Words: Courtney Hay Photos: Supplied by Bob Bergman (unless otherwise specified)
By Editor ‘arris
With the 2006 Dakar Rally kicking off at the end of this month, we thought it might be a good idea to take a more in-depth look at not only one rider’s experience of doing the Rally, but also a bit about the rider himself.
Said rider is Bob Bergman, ex road-racer, rock climbing champion and now one of only five Canadians who have finished the Dakar in its 28-year history.
Bob’s diary of his grueling Dakar adventure last year will be posted on CMG in concert with this year’s Rally – one day at a time, until he reaches the finishing line in Dakar, Senegal. All while this year’s participants are experiencing the same thing – in real-time, an ocean away.
But that’s over a week from now, for the moment here’s a piece about the man by our newest contributor, Courtney Hay …
Bob Bergman on day 6 of the Dakar…
“We were blasting along at 120 kph in almost zero visibility, the bike keeled over road-race style to brace against the crosswinds. This went on for hours. My neck was screaming in pain trying to keep my head upright in the maelstrom.
The chotts (dry lake beds) finally gave way to a sandy rolling plain but the wind was so strong that the tracks from riders only minutes ahead had completely disappeared. Fortunately now I was within 30 kms of the first checkpoint and could navigate using the GPS. I rolled across the plain following the GPS arrow when I turned around to see a train of bikes behind me.
I don’t know why they were following me, I was completely lost.”
This is an excerpt from Bob Bergman’s diary of his 2005 Dakar experience – 5 days and 3,000 kms into it. But there’s much more to Bob’s Dakar story than the two-week race through Europe and Africa: think preparing for an ascent of Everest and you’ll have an idea of what’s involved in preparing for the Dakar.
BUT FIRST, ABOUT THE DAKAR …
Bob isn’t the only rider who has been lost in the desert. In fact the very origin of the Dakar Rally stems from adventure rider Thierry Sabine, who got lost in the desert in Libya during a rally in 1977.
Sabine’s desert disaster, however, resulted in a surprising notion: he thought everyone – at least all rally riders – should experience the desert the way he had, and he endeavoured to create a rally that would bring as many riders as possible into the desert for just that experience. He developed a route that started in the cradle of civilized Europe, through the isolation of the Saharan desert, and finally to the west coast of Africa. The following year the Paris – Dakar was born, and now in its 28th year is known simply as the Dakar.
By definition, the Dakar is an off-road adventure-race by motorcycle, car or truck. But by nature, it tests the absolute limits of human endurance, skill and navigation; and it attracts those whose passions are adventure and Africa.
This year (2005) the Rally started in Spain, next year it’s kicking off in Portugal for the first time. Traditionally, the start is as much entertainment as it is rally race: riders launch off the starting ramp in dual format (two riders side by side) and proceed through streets lined with crowds akin to the Tour de France.
From there they head straight to the beach and the first “special” of the Rally – a 10 km assault course designed to please the gathered crowd … and let the riders know just what they’re in for.
Bob’s account of the first special in Barcelona
“The ruts were over a foot deep and the bike had a mind of its own, it was all I could do to keep it pointed in the general direction of the course.
Once I had finally come to grips with guiding the bike between the sides of this 50-foot wide track they decided it was time to introduce some jumps. I knew that as long as I kept the throttle pinned and my weight back, the bike would more or less go where I wanted; but the moment I crested the first jump, I instinctively rolled off the gas – the front wheel bit in, launching me over the bars! …
… The checked flag did eventually fall. Dripping with sweat and gasping for air, I had endured the longest 10 minutes of my life, I had barely made it through a 10 km special.”
A few days of the streets and crowds of Europe are followed by 15 days of Africa in the raw. The riders take speeds of 120 kph – and often much, much faster – through sand dunes as high as small buildings, camel grass, mud, rivers, rocks, ruts and increasing sleep deprivation – to the end of the rally in Dakar, Senegal.
It’s not just a ride from Europe to Africa, it’s where modern day gladiators go to battle mother nature … and themselves.
The Dakar of 2005 had well over 200 motorcycle participants at the start in Barcelona – including Bob wearing # 151. Fewer than half crossed the finish line. In the words of one competitor, just crossing the finish line is victory.
Like climbing Everest, the rally has life and death implications. The 2005 rally will be remembered as one of the most technically challenging and tragic rallies in the event’s history. Two riders were killed, one of them a former champion of the Dakar and rally legend, Fabrizio Meoni.
