Over a decade ago the Dakar Rally made the move to South America, and now the event takes place in Saudi Arabia. Despite that, its roots and concept are still firmly in Africa — just at a different event. Eleven years ago, when the Dakar Rally left the African continent, a small group of key regulars from the original race began a small race from France to Dakar following the routes and ethos of the original race. This was called the Africa Eco Race, or AER. This race has grown year on year and today is something like one third the size of the Dakar Rally in number of competitors. It follows the original route, changing stages every year to ‘freshen things up’.

Dakar 2018

Over the past seven years I have been watching this race grow with increasing interest, and in 2019, with three successful Dakar Rallies under my belt in the Moto category, I decided it was time to live the original dream and ‘Race to Dakar’.  I would take on the Africa Eco Race in 2020 to complement the multiple races I have completed as part of my Races to Places project (see ‘Races to Places’ series on YouTube). The idea, concept and execution of my Africa Eco Race deserve an entire feature by themselves but I wanted to share the answers to one of the questions I’ve been asked so often: “How does the Africa Eco Race compare to the Dakar Rally?”

It’s going to take a while to explain but after just finishing my first Africa Eco Race, I am finally in a position to share my personal thoughts, so here goes.

AER Start

When I first reached out to the AER organisation it was about racing the Malle Moto class in 2019. My plan was to ride through the African continent from Cape Town as part of my Races to Places project and conclude with an AER on Basil Bike.  Many events meant that I rode up the eastern side of the African continent and could not be in time for the 2019 race.  I’ve learnt to keep my plans fluid while travelling and was glad I did.

After that, I began to develop the idea of riding the 2020 AER. Since I was already going to be home after over five years of world travels, I was no longer constrained to Malle Moto. After I’d switched my focus to the 2020 race, I began to discuss plans with the organisation.  A good way to start was talking about the run up to the event and the planning and preparation for it, specifically with regards to the organisation interaction rather than my personal or team preparation. Obviously, with my typical media approach, there was a lot more to discuss than just a standard entry. But that had been the same with the Dakar Rally so I can truly compare the interactions on the same level.

Dealing with the organisation was pretty easy, it’s a small core team and I quickly got to know them on first name terms and exchanged regular communications.  I had previously also been given similar contacts for the Dakar, but those guys typically could not make decisions. They would always have to report to somebody else to discuss proposals, whereas with the AER, the people I dealt with made the decisions. This made things a little easier on my side and definitely faster.

Also, trying to explain what I wanted to achieve and the benefits for the race to the Dakar people, especially different elements to make the event more reachable for the average Joe, just seemed to be dismissed. The focus was more on what I would have to pay to make things possible.  This included aspects such as media rights, satellite transmissions and media personnel costs.  To me it seemed like the Dakar Rally was not especially interested in my little video project, possibly because of the other media rights granted to the likes of Eurosport and Red Bull.

While I didn’t imagine I would be competing with the big boys, the Dakar Rally made all kinds of contractual limitations like ‘maximum in stage footage per day’, ‘maximum release length per day’ and no opportunity to tap into their off board footage and helicopter footage without unreasonable costs.  The AER, on the other hand, while still charging for all the elements they need to pay for, were much more relaxed about limitations and seemed to value the output as a good thing for their race, reaching new followers and increasing exposure for the event.  It was far easier negotiating with the AER and felt much more personal rather than commercial.

Just to be clear, the costs of racing the AER are similar to those of the Dakar Rally and that holds true for entry fees and media related activities.  Both races are remote and have significant expenses.  Although the entry fee for the AER on paper looks significantly lower, there are some hidden expenses which push it closer to the costs of the Dakar Rally.  The most significant of these is the rental costs of the ERTF navigational equipment and the Marlink Satelite safety equipment.  It is the exact same equipment used for both rallies but the rental costs are included in the entry fee for the Dakar Rally and excluded for the AER.  While the AER entry remains a little cheaper, in the grand scheme it’s not a whole deal less.

Scrutineering in Menton, France was very similar to scrutineering at the Dakar Rally, just on a smaller scale. The process to follow and the many checks to be done were all well laid out.  Everyone involved was extremely friendly and helpful, the same at both events.  The ceremonial start in Monaco was great, a little inconvenient to get to for the competitors and teams but worth it for the ambience, glamour and prestige of a race start in Monaco, something I’d never experiences before.

On the morning of the first day, leaving to Italy for the boat to Monaco, one of our service vans broke. It was not a little thing either, the crank pulley sheared which drives the belt that drives power steering, water pump, alternator etc.  We were left without the spares we needed to repair it (not a regular service item) and 75% of the service vehicles already on their way. It was 4.00am, no chance of any parts and a boat to catch from Italy in five hours’ time.

