Tuesday 4 October 2011

I’m no longer a Rally virgin!

And I managed to finish my first race (largely) intact.

I headed off to Wales on Saturday morning having checked everything twice, threw in lots more gear than I thought I would need, just in case.

Lunch stop on the way to Wales

The trip up was uneventful and I arrived at the B&B in Rhayader and asked if there was anywhere I could leave the trailer and bike when I headed off to Llanidloes Rugby Club for the pre race get together that night.

I was directed to the very small parking space behind the pub which was already full (with only three cars) but was told I could park the trailer at the end of the narrow lane. Access was “round the corner and through the arch”. I drove round to find the street was extremely narrow and the arch even narrower. The easy solution might have been to stop, unhitch the trailer and push it through the arch but the road was so narrow I would block it, so decided to give it a go!

Needless to say the limited lock on a Land Rover let me down and I managed to wedge the Defender in the gap with the trailer sitting across the road. I was just about able to squeeze out the door and had a look at what to do. Luckily traffic could just about get past, one vehicle at a time. Even luckier, two guys from the pub who were also competing in the Hafren, appeared round the corner and offered to help. We bounced the trailer round so it was straight and I was able to drive through, taking the reflective tape off the tree slider on one side as it scraped on the old and very battered remains of a gate post.


The lane, actually no more than a glorified alleyway was only about six inches wider than the Defender in places but opened out sufficiently to allow me to unhitch the trailer and push it past and park it up. I locked it up and was just reversing back again (the only space I could have turned in was now full of trailer)! When a woman came out from the house next to the pub and delivered that familiar line “Oi! You can’t park that there”. It turns out that was her property and the turning point for her car. Then her husband arrived and the chef from the pub restaurant came out to see what all the fuss was about.

After much discussion we decided to try and squeeze the trailer onto the pub’s parking space beside one of the parked cars and we managed to do this with about two inches to spare by parking over the top of an old tree stump with one wheel shoved into a bramble bush!

Reversing out of the archway was another challenge as I couldn’t see a thing behind me, so I just put on both my hazard warning lights and amber beacons and crept out an inch at a time hoping traffic would stop for me. Luckily it did and I was able to go and park the Land Rover in front of the pub. All this and I hadn’t even got to go racing yet.

After a quick shower and change (I was a bit sweaty after all that), I headed off to Llanidloes and the pre race “Social”. This was at the Rugby Club, which I had spotted a month previously when driving past on the A470. Taking a back route that knocks off five miles over the A road, I arrive at the rugby club and follow another car in, where we found…. Absolutely nothing!

A quick scan of the documents with the two guys in the other car who were just as lost as me and we found the post code for the “rugby club” and plugging it in to the satnav discovered it wasn’t the same as our current location but a mile away in the centre of town. It turns out we had found the Rugby Club OK but the Social was at the Rugby Clubhouse on the main street of Llanidloes.

Five minutes later we were both parked up in the town car park (which would have been near impossible with the trailer) and soon entered the heaving Clubhouse and joined the queue to sign on for the event. I then had a natter with some of the other big bike rally entrants and managed to win a prize in the raffle…. A Terry’s Chocolate Orange!

I headed back to Rhayader to get an early night ready for my rally debut in the morning. Again I managed to find a parking space outside the pub, checked the bike and trailer was still in place round the back and headed off to bed for some much needed sleep.

This was not to be as it was very hot but too noisy outside to leave the window open and no doubt nerves were playing a part. I eventually remembered I had some ear plugs in my bag and was able to leave the window wide open and get some zeds.

I awoke to the sound of the alarm at 6.00am and after a quick shower I was downstairs in the pub to see what breakfast could be had. I had arranged for some stuff to be left out as cooked breakfasts were not available until 8.00am. To be honest I don’t think I could have faced a fry up before the race so the cereal and fruit on offer was possibly a wise choice.

By 6.30 I was able to reverse the Defender back into the archway, the road now being thankfully empty of other traffic and hook up the trailer, no mean feet as it was still pitch black and did I mention the tree stump, bramble bush and a car only two inches away? I drove the 15 miles to the rally venue as a fantastic pink and orange dawn broke over the hills of Mid Wales, truly inspiring and I really should have taken a photo.

Arriving at the Sweet Lamb Rally Complex, I parked up, found the Big Bike Rally Challenge “bivouac” and met up with a few more people I knew from the training weekend a month before.

