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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by EvergreenE, Jul 10, 2019.
Love you Egle...keep on keeping on!
Landing in Lisbon after stewing in my gear on the plane for several hours (I figured I’d only take a carry-on and wear my gear to avoid paying for checked luggage), I realized I was just too tired to worry and obsess over the upcoming rally any longer.
After spending a night in a tiny AirBnB room with drunk backpackers having a loud fiesta next door, I was positively sleep-deprived, but Portuguese coffee can raise the dead, so, packing up my minimalist belongings, I was looking forward to meeting Joao. After he picked me up in his car, we went to the airport to get Paul, another rally participant flying in from the UK, and decided to grab lunch before heading to Evora.
Lisbon is a wonderfully quirky city that I’ve loved ever since I first set foot in it some fourteen years ago during my hitchhiking days. It’s a capital city but it doesn’t feel like a huge, busy nightmare unlike so many other capitals around the world; the food is to die for, and there’s enough diversity between the bohemian and the posh to suit anyone’s fancy. Pro tip: if you’re going to try local absinthe, keep in mind it’s stronger than Louisiana moonshine. Just saying.
Feasting on a delicious Portuguese steak, Joao, Paul, and I chatted about the rally. If you’ve ever wondered what rally organizers are like, it turns out, they’re just regular folks with an extraordinary obsession. Joao’s been riding and participating in cross country rallies for decades, and, wanting to share his passion for rallies as well as some of the best riding in Portugal, he and his riding buddy Pedro began organizing off-road riding tours which soon evolved into rally training. “So many people love the idea of rallies, but they’re put off thinking it’s only for professional riders, or that roadbook navigation is very complicated. We wanted to show people that it’s much more achievable than they think by creating a real rally setting but eliminating the time pressure”, - Joao told me. Paul said this was his first navigation rally, too, which put me a little more at ease – at least now, I wouldn’t be the only roadbook novice. Riding-wise, however, Paul and most other rally participants had years and years, if not decades, more experience in off-road riding, trials, and motocross than me.
Ah well. I wasn’t here to be the fastest rider; I was here to have a look-see into the world of rallies, and I decided I had two missions: one, not to break any bones (as Hellas Rally was going to be next), and two, not to break the shiny KTM450 loaned to me by Joao and Pedro.
After lunch, we drove to Evora, the capital of Portugal’s Alentejo region. Evora is an awesome little town full of Roman and medieval ruins, cosy little wineries, and crooked cobblestone alleys that transport you back in time. I wandered about town for a while, suddenly feeling very pleased with myself. I was here for a rally, not as a tourist, ho, ha, I thought to myself as I wandered into a tiny tobacco shop looking for a cherry cigarillo. “Hi! Heyyy! How’s it goiiiiing”, I greeted the elderly shop owner. “I’m here for the rally, you know”, I added smugly, as the man busied about finding change. Surely everybody in Evora knew about the upcoming race and would be anxious to meet the rally stars flooding the town.
“Hrmmmfff”, the shop owner said, with a barely perceptible eye roll. He’s clearly seen enough of overexcited gringos in Evora to last a lifetime.
Having failed to impress the tobacconist with my newly found rally exhilaration, I scurried back to the hotel for the briefing. As Joao and Pedro welcomed us all and began telling us about the route and the roadbook, I scanned the lobby looking at the other rally participants. I guess I half-expected everyone to be a world-class athlete who could memorize the roadbook within five minutes and be absolutely invincible on the bike, but people who gathered in Evora for the Transalentejo Rally looked like… people. Older and younger, guys and gals, clearly from all walks of life – we looked like we could have been there for a business conference, a birdwatching expedition, or a wine-tasting tour just as much as for a cross country rally. I knew that one rider among us, Fausto Mota, was a Portuguese Dakar star joining the rally just for fun; but everybody else was the for the same reasons as me.
Having reassured myself that we were all thoroughly human, I had a beer with the rest of the group and decided to turn in early. I learned how precious sleep was during the Dakar, so by 11pm, I was out despite the nerves and the excitement.
