Is it possible to go from adventure riding to rally racing when you’re an ordinary family guy running a small business and training in your spare time, rather than being a pro factory racer?
The answer isn’t just “yes”, it’s “hell, yes”. Willem Avenant, a tree surgeon from South Africa, is proving that nothing is impossible: having started racing just a few years ago, Willem has already set his sights on the Morocco Desert Challenge and beyond.
Despite having zero rally racing experience, sponsors, or a rally bike, Willem began racing local races, then smaller rally events in South Africa eventually working his way up to races like the Tankwa and the Kalahari Rally. Now, Willem is a proud owner of a KTM 450 EXC Rally bike, he’s backed by KTM Cape Town, RMS Rally Moto Shop, and MIRA gear, and he has filled out his entry form for MDC 2021. How is he pulling this off?
“In Africa, we have a saying: “how do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time”.
It’s the same with rally racing. Entering the rally world can be intimidating, and there are moments during the race when it gets plain scary: riding across unfamiliar terrain, navigating by roadbook, making your time limit, riding through the night if you have to, fixing your bike with nothing if that’s your only choice – and when you look at the rally as a whole, it can feel like an insurmountable task.
But finishing a rally is a lot like eating an elephant: one mile at a time, one stage at a time. You need to push on even when it feels impossible, and keep going even when you feel like stopping. Just keep moving, keep pressing on, always scrolling the road book forward, onto the next tulip, and before you know it, you’ll cross that finish line”, Willem explains.
Building your skills by entering smaller races, then working your way up to the bigger ones until you finally find yourself at the start line of the MDC or the Dakar is a strategy used by most privateers, including Dakar legends like Joey Evans. Still, it requires determination and pure stubbornness: rally format is among the toughest forms of motorcycle racing out there, and even the local events are hardly ever a walk in the park. So what gives?
“I love rally racing because it strips us down to the bare basics it challenges us on a level you don’t find in everyday life anymore. Rally combines focus, endurance, skill, perseverance, and passion in one action, distilling us to who we really are. If you want to see a person’s true character, go and have a chat with them in the middle of the night in a bivouac after 5 or 6 days of tough racing, then you will see what kind of person he or she is. In a rally, you can not hide from yourself, so you can not hide your personality from other people”, Willem says. And in the end, despite all the suffering, it’s more than worth it.
When it comes down to it, how the hell do you train for a rally, and can you do it on your own without investing in expensive rally training schools? For Willem, training is a balancing act: he needs to prep for the Morocco Desert Challenge, but he’s also running his business and spending time with his wife and daughter. While his family is fully behind his rally obsession, finding the time to train is tough.
“For me, saddle time is key: the more time you get to ride your bike, the better you will become; it becomes like second nature, your bike should almost become an extension of who you are. So, whether you ride motocross, enduro, or trials, each hour on the bike helps you get better, and in doing so will help with rally training. Whenever I have the choice between a run or a ride on my bike, I will choose my bike every time, even if it’s just to go ride for fun”, Willem explains.
In addition to all of this, Willem is documenting his rally journey via social media in the hopes of inspiring other riders to try rally racing. “I love sharing the experience with other riders, because rally is the ultimate expression of adventure. During the Morocco Desert Challenge, I will be posting daily updates and videos to show people the behind the scenes of a rally, and what it’s really like – I think few people realize just how much goes on in a rally bivouac and out there in the desert, and I want to share it all, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the awesome”.
At the time just after this interview, Willem had a bad crash at the Tankwa resulting in a crushed ankle, and the recovery will take months – according to Willem, it may be as long as eighteen months before he can get back on the bike. “Naturally, I am completely gutted about this – competing is out the window for a year and a half now. It also opens up an entire line of self-reflection as to what risks motorbiking holds for us based on how it affects our loved ones. Being on a bike is part of who I am, it’s a part of my heart and soul, and an extension of my being. When accidents happen and you see a wife and a child that will spend the rest of their lives with a disabled husband and father really hits home, but then again, we can walk outside and slip and fall or die in a car crash on a highway so how much more risk does one really accept in life?”.