THE DAKAR AND BOB
Like many Canadian kids, Bob grew up (near London, Ontario) playing hockey. At 17, three pivotal things happened: He quit hockey; he left high school; and he rode his first motorcycle.
Soon after he was talked into buying his buddy’s old 1972 Honda CB 450 – before he even knew how to ride. Before long he’d bought another one and had started to race. Within a few years he was in the top ten in Pro Superbike class and was trying his luck at some AMA Superbike rounds, including the Daytona 200.
Bob continued to race for a number of years, but after spending a winter in Australia and New Zealand he found a new passion – rock climbing. So he switched gears from racing motorcycles and took up competitive climbing.
In 1994, he claimed a National Sport Climbing Championship.
Not content with just living his own passion, Bob, together with his wife Sharon, established Joe Rockhead’s Climbing Gym in downtown Toronto and turned his new found passion into a successful business.
But then in 2000, things changed again.
Bob and Sharon starting watching coverage of that year’s Dakar Rally, religiously tuning in every morning to hear famed Euro-sport commentator Toby Moody’s account of the day’s precedings.
There was something about the African landscape, the freedom of the bike, the ultimate race conditions, all this appealed to Bob as the perfect challenge – if not the ultimate challenge. He started toying with the idea of just what he would have to do if he really did want to campaign the Dakar. It was like a very large 3-D puzzle and he was starting to assemble the pieces.
Soon enough the idea became an obsession. He and Sharon thought maybe a trip to Africa would bring him back to reality and get the Dakar out of his system. He had already traveled by motorcycle on his own through India on a Royal Enfield, and through Ghana on a 125cc Jai-ling; but two-up through Africa is a different trip altogether. Although it wouldn’t be the Dakar, it would be as close to it as you could get without actually being a competitor.
A KTM 640 Adventure was duly purchased and shipped to Africa, and in the winter of 2002/03, Bob and Sharon rode for almost three months – navigating a Paris to Dakar route of their own, and it proved to be the trip of a lifetime.
But it hadn’t quenched Bob’s thirst for the Dakar; it had merely confirmed it.
After their return from the Africa trip, Bob realized that he had to do the Dakar. The idea of it just wouldn’t leave his head.
He figured the Dakar could be successfully completed without a team – provided you planned it right. After all, all you needed was a rare, non-production KTM 660 Rally-specific bike, and a mere mountain of money.
Money aside, imagining himself racing around the African desert on a motorcycle was not as big a stretch as it seemed – he’d already done it once. Well, sans the race bit. At one point it had taken them over three days to cover a section that took the Dakar racers only one day.
This was going to be a bit more intense.
As one who revels in details without losing sight of the big picture, Bob was undaunted by the massiveness of the logistics nightmare the rally presented; this event was a perfect test for him, and so he set his sights on the 2004 Dakar, less than a year away.
From the day he decided that he would do the Dakar, Bob never second-guessed himself on the decision. His ability to clearly see the path to a goal was integral to figuring out the plan. And he was becoming familiar with succeeding at his goals: a climbing champ, his own business, and traveling the world with his wife. This is a fundamental thing about Bob; he practices success.
Where most of us are rather familiar with quitting (especially at CMG – ‘arris), Bob plans his preparation and training around goals that are achievable, and as a result is unfamiliar with quitting. He applied this philosophy early on in the planning stages and counted on it to see him through when it came to the rally.
As the daily grind of researching and organizing the myriad of paperwork (applying for visas and downloading maps) proceeded, the budget became another matter altogether: it just grew and grew.
He soon realized that he had underestimated – and by a long shot – the money required for even a reasonable chance of making it to the finish line. The way things were going he wouldn’t even have enough to make it to the start of the rally, never mind the estimated $75,000 to see it all through.
Adjusting the plan or changing tactics (a skill he relied on in the desert) was necessary, but Bob simply turned this potential quitting-point into a reality check. He didn’t need to quit on the idea of the Dakar, he just needed to adjust his commitment to it – it would take more time to raise the money he needed.
So he pushed back the goal of doing the 2004 Dakar to 2005, and thus began the process of saving and selling of everything he could.
THE PERFECT BIKE
For a very doable $15,000, the perfect rally bike was found right here in Canada; Bob bought a KTM 660 Rally from Guy Giroux – a champion Enduro rider from Quebec. Guy had been approached the year before to train and partner a fellow who had made his money in the high tech boom and had always dreamed of doing the Dakar. They eventually both made it to the finish in 2002, but that’s another story.
