Going Off Road with Roland Peelen: Deus Portal Swank Rally 2023, Sardinia
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All photo credit goes to the talented: 📸 @tombergman
We had the privilege of riding alongside some wild motor heads in the Deus Swank Rally a couple months back in Sardinia. Namely: Team Ikuzawa made up of: Roland Peelen, Ben Shuckburgh and Nelson, and good friend and photographer Tom Bergman
To put the rally in perspective: How much planning goes into something like this?
Roland: There is quite a lot of planning here. On the bike side, the rally has some pretty rough terrain, which we're attacking at speed. So they need to be tough. We also need to be prepared with tools for when things go side-ways, either through crashing, or simply the pounding these bikes take.
Then there is the personal side, which unfortunately quite often gets a bit neglected in the last days and hours frantically trying to get ready for the race. But it's important to go into it with a clear mind, reasonably well rested.
I think all-in-all, we started preparing the bikes a few months in advance. And we finished about 1 hour before we had to do the pro-log.
Runder: You obviously have an interest in riding motorbikes. Well, we actually know its more of an obsession for you. Can you tell us little but about this and your history and experience in riding motor bikes.
Roland: Yeah, it has grown to a bit more than an interest I'm afraid. I think it started very early in life, both my dad and an uncle have their motorcycle license, and I grew up watching motoGP in the 'prime' Rossi days. I only ended up getting my license at age 25. Back then 'long way up' and 'long way round' were my biggest inspirations to get on a bike and do some adventuring. Within a year or so after getting my license, I found myself buying an enduro bike to go to Morocco.
Following that trip, I started planning a solo trip from Amsterdam to Cape town, which I completed in 2019. It was a trip I'll never forget, I'm extremely grateful for all the amazing people I met along the way, most of whom I still see very regularly.
Ever since Morocco, I was contemplating, wether I wanted to go racing. I was riding with the fastest guys in Morocco, despite having no experience. But, I never had the feeling that I had that 'off-switch' you need to keep the throttle open while you're really putting the hammer down (and was terrified when the whole group started to do 100kph on a gravel road). When riding by myself, I feel like the risks I take are very incremental, and as such -- safe, so no need for the 'off-switch'. Whilest chatting with a mate, I realized that with rally racing, it's as much about navigation as it is about being fast. Which meant I would be less penalized for my lack of 'off-switch' (and experience), and could possibly be competitive. At that point I started dipping my toes into racing.
Runder: When you decide to go out and do a race - what are you actually doing this for? What is that sole motivating factor that drives you on these expeditions?
Roland: I keep telling myself I'm not a very competitive person, only to hear everyone else say I am. So I think it's time to admit to myself that I am. I like being 'good' at something, and the way to objectively measure wether you are, or aren't, is to compete.
Having said this, while it is a race against others, for me, it's mostly a race against myself. I want to see myself improve, make less mistakes, find some ways in which I can be faster. I measure it by racing others, but it's about trying to be better at riding the bike myself.
Runder: How did the race go? Can you give us a brief breakdown of your journey and what materialised? What did you plan - what actually happened.
Roland: There are a few elements to a rally that I'll address before getting into this specific one. A rally is usually a multi-day event, where every day can be broken up into one or more special stages (SS) and possibly some road or offroad sections in between (liasons). The special stages are timed, and that's where you are actually racing, the liasons aren't.
Navigation happens via a so called 'roadbook'. The roadbook is a long scroll of paper, which gives you instructions. Every section of the roadbook has three images; the kilometrage, a small image of what will happen at that point, and additional information (is it dangerous, are you going through sand, follow the main track, etc.). Combined with two trip-computers, one set to the distance you've traveled, one set to your compass heading, that is all you get to navigate through the stages.
This rally specifically is a bit of a half way between an extremely serious race, and an adventure ride, as there is also a category in which you can navigate via GPS. It is a 5 day event. Here is roughly the breakdown:
At registration day, you'll get the first two roadbooks, and there is a short technical check to make sure the bikes have license plates, aren't too loud, those sort of things. The spirit of the event is very relaxed, as are the technical.
For us, it was the first day the entire team was together since last year. This year I teamed up with Ben Shuckberg and Nelson Philippe. After I did a trip with Nelson in Morocco on my XR600R, and finding out Ben also had an XR, we formed the idea to do a team with the XR's.
The day itself was a bit frantic, as we found out the fueltank of Nelson's bike had developed a small leak. So we were doing some last-minute wrenching to get things right.
Wrenching done, registration done, meant it was time for the pro-log. This is a single loop of the Malpensa motocross track, at night. It's quite poorly lit, and I don't think they 'dress' the track very well, so it's rough, full of muddy patches and pools. Overall a somewhat treaturous place for me, as I have little to no motocross experience. So I take this slow, as it will also amount to a very small difference in the overall timings if you're not very fast.
