So you want to be a Dakar Rider? Start here…

Published: 28 January 2016

The UK’s All Terrain Rally Challenge may be a long way from the South American Dakar, but it’s an ever-growing scene and the place to come for serious adventure

he 2016 Dakar is over and while it was another epic affair, it wasn’t a good year for the Brits with just two starters and no finishers. The stats don’t make for great reading and given the apparent lack of interest from UK shores it would be easy to think that the appetite for Rally riding is at an all time low, but on the contrary, it’s alive and kicking.

While it’s a million miles away from the intensity and severity of Dakar, the All Terrain Rally Challenge runs events throughout the UK and it’s booming. With entries of over 200 riders at some events made up of future Dakar hopefuls through to novice trail riders, the scene is buoyant and looks set to expand further with a series of planned full road book navigational events in 2016.

In 2015, curious as to what rallying in the UK was all about, MCN threw themselves in to the scene competing as a rookie in five of these national events.

Weapon of choice

AJP PR5 Rally £7750
Engine: 249cc single-cylinder water-cooled four-stroke
Power: 31bhp 
Weight: 125kg (without fuel)
Capacity: 17 litres 
Range: 180 miles
Suspension: 50mm USD Marzocchi fully adjustable fork. Fully adjustable rear Sachs shock
Contact: Craig Whitney 07857 803734 www.ajpmotos.co.uk

Like most enduros and rallies, KTM are the predominant force. Not only are they consistently winning – 15 consecutive Dakar crowns to their credit speak for themselves - they also flood the entry list in terms of numbers and remain the undisputed weapon of choice.

So I need to explain the decision to compete on the lesser-spotted Portuguese AJP PR5 in my effort to ruffle a few orange feathers.

I first came into contact with AJP when I was invited to test their range-topping 250cc four-stroke enduro, the AJP PR5. I headed into the depths of Wales on a particularly cold, wet and windy day and to be honest I wasn’t expecting much. But as soon as I arrived I discovered that this was a far more serious project than my blinkered brain had given it credit for. In front of me was a mini Dakar bike complete with big fuel tank and road book tower. 

After a day riding I was seriously impressed by the Rally Moto-prepared machine. It was lacking in power, but compensated for it with sweet handling and balance. This made it an impressively quick and effective bike in the real world, especially for a rider of my level who would not have the skill or fitness to get the most out of a powerful 450cc enduro bike for any length of time.

Having clicked with the bike’s creator, Mark ‘Moly’ Molineux – a former British Enduro front-runner, I was offered the opportunity to race the bike in 2015. This is how the season went...

1. Pikes Peak Ralley

Road book to the podium
Starters 48 Result 7th

It’s fair to say that my debut into the rally world was a case of being thrown into the deep end. Based in mid Wales, Pikes Peak was a new event and the first dedicated road book navigational event to be run in the UK for 40 years. Unlike other UK rallies, this event was run solely on a road book (a scroll of paper with distances and diagrams used to find your way) meaning that competitors had to navigate their own way around the 90-mile route, reach hidden check points, adhere to speed controls, not to mention attempting to set the fastest time on the result-defining 18-mile Special Stage.

Despite the brutal, core-freezing weather, my road book rally debut couldn’t have gone much better. With zero pressure or expectation on me to perform, I listened to the hard-earned advice from my mentor Moly, rode within myself and concentrated on the road book and navigating correctly. This strategy paid off and as a result I avoided any speeding penalties, reached all the hidden checkpoints, and because the AJP had such a large fuel tank it meant I didn’t have to re-fuel so I avoided the pre-set five-minute time penalty, which in turn propelled me up the leaderboard.

My day got even better when the results came out, in fact I couldn’t believe my eyes. From the 48 starters I finished seventh overall and third in the under-450cc Rally bike class, taking the scalp of a former Dakar rider on a full blown KTM rally bike!