Malle Moto

The thought of towing a broken van all the way to Morocco, and then all the way through the rally, was a nightmare.  I picked up the phone and called the organisation (because we all had a point of contact), explaining the issue.  Without discussion, this is the response I got: “Don’t worry Lyndon, the important thing is to get on the boat, we will send a sweep truck to pick up your vehicle, take it all the way to the first bivouac for you and source the parts, so you can repair it in that bivouac. Just get your team and bikes to the first stage and we’ll see you there.” Wow, OK  Five minutes later, the sweep truck pulled in, the van was loaded and we were off to Italy, with me and service crew in the sweep truck!

The organisation sourced the parts in Morocco and we were able to repair the van, actually now at the second bivouac but still, they were true to their word and kept the van moving with the whole rally caravan.  Their willingness to go out of their way and desire to get everyone who enters to Dakar is clear, whether you are a competitor or a service crew.  There are so many other stories where the organisation stepped in to help, it was really great.

The bivouacs and facilities at the AER are definitely more ‘raw’ and ‘authentic’ and more in tune with the Africa continent than how the Dakar Rally is now.  Budget is clearly less at the AER but everything was still there for you.  There are toilets, showers, a standard bivouac layout and food/eating areas at both events.  Cold showers are not my favourite and there were definitely more cold showers than hot in Africa but no complaints from me, after punishing yourself on a bike for 6-8 hours the suffering of cold shower palls into insignificance.

Meeting the locals during AER

As far as I’m concerned, the food at both events is excellent considering you are in remote places.  I eat a lot and there was definitely no shortage.  There’s breakfast in a morning, everyone gets a lunch pack for the day and dinner in the evening.  I was healthy at both events with regards to bowel movements and that’s all good! The eating area at the Dakar Rally always has seats whereas the AER takes the more authentic approach of sitting on the ground occasionally (on carpets), which kind of adds to the authenticity of the race; although I’m not sure my Dad’s 68-year-old knees thought so.

Water was limited per person at the AER, which to me seemed a little crazy at first but in reality, there was plenty available to buy along the way to make sure we had plenty as a team.  They simply did this so that the teams did not rely on the organisation to provide all the water, and therefore removed the need for them to carry so much. Their resources and available space were more limited than the Dakar setup.  Also, to be fair, if you needed more water and asked for it, the organisation would give it to you, so there was never any issue.  At Dakar, bottled water was in unlimited supply, or it seemed.

One of the best things the AER has over the Dakar is that all the bivouacs are on hard standing / hard pack so there is no requirement in the regulations for all wheel drive or 4×4 for the service vehicles.  This makes the event much more accessible for privateer teams with small budgets and ‘normal’ vans and service vehicles.  We took recovery boards for the vehicles and never needed them.

Rally timing was pretty much the same at both events, time control leaving the bivouacs, stage start, check points in the stage, finish of the stages and arrival at the bivouac.  Timing and positions were provided in the bivouac each night at both events via screens and the rally information board was available with start times, roadbook changes and any other significant information.  It is easy to find information when you need it and all the tents and vehicles of the organisation are well labelled so you could find whom you needed, when you needed them.  At both events, the rider briefing each night is conducted in different languages: at Dakar Spanish, English and French (at the ones I raced), here at AER French and English. It was always thorough in each language at both events.

Let’s now talk about the routes and liaisons.  All of the Dakar Rallies that I raced, had liaisons to the start of the stage and liaisons after the stage, sometimes hundreds of kilometres. This often meant leaving the bivouac in the early hours of the morning in the dark to reach the stage start for first bike at sunrise.  At the AER, the majority of the stages started and finished at the bivouac, this cut down time on the bike in liaisons massively and meant you could stay in bed longer in a morning, great for recovering each night.

Bivouac Roadbook marking

On the downside, the service crew and media crew also had to do similar distances to the stages so they were also doing between 400km and 800km daily.  This put a lot of strain on them and quite often the bikes would arrive at the bivouac long before the service crews.  Every race is different so it’s always hard to explain something like this as stages and layouts vary. As a competitor, what I will say is that I was able to get up later and go to bed earlier at the AER and I put this down to the short or often nonexistent liaisons.

At any rally which relocates on most days with long transitions between bivouacs, a team ideally needs a two van/truck setup so that one service vehicle could shoot ahead early and arrive in the bivouac before the lead bike.  We had this setup but it wasn’t always practical. As a rider, it’s important to just work with what you have and if you arrive early and don’t have a team van (or Malle truck if you are Malle Moto) you have to just fill your time eating, marking the roadbook or resting. It’s never a waste of time, you just have to manage time differently. This is the same for both events.

And finally, the most important thing: the riding.  Everyone wants to know how the events compare in terms of toughness.  Well, for me 2013 Dakar was pretty straightforward in terms of difficulty.  I was an adventure rider, I rode it how I rode my adventure bike and finished 46th overall.  In the 2017 and 2018 Dakars the game was lifted significantly.  You could no longer just show up and finish, you had to have excellent skills in very tricky terrain and fitness to match just to make it to the finish, the level of technical difficulty was raised and I found myself much more physically exhausted.

