Baja Rally report part 2. Last year, Mission Catavina (the southernmost point on the rally) was the final remote bivouac, before a 5am start and a two hour liaison in the dark over the mountains - followed by a 200km stage starting Rosario, and another long liaison into the event finish at Ensenada - a real taste of Dakar. This year, they'd mixed things up a little to the riders' benefit: after two long days/stages, Catavina now marked the half-way point, with the return north split into two days - which in turn promised a lot more stage miles and a lot less liaison on our way back to Ensenada - sweet! photo. The Rally Raid Products LC4-50 Dakar bike - this year being ridden by UK Dakar rider Chris Cork. I rode this bike in 2014 from the UK to Greece and back, and took part in the Hellas Rally as part of it's development. Built around a KTM 690, it's a big bike for the kind of terrain we were riding in Baja. Mission Catavina was my favourite Bivouac location last year, and once again it didn't disappoint - good food, plenty of room for camping and the hotel itself is a wonderful Spanish Colonial style outpost - with a central courtyard and pool flanked by the bedrooms (for those lucky enough to book a room in time). Friday 14th October - Day 4 (SS3) Mission Catavina to Rancho El Coyote A short 10km Liaison up the highway saw us at the start of SS3, which was all-new this year, and Scotty had promised would offer an awesome ride - he wasn't wrong! Starting out on a series of single track (barely visible in places) through the cactus again, together with some technical dry wash riding followed by fast two-track as the desert opened up. After around 80kms, the course featured a short neutralised section on the highway, and as I approached could see that all the previous riders had been held at a temporary checkpoint. Drinks, snacks and a modicum of shade had been supplied, as the Orga had to no choice but to temporarily halt the race while a problem with the radio communication relay plane was sorted out. It was a shame to break the flow - not least as once we were given the all-clear, we then convoyed up the highway 20kms before having to regroup once again for the refuel and start of the second timed sector that morning (I'm sure we could have simply stopped once, at this originally scheduled position - particularly since the road section was neutralised anyway, but there you go...) Still, our reward was another excellent 100kms or so of epic desert riding, ending at a second refuel point at El Rosario. Because of the enforced delay earlier that morning, the Orga then took the decision to cut the final 100kms of Special Stage (north of EL Rosario and into that evening's bivouac at El Coyote) in an effort to ensure all competitors reached the bivouac before nightfall. That was fair enough of course, although personally I found it rather disappointing to have to ride what was effectively the assistance route (up the tedious Highway 1), as I felt I'd been on a roll all day so far... Fortunately the final 40 or so kilometres off the main highway and inland towards Rancho El Coyote turned out to be a wonderfully twisty and scenic minor mountain road, so sweet enough compensation... To be honest, by this stage of the event, no one I spoke too minded the fact the day had been cut short - after all, we'd all had a fantastic first 200 kms, which for many riders, was more than enough each day anyway... In fact this is probably a good juncture to point out that while the Baja Rally is 'only' four full days (plus prologue), they really are FULL days... While the overall event distance may not not huge compared to some other week-long European/African rallies - in Baja, the stages themselves are all in excess of 300kms per day (so typically around 50% longer than your average European or Moroccan rally stage), coupled with comparatively little liaison distance - which means you are 'on it' for a lot more of the time each day; and that ultimately the proportion of actual race/stage distance compared to the overall event distance is much higher - which is kind of what you want, especially when you're onboard a lightweight enduro bike. Certainly the stage distances [and technicality within], coupled with early starts each day means that you effectively get what would otherwise be a week's worth of race mileage condensed into four and a half days - so it's pretty intense, and I would go as far as to suggest is not an event for beginners in that regard... you really need to be mentally and physically prepared for some pretty long and challenging days in the saddle. Anyway, back to the bivouac at El Coyote... photo. early morning starts meant coffee was an essential ingredient... Lisa had found the same shady spot as we camped in last year, and alongside the majority of the other UK riders (team TAB/Motoden) we set about prepping for the final day the following morning - another oil change for the XR and, well, that's about all it needed really. Rancho El Coyote is essentially a camp-ground (with showers and toilets), and outside/BBQ style catering provided by the owners. There is alternative accommodation a few miles back down the dirt road at Rancho Melling where some of the competitors had managed to secure rooms, and I can only presume that that is where the Orga were staying that evening too, as there was precious little presence of official crew around the main bivouac, no results, and ultimately not even a rider briefing that evening... Now I am not going to knock the Orga here, as I'm sure they had their reasons for the lack of coordination on this penultimate evening - however, it would be fair to say that increasingly during the week, teams and certainly individual riders were getting increasingly frustrated at the apparent lack of coordination, particularly during the 12 or so hours each day that the riders weren't actually racing... Let me make it clear that between the DSS and and ASS each day, I personally felt the event organisation was impeccable. Safety was first rate, the road-books accurate, and checkpoints and refuelling all manned efficiently and in a positive and friendly