In the morning, I wolfed down a generous breakfast, changed into my gear, and hurried down to the garage to get my allotted KTM. Dontdropitdontdropitdontdropit was my frantic mantra as I rode to the start line, realizing the KTM was a very different beastie from Lucy. It was lighter and felt more powerful, eager to spring forward at the slightest twist of the throttle. Lucy is a bit like a mature Shetland pony; when you will it forward, it pauses to consider the idea a little, then starts off slowly as if saying “yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it, but only because I want to”. The KTM felt like a hot blooded thoroughbred eager to take off. When I got the “GO” from the rally staff, I went into a complete deer-in-the-headlights mode. I followed the purple line on my GPS, gingerly picking my way along the streets of Evora and trying to follow the roadbook symbols, but once I hit the dirt, I realized I’d just ignore it for now. It was all too much – the new bike, the fact that other riders were flying by me while I crept along trying to get used to the new bike, the restrictive ADV gear, the focus on the navigation – so I decided that for Day One, I’d just try to make it, ride the special stages and come back in one piece, and that would do for now.
Surprisingly to myself, I did make it – and had ridiculous fun in the process. Somehow, I expected the rally route to be something along the lines of hard enduro stuff a la Romaniacs, where you have to pick your own line across fields and rocks. It wasn’t the case at Trans Alentejo. For the most part, it was dirt tracks on varying terrain, with some single track here and there. Not exactly the easiest stuff, but certainly doable, even for me. It was almost like riding one of the Backcountry Discovery Routes, except faster and with roadbook.
The speed was my biggest issue. Everybody left me in the dust easier than I care to admit, and during both stages, I was at least forty minutes to an hour behind the last rider.
Unsurprisingly, the next morning, Joao asked me if I wanted to ride the easier tracks that day. Day Two was supposed to be more technical and much harder, and Joao worried whether I’d make it. Since there was a different category for quads and large adventure bikes, Joao and Pedro had prepared separate tracks for them – shorter and easier, no single track stuff. I considered taking the easier way for a second, suddenly feeling very small (trying to keep up with the other riders, I felt like a fluffy poodle chasing after a pack of graceful greyhounds). I decided against it, though. I wanted to at least try, and I figured it was better to attempt the rally tracks even if I don’t make it the whole distance than to potter around the easier route.
Still, the fact that Joao thought I might not make it messed up my morale a little. By kilometer fifty, I had worked myself into full-blown panic and had to stop for that cherry cigarillo to calm down. Riders who have started after me flew by me, and it was just me and the KTM vs the world now.
Slowly, I picked my way through the stunning Portuguese landscape, dreading the upcoming mountain trails everybody was talking about the night before. Then, I hit my first steep downhill. I made it down and back up easily enough, but as I went along, the hills got steeper and steeper. Perched on the edge of one of the crazy downhills, I second-guessed the success of the mission for a second. But then, I remembered those San Juan passes near Ouray, Colorado. Sure, I had Dusty and his crew then, but if I could manage those passes on a loaded DR, surely I could manage the monster hills on the lightweight KTM?... Besides, I argued with myself, there are two other factors at play. One, all of the riders before me had made it, therefore it was possible. Two, I had the bike that was perfectly capable – all I had to do was stay aboard it and try to not hinder it too much.
I made it through stage one, and Joao admitted he was surprised to see me at the mid-way point – but there I was. Of course, as it is somehow always the case with me, the second I start feeling accomplished, the universe steps in and goes like, haha, good one.
During the beginning of stage two, I encountered a group of riders congregating at the foot of a particularly nasty hill. Seven or eight riders were debating whether to try going up it or not. It did seem monstrous: almost vertical, littered with large wet rocks, it was a beast of a climb.
“Here’s a way to a shortcut if you don’t want to go up that hill, it really is seriously steep”, a rider approached me. I thanked him, still arguing with myself whether to try it or not.
“Are you going to try and go up that climb?”, I asked the rider who showed me the shortcut.
