Chasing the white tiger: Jordi Viladoms talks us through the brand-new adventure of the KTM rally team
After the amazing 1st-2nd-3rd podium in Lima and the 1st-2nd podium in Abu Dhabi, the KTM rally team is again READY TO RACE – this time by taking the road less travelled, diving into the unknown. “I am intrigued by the unknown,” says the team manager Jordi Viladoms, “which is good, but we still might be troubled by some questions.”
Why have the members of the factory rally team spent so much time lately at the Russian, Mongolian and Chinese embassies around the world? Why have the assistance team set off for a 2-week road and ferry trip from Mattighofen over Finland to Irkutsk already on June 20 (and why will the road back last one more week)? Why has Jordi Viladoms been thoroughly studying the terrain of Siberia, Mongolia and East China lately, and some basic vocabulary of the respective countries? Why has the team decided to share a cook with another team for this adventure and stored some extra tuna cans in the truck? Why can’t we predict the race’s outcome with more precision this time around? The answer can be summed up in three words: Silk Way Rally, where for the first time in its history motorcycles are joining the party.
Greetings from Siberia
The last time the rally team tackled a very different adventure was back in 2009, when the Dakar Rally moved to South America. This year, however, many novelties are on the world rally-raid menu: for the team as for the team manager. “Still, the most difficult part of racing is always the most attractive one,” says the KTM rally team manager. For a former rally-raid racer and a Dakarian a new rally adventure is the best thing he could have hoped and wished for. If the latest versions of the Dakar Rally lacked a bit of this aspect, the Saudi Arabian edition and the upcoming Silk Way Rally surely won’t. The orange team has just passed the technical and administrative verifications in Irkutsk, Siberia. Racing in the footsteps of Marco Polo starts tomorrow.
A little bit of history
At the beginning there was silk. The Silk Way Rally derives from the Silk Road, which derives from silk, a major reason for the connection of trade routes into a transcontinental network. Even if Marco Polo didn’t label any road a “silk” one, the Silk Road is often associated with him. When asked about Marco Polo, the 39-year-old Catalan replies: “I know he was smart, and had great ability to adapt. He made himself known, even famous doing this route. We are no different from him, except that we travel a little faster.” The temptation to cross the wild countries of immense taiga forests, never-ending steppes and the magic Gobi, has always been there. Much before the first Silk Way Rally in 2009, which connected Kazan in Russia to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, there was another, much longer race. The Peking to Paris motor race was firstly an automobile race, originally held in 1907, between Peking and Paris. The winner, the Italian prince Scipione Borghese, needed two months to complete the incredible 15,000 kilometers. He started at the French embassy in Peking, now Beijing, on June 10 and arrived in Paris on August 10. It was a full “malle-moto” competition, with camels carrying the fuel, not to mention that the prince also made a little touristic detour to see Petersburg. Heinz Kinigadner, who won the 1995 edition of the Paris-Moskow-Peking rally, of course made no detours of any kind.
White Tiger Trophy
Back to the Silk Way Rally … In the next three years the event was held exclusively in Russia. After a three year break the 2016 edition consisted of the Moscow-Astana-Beijing route. The 2017 edition started in Moscow and finished in Xi’an in China. Last year the Silk Way Rally split in two parts, the Russian and the Chinese; the international crews battled on the route between Astrakhan and Moscow. This year the competition crosses three vast countries and is also introducing the motorcycle category. And while the Italian prince won a magnum of champagne for a win, the winner of the Silk Way Rally will get a White Tiger Trophy. The masterpiece was designed by Denis Simachev, a famous Russian fashion designer. In Chinese mythology the white tiger symbolizes courage and strong spirit, which will be needed to take the trophy home.
Into the unknown
5,000 kilometers (well, 5,007.96 to be precise), 2,593.15 km of timed sections, 10 stages, 3 countries – these are the main figures of the 2019 Silk Way Rally edition. On paper it looks much like the Dakar some years ago, but Jordi Viladoms, the team manager whose first official assignment was the Dakar 2019, says the comparison with the “toughest race on the planet” is not necessary. “Of course, the urge to compare the two races is huge, though I am quite sure the Silk Way Rally is a race with its complete own identity, different character and different challenges to face. But firstly, and more importantly, for us this is a leap into the unknown. The main challenge will therefore be to adapt as fast as possible to all the enigmas we will encounter: to the terrain, weather, type of bivouac, people, different organization, and even food. We heard the food there is really … interesting. I guess we will just have to be flexible and to learn very quickly.”