The AER was more like my 2013 Dakar; the technical sections were shorter and fewer resulting in more time to recover on the easier sections.  But don’t think it’s a walk in the park, the ‘difficult dune crossings’ we experienced in Mauritania on the AER were some of the hardest and most unpredictable I have ever ridden.  This made the race feel proper for me, when I was stuck after being thrown over the bars, or sweating my ass off trying to recover from a water-like sand hole and find a path through without getting swallowed up for the 6th time!  I shouted in my helmet “yess, this is how it should be!” while worrying slightly about my teammates running towards the back of the field.

The first week of the AER in Morocco had stages that were faster than any other rally stage I have done, speeds up to 175km/h (top speed of my bike) and often for extended periods.  It was super fast but also safe, the road book was excellent, just like I experienced in Dakar Rally in South America.  Everything written in the road book was useful and if you followed it, there were no issues at either events.  At those high speeds, you need to stay on the roadbook to stay safe as things come up really fast if you’ve missed them.

AER Race 1

Typically, if there are no notes in the roadbook, I always revert to ‘drive by sight’ and I think this is a very good trait to have, if you cannot see don’t commit.  I think the level of competition at the front of the Dakar Rally has pushed the competitors to take risks at this point, when there’s nothing in the roadbook, they have to trust that there’s nothing to worry about and they can keep the wire tight, even if they cannot see 100%.  At high speed the smallest undulation can cause a huge accident, which can be fatal.

I had some close calls, made some unexpected big jumps, clipped camel grass and left broken dunes in freefall at both events but this is racing, there is a lot to compute while traveling at speed. Sometimes we miss something or take our eyes off the road for that split second where you need to be aware. With rallying, at the front of the field, I feel the competitor that can stay most focused, take fewer risks and navigate best will typically come out on top. Mind you, the second week of the AER in Mauritania was much more technically demanding, much more similar to the experience at the Dakar Rally.

It’s hard to compare the climate / weather between these two races as the Dakar Rally has just moved continents. However, comparing AER to Dakar Rallies I rode in South America, the weather was much kinder in Africa.  In the AER, the trip over the Atlas mountains, while close to freezing, thankfully stayed dry which made for a pleasant crossing in the daytime.  The weather in the stages in Africa was always pleasant and temperatures varied between single digits (Celsius) in the early morning stage starts to a maximum of 35 degrees C in the heat of the day, quite tolerable.

The Bivi Dakar 2017 Bolivia!

At the Dakar Rally in South America, the extremes of weather were far more severe with freezing temperatures, snow and hail in the mountains, days of really cold stages at altitude in Bolivia and extremes of heat in the Atacama where it reached a staggering 52 degrees C in 2017.  For me the AER was much more tolerable than the Dakar rallies I experienced in South America.

From a competition perspective, the AER clearly doesn’t have the big factory teams attending but they do have some very good and well respected riders and drivers in the field.  This was the first race for me where I felt I could ride as fast as I know how, I had a great team supporting me, people I could trust working with me and allowing me to rest well and perform the best I could. I didn’t have to hold back and the results spoke for themselves, which was a great feeling.

The safety systems at the races are the same, they have to be to run such an event. I felt that I could rely on the medical team and helicopters / medical facilities at both events.  I cannot comment on the specifics or their capabilities as I don’t have enough first hand experience or information, but for the number of competitors present, the facilities seemed comparable at the events and I would have no worries from a personal safety perspective at either one.

When I raced the Dakar in South America there was no joker card, no way to continue if you did not complete a stage.  This has now changed. At the Dakar you have one chance to continue after an incomplete stage but you are officially out of the results. It is great that you can continue riding as you can still experience the race and get your money’s worth as well as the experience.

At the Africa Race, you also have the opportunity to stay in the rally if you do not finish one stage, but here you take a hefty penalty and still stay in the results.  The organisation’s goal is to get everyone to Dakar and for everyone to experience the podium if at all possible. This restart is limited to one time to remove the strain on the organisation for those competitors who are not prepared for such a rally and call on the organisation a lot. I think this is fair.  I got the feeling if the breakdown or reason for not finishing the stage was genuine and you were showing good performance and ability they would allow you to continue to Dakar in the race anyway.

AER Scrutineering

To look at the Dakar has more glamour and looks more grand, they have ten times more organisational vehicles, all relatively new and wrapped the same way, 10 times more organisational personnel and clearly they make a huge investment to make everything look really special.  Their media is extremely important to them on a much larger scale than with the AER and they seem to be more about the mainstream media than the competitors.

The AER is simpler, its organisation is run more efficiently and it’s clear that their goal is not to look the best, but to actually serve people to an acceptable level, support them as much as possible and ultimately ensure they achieve their goal of getting to Dakar.

Finished AER

To finish, I enjoyed both races immensely and have made great friends with competitors, teams and the organisation of both events.  Neither race felt unsafe, both were challenging, and both felt like it was a legitimate achievement to get to the end.  To summarise, I would say that both events are extremely professional. They are also very similar, while being different at the same time.

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