“Um… Yeah, you know, I think I might give it a go”, he said and tore off. As he headed for the hill, I realized his shirt said “Fausto Mota”.
The Dakar rider.
I just asked a Dakar vet whether he was going to try the steep hill.
Chastened, I made myself scarce taking the shortcut, and after another rough hundred kilometers, I was back in Evora. Despite my slow speed and my dumb comment to the Portuguese Dakar rider, I felt over the moon – I was still here, nothing was broken, and I finished the whole route. My hands and wrists hurt so bad I struggled to open a can of coke, my ego was a tad bruised, but I was otherwise unscathed and vowed to finally figure out the roadbook during Day Three.
Day Three was going to be a little easier than the Nasty Hill Day, and I was by now used to the bike, so I figured it was time to ditch the GPS and try to follow the roadbook. In essence, it isn’t that complicated at all. You have your paper roll which you turn manually using the switch on your handlebars. On the top of the roadbook holder, you have your Ico – your tripmaster – that tells you your distance. In the three sections of the roadbook, the first one from the left indicates the kilometer, the second one tells you your direction, and the third one has extra information (speed limits, rocks, danger, cliff, etc). The Ico reading corresponds with the kilometer number on your roadbook. Here, for example:
Once the Ico reading says “37,7”, you will turn left, and there’s going to be some mud and you've got to be careful (exclamation point signifies danger). That’s really all there is to it, on the most basic level.
If you get lost, you need to get back to the last point where you’re 100% sure where you are. In this case, the point where you turn left. Then, adjust the Ico reading back to 37,7, and start again.
Sometimes, the Ico would be a little off – say, you come across that left turn and your Ico says 37,0, or 38,1 instead of the exact 37,7. You’ve got to adjust the Ico to 37,7 so it doesn’t gain or lose any more before your next change of direction.
The neat thing about roadbook is that it gives you a lot more information about the route – you can see what’s ahead and plan for things like steep climbs, rocks, river crossings, and so on. Plus, it’s a lot faster: you can see that you have, for example, 3 or 4 kilometers with no change of direction, so for those 3 or 4 kilometers, you can just focus on the riding whereas with a GPS, you kind of need to always keep an eye on the line to make sure you’re still on course.
I managed to find my way using roadbook during the whole Day Three, feeling on the top of the world. Roadbook was my biggest fear, but in reality, it was nowhere near as complex as I thought it would be.
So there I was three days later: aching, dog-tired and shaken, but in one piece – and a finisher of the Transalentejo Rally. As we headed out to town for a celebratory dinner, I felt giddy with excitement: I didn’t break any bones, didn’t break the bike, and didn’t get hopelessly lost. The speed was an issue, and I knew the Hellas Rally roadbook would be a bit more involved; my gear smelled a little of cow doo-doo as I had gone through a large puddle on Day Three which happened to be conveniently located at the bottom of a muddy field with grazing cattle, and I imagined the flight attendants and my fellow passengers on the flight home would not be amused; I couldn’t keep up with anybody. Still, it felt like a huge milestone.
The glory was short-lived, however. As I got back to Vilnius and packed up my stuff to leave for Warsaw to pick up Lucy and ride to Greece, I felt the familiar anxiety creeping up on me again. I survived Transalentejo, and I was forever grateful to Joao and Pedro of Horizon Adventures for inviting me along. Hellas Rally Raid, however, was going to be a different beast: would I survive seven days, rocky Greek terrain, and all of this on Lucy instead of the KTM450?..
There was only way to find out.
EvergreenE, I just breezed through your South America RR and freaking loved it. Your writing reminds me of Kerouac and is very entertaining and enlightening.
Also, thanks for sharing your story. Growing up in the US, we are led to assume (due to media and/or history) that motorcycles are reserved for middle aged men with beer bellies, beards and black leather, thundering down a highway on a 1000 pound chrome machine, frequenting every smoke-filled bar along the way.
