Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner: Bivouac Basics

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner: Bivouac Basics

So you’re ready to race, but Rally Dakar seems out of reach, and the rally world itself feels like a closed-off mystery accessible only to the pros and the gods of the desert? We’ve all been there. Logistics of a rally race, roadbook navigation, racing licenses, motorcycle choices – it’s all a big tangle of myth, fact, and obscure information (usually in French!) that just seems too much.

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

However, with the amateur rally events growing like crazy over the past few years, cross-country rally racing is more accessible to adventure and trail riders than ever. The costs, the logistics, and the bike needed for a mid-level rally race such as Hispania Rally, Hellas Rally Raid, Baja Rally, or the Iberian Rally are manageable with a little research and resources, and we’re here to provide both.

Let’s start where a rally begins: the bivouac.

Rally Bivouac

“Bivouac” literally means “camp”, and that’s precisely what a rally bivouac is: one huge campsite where racing teams and support crews set up their pits, paddocks, and tents or campers.

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

This is also where the rally organizers hold competitors’ briefings, announce roadbook changes, and post route or stage changes throughout the race. Most of the time, a rally bivouac is not just a service point; it’s where you rest, eat, sleep, hang out with other riders, and what you dream of when you’re out there on the special trying to make it back in one piece.

During the big desert races like the Dakar or Africa Eco Race, the bivouac moves with the race. That is, rally staff pack up the entire bivouac each morning and set it up again in a different location to welcome the competitors as the race moves on. While you’re racing, your support crew has to cover the liaison distance to set up a new pit in the new bivouac, then rinse and repeat until the rally is finished. Because of this, logistics get pretty pricey, and unless you’re going Malle Moto (that is, solo and unassisted), you’ll need a support crew to carry your tools, spares, and camping equipment from bivouac to bivouac.

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

However, a lot of European rallies (Hispania, Hellas, Iberian) have a static bivouac, which means it doesn’t move: you ride loop stages around the bivouac area, and you come back to the same camp each night. That makes life (and logistics) so much easier, because you can leave everything at the bivouac and focus on the ride. Since the bivouac is static, going Malle Moto in Hellas or Hispania is a hell of a lot easier than the Dakar, and you can save a decent chunk of change you’d spend on a support crew service.

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

Rally Stages: Specials and Liaisons

Each day of the rally will have a special (racing) and a liaison (transit) stage. Sometimes, it’s a combination of several specials and liaisons, depending on the route, distance, and the stage design. A special stage is the timed racing stage on open off piste cross country or off-road tracks, and a liaison is usually a tarmac section connecting the bivouac and the start of the special. Liaison stages are not timed, and you’re allowed to receive outside help. On a special, you’re timed, and you’ll need to deal with bike trouble yourself (other rally competitors are allowed to help you, but no service and support crews can enter the specials).

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner
Photo by Actiongraphers |

Racing Licenses and Bike Paperwork

Unless you’re aiming for a FIM championship placing (which, if this is your first rally, you’re probably not), you do not need a racing license. That’s right, you can just turn up and race in any of the amateur classes, and you’ll still be timed and ranked just like everyone else The only difference is, FIM riders aim for the championship ranking, whereas you just want to survive and finish the rally you’ve entered.

If you are aiming for one of the amateur, Adventure, or Enduro Cup classes at Hispania, Hellas, or the Iberian Rally, here’s what paperwork you’ll need:

  • Your driver’s license
  • Your bike’s registration and insurance (Green Card or similar is fine)
  • Racing insurance. If you can’t get it, you can purchase racing insurance at the admin office of the rally organizers on arrival.
Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

Believe it or not, that’s it. That’s all you need for your first rally race.

Rally Costs

If you are going at it alone and plan to service your bike on your own, you can pull off a rally race on a fairly minimal budget. Having a support crew or renting a rally bike will add to the cost, but, while having assistance makes life much easier, it isn’t necessary – especially if you know your bike well and can look after it yourself. 

Here’s what you can expect to shell out for a rally race:

  • Entry fee: most European rally races offer entries at 700-800 euro price point
  • Racing insurance: 120-150 euro
  • Bike rental and assistance: 1,500 – 1,900 euro
  • Rally assistance (rally mechanic) without bike rental: 1,200 – 1,500 euro
  • Tracking device rental: 50-100 euro

In other words, if you’re racing on your own bike, servicing the bike yourself, and camping at the bivouac, you only need to worry about the entry fee, the racing insurance, and the tracking device rental, plus your food and fuel.