The second day, the whole caravan moves to the port of Genoa. The support vehicles,, drive on the road to the port, but we take a fair amount of gravel roads and tracks. There is a lunch spot near a town called Bosio, after which there is a special stage. The first special has been through the woods there and is a mix of fast sweeping mountain trails and rocky uphils. The navigation is usually quite tricky. This year for instance, there was a left turn into the woods, onto a trail that was covered in pine needles and leaves. One of those tracks that looks like it's basically not used. This is where you have to trust your navigation skills and go there, even though it seems like it's the wrong way. If the roadbook says it's the right way, you go there -- though sometimes you get it completely wrong and very confidently ride the wrong way. haha. This day ends with everyone boarding the ferry to Sardinia. In our case, we had a lovely meal at the restaurant on the ferry and an early night.
Day 3 starts with a short police escort from the ferry to a nearby parking lot, where the organisers setup the start and participants have some time for coffee. In my case no coffee, but some wrenching. I serviced my suspension right before the race, and realised during day one we made it way to soft.
The start of this liason was a bit hectic, as the organisation sent us off in a direction on the parking lot that did not line-up with the roadbook. Causing a bunch of bikes to ride laps around the parking lot trying to find the right way. A very frustrating start, but eventually we found our way, ending up at the Hotel from which we'd start day 4 and 5.
Day 4 is a loop from the Hotel in Orosei, round the island, back to Orosei, about 250km's worth of riding, with a really nice lunch up in the hills. It brought us through the town of Orgosolo. A very famous town with amazing Murals.
This was a rough day. It started out really well, the special stage went really well, with only minor navigation mistakes. After the special, at a small little restaurant, high in the hills, we got a message from Nelson, with a photo. I had bad reception, so it took a while to load, but I had a bad feeling. The photo was a picture of him, on a stretcher, in the back of a 4x4, being taken to hospital. We later learned they were riding on a very narrow road, and one of the locals, coming back from work, side-swept him, causing his break pedal to make contact with his foot, breaking a couple of bones.
Learning about your friend having a crash doing exactly what you have been doing, and then having to do that some more is tough. It's part of the sport, we all know it, but I did not get back on the bike feeling 100%.
Later that evening, the organisation also gave me a speeding penalty of 1 hour, claiming I went too fast in one of the speed-zones. Having been quite cautious, as I noticed a lot of people had gotten them, which in turn put me in a great position to have a chance at winning, I appealed their decision. After some back-and-forth with the organisation, they said they'd give me the GPS coordinates of where I would have sped.
The last day, I anxiously woke up to check the notice board. I found the coordinates at which I sped. And I found the corresponding roadbook note. Oli, another rider and friend who I was having breakfast with, pointed out that I sped after the note with the end of the speed zone already happened. When I presented my evidence to the organisation, I found a wall. But they told me they'd have a look.
Naturally, my day started frustrated, as I was anxious to know if the penalty would be removed. Luckily, once you get yourself on a bike, you zone out, and focus on the riding. Somewhere in the middle of the liason, I found Tom, who had the drone up in the sky, so we shot some photos. The special stage went pretty smooth, having a good rythm, with no major mistakes in navigation.
The race ended at a beach, like last year, in the town of Porto Taverna. White sandy beaches, blue waters, and amazing sea-food awaits. But I got a better present. Upon arriving, and giving my GPS-Tracker to the organisation, they notified my my appeal had been granted, and the penalty removed. It turns out, their GPS point at which they checked the speed had too big of a radius too it. After the speed-zone ended, I had put the hammer down and they got a wrongful waypoint from me with too high of a speed.
At the beach, we enjoyed the sea-food, some drinks, before all of us headed back to the ferry to load up the bikes, and prepare for the journey back to Genoa. On the boat, after food, there is the ceremony. Last year, everyone got some final, last-minute penalties for missing way-points, so even though I had done really well, and was in the lead, I did not want to count my chickens before they hatched, so I anxiously waited. It took a bit of sponsor messages, but after a while, the word came. I won the vintage class of the rally.
Runder: Tell us about the race support, nutrition, hydration and keeping your focus when external factors may be affecting the team plan and dynamics.
Roland: We had my very good friend Tom with us for support. Who did an amazing job making sure we could wrench at all the assistence points on the track, but also having snacks at the ready. We usually carry camelbag with water. Mine's 3 liters, and I usually put some form of ORS or other de-hydratation powder in. It looks like we're not doing much and the bike is doing most of the work, but it can be a really hassle getting those big machines into places they don't want to go.
In terms of food, I usually carried a packet of biltong with me, for a quick snack on the road. Having something with me that's nutritionally dense is really important. I've never been a big fan of things like protein bars, or gels, as they either have a huge amount of calories, or give me a huge spike in my bloodsugars, making me feel a bit drowsy.
Runder: what is your take away from these type of adventures and is there anything you want to leave with our readers as a token of inspiration?
Roland: I think the best thing you can do if you want to do something is set a goal, don't plan anything, but tell that you're doing it to as many people as you can. It's a bit of a hack, as it will give you some pressure to then actually do it, but in the process of telling everyone, you'll learn a ton of stuff surrounding it, and start believing you might be able to pull it off. That's how I ended up doing my Africa trip.