This past year my wife gained a strong interest in motorcycling due to the empowering stories of solo women riding the world, much like yours. She just got her motorcycle license a month ago, and is chomping at the bit to get out and travel! I've clued her in to your South America RR, and I'm glad to see you're back to writing and posting and I can't wait to see your story continue to unfold!
So much fun to read this. Keep it up!
I hadn't set foot - well, tire - in Europe for a while, and I guess when you spend so much time away from home, you sort of romanticize it a little. Europe!!, I giggled to myself when I got Lucy back in Warsaw; good ole Europe, it's going to be so pretty and everyone's going to be cool and I'll have this nice, easy ride to Greece crossing Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the Balkans. It's going to be a blast, right?
Wrong. Kind of. Riding in Europe felt a little like visiting your posh, elderly auntie Jill. You know there's going to be great coffee, polished parquet, and exquisite interior design, but there's also going to be snobbery and stale perfume. I think one of the reasons why I loved riding in the States so much was that people had this genuinely welcoming vibe; people would go like, "hey, hey you, who are you, what's going on - join us, and we'll come up with awesome stuff, yee-haw!". In Europe, on my old, beat-up DR with tatty Mosko luggage, among a sea of brand new Africa Twins and BMWs, I often felt like riders looked at me like this:
You had to prove yourself first, hug later. Or so I felt; the weather was nasty all the way across Germany and the Swiss Alps, weirdly muggy in Italy, and mercilessly rainy in Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania. The Balkans are stunningly beautiful, but since I really had to get a move on, I mostly spent my days bracing against the torrential downpours and reminiscing longingly of Southern Peru.
At the same time, sh*t was getting all too real: the closer I got to Greece, the antsier about the upcoming Hellas Rally Raid I got. I couldn't even keep up with other riders in Portugal, and that was a friendly, non-compete rally. The Hellas people would leave me in the dust faster than I could say "roadbook". Speaking of which, I still felt a little unsure about this whole paper scroll and tripmaster business. It made sense in Portugal, but after interviewing Meletis Stamatis, the organizer of Hellas, I knew the Greek version was going to be a tad more involved.
And so, thoroughly terrified, paranoid, and feeling very ridiculous, I finally rolled into Karpenissi, a small town in Northern Greece where the rally bivouac was already being set up. No turning back now: Hellas or bust.
Effin' love it @EvergreenE! Can't wait to hear how Hellas unfolds. And I sincerely enjoyed your report from Portugal. I've heard that's an incredible country to ride in and around, sounds like you did it right. And good on you for finishing the rally and not taking the easy way out. Big LOL to asking the Dakar dude if he was going to try the hill climb.
Well done, looking forward to more
Hey everyone! So I keep promising to post the updates regularly and then keep disappearing, which is not cool at all. However, Corona has put a huge dent in my plans for summer 2020, and so now, stuck back home in Lithuania, I finally have so much time to write it’s unsettling. So here I am again , and this time, there will be constant updates – I’ve accumulated a huge backlog at this point, and, since I’m homeless, I’m staying with a friend who’s very much into Rum Diaries and daiquiris, so Hemingway vibes all the way; plus, the European borders are closed until further notice, so there’s literally nowhere to go. For now.
If it wasn’t for Corona, I would be in Greece now, heading for Nafpaktos and my second Hellas Rally Raid. As Hellas is now pushed to October, I’m thinking, this is the perfect time to reminisce about my first Hellas…so once again, I’m picking up right where I left off, which is arriving to the Hellas Rally Raid camp in Karpenissi and realizing just how much s*it I'd gotten myself into.
Karpenissi is a small but picturesque town in Northern Greece, surrounded by some of the most breathtaking scenery in Southern Europe. Endless forest trails, rocky streams and rivers, high mountain passes – it’s got it all, and the town itself has a very laid back and welcoming vibe. Instead of camping at the bivouac, I’d chickened out and gotten a hotel room instead; and to be honest, I was really glad I did. The nights were still cold, and by day three, I was already feeling the pain and the fatigue, so my little hotel in central Karpenissi felt like a very, very welcomed relief.