Three riders on the mission
The Dakar 2019 left its toll, so two warriors will miss out on the newest Eastern front: Toby Price and Matthias Walkner still haven’t fully recovered from surgeries. “We go to the Silk Way Rally with Sam Sunderland, Luciano Benavides and Laia Sanz,” explains Jordi Viladoms. “Matthias and Toby are still not ready to compete at this point and they will only join the team for the Atacama Rally in September. For Laia this is the first rally she is taking part this year, after her brave performance at the Erzbergrodeo. Sam and Luciano are both in shape and hungry to race. After only one championship race, they are first and second in the world rankings. The three of them are big fighters, capable of taking on a long race.”
Way out of the comfort zone
“There is another interesting aspect concerning the most difficult race of the championship,” he continues. “Because of the length, the scoring in this race is different. Instead of the usual 25, the winner will get 37.5 points. This is a race and a half we talking about, so it will be massively important to finish it in a good position. The cross-country rallies championship has a new concept this year: there are only four races, but much more variety. I think the decision to include the Silk Way Rally into the World Championship is a smart one; it will make the discipline stronger and bring it back to its roots. One of the fundamentals of the rally raid is to leave your comfort zone and this rally will certainly take us way out. For instance, our assistance team had to travel 14 days to come to Irkutsk and will spend three days more to return home from China. Getting visas was no walk in the park, for some team members a trip to the Chinese embassy was the real first stage of the Silk Way Rally.”
How to prepare for the unknown
“I studied the history of the race, trying to understand what happened in the previous years, and looked closer at the route. Theoretically, I am aware of the challenges that await us, but we will see for ourselves when we get out there. Besides this there is another interesting point: We will visit countries with cultures we have absolutely no clue about. I’ve been also trying to learn some basic vocabulary, but there is no guarantee people will understand me. This new rally is a total new adventure, so in this sense it does remind me of the African Dakars and those endless deserts we knew nothing about. If there was one race I would still be tempted to do, this is the one.”
Exploring the route
The first stage (leg distance: 255.53 km, special stage: 50.87 km) will cross the Siberian taiga forest, leading the racers from Irkutsk to their first rally bivouac on the shores of Lake Baikal. In the second stage (leg distance: 413 km, special stage: 212.02 km) the rally caravan will reach Ulan-Ude close to the Mongolian border. In the third stage (leg distance: 691 km, special stage: 243 km) the rally will head to Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, trying to avoid many dangerous ravines down the road. The fourth (loop) stage (leg distance: 476.96 km, special stage: 470.19 km) is all about the speed in the steppes. In the fifth stage (leg distance: 364.59 km, special stage: 337 km) the racers will touch the Gobi desert, reaching an altitude of 1,600 meters on the way to Mandalgovi. The sixth stage (leg distance: 411.75 km, special stage: 408.17km) will lead to Dalanzadgad, still characterized by high speed on the wide steppe roads. The seventh stage represents a Silk Way Rally style rest day – the challenge of the day will be the Chinese border crossing, before reaching the city of Bayinbaolige after a 550.66 km long liaison. The eighth stage Bayinbaolige – Alashan (leg distance: 785.11 km, special stage: 326.6 km) will be the longest one and the first one featuring real dunes. The dunes will also spice up the ninth stage (leg distance: 501.2 km, special stage: 290.30 km) from Alashan to Jiayuguan. The rally will finish the next day in Dunhuang. The last stage (leg distance: 556.66 km, special stage: 255 km) will again lead the racers on fast gravel roads to finish the adventure full throttle on July 16.
It’s gonna be fast and tricky
“A lot of hard pack means the rally pace will be extremely fast overall,” comments the team manager, and continues: “Many stony kilometers will also be quite tasking on the bikes, particularly on the wheels. The starting position will have less of an affect because of predominately gravel tracks, but there are other challenges to take into account. For example, a lot of wild animals in the forest are another threat to the riders. On many days we expect to suffer the heat, while on the other days we predict thunderstorms. I will as always try to anticipate as much as possible and make the best possible plan for every next day. This is what a sport manager does. My business card says team manager, but I am also a rider’s coach as I have been for the last four years. All in all, I will always be an ex-rider, living and breathing the rallies as one of them. Part of my mind therefore takes care of the smallest detail that can happen to the rider, while the other part needs to see the biggest picture possible. So, here we are, in Siberia, the team as solid and motivated as ever, ready to go all-in, acting like a family, breathing for the same goal, dreaming the same dream.”
Photos: Sebas Romero | Rally Zone