Standing on a curb in central Guadix, a beautiful small town near Granada, I blinked at the scorching Andalucian sun. My riding boots and my tatty suitcase felt heavy, my helmet dangling awkwardly on my arm, as I tried to get my bearings. The reality of what I was about to do started sinking in: I was here for the Hispania Rally, “the only desert rally in Europe”, and I was determined to finish every single mile of it.
As I made my way to an AirBnB we were sharing with other female competitors of Hispania, I thought back to my Hellas Rally experience last year. I’d barely survived it back then, riding my old DR650 with no clue and no support. This time, I had a rally-ready KTM450 and the support of Club Aventura Tuareg, a Spanish rally support team lead by Manuel Garcia Vitoria. I’d met Manuel at Hellas last year, and I remember how he’d always had a kind word for me despite me being so slow and inexperienced.
Having ditched my stuff at the AirBnB, I got to the Hispania Rally bivouac located just outside town. Racing teams were already setting up their paddocks, bikes were being unloaded from trucks and vans, and the bivouac was already abuzz with the usual rally chaos.
This time around, it didn’t feel intimidating, though. Seeing familiar faces – riders, support teams, mechanics, and friends – was a huge morale boost; I think at Hispania, I finally realized what everyone meant when they said a rally is one big family. It is, and it’s an amazing feeling.
As the riders kept pouring into the bivouac, I chatted with Domingo Aguilar, the organizer and co-founder of Hispania. Domingo was busy with a million things, but he wished me luck and told me to brace for scenery rivaling that of the Death Valley. “I bet you’ll feel like you’re hallucinating – the Gorafe Desert area is unique”, Domingo promised.
I spent the day wandering about the bivouac, talking to other riders, and admiring the KTM Manuel had allocated me. It looked like the most beautiful rally beastie on the planet to me: already kitted out with the roadbook navigation tower, covered in the Aventura Tuareg stickers, it seemed like it could get me to that finish line. Since I always name my bikes, even rentals, I christened this one Diego in the name of my Ecuadorian friend.
Scrutineering day, for me, is probably the hardest day of the rally. Although there’s usually no particular rush to get the paperwork and the technical checks sorted, something seems to always be a little amiss, and mostly we just spent the day waiting in queues, filling out forms, paying fees, and getting our racing numbers and GPS trackers. As I finally wheeled Diego the Bike out of the technical scrutineering tent and parked it back at the Aventura Tuareg paddock, I felt completely drained for no apparent reason at all. With two more hours to kill before the roadbook distribution and the briefing, I was so ready to just get to that start line and turn the engine on.
On the other hand, this was the time to say hi to people I already knew and chat to riders I haven’t met before. Much like at the Hellas Rally bivouac, Hispania Rally seemed to have attracted a similar crowd: the pro riders who were there for the training, the semi-pros who were building up their skills for the big desert rallies, the amateurs there to have fun and figure out roadbook navigation, and the complete newbies trying a rally race for the first time. Joan Pedrero, a veteran Dakar rider, was there; I spotted Ekaterina Zhadanova, a Russian rider who won the women’s class at Hellas 2019; in terms of bikes, Hispania had everything from crazy rally builds, large adventure bikes, little 250’s and 350’s, and the staple KTM450’s at the bivouac.
After the welcome briefing, with our roadbooks already pre-colored, few of us lingered in the beer and food tent. The next morning, we’d start at the Hispania Rally.
The Trails of Granada
Sitting on my bike in front of the RedBull arch waiting for the “go!”, I frantically pawed at my Ico to set it to zero. Day 1 of the rally was going to start with a quick liaison, and I knew the key wasn’t to go fast in the beginning, nor was it to get over-excited: it was to breathe. Breathe, breathe, breathe, goddamnit, I kept telling myself as I left the bivouac. It didn’t work. Diego the Bike was no DR650, and getting over-excited riding this thing was just too easy.
I did somehow make it to the start of the special stage, and off we went – a horde of two-wheeled crazies fueled by pure adrenaline and the smell of gas in the air. And something else, too – the feeling of complete, unbridled freedom as we traversed the surreal landscape of the Gorafe Desert.