Having dumped my stuff at the hotel, I rode down to a local supermarket to stock up on some food. My budget was very modest, so I figured I’d just buy some avocados, canned tuna salads, and bananas, and kind of wing it instead of paying for bivouac cafeteria meals and investing in all the fancy energy gels and stuff like that. Cramming my supplies into the panniers, I saw a family walking towards a car.
“You doing the rally then?”, the tall Aussie guy asked me. I nodded, and we started chatting. Turned out, it was none other than Andrew Houlihan and his family. Andrew had moved from motocross to rally and was planning his Dakar debut in 2021; in the meantime, he was here at Hellas to get a taste of rally racing. It felt amazing to finally meet some of the racers outside of the bivouac because, in a Lidl parking lot, they were just people, not the rally superstars, and I felt my spirits lift a little.
Next up, I rode to the bivouac to see what was going on. Situated just on the outskirts of Karpenissi, the Hellas bivouac was already abuzz with racing teams setting up paddocks and tinkering on the bikes, competitors milling about, organization staff trying to control the chaos, and riders going in and out to test their machines.
Rolling into the bivouac chok-full of pretty KTMs and professional-looking racing teams’ paddocks on my tired DR650 mule, I felt like a fraud. Trans Alen Tejo was small, everybody knew everybody, the distances were short, and we weren’t timed; Hellas, on the other hand, felt like the very real deal, and as I rolled up to the administration office, I couldn’t help but question my sanity of entering this monster of a rally. Still, I went in to get the scrutineering part over with: presenting my driver’s license and bike documents, getting my racing insurance, my bib number, and a little GPS tracker, and finally, a coveted Hellas shirt. Next up was the technical scrutineering, where the Hellas organization mechanics went over Lucy to see whether it was rally-ready. It wasn’t – my taillight had stopped working – but one of the mechanics had mercy on me and, smiling a crooked smile, he fixed it for me, nodded, and slapped the “technical check” sticker on Lucy. I was officially a Hellas Lite competitor now, and there was no turning back.
Feeling jittery as hell, I decided to go find Andrew and his wife Kate, the only familiar faces in the bivouac at that point. Andrew was settled in the Nomadas Adventure paddock where Hernan Samaniego, the owner of Nomadas, and his team were already working on the bikes. I told Andrew I still needed to figure out setting up my roadbook navigation, and he offered to help out. Hernan kindly lent me the main mount for the roadbook box and helped me secure the whole thing on to the handlebars; the roadbook switches were a little too far from my hands, but there was hardly any space on the bars anyhow, so we figured it would do.
Mission accomplished, I thanked Andrew and Hernan and, suddenly feeling a little reassured, I wandered about the bivouac just talking to people. It turned out, plenty of riders were there for the first time, just like me, and plenty of them were just as nervous, too. Here’s video proof (from minute 2.15):
Little by little, I perked up a bit. Sure, Lucy hadn’t somehow magically transformed into a magnificent rally replica bike, and I hadn’t become any wiser or better, but just chatting to other riders and realizing lots of us felt we were throwing ourselves into the deep end made me feel a little better. I also happened upon Ionut “Jon” Florea, a Romanian ADV traveler and racer; couple years back, Paul and I stayed with Jon and his partner Ana at their place in Bucharest. Two more familiar faces! Yay!
In the afternoon, we had a quick briefing by Meletis Stamatis, the organizer of the rally. He explained the start times, gave us all some advice, and wished everyone good luck out there on the trails. That was it for the day, so I thanked Andrew and Hernan again and rode back to my hotel for some souvlaki and a cold one before going to bed early.
