Having raced three international rallies and done two rally-style training runs in the last two years, I am still firmly in the noob category, and my reasons for racing rallies are still the same: the challenge to face, the ridiculous amount of fun to be had, skills to be improved, and amazing rally community to appreciate. I’m under no illusions of ever winning or even placing well, but I know I’ll keep doing the amateur races as long as I’m able to, and with every new rally, I’m picking up more and more lessons and hacks to make it to the finish line just a little bit better. Looking back, I see just how many bad decisions could have been avoided with some advice and experience, so if you’re considering doing your first rally, here are some of the rookie mistakes to avoid:
During my first few days at the Hispania Rally, I got so carried away with making time and riding faster (largely due to the fact that this time, I was riding a KTM450 instead of my tractor, the DR650, and the difference was huge) that I started making some very basic mistakes – not taking breaks. I was making better time than I did in the previous race, and I got sucked in the “one more push, one more hundred kilometers, then I’ll take a two-minute break” obsession; I thought if I just pushed a little more, I’d do better, and better, and better. Not so. If you let the adrenaline get to your head and forget to sip water from your camelback and stop every once in a while, even if it’s just for two or five minutes to wolf down a protein bar, fatigue will set in, and it will cost you in the long run. Obviously, it’s best to time your breaks and stops on liaison stages and refueling – the specials are for racing – but if the stage is long and your energy is sapping away, a quick stop to drink some water, step off the bike, take the helmet off, then get back to it may save you a bad crash later when you’re exhausted and aren’t reading the terrain as well as you could.
2. Reading Your Own Roadbook
I was so terrified of making navigation mistakes during the Hellas Rally in 2019 I rode much slower than I could have, sometimes stopping to double-check whether I’d taken the right fork or the right uphill track. And several times during the day, I’d get overtaken by faster riders; the first instinct is always to chase after them, ignoring your own roadbook, especially if they look like they know what they’re doing. I’m glad I managed to resist the temptation after the first couple of times: the thing is, they may be faster and better riders, but if they had taken the wrong turn and you’re chasing after them, you’re now in big trouble – for one, you’re lost together with then, and for another, if you haven’t followed your own roadbook closely, you now have no idea where you are. Even if it costs you time, follow your own roadbook and never let go, even when you’re riding in a pack.
3. Having a Big Breakfast
Before the prologue stage of Hellas, I was so nervous and wired I felt I couldn’t eat anything, so I skipped breakfast. Bad move: during a stage, even when it’s the prologue, you’ll need a crazy amount of energy, so your breakfast should always be big, nutrient-rich, and filling. Off-road riding requires a lot of endurance and energy, and rally racing is off-roading on steroids, so pile on the bacon and eggs and never skip a meal if you can help it.
4. Marking Your Roadbook
The curious thing about roadbooks is that rally organizers always create them after their own ideas. Some roadbooks are designed with a minimalist approach, others have so much information it can be hard to pick out the bits you’ll really need; some roadbooks are now delivered pre-marked, Dakar style. Whatever the case may be, do go over the roadbook before you start, and do mark the things you need to pay attention to, otherwise, it’ll cost you time on the special stages. Changes in direction, danger zones, speed limits, warnings about rocky terrain – all of these will be important when you’re out there riding, so spend some time with your roadbook, pick out the information that’s most crucial to you, and don’t just improvise as you go along – it’s doable, but it’s also costly.
5. Picking Your Battles
Rally racing, even in the amateur classes, is an inherently dangerous activity to undertake, and there are always split-second decisions that can make a massive difference between finishing and crashing out. My worst race crash was at the Hispania Rally due to that same mistake, being carried away: riding a dry riverbed, I flew into a corner a little too fast and ended up going too wide and heading for a pile of boulders instead of following the sandy track. I should have slowed down then and there, but I figured I could skim over the rocks and steer back into the sand, except I overestimated myself and ended up smashing into a rock with the bike landing on top, the end result being a ruptured thigh muscle. The thing is, yes, rally racing is about speed, but it’s also about finishing; is it worth trying to make time over a technical section and potentially crash with serious consequences, or is it better to slow down and make sure you get to the finish line in one piece? It’s hard to stick to a strategy once the adrenaline gets going, but pick your battles every single day and get to that finish.
What rookie mistakes have you learned to avoid during your first rally race? Share the wisdom in the comments below!
Images: Bastian Brusecke/Bosnia Rally