2. Baja GB Rally

Should it be snowing in May?
Starters 65 Result 21st

Buoyed by my Pikes Peak result I headed to another new event, the high-profile Baja GB, a two-day race that runs bikes alongside cars – Dakar style. This non-navigational rally was a case of following the arrows for a monster 50-mile lap. The meeting included a sighting lap, then two further laps each with two timed special stages to determine the results.

Despite the race taking place in early May we were greeted with heavy snow just minutes before the race was due to start. With warnings of dangerous conditions, I and the other 65 starters headed off high into the exposed Welsh hills with trepidation.

Given that the race was for cars as well as bikes, the terrain was predominantly fast and open with short sections of more technical going. The lap was ultimately defined by a monster shale hill climb, which was littered with stuck bikes and riders when I arrived on my first timed lap. Before the start, Moly had imparted some words of wisdom about tackling the hill. He’d told me that to give myself the best chance of not getting stuck I should wait for the hill to clear, so I sat patiently at the bottom of the climb.

No more than 30 seconds later, my petulance prevailed and despite the hillside still being strewn with fallen riders I attacked the climb like my life depended on it. Calling on my decade of trials competition experience from my youth, I fired the little AJP up the climb and might have even used a few of my rivals’ bikes for grip!

At the end of two bitterly cold and hard days riding I managed to secure 21st place overall. This was a pleasing result given that the speed of the event meant it didn’t really play into the hands of the smaller capacity AJP.

3. Ryedale Rally

My day in the sun
Starters 200+ Result 11th (3rd in Rally bike class)

A change of scenery led the championship to God’s country for the Ryedale Rally, which takes place in the Yorkshire village of Goathland. Prior to the start of the two-day event my mentor Moly sat me down for a pep talk. He started off by telling me how well I was doing, but I could see in his eyes there was a ‘but’ coming. “I watched you at the Baja GB and you’re riding really smooth and you’re not making any mistakes,” he explained. “But you can be going so much faster. I reckon you’re at about 60 to 70%, it’s time to stop messing about and start pushing!” he continued.

With his words of motivation fresh in my easily excited brain I set of from the start of the two-day Ryedale Rally. It was another three-lap-per-day event with a sighting lap and two timed laps. From the start I knew that the event would suit me and the bike well. Instead of miles of fast, flat-out fire tracks, the Ryedale was more technical, single track with plenty of ruts. By the end of the first day I knew I was doing something right because whenever I stopped I had fellow competitors and spectators gathered around the bike, admiring the beautifully crafted rear 17-litre fuel tank that doubles as the subframe and asking me what engine it was. It was a surprise to many to hear that it was only a 250.

Day two saw the lap run in reverse order and unlike the two previous events the sun came out making it an even more enjoyable affair. In what has to be one of my best ever days of riding, the AJP floated through the ruts and dragged me out of the bogs and gave me the confidence to push past my previous 70% effort levels.

I was rewarded with far and away the best result of the year; finishing 11th overall and third in the Rally bike class from over 200 starters. They even gave me a trophy!

 

4. Cambrian Rally

Back down to earth
Starters 123 Result DNF

Now three events into my year of UK rallies my confidence was not only growing in my riding, but also in the bike. Despite hours of abuse and flat-out riding, the little AJP had not missed a beat and with a total of just under 3000 racing miles on the engine since 2014 I was starting to think it was indestructible! I wanted to build on the momentum of my Ryedale result and so did Moly and AJP importer Craig Whitney. A new high-performance RBF 400 lithium-ion battery, that slashes the weight compared to standard, was supplied by Floreat Energies (www.floreat-energies.co.uk), and AJP in Portugal were also encouraged by the results and sent over a new high-pressure fuel pump and higher spec injectors in an effort to improve performance.

