The event that started the whole trail-bike and big-bike rally scene – the Cambrian Rally – celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014. We were there to celebrate its success…
Former Dakar racer Craig Bounds summed it up best when he said of this year’s Cambrian Rally… ‘Sure, there’s a bit of legacy going on.’ He was right… the Cambrian Rally hit 20 this autumn and with a history that stretches back to 1994, and a start that was partly the inspiration of Britain’s best-ever desert rally racer, the late John Deacon, there is certainly a sense of inheritance and yes… legacy. And it wasn’t just the Cambrian which started back then, but the whole competitive trail bike rallying scene.
Skip forward in time to 2014 and I find myself here at the other end of two decades, with a Suzuki V-Strom 1000, still honouring the concept of big bike off-road fun. Yeah, it’s still alive and kicking, if a little modified from how it was first envisaged. And whereas back in 1994 there was originally just the one-day Cambrian Rally, come the 21st season of big bike rallying – now formally recognised as the All Terrain Rally Challenge – we can look forward to 15 days of rallying. And not just in Wales, but at venues stretching up to the Scottish border and in Yorkshire too. Deacon’s baby has certainly grown up.
Bob the Builder
The inspiration might have been down to Deacon – and his sponsor at the time, the KTM importer Gordon Jones – but it was Bob Perring and the Welsh Trail Riders Association (WTRA) who brought it to life. Perring was a fully paid-up enduro organiser back then, but he’d had the concept of trail bike competition in his contemplation for some time. When Deacon and Jackson approached him – with funding – with their own similar thoughts, his response was instant, and within days he had the club and the Forestry Commission on side.
‘For the first one a lot of people came from the bike press, even Motor Cycle News were there,’ remembers Perring, who’s still here helping organise the 20th one. ‘They came on all sorts of bikes’ he adds, ‘back then a trail bike wasn’t an enduro with indicators as it often is today. They were riding DRs and XLs, big Cagiva vee-twins, the army sent a pile of Armstrongs, there was every kind of bike.’
The Cambrian was held in the Spring back then, in the Crychan Forest, and snow and crispy temperatures met the competitors. As is often the way with new concepts, each competitor would interpret the competition rules in their own way. So while Deacon would romp to an easy victory on a mighty KTM 620 competition bike on competition tyres, the likes of journo Frank Melling bimbled round on a humble Suzuki DR200 trail bike on street tyres. Bimble? Melling was fast enough to win the 250 class! Others, proper imaginative blokes, brought big axes, like Nick Hall who rode a 900cc Cagiva Elefant and finished 36th, and MCN’s Adam Smallman who rode an R1100GS… and DNF’d.
At the time Perring had advised journalist Paul Blezard: ‘The idea is to give trail bike riders a competitive run on terrain suitable for their machines – it’ll be predominantly forestry roads of varying types with just a few short stretches of muddy track and a few rocky trails, but no bogs!’ And so it is today. Sorry, did Bob say ‘no bogs’?
It’s hard to leave the past alone, it fascinates me. Back in 1994 five of the top ten finishers came from the army, and one of those was the amazing local girl Katrina Price (who came 4th!). They all rode those 500cc Rotax-engined Armstrong thumpers, painted in drab green. Meanwhile a young trials rider by the name of Rob Sartin – who would go on to become British enduro champion in 1997 – rocked up on a Yamaha XT600 (apparently borrowed from Geraint Jones’ school) to steal third place. Some 13 people finished that year riding Kawasakis. Not wanting to knock Team Green any more than necessary (ahem), but when was the last time you saw a Kawasaki trail bike feature in any results, let alone 13 of them?
Today, as has become the norm, the entry has become a little less eclectic. The event is of course dominated by those orange bikes. As international rallying has come to embrace the 450cc, so the EXC has drifted into British rallying in ever-greater numbers. And even if you want a bigger capacity off-roader of some ability then KTM are pretty much the go-to brand, so 690s and 990s are also common. Today the big bikes are still there, but the numbers – now as then – are actually comparatively modest.
Robert Hughes is one half of the team behind the All Terrain Rally Challenge (ATRC) as the series is now known (he’s ‘Burt’ by the way, his partner in crime is Mark Molineaux, ‘Moly’, together they are ‘Burt & Moly’).
‘We’ve come along recently… in the last four years. There had been the big bike series for while but it lapsed for two years. We thought the series had been really good when it had been a challenge with six races in it, with a points system and all – it was a reason to put fresh tyres on your bike and go racing. So we decided we’d pick it up where it left off, so we restarted it as the Bike Bike Challenge in 2011, and we’ve run it every year since.