The next morning, the rally finally began. However, because I was in the Hellas Lite class, we were to start last, and instead of riding straight to the start of the special, I spent most of the day scurrying up and down the bivouac trying to find front brake pads – it had just dawned on me that mine probably wouldn’t last the whole rally – and generally working myself up to pure panic. At some point, I even caught myself wishing that Lucy wouldn’t start, that something would go wrong before I even left the bivouac, and I would have a legit excuse not to start today. Or, ever, because let’s face it, this was absolutely ridiculous…
… except, of course, good loyal Lucy did start, and I finally found myself before the RedBull arch among the other Hellas Lite competitors. I was so nervous at that point it took me a while to realize I kept trying to put my right glove on my left hand, and did I remember to scroll the Ico back to zero, sweet baby Jesus, they’re giving us time cards – where do I put the time card - oh OK, tank bag, cool – and then there was the ORGA staff person going “okay, you ready, yeah? Four…three…two…one… go, go, go!!!”.
And off I went.
Glad you’re back! Looking forward to the rest.
Right off the bat, as I took off on a weird, half-assed autopilot - I honestly can't remember putting the bike into gear and riding off, the adrenaline kicked in so strong it felt like almost blacking out - and as I was getting my bearings, the last few riders who started behind me passed me within the first few miles. On the one hand: shit. Shit. Scheisse. Shit. But on the other hand?.. I was the last one behind the whole rally now, but to be honest, it brought me some weird kind of relief – at least I wouldn’t have to watch for people tearing up behind me, and I could just plod along to finish my very first special stage, some one hundred kilometers across the stunningly beautiful mountains around Karpenissi, and maybe for now, that was enough.
The adrenaline rush of the start began wearing off around mile ten or so; slowly, I relaxed my white-knuckled grip on the bars a little bit and tried to figure out how I could go a little faster. The track itself wasn’t technical at all: a few hairpin turns, a few muddier sections here and there, but in general, it was mostly hard-packed gravel almost all the way. The track wasn’t the problem, it was corners. For the life of me, I just couldn’t keep the speed up in corners, and soon enough, I realized I was completely alone on the trails. But then, at least the roadbook navigation was going well – or as well as it could have.
The Hellas roadbook is quite detailed, so you get tons of information about what’s coming ahead. While this matters a lot more for the faster riders, it gave me a sense of orientation, too; I barely glanced at the GPS (in Hellas Lite, you’re allowed to have a GPS unit as a back up to your roadbook) the whole time, and it made me feel like I had some sort of a grip on reality.
Another revelation was the fact that this was a full-on rally, not a rally training event. There were no lunch stops and no chats along the way, it was just go, go, go the whole distance, and you had to keep moving. I carried my camelback, so water wasn’t a problem, but when it came to food, all I managed was a mushy banana that I half inhaled, half gulped down somewhere around kilometer 60 before jumping right back on the bike and going.
Slowly but steadily, I finished the prologue stage and made it back to the bivouac. It was a weird feeling to have survived Day One: on the one hand, I was proud as hell that Lucy and I made it. On the other hand, I realized we came in last. As in, dead last, both in class and overall, which was demoralizing, but also liberating: I now knew very clearly that the only person I was competing against was myself -and that it was still going to be a fight.
After the briefing at the bivouac, I went to wash Lucy, fill up with gas, grease the chain, and go over the bike to see how it was doing. Next, I headed back to the hotel. I’d found this tiny souvlaki place next door where they had great – and cheap – food, and where they served beer in ice-cold pint glasses. It turned out the owner was also moonlighting as part of the Hellas ORGA volunteer team, so his little café became my post-race spot throughout the whole rally. I didn’t linger, though: tomorrow was going to be a long day, and I still needed to mark my roadbook and scroll it in to have everything ready for tomorrow.
Day Two began with a much earlier start, 10.40 am compared to Day One’s 6pm; since I was the last rider in, I was also going to be the last rider out today. Owch. Yesterday, I'd been happy just to finish the prologue stage. Today, after getting some rest, wolfing down a huge breakfast, and buzzing to go, the fact that I was going at a snail's pace began bugging me. Yelling war cries in my helmet as I made my way down to the bivouac, I swore I'd do better this time.
We were to have two special stages, about 250km in total, and I was feeling antsy about making it back in time. Although the trails weren’t very challenging in themselves, this was no TAT, either, and if it took me several hours to finish the 100 km prologue, when would I finish the 250km?