Feeling confident I set off at the start of day one, but within five miles I knew something was amiss. An initial throttle hesitation turned into a serious misfire before I finally ground to a halt nine miles into the stage and right in the middle of nowhere. As my rivals flooded past me, many stopping to see if they could help, I tried in vain to identify the problem. Eventually a marshall arrived who tried to get things working before admitting defeat and towing me back to the paddock. With my time slot to complete each lap out of the window, it was game over.

After hours of fault-finding, expert AJP mechanic Rowan Jeffery got to the bottom of the problem. The new fuel pump had failed and separated where the pipe meets the pump itself, meaning that there wasn’t enough pressure to push fuel through the injectors. With that problem solved I managed to get out for a untimed lap to ensure the bike was OK, but in doing so identified another problem. One of the cylinder head bolts had broken, the only one that incorporated an oil gallery, meaning with each mile more and more oil was escaping up through the thread and over the engine. Using high-grade silicone to seal it and fabricating a bracket to keep pressure on the top of the bolt, I went to sleep not knowing what day two of the race would bring. Unfortunately it ended in a retirement after the opening lap where the bike was simply losing too much oil to continue.

5. Hafren Rally

Cliff jumping
Starters 154 Result 24th (1st in Trail bike class)

Having suffered the disappointment of mechanical failure last time out, the team and I were desperate to finish off the year with a good result. With the event taking place in the midst of hurricane Abigale it was another wet, cold and brutally windy affair. And if that wasn’t enough I did my bit to end my race early by literally running out of road and riding off the edge of a Welsh mountain. In what was one of the biggest amateur-hour moments of my life, I had just passed Patsy Quick (the first and only British woman to finish the Dakar in Africa) before launching myself into oblivion. Patsy witnessed it all and within seconds of me crashing and rolling down the hillside, she was at my side checking if I was OK. Her coolness and matter-of-fact response impressed me to the core and within seconds she had someone slowing the other riders down at the top of the hill to prevent anyone repeating my idiotic riding and landing on us both. Her priority then turned to getting me back on my bike, and with no way back on track, gave me clear instructions of how to get down the mountain and back to the paddock. Passing a Dakar rider would’ve been a story to tell the grand kids, but it wasn’t even on a timed stage – it was a liaison section where there was nothing to be gained. Even three months on it’s still embarrassing. With the bike severely twisted, my head banging from the impact and my wrist in serious pain, I limped back to the paddock and got myself together while mechanic Rowan straightened the bike. With two laps to go it was time to man up and head back out to complete the race. It’s fair to say the crash took the edge off my pace, but the end result was good. From 200 starters I was 24th overall and won the trail bike class, which the AJP can be ridden in due to its trail bike homologation.

A year to remember

In summary the five events I completed in 2015 have been a ball. Hard and challenging in places, yes, but also deeply rewarding. The paddock is super-friendly and the format of the racing means that you ride the liaison stages like a seriously fun trail ride, while two or three times a lap you get the chance to properly pull the pin and race hard for a relatively short period of time.

The guys doing the winning are seriously quick and come complete with international rally and Dakar aspirations, while the guys at the back are there with their mates simply enjoying riding through some of the most stunning parts of the UK.

My 2015 season was one of the best years of competition I’ve had and with the ongoing support of AJP and Mark Molineux, I’m hoping for more of the same in 2016. 

Thanks to…

Craig Whitney AJP UK Importer (www.ajpmotos.co.uk) 
Moly (Mark Molineux) Bike builder and riding mentor www.adventurerallybike.co.uk
All Terrain Rally Challenge www.allterrainrallychallenge.co.uk
Rowan Jeffery expert mechanic
Alpinestars boots and riding kit www.alpinestars.com
Kreiga rucksack and camel back www.kriega.com
Acerbis Scott Goggles www.acerbisb2b.co.uk
Floreat Energies www.floreat-energies.co.uk 
Michelin Enduro Competition tyres and mousses www.moto.michelin.co.uk
Pirelli Metzeler 6 Days Extreme www.metzeler.com


Photos: Paul Bryant, Chris Guy, Don Guy