The BBRC Bivouac

At 7.20 a queue was already forming at scrutineering (bike check), so I stuck my race numbers on the bike and headed up to join it and the bike went through with no problems.

All ready for the start

Of course they tell you that scrutineering starts at 7.30am but don’t say when it finishes, so all of us first timers were there at the crack of dawn, in fact I had finished and got back to the parking area before 7.30. Of course I spotted that it was still open at 9.00am so maybe I could have had longer in bed! As it was I had two and three quarter hours to wait until my start at 10.15!

After chatting with Dave from the ABR forum who was riding his Yamaha XTZ660 Tenere, also in his first ever rally and picking up bits of advice from the others present, we wandered over to watch the first bikes off at 9.00am. After that the time seemed to go quite quickly and I checked the bike over for the umpteenth time and race gear was donned, camelbak filled with drink and race times written down and taped to the handlebars. At ten o’clock, I went for a quick spin up the access road to warm the bike up and discovered I had set my handlebars slightly too far back when I had fitted the risers. A quick return to the “pit” and a couple of minutes with the tools soon had that sorted.

At 10.14 I was on the start line under an overcast sky and although temperatures were rising, it was very pleasant conditions to be racing in. I was flagged away at exactly 10.15 with very little drama with two other riders and headed off the few hundred yards to the start of the first special stage.

This turned out to be largely made up of the loop we had used for high speed cornering practice on the training course, so at least I had the advantage of knowing where it was going. Of course on the training course it had been pouring with rain, now it was bone dry with dust the consistency of talcum powder, being behind the other two riders meant I could hardly see anything for clouds of dust and had to back off, this worried me at first until I remembered the first lap is not timed as it is designed as a “sighting lap” to allow you to learn the stages, so I just got on with it.

It was a short stage of only a couple of miles so soon finished. A quick blast through a ford and up the hill into the first liaison stage, this took us past a large flat area with many jumps and banked corners (berms) that seemed to be full of bikes. However we bypassed it down a steep rocky bank and behind a building and after a short fire road descent onto a narrow tarmac road. This was great fun, even on enduro tyres as it twisted and swooped along the valley to the start of special stage two.

This took us up a rocky ascent and then out onto open moorland on some flat out fire road with turns and twists a-plenty. A steep rocky descent took us down to the arena area I’d seen before and this was a blast, jumping the bike and nailing it round the berms, this then went out onto more familiar trails from the training course, albeit ridden in the opposite direction, with some more fire roads and the odd mildly technical section before a rocky climb and subsequent descent into the Hafren Forest and onto yet another fire road that wound its way through the forest to the end of the stage.

Stopping for a breather and a drink, I was starting to get concerned at the rate I was having to drink, with a two litre camelbak I wondered if it would be enough to last the lap. A narrow trail led us onwards and turned out to be trickier than it looked with numerous “whoops”, consecutive humps and dips formed by the action of numerous bikes. The problem being that the CCM has a long wheelbase, so rather than riding over the whoops, tended to constantly crash into the face of the humps. I certainly learned to appreciate the performance of the excellent White Power forks.

After this the lap became a bit of a blur, with long fire road sections, narrow rocky trails with steep climbs and steeper descents, long sections through dark impenetrable forest, where you half expected to meet a Hobbit round the next bend. On one narrow forest trail, a small splash through a stream was followed by a very tricky climb, a combination of wet peaty soil and loose rocks where I had my first “moment”. I lost grip and ground to halt with the back wheel spinning, no amount of effort could get me moving and I inevitably stalled. A marshal was thankfully on hand and by dismounting and pushing alongside with him pushing from behind I was able to regain momentum and get to a grippier section where I could remount and fire it up the hill.

Eventually after several punishing miles we arrived at special stage three, this was nasty with a short section of fire road to start but very soon a sharp hairpin right took us up a long, steep and very rocky climb. The stage continued by throwing everything at is, technical descents, a long rutted forest section where I got stuck behind two very slow riders but just as I was about to try a do or die overtake, I remembered once again that we weren’t being timed on this lap so it didn’t matter, I was able to pass them as the trail went into more rocky climbing, long rutted sections across open moorland and the inevitable flat out fire roads. It certainly took it out of you. After reaching the end of the stage a few more miles of largely fire road eventually brought us back to the start area and thankfully sufficient time to attend to the bike (not to mention the rider)!

