On my challenge not to race
Racing a five-day Dinaric Rally is no walk in the park - and when you have to race it, chase it, and film it, mayhem and chaos is guaranteed! Read about the Scouts adventures at the Croatian rally challenge and find out if a KLR650 can stand a chance in a race!
By Eglé Gerulaityté, 12.01.2022
Europe has a long and strong history of rally racing: from the legendary original Dakar races starting in Paris to the Italian rallies and the decade-old Hellas Rally Raid, Europe loves rallying. But while most of the FIM rally races are held in Spain, Italy, and Greece, there is a new contender on the scene: the Dinaric Rally in Croatia.
An unusual suspect for a rally race, Croatia doesn’t have much of a rally history. What it does have in abundance, however, is unspoiled landscapes and unlimited off-road riding. The Dinaric Alps in Croatia rival their counterparts in Switzerland and the mighty Carpathians in Romania, and unlike in Western Europe, Croatian mountains still retain the two components adventure motorcyclists crave the most: wilderness and dirt trails.
In 2020, a new event in Croatia was born. The Dinaric Rally started out as a three-day race in the Dinaric Alps covering the Knin area better known for skiing and mountaineering. Organised by Perica Matijevic, a Mountain Search and Rescue professional and a passionate off-road rider, and his team, Dinaric Rally set out to make a mark on the European rally calendar. And in a very short period of time, it did. The 2020 Dinaric Rally was a success attracting adventure riders, off-road maniacs, and semi-professional racers using it as training grounds for the bigger rallies. Lennart and I entered the Dinaric Rally 2020 aboard our dual-sport motorcycles and, despite the brutal terrain, we made it out alive.
So when the invitation came to ace the Dinaric Rally 2021, we didn’t hesitate. This time around, the Dinaric Rally boasted five days of racing with a marathon stage looping into Bosnia and Herzegovina, roadbook navigation, and a bivouac worthy of Hellas or Andalucia Rally. The stages were longer, the terrain as unforgiving as ever, and the classes were divided into Adventure and Rally categories welcoming both professional racers like Isaac Feliu and a horde of amateurs on adventure bikes like us.
Flipping the Coin
There was just one teeny problem: this time around, we would be covering the Dinaric Rally for MOTOURISMO. In addition to racing, we’d be shooting the action, interviewing other riders, filming each stage, and hoping to capture the essence of the rally in video. How on earth would we combine both? During a rally, even if you’re a complete amateur like us, you want to be fully focused on the race. The adrenaline pumping, your attention is on the navigation and the track ahead of you. The world and a sense of time fall away when you’re racing, and you get into a deep state of flow where the only thing that matters is eating up the dirt miles, chasing after faster riders, navigating, and staying upright. There’s no room for scattered attention or stopping to take in the view – but here we were, tasked with filming the ensuing chaos.
The night before the rally, we decided there was no way to race and shoot at the same time. One of us would have to do the racing, and the other, the filming. That, we figured, was the only way to experience the Dinaric Rally 2021 and film the race at the same time. All that was left to do was decide who would be racing and who would stay behind the scenes. Naturally, we were both chomping at the bit to get to that start line; after all, we both love rally racing for the same reasons – the thrill, the adventure, the riding, and the camaraderie. To settle the matter in a mature, grown-up way, we decided to flip the coin. Heads, Lennart would race. Tails, I would.To this day, I maintain the coin may have been rigged, but there it was: Lennart was going to race, and I would chase the rally armed with tripods and cameras.
Dinaric Rally Bivouac
Having arrived at the Dinaric Rally bivouac in Knin, we immediately felt at home. It was great to meet our Dinaric family again – the organizers, the support crews, the riders from last year all were here, preparing for the second edition of the race.
Having set up camp we chatted with Perica, the organizer of the race. “This year, we have a very strong adventure class, which tells me adventure motorcyclists are really getting into the rally racing world. We’ve got riders on BMW GS1200’s, Africa Twins, Yamaha Tenere 700’s – it’s really a sight to behold. In addition, we have several professional racing teams like the Spanish Twin Train and the Austrian Rallye4U crews joining the rally. Most of their riders are aiming for rally Dakar 2022, and they’re using Dinaric as a training event which, if you ask me, is quite a compliment. All in all, what we hope to offer riders here whether they’re amateurs or pros, is a solid challenge, spectacular views, and a very special atmosphere”, Perica told us.
As Lennart worked on his bike preparing for the race, I wandered around the bivouac talking to other riders. I talked to a father-and-son team aboard two dirt bikes, doing their first rally race together. Next, I chatted to a group of German riders on Yamaha Tenere 700’s and Africa Twins – they were a team of friends hoping to take their adventure riding skills to another level.
