2014: The Cambrian Rally celebrated its 20th anniversary. It’s the event that started the whole trail-bike and big-bike rally scene in the UK. We were there to celebrate its success
Words: Jon Bentman
Pics: Jon Bentman & Alex Waters
Craig Bounds said it: “There’s a bit of legacy going on.” Then added, after some thought, “which is quite nice.” The former Dakar racer was right, the Cambrian Rally hit 20 in 2014 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 a sense of legacy, inheritance. And it wasn’t just the Cambrian which started back then, but the whole trail bike rally scene.
TBM was there then, well, TBM’s Paul ‘Blez’ Blezard was there – TBM was just a twinkle in Si Melber’s eye in 1994 – so Blez was there on a BMW F650 Funduro, and he finished (shock!), 34th from 48 finishers and 65 starters. Melber would be there a year later with a BMW R1100GS, to report on the rally in the very first issue of TBM (which was then ‘Trailbike Magazine’, as it is again now). Yep, TBM was hooking into the big trailie scene right from the start.
And here am I at the other end of two decades, with a Suzuki V-Strom 1000, still honouring the concept, the whole idea of big bike off-road fun – yeah, it’s still alive and kicking, if a little modified on how it was first envisaged. And where there was just the Cambrian, the one day, in 1994, 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.
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 Forestry Commission on side, and the club.
“For the first one a lot came from the bike press, even Motor Cycle News,” remembers Perring, who’s still here helping organise the 20th. “They came on all sorts of bikes, 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 given their own preconception. 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 Elephant and finished 36th, and MCN’s Adam Smallman who rode an R1100GS – and DNF’d.
At the time Perring had advised Blez: “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 Perring say ‘no bogs’?
It’s hard to leave the past alone, it fascinates. Back in 1994 five of the top ten finishers came from the army, and one of those was a woman – the amazing Katrina Price (4th!). They all rode those 500cc Rotax-engined Armstrong thumpers, in drab green. Rob Sartin – who would become British enduro champion in 1997 – rocked up on a Yamaha XT600 (apparently robbed from Geraint Jones’s school) to steal third place. Some 13 people finished riding Kawasakis – not wanting to knock the Green Team any more than Melber already has (ahem), but when was the last time you saw a Kawasaki trail bike let alone 13 in the results?
Today, as has become the norm, the entry has become a little less eclectic. It is of course dominated by those orange bikes. As international rally has come to embrace the 450, 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 again 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 known (he’s ‘Burt’ by the way, his partner in crime is Mark Molineaux, ‘Moly’, together they are ‘Burt & Moly’):
“We’ve come in 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 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, 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!”
I think journalism has changed. Well, I know it has – in fact it’s just about dead on its feet. But – that startling revelation aside – can you believe when Blez filed his report to Motorcycle Sport back in 1994 he wrote what looked to be about 3000 words (probably more) 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, 15 of which have already been used in our V-Strom test (last month) and at least the same number will be used in this feature.
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 we managed to put in three laps, about 105 miles of riding, and took in the full rally experience – we found the man with the drowned bike (a KTM inevitably) at the end of the Strata Florida section, watched with amusement as newbies plucked up the courage to tackle the challenge sections (and of course failed) and even pulled our V-Strom, on its side, from a bog. ‘No bogs’ said Perring in 1994 – some things do change, evidently.
Bog aside, the ethos is remarkably true to the original. A 35-mile lap made up predominantly of 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. 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 things, 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.”
Rally today is then a sort of enduro-lite. Which makes it ideal for all kinds. 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?”
AND IT GROWS
“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 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, 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.”
GET ON BOARD!
Twenty years on, rally 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 – but let’s not lose sleep over that, c’est la vie.
It’s certainly 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. It’s certainly worth giving a go. It’ll pay to have some of your skills sorted, if they’re not then consider some training, from the likes of Burt & Moly (RallyMoto) or Craig Bounds (BlackDesert Training) or others (like Patsy Quick’s Desert Rose) – a little brush-up on core techniques will get you through a rally with considerably more ease. Or maybe ride a few LDTs, that’ll tune you up, too.
And it delivers. It is fun and it is – given some basic skills – trail bike friendly, even big bike friendly. It’s keeping older riders in the sport when they might otherwise be lost (and let’s face it, these days there are more older riders than younger ones). And having said that, 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, ‘Deeks’ would be proud!
THIS WAS OUR FIRST RALLY!
(l-r)Neil Kiersey, Jan Rinvolucri, Neil Harrison, Mike Bennion
TBM: What’s your background lads?
Neil K: I’ve been riding on the road eight years, on the trails 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!
TBM: 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, amazing, we’re definitely going to do it again next year, it’s been so much fun.
TBM: 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!
TBM: Anything else?
Neil K: We need to say thank you to the 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 and everything – 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, you just need to keep on where you want to be. 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.
“Confession: I did trailer it in! I did think about riding, but we’re camping, and the idea of being wet for the whole weekend was too much. At least after getting soaked I can get in the truck and warm up and dry out a bit.
“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.”