Getting an energy bar inside me and a long drink of water were first priority followed by topping up my nearly empty camelbak, it had turned out that 2 litres was just about enough for a lap. I took the opportunity to refuel the bike and check the chain that only needed oiling but no adjustment. I also lowered my tyre pressures as I was struggling to get grip in the loose dusty conditions. My final task was to clean my goggles that were thick with dust.

I still had a bit of time before my next lap so took the opportunity to catch up with some of the others; it seems that most had had a fairly uneventful lap.

Soon after I was away again and straight into special test one, this time against the clock. Although we were now set off at 20 second intervals, I wasn’t long before the rider behind me, in the “sport bike class” i.e. quicker, lighter and most probably more experienced than me passed me on a fire road section and I was forced to ride in his dust. By now I was getting used to this and was able to keep going but obviously not as fast as if I had been able to see. By the end of the section two more sports bikes had sneaked past but I was reasonably pleased with my progress although I doubt I was very fast!

The second lap seemed to pass much quicker as far as the end of test two but the long liaison stage then seemed to go on for a long time. It was noticeable that I was now riding on my own for long sections, whereas the first lap had been busy throughout. I can only assume a lot of riders had dropped out as I certainly wasn’t failing behind my time schedule. All was going well and the nasty climb that caught me out on lap one was dispatched with no drama this time.

However another rocky climb up a narrow winding gully through the forest was another matter. Having the choice of a rocky slab to the left or a rock filled gully on the right, I chose to go left. Unfortunately as I crested the slab, I inadvertently knocked the gear lever from second to third and the bike decided that was asking just too much and promptly stalled. Of course rather than falling left against the nearest bank, it went right and I ended up upside down under the bike in the aforementioned rock filled gully, getting a shower of petrol from the now upside down tank breather! A couple of riders managed to pass me as I struggled from under the bike and thankfully one stopped further up and ran down to help me. We got the bike upright and pointing up the hill and he left me to get on with it. I had lost the end off my brake lever, although it was still useable with two fingers and snapped my number plate in half. I tucked the broken piece into my tail pack as it just didn’t seem right to leave “litter” in the forest.

The damage, photographed at the end of the lap

Another rider managed to squeeze past on my right and promptly bogged down in the gully and proceeded to pepper me with rocks as he spun his rear wheel in his attempts to get going again. I was also caught in the same situation with no grip at all on the loose rocks and eventually had to manhandle the bike backwards a few feet (all the time with passing riders firing tennis ball sized rocks at me) before I could get enough grip and momentum to fire it up the hill.

The hill seemed to go on for ever until I got on to a fire road where I could safely stop and get my breath back. I have no idea how long it took me to extricate myself but it must have been a while as I arrived at the start of special stage three with only a couple of minutes to spare and just enough time to thank my good Samaritan from the gully.

Stage three went without too much drama and I wasn’t held up this time and although I was able to allow a few sport bikes past before hitting the technical sections, hopefully earning myself a few brownie points in their eyes, again I felt good (if not overly quick).

At the start finish, I went through the same ritual, adding a banana and some ibuprofen to my energy bar and drink. Again the camelbak was virtually empty so got refilled. The bike got the tank topped up and the chain oiled again and I took the opportunity to replace the broken brake lever with my spare. Goggles cleaned and I was still with enough time to catch up with a few of the others before getting going for the third time.

At the end of lap two

This time the course seemed even emptier, OK some of the top riders were finishing as I headed out but the attrition rate seemed high. Whereas for lap two I had to work my way through about thirty riders to get to my correct starting position for special stage one, there was nobody to be seen. The starter gave me twenty seconds to get ready and I was away. Again the section went OK but the surface was extremely loose with getting drive out of the bends very difficult at times.

Near the end I was passed on a tight right hand bend by a sport bike and trailed him onto the last bit of fire road descent sitting in his not inconsiderable cloud of dust. As a result I was completely unsighted coming round a right hand bend and rode off the edge of the track into the deep rocky gully beside it. Remembering the advice from training to look ahead and keep my weight forward, I hammered it down the gully alongside the straight and was able to use the wall of the gully as a berm to ride the bike out and straight into the next right hand bend and back onto the track, I was quite pleased with that the fact that I hadn't fallen off, even if it most probably did nothing for my time!