‘It has changed with time though, all the enduro boys saw what we were doing, saw the camaraderie and the social side, and said, ‘why can’t we be a part of it?’ And so it became the ATRC – for all off-road motorcycles.
‘It’s still growing too, people like it probably because it’s not cut-throat racing, and it is older guys. Old man racing really – enduro for when you are too old for enduro! But you’ll see there are some good riders out there, there’s some class!’
When Blez filed his report to Motorcycle Sport back in 1994 about the inaugural Cambrian Rally he wrote what looked to be about 3000 words (probably more like 10,000!) and illustrated the story with just one picture (that of Katrina Price – not on a bike, instead having a cup of tea)! In 2014, Alex (our ad man) is with me and between us we have three cameras and will shoot more than 700 images…
And of course I’m mentioning that by way of an excuse, for while Blez recorded the only BMW finish of 1994 I’m recording a DNF in this the 20th Cambrian. It seems you just can’t fulfill the stylistic needs of a modern magazine feature without putting aside not just minutes but an hour or two for photography – which means as far as competing in the event goes you are destined to ‘hour out’.
Notwithstanding the fact that we had a bike to ride and photograph, we still managed to put in three laps, about 105 miles of riding, and took in the full rally experience – we helped a man with a drowned bike at the end of the Strata Florida section, watched with amusement as newbies plucked up the courage to tackle the challenge sections, and even pulled our V-Strom, on its side, from a bog. ‘No bogs’ said Perring in 1994 – some things do change, evidently.
Bogs aside, the ethos is remarkably true to the original. A 35-mile lap made up of predominantly forestry roads – only now with the course set over the hills up above the reservoir ‘Lyne Brianne’ these are fun sweeping tracks.
‘Some riders call forestry tracks boring,’ says Perring, ‘but I tell them they’re not riding fast enough – or they’re not on the right kind of bike. Ask the WRC rally guys who drive these tracks at 120mph – they’re not boring at all!’
But if speed isn’t your thing – and it is optional – there are always the views, it’s incredible country up here. Getting back to the speed thing: there are two special tests. Actually they’re quite long, maybe ten-minutes each (which today is long, especially by EWC standards) with proper technical going, stuff to make a big bike rider sweat, maybe even have to get off and push.
‘I’ve always laid the course out with the view to it being suitable for big bikes,’ confirms Perring. ‘The V-Strom might be pushing it, mind, because of the (limited) ground clearance, but I assume if you’ve got a big bike and you’re entering it then you’ve got a reasonable ability.
‘And we’re lucky enough to find places that are a bit more challenging – off up the hills, into the forests – for the special tests, but you wouldn’t want to ride a whole course like that, it would be too tiring, but it’s enough to challenge you on a bigger machine.’
Rally today is then a sort of enduro-lite. Which makes it ideal for all kinds of competitors. Good for the new rider (but not the absolute beginner). Good for the aging enduro rider who’s finding the constant and tiring grind of multi-lap enduro just too tiresome and too energetic. Good for the madman who sees haring around on a litre-capacity trailie as a ‘challenge’. Oh, and good for proper rally racers, such as Dakar veteran Craig Bounds and his protégé Ben Smith, who won this 20th Cambrian Rally on his KTM 450EXC-based rally machine.
‘Ben wants to do the Dakar, he’s got a bit of a passion for it. Coming to events like this helps him toward that goal. We’ve had a 30-40 mile lap today, you’re continuously riding, you’re not hanging about, big gravelly corners, you’ve got ruts, grass, it’s all here and it’s quite a long day really, so it’s bike time, isn’t it?’ says Craig.
‘It’s growing,’ says Hughes about the ATRC. ‘We are being proactive, we’ll be at the dirt bike show and we’ll promote it. Moly and I could ride more ourselves, we love it too, but we need to organise the events to keep the series going, and we make a point of listening to what the riders are saying.
‘And we organise some of the events, but there’s also WTRA doing the Cambrian and the Beacons, John Kerwin doing the Borders and Kielder, and some years we have the Hafren Dirt Bike Club doing the Hafren Rally – we just kind of mix and match. And next year there’ll be a round in the Isle of Man – that will be cool, they’re talking of an 80-mile lap with some good off-road terrain.
‘And we want to develop the concept. The new idea for next year is a big three-day rally, with a prologue to seed the top riders for the racing, using a short special test on time. Then they’ll compete in a two-day road book event. Then we’ll have an enduro course for the enduro bikes, and a separate adventure bike class so they can do some soft-roading because this event and the other events on the ATRC are getting a bit tough for your GS1200 brigade. We want to do that extra bit for the adventure bikes, get them on board and get a bit more of a transition to rallying.
