Staring at the steep, muddy climbs of the Malpensa motocross track, I felt an irresistable urge to chicken out. A motocross track and me is a bad idea on the best of days, but a muddy motocross track and me aboard the DR650 borders on seriously ridiculous; even if I make the lap – the prologue stage of the SWANK Sardinia Rally 2021 – I’d be so slow it would put me right at the end of the starting order, and if you start late, you arrive late.
Still, the only way to get through it was to give it a go, and, white-knuckled and wide-eyed, I made my way to the start of the prologue. After all, SWANK Sardinia is a rally like no other: organized by the legendary Pharaohs Rally and Paris-Dakar veteran Renato Zocchi together with Deus Ex Machina, custom bike builders from Amsterdam, SWANK is, first and foremost, a nostalgic race. Dedicated to vintage and classic bikes – half of the motorcycles in the bivoauc were old Cagiva Elephants, Tenere XT 600’s, and even a rare BMW HP2 Enduro, – SWANK Sardinia is all about bringing back that old Paris-Dakar spirit of adventure, camaraderie, and community.
“Back in 1980’s, even if you were a completely unknown rider, you could line up at the start together with Gaston Rahier, Hubert Auriol, or Cyril Neveu as an equal, and the whole mad rally cavalcade would take off across the Sahara Desert together as one, with one goal, one adventure in mind. This is the rally spirit I’m trying to bring back with SWANK Sardinia, where newbies and adventure riders can race alongside Franco Picco or Alessandro Botturi and experience what it’s all about”, Zocchi shared.
During the craziness of the prologue stage on the Malpensa track, riders flying about covered in mud, sliding backwards, getting back up again and finishing the prologue splattered with dirt from toe to goggle, it was hard to get to grips of what’s what; but once the rally race kicked of on Day One taking riders from Milan to Genoa, I realized Zocchi was spot on – and SWANK Sardinia Rally was going to be an extraordinary race.
Origins of SWANK Sardinia Rally
Having won the Pharaohs Rally in 1983 and raced Paris-Dakar in 1984 aboard a Yamaha Tenere 600, Zocchi felt a calling to bring the Dakar adventure over to Italy.
Thus started the saga of Sardinia Rally: in 1985, Zocchi organized the first edition of Rally di Sardegna, and a few years later, the rally grew into a thousand participant-strong race an became a qualifier for Paris-Dakar. Having run the Sardinia Rally for a decade, Zocchi paused and went on to take part in other adventures, like winning the Gibraltar Race (on a scooter); in 2019, having partnered up with Deus Ex Machina to bring a new atttude and edge to the race, Zocchi renamed it the SWANK Sardinia Rally.
“SWANK, because it’s… a gentlemen’s ride. This rally isn’t quite about top speeds and factory racing – while we do have a timed, competitive Rally class for both classic and modern bike riders, this year, most pros actually signed up for the non-timed SWANK Experience class because they want to enjoy the rally, to ride together, to celebrate together, and just have an adventure. As you race from Milan to Genoa, board the ferry to Porto Torres, Sardinia, and complete the remaining three rally days on the island, you may find yourself riding alongside Franco Picco or sharing a beer with Alex Salvini at the bivauc after the race; it’s all about sharing the love of off-road riding and rally racing together, you know?”, Zocchi told me.
He didn’t need to. As we raced across the sleepy Italian countryisde from Milan to Genoa following dusty gravel tracks through farmlands, then boarded the Sardinia ferry – it’s hard to describe the feeling you get riding into the belly of the boat together, a hundred and sixty motorcycle engines rumbling all around – and hit the first leg of the race in Sardinia, a 280-kilometer stage from Porto Torres to Arborea, I knew this was a different rally altogether.
It didn’t matter who passed who, or how long it took riders to get to the next bivoauc, or even what the rankings were; while the race was very much on, nobody took themselves too seriously. From the Deus crowd aboard custom Yamaha Tenere 700’s to Cagiva Elephant riders, and from pro racers to ADV riders, everyone was there for the experience, the dirt, and the camaraderie; you’d give it your all, but then, stop for a cup of espresso. Or you’d tackle a technical section, hit the fast trails again, and then go for quick dip in the sea – because you could. And in case of flat tires, spectacular dismounts, or breakdowns, there’d always be someone to help you out…or offer you an Aperol spritz, because we were in Italy, and this was the SWANK way of rallying.
Most rally races are the same; the same format, the same structure, and, yes, plenty of bivoauc camaraderie, plenty of adventure, and plenty of adrenaline. SWANK Sardinia rally, however, managed to carve out a unique niche of its own, where the focus is the community, the atmosphere is the original Paris-Dakar nostalgia, the attitude is Deus Ex Machina customs, and the goal? A celebration of dirt, gas, and classic motorcycles.
SWANK Sardinia Rally 2021 results:
R1 Vintage Bike (before 1999) Class 1st place: Ottavio Missoni, Honda XL600
R2 Modern Bike Class 1st place: Alessandro Botturi, Yamaha Tenere 700