Still, the morning was gloriously sunny, I’d had plenty of rest, and I wasn’t as nervous anymore. I think I even fist-bumped the start guy who marked my time card, and got a wave in return. For the first forty kilometers, I happily inched my way forward taking in the views and willing Lucy to go just a little faster than yesterday.
The going was good. I felt a little more sure-footed now, and even though my overall speed hadn't improved, a least I was panicking a little less and trying to figuring things out with a little more success. But it just wasn't meant to be: somewhere past kilometer 40, the roadbook sent me on a paved road. A rally organizer pick up truck was parked on the intersection, and two rally staff motioned me to stop. “You need to wait here till we get a call from the organizers”, they told me. Across the road, an Irish rider with a broken knee and a broken bike was waiting for assistance. Suddenly, the day seemed a little less sunny.
I wasn’t sure why I was stopped and told to wait. I knew I hadn’t messed up the roadbook and was still on track. Minutes passed by; I chatted to the injured Irish rider and his support team from Nomadas Adventure, who had so kindly helped me install the navigation tower on the scrutineering day. A few riders flew by, but they weren’t stopped. I kept asking rally staff what was going on, but they weren’t sure. Finally, another rider arrived and told us the stage was canceled for Rally Lite. “We’re supposed to just head back to the bivouac now, following the main road. Guess the race is done for today…”.
Confused, I asked rally staff to call the bivouac again, but with not much luck. The rest of the Nomadas Adventure team arrived and picked up the injured rider and his bike. “You should come with us, let’s just head back”, they offered, but I was still hoping I’d hear some news.
It wasn’t meant to be. After a few more minutes of confusion, I decided to simply follow the rider who’d announced the cancellation of the stage back to the bivouac.
Riding back, I couldn’t help but shake a bad feeling. Was there some horrific accident? Landslide? Angry farmers closing a route? The only way to find out was to get to the bivouac. I wondered, too, whether I simply got disqualified for not making time, or whether something happened to one of the Lite class riders.
Despite feeling glum and confused, I couldn’t help but admire the scenery we were riding through. We were at some altitude now, almost at the snow level in the mountains, and the land just opened up down below revealing lush green valleys and snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance. It was chilly, but with the sun beating down, it was a beautiful ride.
Back at the bivouac, we learned there was a sudden change of course. The first special stage was a loop, and the first riders who started at 7 am were already coming back, whereas us Lite riders were only finishing up that first loop. To avoid the risk of mass head-on collisions between the returning rally riders and us, the organization decided to simply send us home. And just like that, the stage that was supposed to be over 250km today became just fifty kilometers, and I was back at the bivouac before 2 pm. I understand unexpected things happen at a rally, and the decision to cancel our stage to avoid head-on crashes made sense. Still, I felt like I was cheating somehow.
On the other hand, I still got to start the next day, whereas for some other riders who got injured or whose bikes broke, it was much worse. This was not the Dakar, obviously, but every day, it felt like it was all or nothing. Maybe that’s why it felt so weird to have a canceled stage because then it’s neither all nor nothing – it’s just something, and I felt like a fraud.
Luckily, at least Lucy was doing great. Some spokes were loose, the front sprocket seal was blown, and the brake pads badly needed changing, but all in all, my pony was doing just fine despite a few slow-speed offs and getting stuck in mud.
Heading back to the hotel after the briefing, though, it dawned on me we hadn't even started yet: five more days to go, and it won't be easy prologue stages or fifty km runs anymore.
Day Three began with a late – 12pm – start for Lite class, but the first half felt almost blissful. The roadbook was spot on, the weather was perfect and, although I knew I was behind everyone again, I felt like I had a chance of finishing the special. I’d already earned a few painful bruises and had a cold, but the going was good, the tracks were amazing, and I felt like some young animal let out of an enclosure for the first time, unsure of things but thrilled about the freedom, sniffing excitedly at the air, wondering what’s around the next corner, over the crest of a hill, across another valley… Lucy ended up in a ditch once, and I made one navigation mistake, but I was feeling great.
