When Lawrence Hacking invited me to participate in his newly created Overland Adventure Rally, I couldn’t possibly turn it down. I just needed to ensure I was available that weekend and what bike could I use. Well once the question about scheduling was cleared up, my friend Fiona offered up her Russian Ural (complete with the sidecar) for me to participate in the event. Now the question was, would my son be able to join me as my navigator, which turned out to not be the case since he was heading off to camp that same weekend. Once again Fiona stepped up to the plate and said she would join me. In hindsight this worked out well because had the navigation been up to my son, we would have gotten well and truly lost.
My adventure partner was full of mixed emotions with high doses of both excitement and trepidation over joining me. This was the first time she had ever been off-roading (in any vehicle) and it was also the first time she’d ever participated in a rally style event. Well, truth be told, I’ve never been in a rally either and although I have done some off-roading in the past, I’m hardly ‘experienced’ at it. There was also some concern on both our parts about doing this in a sidecar. Sure the Ural is built like a tank, or more accurately, like a three-wheeled tractor (and needs to be driven as such), but we had to wonder, just how rough was this route really going to be? Could the bike handle it? Could we?? We were about to find out…one way or another.
After arriving on Friday and speaking with Lawrence and Eric (who both designed and tested the route), some of my concerns were put at ease. However there was one section that I was told would be pretty dodgy for our bike to get through. I figured we’d just make a judgement call when we got to that point. There were two other Urals entered in the event so I foolishly figured whatever they could do…we could do too. Well…the problem with that was that they were far more experienced at taking their Ural’s off-road than I was. Actually…I’d never really taken the bike off-road. There was also a heightened sense of self-preservation on my part perhaps thanks to the blood-thinners I’m currently taking. Getting hurt is one thing but getting injured would be quite another and getting proper medical attention would be impossible. Fiona is an experienced nurse but if I got injured badly, she would only be able to buy me some time, but not enough, and I really didn’t like the idea of putting myself in a position where if I crashed badly, it would end up being my final moments.
So this brings us to the morning of the event. I stupidly made the mistake of leaving the cover off my tent thinking it would be too warm to comfortably sleep in but it turned out to be a rather chilly night resulting in a horrible nights sleep. In the morning I felt horrible, I looked horrible and the bags under my eyes were the size of suitcases and I couldn’t even blame it on a late night of partying. Multiple cups of coffee later and I was starting to feel ‘human’ again. After breakfast and the morning meeting, all the riders geared-up and mounted their metal steeds, which was a mixed bag of old and new from various manufactures. BMW, KTM, Ural, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Triumph, and a few others all took to the starting line to begin their adventure. The biggest challenge turned out to not be the off-road sections as so much as reading the pace notes and doing the navigation. It didn’t help that some of the roads were miss-labelled which left many riders, including us, scratching their heads wondering ‘Where the hell are we??’ This was made even more challenging because since the route was last tested, some local construction was started and a bridge that was usable two weeks ago, had become an impassable obstacle. Even those who relied on GPS units had to get creative and adapt to the changes. This is part of the challenge of rallying though and adapting to the changes and finding solutions is deeply satisfying.
We didn’t have a GPS , not even a road map, so we did occasionally have to rely on those who did to find a solution. Strangely though, later in the day, some bikes were following us because despite having extra navigational aids like maps and GPS units, they were having difficulty following the pace notes that were provided to us all at the start of the race. For being her first time doing a rally, Fiona did an amazing job of not only keeping us on course but also at improvising new alternatives when we had to deviate from the laid out route. Case in point was when we came upon the more challenging off-road section. We stopped so I could make a judgement call about taking the risk and in the end decided ‘Nah…ain’t gonna happen’. We knew it would be rough down there and I figured if we got stuck, we would have no room to turn around and backtrack. So we decided against it and improvised a way to side-step that section of the route. This turned out to be the prudent choice (we found out later that one of the other Urals got well and truly stuck in there and they required the assistance of a few more bikers to get them free).
After several more kilometres, the suspension and my testicles were being slammed hard by the rough roads (if you’ve ever ridden a Ural, you will know how much a beating your groin gets even on regular paved roads…and this was getting painful). We eventually found ourselves right back at the same spot and noticed a rider coming out of that area (the one we decided to avoid) and when we asked him why he turned around, he replied with “It was too hard and I don’t have the right tires for it. I don’t want to crash”. After hearing that, we felt a lot better about the choice we had made. While figuring out the next leg of the journey, more riders came along, each of which were all making the same choice ‘try it…or abort’. One poor guy though had a more pressing problem which left him wondering where the nearest gas station was. Yeah…that’s a problem for sure. Fortunately for him though, we had plenty of spare gas packed on the bike. Note to self…Ducati’s are even thirstier for fuel than the Ural is. I always compared the Ural’s thirst for fuel to be like a drunken Russian’s thirst for Vodka…and for this metallic Russian, gasoline was its Vodka and damn it loves to drink! With the Ducati fuelled up though, we all headed on our respective ways.