manner. There was also plenty of cold drinks (along with water) and snacks available at every location - something that last year had depleted rather quickly after the second day... However, while stage safety and race logistics are paramount, they are also only part of the whole rally experience - and fundamentally, when weary riders return to the bivouac each evening, they need a simple and structured system to be in place so that they can manage their needs efficiently. Put succinctly - they simply need to know when the food will be ready, where to get their new road-books, when the rider briefing is, and what time they will need to get up the following morning - those are the essentials, and ideally, will be at a fixed time/place each day so that even if you arrive late and/or need to work on your bike, you can prepare for the following day with the minimum of disruption. Saturday 15th October - Day 5 (SS4) El Coyote to Ensenada (Hotel San Nicolas) The message had come round the night before (together with the road books) that [apparently] all riders were to assemble at 6am - with breakfast from 5am - and there would be a short liaison to the start of the final stage, with details of the route handed out during breakfast. Now this in itself was not a problem - it had been the format all week (I suspect the Orga choose to keep the liaison and stage road-books separate so as to help protect the location of the start and finish points - particularly as a lot of the stages run though private ground and need specific permission, and they don't want all and sundry trying to ride the routes outside of the structured event)... However, due to the lack of a rider briefing the night before, we had no idea of the distance involved to the DSS, and subsequently what time individual riders would actually need to leave the bivouac (there being no results and therefore no posted start times, until you were given your time card at the exit from the bivouac). I considered it particularly important in this instance, since El Coyote is eight kilometres down a dusty dirt road, so leaving individually would be eminently preferable for all competitors. While this may not have been such an issue in previous years (with around 40 or so competitors), now, with an event of this size - there really is no requirement for a rider in 70th place having to get up an hour earlier than they need to, only to have to ultimately wait at the DSS - and certainly not to have to endure the dust cloud of 69 other competitors on their way out of the bivouac... Of course [for some reason] we were all held at the bivouac exit, and had to ride out in a group along that damn track didn't we... the dust compounded by a handful of assistance vehicles that for some unfathomable reason felt they needed to get out the bivouac early for their modest 100km road drive back to Ensenada, and tried to push in before all the competitors had left. Again, all this needed was a little coordination. The final stage (SS4) this year had been solely created by Scotty's partner in the Baja Rally Organisation Alfonzo 'Poncho' Alonzo Diaz - and I have to say, it was utterly epic! Usually, Scotty and Poncho work together to reccy the routes and compile the road-book, but this final stage was all Poncho's own work... It started of fast and following on a series of sandy single-lane dirt roads, before diving into a series of barely two-track trails through undergrowth (and even cows at one point!). Although a lot of the countryside north of El Coyote is cultivated farmland, there was also plenty of gnarly rocky 'enduro' style going to navigate, and perhaps the 'grand finale' this year was crossing a narrow mountain pass on what was little more than a disused goat-trail. Awesome! Well, I say awesome - it was fine on an enduro bike, but more than one rider I came across in a particularly rough and washed out section was cursing the course: "How can they put us though this after the week we've just had!" I heard from one UK rider, as the XR tractored on by... However, while this was arguably the best day's riding for me personally - it was not without it's upsets - stomach upsets to be precise. I'd been suffering from stomach cramps ever since the refuel, and sure enough, on stopping in a field to assess my cap heading, I felt the overwhelming need for a toilet break. Oh. My. God. Still, I felt immeasurably better after that - although was almost caught short again a few kilometres further on - diving off the sandy piste and into the bushes once more... and apparently I was not the only one that day unfortunately. The end is in sight... almost. The final few kms of the special threw a curve-ball to some of the competitors - particularly if you'd not been accurate with your trip-computer in the preceding few instructions... I crested a brow at what turned out to be a clear track junction, although it wasn't actually marked in the road-book. This coincided with the final waypoint opening up in the Rally Comp device, which suggested the ASS was directly ahead and even to the left a little, despite the main track being the right hand fork... Now I'm not sure the Orga had done this on purpose (although I suspect they had, the devious little buggers ;o) just to make sure anyone who was now simply cruising for a finish remained on their navigational toes, but there must have been at least three or four competitors riding round in circles, trying to make head or tail of the arrow on the Rally Comp - some who had been there quite a while by the look of it too! I paused there for a moment myself, but trusted my instincts... there had been an instruction just 1/2 a kilometre previously saying to take the left fork at a similar looking junction, however, fundamentally, the tulip diagram showed an island in the middle of the three tracks, and there was no island here. I was confident I'd made the correct turn 1/2 km before, so continued on the main track to the right... sure enough, a kilometre or so further on, the piste started to swept to the left around a headland, and headed straight for the ASS waypoint in the Rally Comp. Bingo! photo. (by