How does a tree surgeon from South Africa become a rally racer entering the Morocco Desert Challenge, one of the toughest off-road races in the world?
Willem Avenant, a Karoo native, is about to embark on an epic adventure. Although Willem has been riding bikes since he was a child, starting on his dad’s Honda Express 50cc, the thought to compete in a rally race had never entered his mind… until recently. “One of my most vivid early childhood memories was watching Rally Dakar on TV with my father at the start of each year. This early childhood memory was the start of why I have been obsessed with rally since an early age”, Willem tells me. Coming from enduro and adventure riding, Willem finally took the leap and started entering South African races such as the Kalahari Rally and the Tankwa, and next year, he is gearing up for the big one: the Morocco Desert Challenge.
“I chose the MDC because while the Dakar remains the dream, I feel as long as Dakar is a one-country race, it is overrated and overpriced. The legacy of the real Dakar race is to traverse countries, not to be a one country race, so I think, if you are going to do a one country race there are lots of cheaper races to enter. I love what the MDC is about – it is not as serious as Dakar and more about having fun, but it is also the second-biggest rally in the world, and it has not been completed on a bike by a South African rider”.
For Willem Avenant, rally racing is all about the ultimate challenge, a test for yourself as a rider and as a person, and the adventure on another level. “I love rally racing because it strips us down to the bare basics it challenges us on a level you don’t find in everyday life anymore. Most people can ride a bike fast, fewer can ride a bike fast well(with skill), and even fewer, a select group of people, can ride a bike fast, with skill, for a prolonged period of time. Those people are rally racers.
Rally combines focus, endurance,skill, perseverance, and passion in one action, distilling us to who we really are. If you want to see a person’s true character, go and have a chat with them in the middle of the night in a bivouac after 5 or 6 days of tough racing, then you will see what kind of person he or she is. In a rally, you can not hide from yourself, so you can not hide your personality from other people”, Willem says.
Balancing Rally, Family, and Business
Coming from adventure and enduro riding, the rally racing world is both demanding and expensive. To add to it, Willem is trying to juggle rally racing, family life, and business; unlike pro riders, he can’t dedicate all of his time and energy to racing, yet he’s determined to make it work.
“My family is fully behind me. My daughter rides a bit, and one day, we would like to do a rally in an SSV as a father-daughter team. For now, though, it’s just me on the bike; my wife and daughter often accompany me to the races, which is a blessing, but at the same time, rally is a very selfish sport, and it’s hard to find balance. My life is split into three – family, business, and rally, and not always in that order. This can cause tremendous strain; when you are living the rally reality, you are always compromising on family or business, because you can not compromise on rally as it is too dangerous: when you#’re in a race, you have to be 100% focused and present in the moment, and this can be hard for a family to understand. Even so, they support me fully because they know this is who I am and this is my passion. I am humbled and grateful for this, but it’s definitely not always easy!”
Purpose and Freedom
It’s certainly no walk in the park to race a rally like the Morocco Desert Challenge as a privateer, let alone one who still needs to focus on business and family life. It’s hard, it demands sacrifices, and it’s pushing limits to the max; so why do it? Why go through all that hard work, training, balancing everyday life, and riding just to line up at that start line at MDC and perhaps one day, the Dakar?
“I feel a true sense of purpose, place, and freedom when I share my passion with other riders that are as obsessed and focused as I am. When you are out there on a special stage, you all have a common goal,and there is something magical when a group of people share the same goal and focus, some kind of energy. What makes rally riders different is we like to achieve that goal while putting our bikes, bodies, and minds under extreme pressure, just to see if we can do it. That’s a bit crazy in and of itself… But once you have completed a really hard rally, you share an experience with the other riders who have competed, and it’s an experience that nobody in the world can understand if they were not at that specific event. It is almost like some kind of shared trauma, so even if you don’t know a person well, just the fact that you shared such an experience together ties you with a special bond, and it’s impossible to replicate anywhere else.
I think rally racing also makes me a more focused person, and it changes my perspective on life and how I deal with problems and challenges, and in so doing makes me stronger.”
If you’d like to see whether Willem completes the Morocco Desert Challenge, follow him on his social media and cheer him on!