More paved roads, more dirt roads and more roads that left us thinking ‘what the hell were they thinking when they added this section?!’ Going up steep hills in the Ural isn’t exactly easy because the front wheel tends to lift off the ground leaving you with the inability to steer (it really doesn’t matter how much you stand on the pegs and put weight over the front wheel). Add to that going up steep roads that are chock full of deep ruts and pot holes that made me wonder if it had been shelled by artillery, we found ourselves bouncing all over the place and once again, my manly bits were again taking a serious beating. Time to dig deep, grab a handful of intestinal fortitude and put caution aside…throttle wide open, engine growling like a constipated Siberian Tiger, tire spinning, and manhandling this bike into doing things it really didn’t want to do. This pushed our limits and the limits of the bike but with much persistence and commitment, we made it to the top.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse though…it did. We were faced with another 20% uphill grade but this time it was in soft sand. Facepalm! Time to reach deep again and go hell for leather, but this time, we couldn’t find the momentum required to get our 800pds of wobbly, poor handling Russian motorcycle up the hill. We got stuck…just 1/3 from the top. I heard one of the bikers below us say “Oh that’s not good”. Fiona jumps out and gets ready to push from behind but as soon as I said that wouldn’t work, she instantly ran to the front and sat on the front of the side car. She knew I needed more weight forward on the bike and thanks to her quick thinking, me throwing the bike into 2WD, wicking open the throttle and burning some clutch metal, we started moving. Actually, when the bike finally found traction, Fiona’s legs flew up in the air and she nearly flew clean off the bike. “Get off!” I shouted…and off she flew (although not entirely by choice) as I started getting the needed grip and speed to reach the top of the hill. Try that Charley Boorman!
Once again though I could hear the experienced off-road bikers behind us, but this time they were laughing and saying ‘Well done! I thought for sure we would have to push you.” Actually, I think I will mention that trick to off-road legend and instructor Simon Pavey when I see him later that night.
Shortly later the roads became more subdued and manageable but my hands and butt were in agony. I was starting to feel like I had been molested by an angry gorilla (or rather the aforementioned Siberian Tiger). I was getting tired, cranky, feeling very physically beat up, and once again we were stopped on the side of the road trying to figure out where we were. Are we lost or again cursed by the mistakes in the route notes? Turns out the cursed route notes were again mislabelled and we were both getting frustrated. Fiona took over riding for a while so I could rest in the side car and be the ‘navi-guesser’ for a while.
She was doing great despite needing to stop and contemplate whether or not she could actually tackle some of the gravelly slopes she was presented with. With a bit of encouragement and some determined resolve (aka “stubbornness” and if you know Fi you know exactly what I mean), she mustered on. Although it was only about 10min later that we came to a section of road that she couldn’t handle…and I knew it. It was another nasty, loose gravel, steep uphill grade, with a tight corner near the top. Just the kind of thing that the Ural strongly objects to doing and it was going to need more skill and physical strength than Fiona could throw at it. I was grateful for the rest but it was time to get back to work. Once again our stubborn, wobbly Russian steed needed to be kicked in the proverbial ‘exhaust pipe’ to get up the hill.
Eventually we found ourselves on paved roads again and although I should have once again let Fiona take over, I guess my own stubbornness kicked in. Did I mention I was getting cranky? I wanted to get this over with now and I knew that my comfort level of riding at high speed on dodgy roads was higher than Fiona’s…so I stuck it out.
Finally we crossed the finish line and we were treated with a wonderful steak dinner followed by guest speakers Rene Cormier and Simon Pavey, both of whom regaled us with tales of their own adventures making what we just did today seem like child’s play. Everyone was exhausted and throughout the evening more and more great stories came out of people’s experiences from the day. People crashing (without injury), getting stuck in deep mud and even a fellow I knew suffering some nasty fuel drama. He ran out of gas and forgot the key to his fuel cap back at the campsite. I should mention that he too was on a thirsty Russian Ural. Haha…poor guy. Opps…I shouldn’t laugh…sorry. He had spare fuel, which is great, but it’s useless when you can’t get it into the bike. Simon Pavey came to the rescue on a BMW 1200GS and they hacked together an IV fuel line to pump fuel up into the Ural’s tank. Ahhh…more Vodka! Clever thinking! They had to do it a few times though and along the way, Simon ended up running out of fuel himself because he pumped too much into the other bike. Now that’s funny…although I’m sure they didn’t think so at the time.
The evening carried on to live music, prizes and give-aways and many of us drinking late into night. Fiona and I spent most of the night chatting away with Simon Pavey over a few beers…not just about his off-roading career but just about life in general. We found in each other a friendship that I hope will last quite a while.
This was the first Overland Adventure Rally by Lawrence but certainly not the last. At the end of Saturday night’s presentations, he announced the second rally for next year and I will certainly be there for it. Sometimes you just need to let yourself go and in keeping with the event moto…Live the Dream.