Nishant Verma) on the final leg of SS4 - the XR actually looks quite fast here! Concerned I probably now had at least three or four lost [and much faster] riders hot on my tail, I wicked up the little XR just about as fast as it would go, and ragged those last few sweeping turns on the wide piste straight into the ASS. Done! It was a 60 or so km liaison back to Ensenada from the finish, but I didn't mind - the XR was used to slogging along, and I revelled in the fact that I'd probably just had the best three days rally riding I ever have. I used the journey to reflect on the past few days, and to try and put it into some sort of perspective when compared to the other events I've competed in over the years... Certainly the key attraction of rally-raid events for me is that you are not [usually] elbow to elbow racing with other competitors, as quite honestly I'm just not that competitive and far too polite to engage in 'combative' style riding - certainly I always wave anyone faster by (and similarly try my hardest not to fill anyone in if I do happen to pass them) which is not really in the spirit of 'racing' I know. But that is the point of rally-raid - in that you are actually racing the course itself, not the other riders - and ultimately it's only your overall time that matters... Typically each competitor is set off at a 2 minute interval, not only in an effort to stop subsequent competitors simply following the guy in front instead of navigating themselves, but so that in an ideal world you never physically catch the rider in front, unless they happen to make a mistake of course. In reality, faster riders do catch those in front, while slower riders (who had a particularly good day previously perhaps) and/or those who make a navigational mistake drop back down the field as the stage progresses; but even in a tight and technical terrain like Baja, and with such a significant number of riders this year, the majority of the time you are out there on your own, and I like that - the part of me that is fundamentally an 'Adventure' rider particularly enjoys that sense of self-reliance and riding on your wits that rally-raid requires. And my XR is my favourite bike of all time (although my Rally Raid kitted CB500X is a close second - had to get that in somewhere ;o) - it's not particularly fast, but it feels unbreakable, and is so simple and utterly reliable it would always be my first choice for riding into the unknown. Yes the suspension is stock, and pretty saggy now (the rear shock has not been touched in what must be 50,000 miles now, while the forks I had refreshed last summer, although I retained the stock springs), but it actually turned out to be perfect for the conditions in Baja - certainly at the speed I was prepared to ride. For the most part I like to ride sitting down (yeah, I'm lazy - although I like to call it 'conserving energy' of course) - letting the bike and the suspension do all the work as far as possible, and it was always very forgiving, and would always find traction... The engine is also bone-stock (from the carb [other than revised jetting], right down the the OEM camshaft and auto decompressor), but I like it that way - particularly as it would appear I got a particularly sweet one (that admittedly has also been refreshed recently - with a new piston, barrel lining, valve seals, springs and re-seated valves - and therefore feels like new again) and fundamentally the XR also tends to flatter you when you make a clumsy mistake, and tractors up and over pretty much anything if you put your faith in it. The mods I'd incorporated into the rally-lite build (details from the beginning of this thread) also never let me down at all - the rear tank was perfect (although it turns out I never actually needed to use it's contents throughout the event) - and the simple wiring mods and navigation gear all worked faultlessly too. There were a couple of occasions where I was glad I'd fitted a steering damper, although on the whole the XR is very stable anyway - and I was particularly impressed with the way the XR simply ploughed through the soft silty dry river beds (typically the Baja 1000 course sections that were incorporated into the rally route this year), and which in comparison I had struggled with on the flighty KTM 500 during last year's event. As I rolled up outside the San Nicolas hotel, and subsequently parked the bike next to the pool - I had an overwhelming sense of completion. I've owned this bike [since new] for over thirteen years now - and first rode it in the [Sahara] desert back in 2006, which in turn sowed the seed of one day competing in the Dakar Rally. Subsequently I invested in building a series of rally bikes in an effort to work towards that goal - while my XR400 remained my fun-bike - my UK trail riding and European travel bike. Although most recently I built it up specifically for the Baja Rally (using left-over parts from all my other rally bikes), at the same time I knew I would never be a contender in this event, so the focus of this machine was very different... Initially I was a little bummed that I'd be forced to miss SS1 this year (due to the sickness on day 1), as I'm pretty sure I'd have been able to make it through - although whether I would have enjoyed the rest of the event quite so much I'm not sure, and at least this way I was fighting fit for the last three days, while being onboard a bike in which I had the utmost faith allowed me to ride to the absolute maximum that I was prepared to do... and that is the overriding feeling I'll take away from this year's event. They say it's always best to end on a high - and right now, I consider I probably won't ever have quite as much fun during a rally as I did this past week. And I'm not sure I actually want to try anymore. I'm so glad I came to this conclusion onboard my lil' four-hunnard. Thanks for watching... Jenny x ps. Apparently I actually finished the event 36th overall - so at least I was consistent to my daily results... and am proud to say that technically I also achieved first place in the, erm, 'Vintage Veteran Ladies Class' (not a real class - ed.) Toot toot for now!