Desert riding broken down by the KTM desert tribe

With the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the first KTM Ultimate Race checked off and the big news about the Dakar Rally moving to Saudi Arabia, we wanted to elaborate on the moment’s hot topic.

Hello, desert!
The shortest guide on desert riding ever done will necessarily touch on technique but will – more importantly – cover the other side of desert racing: adaptation, preparation, navigation, hydration, nutrition and mind-set.

Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2019 © Rally Zone

The biggest secret
“To become a great desert rider, you need the right mix of talent, knowledge and experience,” says Jordi Viladoms, KTM Rally Team Manager, and accomplished Dakarist. “You can be fast because you are brave, and you can be fast because you have truly connected with the terrain. On the one hand, the desert offers you a sense of complete freedom, but at the same time sets the rules which are extremely dangerous to break. Out there you are responsible for your own life, there is no one to blame, except nature. Very few riders understand where to accelerate and where to slow down, and that’s the whole secret. It’s not just about momentum, that’s technique, but also about finding your own speed limit while correctly interpreting the shapes of the terrain. The desert offers clues, yet you need a lot of experience to figure them out. When racing in the dunes, you normally want the straightest line because it’s the shortest way, but in the end you don’t choose your line – the desert will choose it for you. All you need to do is to let it happen, with a great deal of respect.”

Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2019 © Rally Zone

Interacting with the sand
“Riding in the dunes feels like skiing or surfing,” says Chris Birch, hard enduro specialist and offroad coach. “I think one of the coolest things about riding the bike is how you and your bike integrate with the terrain. In hard enduro, you are looking for the traction, working with the terrain, working with the side of a mountain to get you through, and in the dunes it’s like a really fine version of that. Find the right line and the dunes will be easy to cross. If you get it slightly wrong, you’ll be thrown off your rhythm. It’s all about the feeling, which you get by doing it a lot. In the desert, especially while tackling the bigger dunes, you want to keep your momentum, which is not always an easy thing to do. Always take care to keep a good, aggressive riding position so a soft patch of sand won’t throw you over the handlebars. And once you figure out the sand, you will need to focus on navigation. It doesn’t matter how fast you are if you’re going in the wrong direction.”

Chris Birch (NZL) KTM 790 ADVENTURE R © Sebas Romero

Multi-task effectively
“First of all, if you want to win a desert race, you mustn’t get lost. This means, you´ll need to have learned a lot about navigation. On the other hand, in order to learn to read the terrain, you need to spend a lot of time in the dunes. Even when you think you have mastered these two things, the unpredictability or the sunlight kick in. When the sun is very high, you get snow blind and you don’t see the contour of the ground,” says Sam Sunderland, 2017 Dakar winner and one of the best desert readers in the world. “Looking closer at the desert: You have all sorts of terrain, and dunes: small, medium, big, even giant. Each type you tackle in a different manner. The giant dunes are not the most dangerous ones, but they will suck the life out of you. Small dunes are dangerous, your speed is higher and sometimes they come with a drop. The idea is not to jump any dune, your goal is to always keep your wheels on the ground,” he adds.

KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2018 ©

Keep calm and eat dates
“First of all, to be able to race in the desert for five or more days, you need to spend time out there before the race. It’s a little bit like going to places with low oxygen; the best way to acclimatize is to climb the mountains and get used to it,” says Mohammed Jaffar, a Kuwaiti motocross and rally-raid competitor. “You can’t know the creature if you haven’t faced it at the highest temperatures, or with a storm creeping up on you. Speaking of extreme conditions, your everyday fitness diet most probably won’t suit the heat. You need carbs that will help you recover. In the days prior to a desert rally, I eat lots of white steamed rice and tuna, though my main source of energy are dates. If the Bedouin people have survived for thousands of years with the help of dates, I will as well. And because not everything in the desert will go as planned, always do your best to try not to panic. When you are stressed, you can’t think clearly and you start making the wrong decisions. In the desert you are alone, so play it smart. To reduce stress to a minimum, you need to be 100% prepared. I am always keeping lists of everything I might need.”

Sam Sunderland (GBR) Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2019 © Rally Zone

Be mindful, pace yourself and drink as much as you can
“The biggest dangers in the desert are you, the decisions you make, the dust and dehydration. Speaking of hydration, start by overhydrating yourself at least two, three days before the race,” says Quinn Cody, a multiple Baja winner and KTM R&D rider. “In fact, what you have to do is to overhydrate your body, and keep your electrolytes going. During the race, you’ll always want to keep your hydration level high, so be mindful and don’t forget to drink as much as possible. In case you run out of water, be creative and proactive – stop at the first sign of human life and ask for a sip. It also helps not to make any navigational mistakes. In the desert, it’s very easy to dry out with the heat, the wind and riding a bike at high speed, so you’ll need to drink a lot more than in a normal enduro race. Focus and don’t make too many mistakes – saving your energy in the desert is fundamental,” explains Quinn. Just take a look around if you need proof, all living creatures in the desert have that one thing in common, they´re masters at saving energy!

Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2019 © Rally Zone

Focus + confidence = flow
“In the desert, you never know what comes next and that’s the most challenging part,” says Luciano Benavides, the youngest member of Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Racing Team who just reached his first rally world podium. “The unpredictability is part of the game, you don’t know the constantly changing terrain you are riding on and that’s something you need to embrace and accept. On the other hand, there is something you can work on, and that’s your confidence. The less fear you experience, the more relaxed and smooth your ride will be. If you get tense and scared, you’re not going to ride well and you won’t be in the flow. Being in the flow is simply amazing – all the dunes seem perfect, the line you take is ideal, you think of nothing and just enjoy riding. This is something I haven’t found in other parts of my life, only in the desert. I can’t even compare it to being in love.”

Luciano Benavides (ARG) KTM 450 RALLY Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2019 © Rally Zone

The desert will teach you quite a lot
“The main thing I’ve learned in the desert is that you must never ever lose your concentration. Many unpredictable things happen out there, but you only make it if you don’t lose focus. In the end, in the desert you don’t fight with other people, more with yourself, and those victories over yourself are the most important. You learn to take care of your own business rather than worrying about others,” thinks a former MX3 World Champion and 2018 Dakar winner Matthias Walkner. “If you want to be a desert racer, be one 24/7. It all counts: From the food you eat, the thoughts you think, the friends you surround yourself with. And then, go out and ride! The desert wants you fully committed.”

Matthias Walkner (AUT) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

Photos: Rally Zone | | Marcin Kin | Sebas Romero