‘The road book element is there to give experience of navigation to those that are looking to go rallying abroad, and provide some training – and that’s seriously lacking at the moment. It’s a big step going from these kind of events on our roads to stepping out to say the Merzouga Rally where you’re riding with a full Dakar-type GPS and road book – there needs to be a stepping stone for the British guys and that’s what we are intending to provide.
‘If we can, the aim in the longer term is to do a full three- or five-day FIM rally in Wales, fully sorted. And we’ve got the terrain, if you look from down south to North Wales we can put on some fantastic stages that will be equal to anything in the world.”
Twenty years on, rallying is still here. In fact through the efforts of the clubs, through the likes of Burt and Moly, it’s in fine health. Why the industry isn’t behind it more we can but wonder. That seems to be a theme with the UK industry at present. They’re quite happy to sell lots of big adventure bikes to UK customers, but rather more reluctant to support the market they earn their living from.
Nonetheless rallying still exists without the industry’s help (for the most part) and it’s still a great part of the off-road fabric. It’s very different to the long distance trial (LDT) scene: faster, maybe a bit less technical, although at times still difficult. And frequently ridden by men of a certain age. That’s not to say you have to be a middle-aged, balding guy to ride a rally – there are always female competitors in every rally, always new youngsters getting involved and it’s the variety of both the competitors and the machinery they use that makes it what it is.
And it delivers fun in spades. And given some basic skills, is trail bike friendly, even big bike friendly. It’s keeping older riders in the sport when they might otherwise be lost to bike competition, but at the same time it’s training-up new young talent such as Ben Smith, such as Ollie Lloyd (as we’ve previously met in TBM) and is the stepping stone for others, too, to the continental rally scene. Legacy indeed, ‘Deaks’ would be proud!
This was our first rally!
(l-r)Neil Kiersey, Jan Rinvolucri, Neil Harrison, Mike Bennion
RUST: What’s your background lads?
Neil K: I’ve been riding on the road eight years, on the trails for two.
Jan: Trail riding about a year and half, but riding bikes all my life.
Neil H: Road biking 2002, switched to trails in 2006 having had two years off.
Mike: Bought my first trail bike 18 months ago – and that’s all I’ve done!
RUST: And how do you rate the rally experience?
Neil K: The two laps of 35 miles were easily the best 70 miles I’ve done on a bike. It’s been amazing, we’re definitely going to do it again next year, it’s been so much fun.
RUST: Memorable moments?
Neil H: I found a rock in Strata Florida, just sent the wheel skew-whiff, so I got pretty damp!
Mike: It was all about teamwork. We ride trails together so we decided we’d ride the same way in this event and it worked for us.
Neil K: We gave the special tests a push! You see that green light go on and it changes things, doesn’t it? I’ve never experienced anything like that before but I really enjoyed it, there’s a competitive edge to it!
RUST: Anything else?
Neil K: We need to say thank you to WTRA, it’s been great weekend, well organised and a whole lot of fun, we’re definitely coming back. And thanks to the other riders too, the social scene’s been surprising, everyone into the same things, it’s great.
My first rally too…
Simon Leverett, KTM 990 Adventure
‘This is my first big bike rally. I’m here on my 990 Adventure, I’ve had it a year, rode it down to Greece this summer, all luggaged-up, saw Croatia, crossed the mountains into Albania, off-road – an absolutely amazing experience. I went with my mate, he has a 990 as well.
‘I’m going to keep this bike now until it dies, there’s no reason to change it. Besides they go on forever. And it’s pretty robust – I threw it down the track in front of your camera but there’s not a mark on it!
‘Doing the rally on the big bike has been great fun. The worst thing with these is if you don’t get it right they’re clearly difficult to hold on to. But I’ve been laughing to myself all day and there’s the adrenaline of trying to absolutely nail it on a 990. How the guys who ride these properly can use all the power I’ve no idea. I don’t think I ever got to the stop today.
‘I’d recommend doing it though, on the big bikes. There’s the camaraderie of riding with the other guys on the big bikes, helping each other out, exchanging ideas, it’s almost a unique club in itself.’
And my first rally!
Katy Haynes, BMW F650GS
‘It’s my first race. It’s really good fun; it’s a shame I only got to do the one lap because I took too long, be nice to do two, but there’s a target for next time, to get another lap in.
‘We go out on our local lanes, but I’ve never competed before. I’m on the F650 because it’s what I have. I use it every day for commuting, I think it’ll be fun taking it to work on Monday all covered in mud. Yeah, more women – anyone – should do this. It’s fun and you’re learning new techniques that’ll help riding the lanes. I love it…’
There are currently no dates for 2018 up on the website, however, for more information go to www.allterrainrallychallenge.co.uk Tell them RUST sent you, and who knows, you may bump into us on the next rally!