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

Roadbook Navigation

Roadbook navigation may seem intimidating at first glance, but the beautiful thing is, it’s actually pretty easy to figure out, and it gives you a lot more information about the route ahead than a line on a GPS unit. Roadbook navigation equipment consists of a roadbook holder, an aluminium box with spindles inside that roll your roadbook:

And an Ico tripmaster which tells you your distance (essentially, an adjustable odometer).

For the big desert rally races where you mostly go into open cross country and off piste, you’ll also need a second Ico device which will tell you your compass heading. Desert navigation is a tad trickier and a little more involved, but if you’re starting with a European rally race, you don’t need to worry about that just yet.

The way roadbook navigation works is this: you are given a roadbook scroll which has three sections. The first section on the left tells you your distance, which you track on your Ico device. The second section will tell you your direction, and the third section on the right has extra information (for example, danger, rocks, trees, uphill or downhill, etc).

As you ride and your Ico clicks off the kilometers, you watch your roadbook and, once you hit your first “tulip”, you follow the roadbook directions. For example, here, as the Ico reaches kilometer 13,58, your roadbook tells you to turn left:

As you ride past this point, you scroll the roadbook forward and look for the next marking; in this case, a left turn on a T-junction at kilometer 16.7 (here, you also have an exclamation mark on the third section of the roadbook, telling you to watch out for a danger point):

What happens if you get lost, however? Let’s say, you took the left turn at kilometer 13,58, but you shot past the next left turn at kilometer 16,7, and now, your Ico is off and you don’t know where you are. What you need to do is simply ride back to the previous location where you know exactly where you are (back to the kilometer 13.58 left turn), adjust the Ico back to 13,58, and go again trying to find the left turn at kilometer 16,7. The less navigation mistakes you make, the faster you’ll get to the finish.

Rally Bike Choice

Now for the final piece of the puzzle: what bike do you need to finish your first rally race? Does it have to be a brand new rally replica with the perfect rally build and a brand new roadbook equipment set up?

Not necessarily. Depending on what you currently ride, your skill level, and your chosen rally class, you can race on a bike that you have. Anything from a 250cc dirt bike to a 1200cc adventure bike can be ridden in an amateur rally race, and while lighter is always better, it’s up to you what you want to do.

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner
Photo by Actiongraphers |

At Hispania, Hellas, and the Iberian Rally, you have classes accommodating bikes from 250cc all the way to 1200cc, and when it comes to roadbook navigation set up, you can simply mount everything on your bars instead of building a full-on rally navigation tower. Used roadbook navigation equipment can cost as little as 400 euro, and some companies even offer roadbook navigation rentals. Buying new, you’re looking at about 900-1,000 euros.

Terrain and Level of Difficulty

Aside from being terrified about figuring out navigation, most ADV and trail riders doubt their skills. Here’s the thing, though: once again, you’re not racing the Dakar, and if you pick a European rally race, you won’t be battling gargantuan dunes and insane distances. Another popular misconception out there is that a rally race is a bit like Romaniacs, only for five or seven days straight.

But that’s just not the case.

What you can expect at a rally race is fast-flowing gravel tracks, forest trails, dirt roads, a river crossing here and there, and a few more technical sections (steep climbs, rocky trails, steep switchbacks, riverbeds, and some sand or mud).

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

The average special stage length is anywhere from 250 to 350 kilometers a day, with marathon stage length varying from 350 to 450 kilometers. What does that mean for you? If you’ve been riding off road for at least two or three years, can handle a little more technical riding, and can keep a decent pace, you’ve got a pretty good shot at finishing Hispania or Hellas. The beauty of a rally race is that it’s not hard enduro or motocross, it’s a combination of cross-country riding with roadbook navigation, endurance, and some technical challenges thrown in.

Doing a Rally Race as a Beginner

Can you actually do it? There’s only one way to find out.

We’ll cover rally stages, what to expect from start to finish, and roadbook navigation in more detail soon. In the meantime, check out the 2020-2021 rally racing calendar, pick a rally, and send in that entry form – we’ll see you at the bivouac.

Ready to go? Here’s a handy Hellas Survival Guide for Beginners to get you started!

List of amateur-friendly rally races in Europe and North America:

Hispania Rally

Hellas Rally Raid

Iberian Rally

Baja Rally

Images: ADV to Rally, Actiongraphers

Words: ADV to Rally

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