Pavel Kunc, a Czech world rider on a Yamaha Tenere 700, was here to improve his riding; Victor, a Croatian rider aboard a Yamaha WR450, had never done much off-road riding on a motorcycle, but wanted to challenge himself. Wolfgang Payr, an Austrian rider, was preparing for Rally Dakar 2022, and the Dinaric Rally offered him a chance to test himself and the bike before the big race.
'“I think people assume that rally racing is all about professional factory teams, and that it’s unattainable for ordinary riders. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I started riding off-road some eight years ago or so, and now, I’m aiming for Rally Dakar. However, I’m not some superstar racer – I simply started with smaller rallies, did training, built my experience, then began racing the bigger rallies, and finally, I hope I’m ready for the Dakar. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you keep at it, anybody can try a rally race, even as an adventure rider. It’s a lot more accessible than it appears”, Wolfgang shared.'
And he’s spot on: over the last few years, rally racing has become the next “it” thing for adventure riders. Most rally races around the world, including the big ones like Morocco Desert Challenge, now offer Adventure or Enduro classes aimed at amateurs: typically, these classes feature shorter stages, less complex navigation, and less technical terrain and are designed to give adventure riders a taste of rally racing. If you’re hoping to do a bigger rally race someday, joining the Dinaric Rally as an amateur can be a great steppingstone.
Off to the Races: Dinaric Rally Prologue
Lennart’s bike as ready as can be, mine shod anew with more aggressive tires, we were finally off to the start of the prologue of the Dinaric Rally. Prologue stages are designed to give riders an idea of what to expect in terms of terrain and navigation and decide the starting order: riders who complete the prologue stage the fastest start first on Day One. Usually, prologue isn’t as much about racing as it is about a test for yourself and your bike and setting your pace and your plan for the entire rally.
For Lennart, the plan was simple – just get to the finish line. The KLR650, although kitted out with custom suspension and serious carb mods, is not exactly a racing machine. Besides, we didn’t have the luxury of putting the bikes on a trailer and hauling them home after the rally – instead, we would have to repair them on the spot and hit the road again. For Lennart, this meant he would have to race with caution – an impossibility in and of itself. Once you’re released from the start, it’s extremely hard to keep a cool head, pace yourself, focus on the navigation, and resist the urge to go into full race mode.
For me, the challenge was not to race. Despite being a mediocre rider, I’m not one to stay behind, and I love a challenge, even when it’s just above my capabilities. Seeing the riders line up at the start, eighties rock blasting from the loudspeakers, the Dinaric Rally staff counting down the seconds, I badly wanted to join the mayhem – alas, my job was to lurk just off the track and record the action through a lens.
When the first riders wheelied out of the start, however, I soon forgot I wasn’t racing – it turns out, chasing a rally as a spectator and one-woman camera crew offers a unique angle into the race. Finding good spots to film the action, witnessing riders take the wrong turns, overshooting corners, and taming their machines over rugged terrain is exciting, and I cheered along as Lennart zipped past battling his way through the rough, rock-littered field surrounded by eerie remains of wartime tanks left to rust on the windswept Dinara Mountain.
For Lennart, the prologue stage was a chance to get rid of the pre-racing nerves, get into the flow, and see just what the KLR was capable of. Racing in the Dinaric Alps is a tough gig even on a light dirt bike, but after the prologue stage, Lennart was grinning from ear to ear and eager to start Day One.
A few riders fared less well – we witnessed a broken engine case of a Tenere 700 whose rider took a steep hill a tad too hot landing hard on the other side. Luckily, he was able to repair it; that’s the thing about rally racing – it’s not over till it’s over, and you’re there for the long haul doing everything in your power to make it to the finish line.
Into the Wild: a Marathon in Bosnia
Day Two began in the bivouac buzzing with electric energy. The prologue stage over, now was the time for the real racing to begin, and riders would face over three hundred kilometers of unpredictable terrain in Croatia and Bosnia before returning back to camp.
For Lennart, this was a day of serious challenge. Flying along the rocky mountain trails, he had to stay focused while covering crazy distances, battling steep climbs, and picking his way through river crossings and babyhead boulder-littered tracks. He had several crashes that left his KLR damaged, and throughout the race, the modified carb stubbornly refused to put out the power several times, causing a few stalls at the most unfortunate places.
For me, Day Two was a rollercoaster. I joined the Actiongraphers photographers’ team to shoot the rally, and it was intriguing to go on a quest to find the best waypoints to document the race. Still, I could hardly keep my eyes off the live tracking app, checking constantly where Lennart was. I could see he was doing well, racing right in the middle of the pack, but whenever the little blue dot with his number on it stopped, I’d go mad with worry. Has he stopped because he’s taking a break or is it because he’s crashed and got badly injured? The not knowing was tough, and my morale swung wildly between cheering Lennart on and imagining the worst-case scenario.