Domingo had more than delivered on his promise: we rode some of the most stunning tracks, riverbeds, and little canyon trails carving up the white and red rocks and sand patches stretching into the horizon, towards the snow-capped peaks of the distant Sierra Nevada range. The two hundred kilometers of Day One were easily some of the most breath-taking, landscape-wise, in all of Europe.
Day Two took us on faster-flowing tracks crisscrossing farmlands and blossoming almond tree orchards, with some more riverbeds, rutty hill climbs, and sandy sections scattered along the way. With three hundred kilometers this time, the going was a little tougher but just as spectacular. Diego the Bike felt like it wanted to go forward, and little by little, I started to realize I wasn’t just making my time limit – I was actually making an OK time in general. Chasing after faster riders, climbing in and out of riverbeds, hopping over ruts and getting on the gas in fast sections, I made it back to the bivouac that day feeling on top of the world.
For me, this wasn’t just mere survival any longer.
This was a rally race.
Ride in Peace, Albertito
I remember the sun being incredibly bright and intesne on the morning of Day Three. Even under the paddock tents, the rays of sun seemed to bleach everything, and as I scrolled my roadbook in, I had to close my eyes for a moment.
Then the news came. One of our Tuareg team riders came back to the paddock, shaking his head. “The stage is cancelleed. There’s been an accident”, he said.
Alberto Martinez, known to us all as Albertito, was riding the liaison link on the highway when he hit a broken down car in the middle lane. The car had crashed previously, swerwing into the middle of the highway, and had not been removed yet as Albertito hit it at full speed. He died on the spot.
Always the soul of the bivoauc and the rally, Alberto was planning to race Rally Dakar in 2021. His motto had always been “carpe diem” – seize the day – and although I didn’t know him personally, I remember him sending me an encouraging message before Hispania.
Half-scrolled in roadbooks, the RedBull start arch on the ground, and grief-stricken faces marked the third day of Hispania Rally, as we all processed the news.
The minute of silence at the bivoauc was deafening.
The Finish of Hispania Rally
Even in the face of tragedy, a rally isn’t over until it’s over. Although most riders started Day 4 with heavy hearts, we did start, and as the three hundred kilometers disappeared under our tires, I know countless riders were thinking of Alberto – and perhaps, of his carpe diem motto.
Diego the Bike was still going strong, and while the navigation got a little tricky sometimes with countless little trails running off in different directions, we all made it. Day 4 was the toughest of them all for me; after a bad fall on the rocks, my left leg was black and blue and swelling, but in the end, I crossed the finish line of the special and rode back to the bivouac.
More fast-flowing tracks, more dry riverbeds, and more surreal scenery that looked like it was a live Salvador Dali painting awaited on the last day of Hispania. A short 140km special took us through countless canyon tracks, fast sections, and serene farmlands with local shepherds walking alongside their animals and olive tree groves covering the fields. On that last day, it felt like everything finally came together in one seamless stream, one flowing motion – the roadbook, the bike, the speed, everything just made sense all of a sudden. My leg was throbbing, my wrists were done, and the fatigue had set in, but mile by mile, the finish of the special got closer and closer.
I won’t lie, I was probably yelling war cries in my helmet when I saw the Hispania Rally banners at the finish line. I’d made it, coming in 112th overall, 4th in the women’s category, and 55th in my class; and yes, that’s right towards the back of the pack with 181 competitors in total – but here I was nonetheless. A bit faster this time, a bit braver with the throttle, remembering to breathe, following the roadbook, getting back to the bivouac each day, starting again each day, until it was done.
Hispania Rally was beautiful in every sense of the word. The people and the camaraderie, the scenery and the tracks, the bikes and the roadbooks – it was unforgettable in every way.
Just like Alberto will be.
And in the meantime, we ride.
Hispania Rally RESULTS AND RANKINGS
Huge thanks to:
Hispania Rally organization
Yael Moses for being the best roomie ever, as well as a huge source of inspiration
Gunnar Roland for being an all-round badass, a tapas expert, and the Axis of Awesome at the beer tent
James for being so hilarious I’m still giggling days later
Matt for being Matt, and for the Hellas CRF project
The Spanish riders who gave me a tow when I ran out of gas…
…the Dutch rider who fed me cookies during refueling…
…and for everyone else who made Hispania unforgettable.
Thank you, and see you next year.
Images: Egle, Motors and 4×4