The ride to special stage two went quickly and whilst waiting for my start Dave turned up, he recounted his less than successful time on the last special. The track at one point crosses rough ground between two fire roads, at first boggy then up over rocky slabs. Whilst trying to avoid a slow rider ahead of him in this section, he dropped his bike, bending his hand guard so that he was unable to use the clutch. He was forced to get his tools out, unbolt the hand guard and strap it to the bike, all the while of course with the clock ticking! He didn’t think his time would be very good as a result.

Just before I was due to start, I saw something hanging down from the exhaust on my bike. The rubber strip between the mounting strap and the silencer itself had been shredded as the bolt holding the strap had come loose. The silencer now was just sitting loose in the strap with loads of free play. With very little time, I had to just carry on and was soon starting this, the last special stage of the rally as we didn’t do stage three on the last lap.

It's not supposed to look like that!

Afterwards the ride became a bit of an ordeal, with another twenty odd miles of liaison to complete, fatigue was setting in fast, first I suffered terrible arm pump and then I started to get cramp, first in my right leg and then as soon as that went away in my left. I had been riding all the fire roads sitting down to preserve what energy I had left but now the only way I could prevent the cramp was to ride standing up with my legs locked straight, not the most comfortable option. Once again I had ridden for a long time without seeing another rider until I came across a large group having a breather, as I passed them two riders peeled away and I dropped back to follow them without sitting in their dust cloud. At a right hand junction, they went left and I had to stop and check the direction arrows, which definitely pointed right. Obviously without the third special stage, the course had to have been changed somewhere and I did wonder if they had seen something I had missed but I couldn’t spot anything, so carried on.

Soon after I reached the site of my crash in the rocky gully and this time chose the right hand line and plenty of momentum, which got me up with no difficulty at all, apart from the silencer sounding like it was about to shake off the bike at any moment. At the end of this section, the track ran down a short piece of fire road divided by cones and tape as the course ran back along the other side, it then headed off into a large open area of clear felled forest.

Now my mind started to play tricks and as I traversed across the desolate area of tree stumps and open moorland I was even starting to doubt I was on the rally course, although there were plenty of tyre tracks, there were no course marker arrows to be seen and not another bike in sight and I simply didn’t recognise the track. Just as I was really wondering if I had taken a wrong turn, I recognised a section, spotted an arrow and arrived back at the two way fire road, just as another rider appeared towards me, so at least I knew I wasn’t the only rider out there.  A short while later I had turned off a fire road onto yet another rocky climb, this loop went on for quite some time before eventually dropping back to the same fire road 50 metres further on. As I turned left I spotted Dave on his distinctive black and yellow Tenere turning onto the climb… so that’s at least three of us still out here I thought!

Soon after I was made to jump as I rounded a corner to see three marshals riding towards me! We managed to avoid a head on collision and soon after I arrived a junction where two more marshals were sitting, they waved me left and I realised I was now onto the final run in to the finish.

The finish was a bit of an anti-climax, I was expecting a finish line and for riders to be checked off, if only for reasons of safety to ensure everyone who started the last lap had returned but there was nothing and you just rode back into the pit area.

The bike was still in pretty much one piece, with the silencer and strap having been “modified” a bit by the back tyre, half a number plate and a substantial quantity of Wales stuck to it.

All packed up and ready to go

I had decided not to drive back straight after the event, so headed back to the B&B, had a fantastic hot shower and popped down to the pub for a huge meal and a beer, shortly afterwards to sleep for a solid nine hours before getting up for breakfast and a gentle drive back using the A44 all the way from Rhayader to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, then a cross country route back home. Much more relaxed than just sitting on the motorway for four hours.

So at the time of writing, I have finished my first ever rally, the bike has had a quick clean but needs a proper strip down and wash, not to mention a new number plate and the exhaust remounting. All my bike gear has been washed and is ready for the next outing.

Me? I’m aching but nowhere like what I had expected and a couple of nice big blisters on my left hand, a few bruises on my left arm and an exhaust burn on my right wrist, both presumably from the rocky gully.

So here’s looking forward to the next race, the Cambrian Rally in two weeks time. This is a two day event, so having done it all on the Saturday, we have to get up and do it all again on the Sunday. I’m told the Cambrian is the “most big bike friendly” of the Rallies, which I’m hoping means the “easiest”; somehow I doubt it!

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