Except, yet again, I was late to finish the first special stage, and once I rolled onto the liaison section, a rally staff truck was waiting for me. “You’re over your time limit. Follow me back to the bivouac”, the driver said. After sharing my energy bars with the pilots of a broken down SSV – their right front wheel had been ripped off – I got back into the saddle and followed the rally truck back. It felt like a defeat, but because I was in the Hellas Lite class, I was still allowed to start tomorrow, albeit with a massive time penalty. Thankfully, at least Lite would get an earlier start at 9.40 am, and our special stage tomorrow would be just 150 kilometers.
Back at the bivouac, frantically trying to find some new spokes and fighting the cold and the disappointment in myself, I remembered the Dakar riders telling me about their „mental budget“: before you enter a rally, you‘ve got to mentally budget for bad things. I think several different riders had mentioned this: you sort of imagine a few worst-case scenarios and try to be prepared for them psychologically, so that if they do actually happen, you don‘t go down a very black and hopeless rabbit hole in your mind. So, before starting at Hellas, I mentally budgeted for a few very real possibilities of broken bones or a broken bike, as I knew this could happen. I sure as hell did not budget for a scenario of being sent back to the bivouac because I‘d been too slow, though. But I guess that‘s the thing with life lessons – they don‘t come in neatly packaged and bow-tied, in the form you expected, when you expect them. They just show up randomly, bitch-slap you across the face, and watch curiously as you try to get your bearings.
That‘s pretty much what I was trying to achieve on Day Three – just get my bearings, take care of Lucy best I could, make myself eat, transport myself back to the hotel, and hope for a better day tomorrow. At the same time, I was feeling insanely grateful to even be there. Hellas Rally attracts a very diverse crowd, and I felt like I was part of something much bigger than myself.
By Day 4, over eighty riders had already withdrawn from the race. Day Four was going to be brutal for the rally competitors, as they would face a 450-kilometer special stage; for Lite, it was a 150 km special and a 150 km of liaison, and I showed up at the start line determined to make it. O rather, I’m not sure I was determined – that sounds way too noble; I just kept showing up because I felt like there was no other option. It’s a bit like traveling, when you refuse to turn back even if that means riding in the dark or tackling a trail you’re not too sure of. At Hellas, I just refused to quit, even if it meant more slaps from the universe and reality checks than I could take.
Scenery-wise, this was the most beautiful day yet. The trails took us across some jaw-dropping mountain scenery with tight hairpins, muddy sections, and melting alpine snow – which, surprisingly, felt like a welcome sight as the temperatures got a little cooler at higher altitude. For some reason, as I rode along that day, I finally got into that weird “flow” state where everything just made sense. I still wasn’t fast – but I was a little faster, and somehow, it made all the difference; I got in the zone, where I felt one with the bike, getting over rocks, mud, streams, and loose gravel in one fluid motion without consciously thinking about it. I forgot to stop, to eat, to do anything but concentrate on the roadbook and the riding, chasing after other riders, spurring Lucy on and on and on – and before I knew it, we made it. We made it to the end of the special in time, and I was over the moon.
Back at the bivouac, I couldn’t help but pat Lucy on the tank like it was a live being. And I realized one thing: when people would negatively comment on my bike's size or weight, I'd sort of shrug half-apologetically and say, "yeah, well, but it's a workhorse". I felt like after ea day this this, I would start calling Lucy a war horse instead. I was amazed at just how much abuse it was taking, and still going strong despite being dumped in muddy ravines, dragged out of streams, dropped on rocks and ridden by...well, me.
With my newly found appreciation for Lucy, I got my roadbook rolls for tomorrow, headed back to Karpenissi, had an ice-cold beer at my spot, and slept the sleep pf the righteous. Three more days to go... and who knows, I might just make it over that finish line.
Looking good El and Lucy as as always,
I know you enjoyed that beer!
I know all to well the look you refer to. I ride an old wore out KLR, that I love.
I am so enjoying this. Great job!