With metre-deep sand as fine as powder masking hidden rocks and leaving you riding blind through an unforgiving eternity of desert, the PanAfrica Rally is no place for the faint hearted.
So when Triumph built the Tiger Tramontana for test riding brothers David and Felipe Lopez’s maiden ride against some of the world’s most experienced Dakar riders, it would be the ultimate test of man and machine.
Day 1 – Felipe
This is amazing! The paddock is packed with Dakar teams, gear and world class riders. And we are here among them! We’re ready and finely tuned but it’s going to be super tough because they’ve made the stages harder than ever to attract the best teams from around the world.
Felipe endured a roller coaster of emotions, from:
Intimidation – “When I saw the teams and riders in the paddock we questioned ourselves if we had made a mistake by entering such a professional and tough rally with our very limited experience.”
Sadness and loneliness – The team’s plans were dealt a major blow early on and Felipe realised he had to race alone.
Relief – “A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders 15 km into the prologue stage when I starting finding a lot of riders in trouble navigating in the dunes and I was getting it right.”
Fear – “On a few occasions I thought I was completely lost, a couple of times in an endless sea of sand dunes.”
Pride – “When I overtook several Dakar riders on 160+kph.”
Privilege – “Sharing a tent and dinner with Top Dakar riders like Joan Pedrero and Enduro world Champion Ivan Cervantes.”
Tiredness and anguish – “By the end of the penultimate stage when I gave everything. I was aching in muscles I didn’t know I had with bleeding blisters in my hands.”
David said: “The route covered some of the most beautiful scenes like the dunes of Saharan Erg Chebbi, an incredibly peaceful and magnificent place in which riding the bike feels like gliding or surfing waves. But all the time the clock is ticking and the Tramontana and its rider are being pushed to their limits.”
Day 2 – David
The first race day is behind us and Felipe had a good day on the Tramontana, finishing as the top Maxitrail and a very promising 28th overall in the rally bike category… impressive when you consider we were up against more than 15 Dakar regulars on fully prepped 450cc rally bikes.
The bike felt superb. Its stability as we ploughed through the dirt track sections at 160kph plus was incredible, and the suspension, body control and feedback on the bumps and jumps gave the team real confidence for what lies ahead.
Unfortunately, I hit a hidden rock and dislocated my right thumb so badly that just holding the bars makes it dislocate again. The tears in my eyes as I tried to ride the bike after were more from the frustration of realising I wasn’t going to start the race than the agonising pain.
Luckily the guy that guided us through the dunes a couple of weeks ago (Dakar veteran Antonio Ramos) is here this weekend and can ride the watercarrier bike to support Felipe for the first couple of days while I recover.
Spirits are high and today’s 60km prologue stage gave us a good idea of the terrain we’ll face, with a third on sand dunes and the rest on fast tracks and difficult off track. Then there’s the fesh fesh… an incredibly fine dust that can envelop the bike and make moving very challenging. But Felipe did a great job and made no riding or navigation mistakes.
Day 3 – Felipe
Another successful day on a demanding 250km stage at dawn through some of the most extraordinarily beautiful places I’ve seen. It’s not difficult to see why this area has been used for many movies. It looks like the surface of Mars.
The stage included sections of fesh-fesh, trials and sand dunes as well super-fast sections where the Tramontana came into its own thanks to its powerful engine and stability at high speed.
Navigation was tough because of the continuous changes of direction over neverending sand dunes, making directional reference points hard. I had to compromise between following the right direction and avoiding sand traps, but did a reasonable job and didn’t lose too much time despite my relative inexperience.
I also lost 10 minutes when I stopped to help a crashed rider but that camaraderie is essential in this type of race because you never know when you may need a hand in return.
Our two Triumphs are now one-and-two in Maxitrail, more than 20 minutes ahead of the next multi-cylinder big capacity bikes, and although we don’t have official confirmation of the overall Rally results both Triumphs are in the top 30 which is truly remarkable.
David tried riding again today but won’t be starting the stage tomorrow after the doc told him he’d fractured his thumb, meaning I won’t have the support of a watercarrier bike from here.
Day 4 – David
Today marked the start of the Marathon stage, a two-day ride of almost 500km without assistance, sleeping overnight in the middle of the desert in bivouacs.Felipe left the paddock at dawn to head south to Rissani for the longest stage so far, a total of 273km. He wanted to have a more conservative riding style to ensure the tyres and bike remain wear and damage-free for tomorrow.
The strategy paid off and he arrived safe and incident free despite the intensity of fast and demanding tracks near the mountains close to the Algerian border. One hitch though. A navigation mistake and refuelling penalty meant he lost about 15 minutes but still finished 23rd in the overall rally class and retains the lead in the Maxitrail.
Day 5 – Felipe
Another consistent ride on the longest 317km stage of the rally to increase our lead to 42 minutes in the Maxitrail class over Italian rider Paolo Caprioni. This was the most physically demanding stage of the rally with long sections of sand dunes and deep sand rivers, which meant I needed maximum concentration to ride at over 100kmh.
Reference points in the desert were almost zero and I made several navigation mistakes. At one point I thought I’d be sleeping in the desert when I couldn’t find my way back on track, but I stayed calm, revised the roadbook for further landmarks and eventually found my way, losing 20 minutes.
My emotions were extreme, from the hopelessness of feeling lost in the middle of the desert to the euphoria of finding your way out when you thought all was lost. Fatigue after an accumulated 1,000km of rally on the previous four days was another factor, and with 70km still to go I was physically and mentally exhausted.
I lowered my pace to take the Tramontana safely to the end of the stage, definitely the right decision. Now it’s into the final day leading the Maxitrail class on the Tramontana, so considering it’s my first attempt on a multiday rally it’s an extraordinary achievement no matter what happens [Felipe finished in 14th on Day 5].
Day 6 – David
Felipe has finished the Panafrica Rally on the Tramontana, an extraordinary end to a wonderful six-month project. With Felipe comfortably in the lead 40km from the finish, the class victory was snatched from our grasp due to an accident breaking the front wheel spindle. He was tackling the last section of sand dunes in the middle of the Erg Chebby, a 20km long sand dune desert, when the front wheel spindle broke as he descended a huge dune.
The bike was only slightly damaged in the crash but without another front spindle broke it looked like the end of the road until Felipe ran to the top of the nearest dune, got a phone signal and called the 4×4 vehicle support team who eventually reached him through 10km of sand to swap the spindle.
Felipe missed some of the waypoints and took a penalty to reach the finish of one of the today’s most competitive African rallies with four stage class victories and a competitive performance in a field of Dakar bikes and riders.
That the Tramontana has made it to the end of this extraordinary adventure is a testament to the hard work of everyone here and behind the scenes. Felipe and myself feel privileged to have been involved. We have learnt so much, both personally and professionally. All the time, effort, blood and tears have been completely worthwhile and we can’t wait for the next adventure!