The 660 required a complete strip-down, tolerance check and rebuild in order to ensure its absolute reliability during a race where no shop or mechanic would be available. Bob rented garage space and set up to do as much of the rebuild himself as he could – leaving the engine and suspension work for Jim Hunt at Cycle Improvements.
It wasn’t just the bike that was in overhaul. The physical and mental preparation required was intense – Bob’s physical training consisted of a climbing regime and plenty of long distance trail running, some cycle cross events, racing Enduro events (where he is currently in Expert Class) and of course trail riding.
He also went to Everest Base Camp in Nepal after reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The hiking he did there was all about the lungs and when he came back he maintained that level of cardio fitness, which paid off on the very first day of the rally after dropping his bike right off the bat,
“…I jumped up, pick up my bike and set off for the next jump, only to do it all over again. By now my heart rate was through the roof, I had only gone 2kms, and already I was realizing the benefits of a year of cardiovascular training.”
The ability to prepare properly is what Bob thinks makes him stand out among others who attempt the Dakar. He calls it “perfect preparation” and it’s what he attributes to his success, the reason that he – “just an average guy”– was able to finish 76th out of the over 200 that started the ’05 Dakar.
“It takes hardly anything to fail; the bike might not be prepared properly, you could ride it too hard, the physical strain, the mental strain. Some riders drop their bike – weighing up to 500 lbs – as many as thirty times in a day … and this could all be happening in a sand dune up to the bike’s belly!”
Bob also understood that keeping the bike right-side-up and getting himself to the finish line was something that he was 100% responsible for and in control of; I didn’t hear him use the word “luck” once. He doesn’t much believe in luck because it can be too easily used as a way out or an excuse for why something didn’t work out.
“…[The Dakar] is a test of how well you know yourself and how honest you are with yourself.
People aren’t often really very honest with themselves; they like to make excuses for why they do things and why they didn’t do things. But they cheat themselves by doing this; if they’re honest with themselves they realize what they did or didn’t do, which gives them a focus to be better.
So when you’re in a very adverse situation how well you know yourself and how you’ll react in that situation more than pays off…”
This attitude is how he disciplined himself to ride no faster than 120 kph the entire race; Guy Giroux told him that if he rode no faster than that, the engine would last forever, or at least to the end of the rally – and Guy heard it directly form the head of KTM. Without a mechanic or a team to support him, Bob had to make sure that he didn’t break the bike.
SO HOW DOES IT ALL END?
Five years after first watching the Dakar on Speed TV; Bob was nearing the finish of his dream to complete the Dakar. More than two weeks and almost 10,000 kms after the start in Barcelona, through grueling physical pain and exhaustion – a near-disaster occurred 150 kms from the oasis finish in Lac Rose, Dakar.
Most you know the rest, but for a full account of the dramatic unfolding of it, and how “perfect preparation” came to bear, read Bob’s Dakar Story posted here on CMG soon – his diary is better than any words I could use to describe it.
For now Bob’s focus is on their new baby girl, and business as usual at the gym.
As for motorcycles, Bob said he never wanted to see another one ever again after the pain of the Dakar. Well, pain has a funny way of being forgotten and memories of hardship and misery apparently fade…There is currently a KTM 400 EXC sitting in Bob’s garage and word is he’ll be participating in the World Enduro Series next summer in Canada.
Riding is definitely not out of his system, has the Dakar bug stopped plaguing him though?
Final words from Bob…
” It’s funny because I can’t really remember the misery of it, but when I see pictures of it or if I read something that I wrote about it, I get little snippets of just how bad it was and that’ll keep me going for weeks thinking no-way, I’m never doing that again.
Then all of a sudden the new route will come out and I can’t stop thinking about it. I just wish it would get out of me. It’s like a drug and anybody you talk to who’s kind of interested in it says the same thing: you just can’t shake it.
This is the problem, I’ve done it once and I made it. If I can do it twice and make it, is that going to get it out of my system? I don’t know.
It would be so much easier next time having done it once. Who knows, we’ll see.”
THE LAST BITS
To read the ODSC feature on how Bob prepped his KTM 660, click here.
Bob would like to thank the following people for helping make his Dakar adventure possible:
Jim, Colin, Richard and the crew at Cycle Improvements.
Michel, Paul and Jocelyn at Kimpex.
Guy, Patrick, Bill and Mario from KTM Canada.
Digby and the ODSC posse.
The Harden off-road crew.
Everyone on the U.S. Red Bull KTM team.
And of course Sharon McCrindle.