This year’s Hellas Rally Raid in Nafpaktos, Greece, was one of the most anticipated rally events in Europe: after so many cancellations and postponed races last year, Hellas 2021 was going to be the cross-country race to attend. Unable to race or follow the rally myself, I caught up with Gunnar Roland, a Spain-based Norwegian rider who finished Hellas on his KTM450. I met Gunnar back at the Hispania Rally in 2020, and ever since, Gunnar has long left me in the dust – literally and figuratively – as he continued training and planning ever-bigger rallies. The Hellas finish this year is his last prep race for the big North African 1000 Dunas Rally in the fall, and I was curious to hear more about his progress and upcoming rally challenges.
Gunnar tells me he always wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle, but didn´t start until about 6 years ago. “A friend convinced me that I had to get my license so that he could have a riding buddy. Where I live – in the mountains in Southern Spain – we have an endless network of tracks and trails to explore and Morocco is just a short ferry crossing away, too, so I also immediately started riding off-road”, Gunnar says. He raced Hellas on his 2020 KTM EXC 450, having built it into a rally bike last summer with a rally tower from Rade Garage and a 15 l Acerbis tank. “Apart from this and a higher spec rear spring on the suspension and some custom graphics, the bike is factory spec”, Gunnar explains.
With just six years of riding experience, he is now about to start racing the big desert rallies – so how did it all begin?
– Gunnar, where does your obsession with rally racing come from?
For me, it was the natural progression from the obsession with motorcycles and adventure riding that brought me to rally racing. I still love adventure riding, but the challenge you get with a multi-day rally, or even just a long one day roadbook rally, is just something so much more exciting and challenging.
– Why did you choose Hellas?
I started watching YouTube videos from the Hellas Rally years ago, and since then I have always dreamt of taking part in it.
– How was the bivouac and the ORGA?
The location of the bivouac right on the beach was perfect! Compared to another rally I took part in last year, I also thought that the organisation was very good. It´s not an easy task to organize such a big rally, especially not in these pandemic times. The organisers were very friendly and always available and happy to help with any queries or questions that I had. Like, “where can I find the best Pita Gyros?”
– Hellas Rally Raid was seven brutal days of racing – which one was the hardest?
It was indeed brutal, and I didn´t find any of the days easy, but the hardest day was no doubt the Marathon day of 400 and something kilometres to Karpenissi. I managed to finish the day and arrived at the camp in total darkness at 10:30 pm, but there were many that did not make the cut and got sent back to the bivouac in Nafpaktos for safety reasons. I don’t think that I was that far ahead of the cut myself. Riding over the high steep mountain peaks off-piste in the dark was pretty scary and dangerous, so I understand why riders were sent back.
– What was the terrain like?
There was a mix of fast tracks, dangerous drop-offs into the valleys below, thousands of hairpin bends full of rocks and loose gravel, some extremely hard river crossings, enduro-like rocky sections with big steps, narrow single track, deep ruts and, above all, stunning views and lush deep forests. I was very glad that I didn´t go on a bigger bike.
– What’s the most challenging part about Hellas?
The endurance of 7 days of riding in difficult terrain, staying focus and finding the energy to finish the last days was very hard.
– What did you think of the roadbook?
In most parts it was spot on, very good to follow, but you had to stay focused at all times, as it was very easy to miss a turn. A couple of days the distances were off, which was a bit strange as they were very accurate the other days.
– What would you say to a complete rally first-timer who wants to do Hellas?
Just do it! The bivouac is full of friendly people that are always happy to help you and give you useful advice along the way. Don´t worry if you don´t finish every stage or every day, it´s still a fantastic experience and you´ll learn so much and get to meet many new likeminded friends.
– What’s next for you?
My next rally will be 1000 Dunas in October, providing the ferry connections to Morocco open up from Spain by then. The rally goes from Granada in Spain to Merzouga in Morocco and then back again over 7 days. It´s not a speed rally, it´s measured on navigation only and requires a lot of endurance. It´ll be my first attempt to ride in the sand dunes and I´m looking forward to it very much!
– How are you training for Dunas?
I´ve done a couple of training courses to improve my technical riding ability and navigation skills with the 1000 Dunas School in Granada. I also get out on my bike and ride our local tracks whenever I can. For physical training, I work out at home with focus on core body strength and during the summer, I go swimming in our local municipal swimming pool.
– Why do you think so many riders still assume rally is such an intimidating and closed-off world?
I think that many believe that you need to be a hardcore off-road expert to be able to do a rally, but I´m definitely living proof of that not being the case. The cost may also put many people off, and it´s not a cheap hobby, but if you have a bike that is off-road capable and you have some good boots and other protective gear, you don´t really need that much more to go rallying. A roadbook holder and a tripmaster can be mounted on a handlebar bracket, you don´t need a Dakar-style rally tower. I did my first roadbook rallies on my close-to-stock KTM 790R with a simple handlebar-mounted navigation setup; the size of the bike made it more of a challenge, but it was possible.
As Gunnar is focusing on his 1000 Dunas preparations, follow his Instagram page for updates and see if he makes it to the dunes of Merzouga.