Adventure and Survival In The Desert: Atlas Rally 1987 Part I

I met Christian Travert a couple of years ago. I was looking for a custom part for my dad's business and knocked on his door. A few hours later I was still in his machine shop as we started what I call our constant motorcycle conversation, which to this day is still going. Our love for motorcycles got us fantasizing about accessories and even a bike we wanted to build. Two months after we met, Christian and I partnered to create Hugo Moto Corp.

Christian is the real deal, with 400+ enduro and supermoto races under his belt, a few African rallies, and the brutal 24h moto race in Britany, Christian is an experienced rider and an accomplished mechanical engineer/machinist. The thing that sets Christian apart is his ability to solve issues with a simple solution, he has that Mac Giver kind of approach to complex problems. Rest assured; he is not sporting a mullet.

More than anything Christian is the kind of guy that lights up when you talk motorcycles, races, and adventure riding. He has tons of stories from his golden years of racing (1978-1994). I managed to grab a few, most notably his 1987 Atlas Rally in Morocco where he survived in the desert for four days after an engine failure. I organized his epic adventure into a four part post; I hope you will all enjoy the ride as much as I did.

Back at the truck for some tuning. Christian is reflecting on the upcoming enduro race seated on fuel tanks while his mechanic Hans Khuel (Germany) is wrenching away.

Back at the truck for some tuning. Christian is reflecting on the upcoming enduro race seated on fuel tanks while his mechanic Hans Khuel (Germany) is wrenching away.

The Challenge

The Rally de L'Atlas 1987 was my first African rally, a week long, a few thousands of miles riding in the treacherous Atlas mountain range in Morocco. Toward the end I saw the small sand dunes, I was finally going to dip my knobby tires in the much anticipated and respected Sahara desert. I was pretty happy with myself as I managed to stay in the top tier of the general ranking all the way to Ouarzazate but I eventually succumbed to the Sahara. I sadly had to abandon and was disqualified, but I came out alive with a whole new attitude about life, I became grateful for the little things, especially oranges. 

I had a Kawasaki KX 500 two strokes that I prepared with an extra 20 liters tank in the back. With a total of 40 liters (10 gallons) I thought I was ready for the great challenge ahead. We were all given a road book, my teammate and I tore the pages apart and stuck them together horizontally like a film roll to fit in a plexiglass contraption that had a small electric motor.

This race was pre-GPS era you know, all we had was a switch on the bike to roll up or roll down the road book and figure out the next turn.
1987 Morocco Atlas Rally Kawasaki KX 500. This picture was taken the day before I got lost in the west Sahara for 4 days.

1987 Morocco Atlas Rally Kawasaki KX 500. This picture was taken the day before I
got lost in the west Sahara for 4 days.

Passing In a Dust Cloud According to Di Petri

When you ride in a rally raid, you ride mostly alone. It is a pain to ride with someone else as inevitably you end up riding in someone else's dirt and dust. In the dust, it is extremely dangerous, as you can't see anything. Have you ever been caught in a sandstorm? Well think of it as an artificial one, passing someone in the dust is like playing the Russian roulette you never quite know when you are going to fall, but you know for a fact that eventually, you'll eat it. 

Christian on his Yamaha YZ250, racing and winning his 6th "Enduro Des Sables:Jean Noel Pineau Trophy"in the Loire in 1990.

Christian on his Yamaha YZ250, racing and winning his 6th "Enduro Des Sables:Jean Noel Pineau Trophy"in the Loire in 1990.

When I first started racing on rally raid, I would start to target dust cloud from far away. The young and fearless me would open the throttle all the way to catch up with the rider up front. I would get such an adrenaline rush to close in on my target, 200 yards I started to breathe in the dust, 40 yards and the road would disappear, by the time I was on his wheel it was lights out. Frustrated by the process and after a few stages, I decided to ask a more seasoned rider, an Italian guy named Di Petri. I approached him one night around the campfire at the end of a stage and asked him point blank " How the hell do you pass someone being blind? I always manage to catch up with the guy ahead of me, but when I get close I get so frustrated as I can't see anything and have to slow down! I accelerate again to catch up and slow down again, this cat and mouse game can last for 50 kilometers. I know I could pass the damn guy as I am far faster but I can't as I am flying blind." 
Di Petri was a small and lean desert-tanned olive skinned Italian guy with dark eyes a big smile. He also happened to have a few thousand miles of dust riding under his belt. I had crossed path with him a couple of times throughout the year on the enduro racing circuit; we had developed one of these race friendship, the best kind. When you race every weekend, you develop a unique kind of friendship where you are always happy to see each other, and you don't have the time to get into fights. It is a solid camaraderie based on the love of motorcycle racing and the fun gypsy lifestyle that goes with it. 

Di Petri came closer to me as if he was about to give me the winning lottery numbers. He brought his hands up in the way Italian do to add the necessary drama to the conversation.

"Frenchyyyy! Listenee! When you get close enough to pass stand up and keep your eyes on the guy's helmet, don't look at the road! When you lose visibility open your throttle all the way and pick a side to pass!"

Dumbfounded I answered " What? Do you mean I need to accelerate when I lose visibility?" At first, I thought Di Petri was messing with me, the whole thing was so counter-intuitive. Our bikes were 500cc 2 strokes, they were super quick and very fast bikes. The weight to power ratio is massive on these machines. I also used to be a lot thinner back then. 

Christian coming out of the dust enduro racing in France on his Kawasaki KX250 early in the morning

Christian coming out of the dust enduro racing in France on his Kawasaki KX250 early in the morning

-“I mean when you loose visibility just punch it! Stick to his wheel, stand up, follow his every move and keep your eyes on his helmet!”
— Di Petri

Di Petri laughed at the look on my face and confirmed what first sounded like total madness.The idea is that the guy in front of you is in front of you because he followed a good trajectory, so at this point, you need to make a leap of faith and follow him close in his track. His helmet is the highest point on his bike and happens to be the first thing that comes out of the dust. All of this makes sense when you think of it. It is dangerous as hell, but it makes sense. When you see that helmet, you have to make the quickest decision you've ever made in your life, and steer your bike to the right or the left. The day after the Sicilian lesson I went on to apply the theory. I was riding in the wheel of #45 a Yamaha guy when I finally managed to see his helmet come out of the cloud. The guy was standing up, braking like mad and about to make a 90 degree left turn.  I went straight, full speed ahead in the tundra and wiped out miserably. When I got back on my feet, I remember clearly wanting to strangle the dude. After a few times and hundreds of miles in the dust, I figured it out. There is a certain level of science to this, but as I got more races under my belt, I eventually learned to make the right or left call at the perfect time. When you don't know, just ask a more experienced guy.  

End of the day, enduro racing circa 1988. Christian Travert living the "On Any Sunday" life the European way.

End of the day, enduro racing circa 1988. Christian Travert living the "On Any Sunday" life the European way.

In the next installment of this blog post we will follow Christian through the Moroccan "Oued" ( dry stream bed), facing vertigo in the high Atlas and running out of fuel in the Moroccan country side to meet with the peculiar mayor of nowhere.