Felipe Lopez was the first man to truly prove the new off-road capability of the all new Tiger 800, racing in the challenging and highly competitive PanAfrica Rally.
Riding the stunning prototype for the new Tiger 800 – the Tiger Tramontana – Felipe led the field for several stages in his first ever desert rally across Morocco’s giant sand dunes, taking silver in the gruelling maxi-trail class.
Now the sand has settled, FTR caught up with Felipe in Spain to reflect on how it felt to put the prototype for one of Triumph’s most highly regarded adventure motorcycles to the ultimate test.
Q. How did you feel when you first heard that you were going to ride PanAfrica?
A. It was a mixture of challenge and responsibility. It was not just another race, there were many people working hard on this project and we were facing something totally new. But this kind of challenge is what makes you feel alive.
Q. What went through your mind when your brother David had to pull out near the end of the race through injury… honestly?
A. This was tough. I knew the preparations he’d been making for six months and the enthusiasm he had for his first desert rally, so I felt really bad. Also, the pressure on me increased as I knew I’d have to take the Tiger Tramontana alone to the end.
Q. What was the training like?
A. Six months of physical training, many hours of riding every weekend and even during the week after work. Navigation, lots of navigation, because we knew this was the key. Unfortunately, we didn’t have many chances to practice in the dunes before the race, so that was perhaps our biggest challenge.
Q. Describe your emotions on the start line?
A. After so much training I was looking forward to it. Unlike other times, my biggest stress was not whether others would be faster but not knowing if I was prepared enough to sail in the desert. I also felt real pride being the first person to compete on the new Tiger 800.
Q. When was the first moment where you thought ‘This is going to be tough’?
A. Certainly the first time I touched the dunes, I felt like a complete inexperienced rider. I dropped the bike every 10 minutes and then it suddenly dawned on me how hard it was going to be.
Q. What was the most exhilarating moment?
A. Probably the day I managed to finish in 14th. The previous night was a marathon stage and I’d slept without my team between dunes and under the stars, so I had time to meditate on the following day in a very special context. They had announced that it would be one of the more challenging stages, which I thought would be more demanding for my bike. I left feeling a very high level of concentration. It was my fourth day and I got a lot of confidence. I did my best stage and passed many riders who were ahead in the first few days.
Q. What was the scariest moment?
A. There wasn’t one, not even when we had problems on that last day and saw the incredible lead we had reducing. It was a great moment trying to solve the problem.
Q. … and the highest emotional peak?
A. No doubt, crossing the finish line, although it was a bittersweet taste after leading the class for so long. I was very happy because we had finished the race in a close second place and had achieved way beyond the objectives we set ourselves.
Q. You’ve been involved with work on the Tigers and the prototype Tramontanas for a few years now, but this must have been its greatest test yet?
A. Of course. We set the bar very high. We took our Tiger motorcycles to the most extreme conditions and we did not know what would happen. Actually, many people worked hard to finish the bike in six months and obviously we didn’t have the time to test all the modifications as we would have liked. Now seeing the result, we had absolutely nothing to fear with this bike.
Q. What did you think of the bike’s handling, especially the shorter first gear, and how did that help in the deepest dunes?
A. Whilst we adapted the final gearing a little more specifically for the rally, the new Tiger 800’s gearbox with that first shorter gear was incredibly beneficial, particularly in the most extreme rally challenges.
Q. What other aspects of the bike stood out during the five stages?
A. We had two great advantages: a powerful engine, which made us fly on the faster tracks, and a stable geometric that allowed us to take advantage of that engine.
Q. Obviously, the suspension isn’t exactly the same on the 800 but apart from that, how close to the XC range is the PanAfrica bike?
A. The suspension is not so different from the original bike but we just needed more travel on the more challenging terrains. The internal setting is quite close to that of the original bike. There was a reduction in weight eliminating everything we didn’t need, but apart from that and the evident aesthetic change, the Tiger Tramontana is an optimised Tiger XC.
Q. What did it feel like to come so close to winning the class?
A. When you run with a bike you feel so involved with, you don’t run to show what you can get as a rider, you run to show what the bike is capable of. Coming second when the win was so close made me feel bad for all the people who had worked on this project, but then they showed me they were delighted with the result which had already surpassed every expectation.
Q. What has it felt like since the rally? Do you want more?
A. Absolutely. People say that once you go to Morocco, you can’t stop. In my case, it is true that I often think of how I could do a rally again or simply go back and ride there. But I am aware that it will not be easy to repeat this opportunity.
Q. Are you and David still friends?
A. Friends and brothers, and if we do anything else in the future, it will be together.