Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need Jimmy Lewis and the most expensive rally replica bike to train for a rally race. While training with top coaches and instructors and using the best equipment you can get your hands on is, undoubtedly, a great way to go about it, what if all you’ve got is your old trails or ADV bike and a limited budget, or if there are no rally training schools near you?
A mid-level cross-country roadbook navigation rally race such as the Baja Rally, Hellas Rally Raid, or Serres, is essentially trail riding at a higher speed, for a period of several days or a week, and with a roadbook instead of a GPS. If you’re aiming for the Africa Eco Race or the Dakar, simply riding off-road isn’t going to cut it. But for most amateur and beginner-friendly rally races, adventure riding experience can be enough to survive and finish.
So if you want to race Hellas, Baja Rally, or a smaller local rally near you, where and how do you train for a rally race?
Identifying Your Weaknesses
Before you shell out thousands of dollars for a semi-pro or pro rally training school and ten days in the dunes of Merzouga or Atacama, figure out whether you actually need the complete package – again, especially if this is going to be your first rally. For adventure riders who have 3+ years of off-road riding experience under their belts, racing a cross-country rally is a fairly natural step forward. So to choose the right coach or training school for you, do a little skill inventory and see where you’re lacking. For me, it’s speed, so I go for non-timed rally events and motocross practice to improve. For other riders, it may be roadbook navigation, technical riding, enduro experience, or simply more saddle time. Figure out what your weak points are, and work on them.
Roadbook navigation is a beautiful and complex process, but it’s also a very individual thing. There are lots of different ways of going through your roadbook, marking it, and using the information provided as you ride along. For my Hellas Rally and Hispania Rally races, I knew I needed to focus on the riding as much as I could, and as I wasn’t fast, I wanted to give myself as much room to fixate on the speed and the tracks as I could. For that, I would mark my roadbook very simply: I would highlight changes in direction and triple-danger points. That’s all. For a lot of riders, highlighting a lot more information is more valuable as they are more experienced and can read the tracks better. For me, however, I just wanted to see when I needed to turn off and whether I wasn’t going to fly off a cliff. I was trying to exploit the longer, faster tracks as best as I could, but I would slow down on more technical sections, so I would spot the rocks, trees, or washouts anyway, whereas for faster riders, this information would help to avoid potential crashes.
Marking and interpreting your roadbook is something you need to figure out for yourself as you progress, but if you’re just starting out, a half-day’s ride with roadbook and an instructor should install all the basics you need. Remember that rallies like Hellas and Baja Rally use tracks rather than open cross country, so you don’t need to worry much about compass headings and more complex desert orientation. For the most part, you will be on the tracks, and that makes navigation much easier. In addition, a lot of amateur-friendly rally races allow adventure or Lite class riders to have a GPS unit as a backup, so you’re guaranteed to learn as you ride. To train for a rally race, roadbook navigation is fairly easy to grasp.
Once you’ve figured out roadbook, identified your weaknesses, and trained to get those weaknesses resolved or bettered, it’s a good idea to work on your endurance. A typical special stage at Hellas or Hispania is about 250 – 350 kilometers on varying terrain, with fast-flowing tracks giving way to more technical terrain, forest trails, rocky climbs, and back to fast gravel tracks again depending on what the organizers had planned for the day. A marathon special stage is anywhere around 450-500 kilometers. This means you’ll need to get moving, and you won’t have the time to stop often, take breaks, or snack. Endurance and stamina play a huge part in a rally setting, but you can train for that on your own planning long trail rides with your friends and covering longer distances on dirt than you’re normally used to. Make sure to hydrate, take care of nutrition, and pace yourself as this is a long game spread out over 5-7 days or more.
Training with Instructors
If you’re just starting out on a dual-sport bike and are looking to get off the road for the first time, you don’t need Graham Jarvis to teach you hard enduro. You just need a solid off-road coach to teach you the basics. It’s quite the same prepping for your first rally race: you don’t need the world’s most foremost racers and trainers to teach you how to ride for the Dakar, you simply need to work on your skills so you can survive a five or seven-day cross country rally. For this, motocross practice at your local motocross track, enduro rides with local instructors, or simply riding with people who are more skilled than you can be a great help.
There are countless great and affordable off-road and enduro schools all over the US and Canada, as well as Europe (especially Portugal, Spain, Romania, Greece, and the UK).
Again, this is not to say that it’s easy or simple to prepare for the big North African desert races, but for the smaller North American or European ones, it is doable, even on a budget.
Would you ever consider racing a cross-country roadbook navigation rally? Let me know in the comments below.