear. They came over to ask how everything was and couldn’t believe that Id finished the day already! I’m sure I must have sounded like I was on speed, barely stopping to breathe, I just flew into stories of the day, while they sat and drank their beer-poor buggers listening to all that shite! I gave Patsy a call, because the awning was trying to take off, turns out she was in a nearby hotel, having lunch with Chris and Jonny Maroc [owner of one of the longest running Moroccan bike tour companies and a total piss taker!] I got my standard greeting from him, “say hello to billy bunter” over the phone and Pats said they’d be over in a bit; so off I went, to calm down, have a shower and eat everything I could find! Guys from the team started appearing into the camp, some timed out, others tired out and then some who had made it all the way through to CP5. This is where the confusion started. I was starting to get worried that I had been given the wrong info about the cancellation, Patsy phoned Martin and he said it was definitely still on.. what the hell was happening, was I gonna get shafted for not completing the Profi test? Turns out, it was the profi test that got cancelled, as it went deep into the dunes, but the main rally was to finish as planned.. I had a massive sigh of relief and got on with servicing my bike for the day. Oil change and filters were all it took, so it was all done and dusted nice and quickly. The tyres were still looking in good shape and the bike hadn’t been dropped badly, so overall, everything was really nice. News started filtering through that Wes Beane, who was winining the Rallye overall, had a big off today, clocking in at CP4, he had a 25 minute lead and binned it at speed, breaking his collarbone in the process. By the finish, he had a 5 minute lead, still intact and got waved onto the Profi loop, gotta respect that. Completing the last sections of the day with a broken collarbone is not something I would want to do, as none of it was easy riding! Respect to Wes. Haha, ok, that’s enough blowing smoke up his arse.. now i’m just glad there’s one less rider in front of me! The usual admin and banter carried on as everyone came in to the camp, before we knew it, the briefing was upon us, and then, the opening of the red boxes. I nearly lost my jeans in the scrum as people were diving in trying to grab all the best stuff, some, shamelessly turning up with carrier bags.. for me, my daily diet was Texas Salad, packets of salami and Haribo, when I could get some! All very easy to pack into your jacket, easy to eat, and digest on the trails. As usual, the results wouldn’t come out until the early hours of the morning, so, after a couple of beers and dinner, it was time to get my head down. Waking up again in the middle of the night, I wandered over for a look at the results...7<SUP>th</SUP> in Profi!!!! I could not believe my eyes, I knew I’d had a good day, but coming in with less than 5 hours on the clock was fantastic. I was absolutely stoked. With this, I went back to bed, smug in the knowledge, that I’d nailed it! Next challenge would be the infamous King Stage, a day id heard far too much about, so I needed plenty of rest.