In the meantime, the Dinaric Rally was in full swing. Riders chased each other across the rolling hills, rocky mountain tracks, and muddy river crossings leaving a wake of torn tracks and mangled bikes. In just three days, there were already broken bones and bikes that refused to keep going, and we got swept up in the madness that is a rally: an ever-moving, roaring, thundering chaos of adrenaline-fuel racing, dust, and perseverance.
Dinaric Rally Finish
By Day Three, it was obvious Lennart would not be able to carry on. Several crashes and carb issues almost incapacitated the mighty KLR, and although the decision to withdraw was devastating, we knew it was the smart choice. If this was the only event we’d do this year, Lennart could push himself and the bike to the max like he did last year on his KLE, fixing the bike by midnight and starting again in the morning. This time, however, there was no rest for the wicked – after the rally, we had to travel to our next destination and join the next tour, and we simply couldn’t afford to destroy the KLR completely.
Instead of racing, Lennart now joined me on the shooting mission. We had our very own little rally following and filming the race – to make sure we stayed off the tracks and the oncoming riders, we’d have to gingerly pick our way through the terrain with no tracks or trails whatsoever, lurk behind hills and boulders to catch the action, and even climb trees in the pouring rain to capture the riders battling it out on the trails. It turns out, chasing a rally is nearly as much fun as racing it – you get to see it from a completely different perspective and experience other riders’ struggles up close and personal.
A rally race is, first and foremost, a test of what you’re capable of. If you get stuck on a lonely mountain in the dark, will you press the SOS button on your tracker, or will you keep going? When your bike flies off a steep edge, will you call it quits or try your damnedest to get it out and finish the stage? Even if you’re racing in the Adventure class as an amateur, you get swept up into a sort of hell-or-high-water mode where nothing matters but getting to the finish line.
We got to see this first-hand when we discovered our friend Wolfgang trying to rescue his bike from a steep, near-vertical ravine. Having overshot a corner, Wolfgang jumped off his bike last second, but his motorcycle flew off the edge and landed in a deep, slippery ravine covered in thorny bushes. With the three of us, we hoped we could drag the bike out but, however hard we tried, it was impossible to get up that steep, slippery slope. Luckily, the accident happened right before the finish line of the special stage, and an ORGA car came to our rescue. Using tow ropes, we walked the bike along the edge of the ravine until it got lower, then dragged the motorcycle up and back on track. We thought this was it for Wolfgang but, instead of quitting, he bent the mangled roadbook holder back, straightened the levers, jumped on the bike – and finished the stage.
This, in a nutshell, is the essence of a rally. You battle it out against all odds, and when you finally cross that finish line, you get there a better rider. As an adventure motorcyclist, you may not be aiming for Rally Dakar, but races like the Dinaric Rally can help you improve your riding by leaps and bounds, teach you what you’re capable of, and give you an experience of a lifetime. Be warned – rally racing is highly addictive, however! As we watched our friends and fellow riders climb that finisher’s podium and claim their trophies, we were cheering every single one of them on.
Dinaric Rally is no walk in the park, but if you’re looking for a challenge, spectacular mountain scenery, and serious dirt riding in equal measure, this is an event to mark in your calendar. Intrigued? Here are some pointers to help you decide: Who Can Race the Dinaric Rally? Dinaric Rally is open to professional racers, amateurs, adventure riders, and off-road riders. You do not need any FIM licensing or race qualifications to enter. The terrain difficulty: Expect lots of rough, rocky trails, steep climbs and descents, loose gravel, some graded dirt roads, and forest tracks. Experience level: You can enter Dinaric Rally if you’ve been riding off-road for at least two years and feel comfortable riding dirt at speed. You should be reasonably experienced to handle long distances riding off-road. Suitable motorcycles: You can race Dinaric Rally on anything between 250 and 1200cc. Dirt bikes, rally replica bikes, dual sports, and adventure motorcycles are all welcome. Distances: Expect to cover 250-350 km every day, depending on the class you choose. Navigation: Riders are allowed to navigate either by roadbook or GPS. If you choose to navigate by GPS, no special roadbook equipment is needed – you can use your GPS unit or phone. Logistics: Dinaric Rally bivouac is static, which means you do not need any race assistance for logistics – your belongings, tools, spares, and your bike paddock remain in the same camp throughout the race. Accommodation: Throughout the rally, riders can camp at the bivouac or stay in a hotel in Knin. Preparation: To boost your off-road riding skills, choose a training or tour and training combo here. Fotos: Eglé Gerulaityté, Actiongraphers