This will be the final time former GP racer Jurgen van den Goorbergh prepares for the toughest of all rallies; the Rally Dakar. The 47-year-old is neck deep into his preparations for his tenth go at the race. In three episodes we will be following his endeavors.
The beads of sweat on his forehead tell the tale. Every single training run Jurgen van den Goorbergh sets off on, follows the same basic principle. It’s more than obvious the man from Breda in the Netherlands isn’t the kind of guy who half-asses anything – with this ninety minute training session being no different. To this day it remains amazing to see the sheer ease at which the former GP racer moves through difficult terrain in the wooded Kempen area just a small hour from his home; a stretch of land he’s very familiar with. His weapon of choice is a brand new KTM 450 EXC-F. “In preparation I stick to my Enduro bike, mostly because I want to save the Dakar bike. I can’t put too many miles on that, as it has to arrive in South America as fresh as can be”, van den Goorbergh explains.
This winter’s edition will be van den Goorbergh’s tenth go at the Rally Dakar, a feat in itself. Especially considering he’s most well-known for his efforts on the blacktop. From 1992 to 2002 he was a GP regular, with a permanent spot in the premier class for the final six of those seasons. Though the Dutchman never made it onto the rostrum, he has shown his skill on numerous occasions. In 1999 he made it to pole position twice on the Muz-Weber, after taking home the best privateer titles in 1997 and 1998. That is quite an accomplishment, certainly for someone of Dutch descent.
After his first season in MotoGPTM in 2002, he went on to ride in World Supersport, finishing third in the final standings for the next two years to come. In the fall of his career he got another opportunity to show what he’s made of in Grand Prix racing, when he substituted for the injured Makoto Tamada – finishing sixth at the Chinese Grand Prix in 2005 on only his first outing on the RC211V Honda. That effort landed him a contract as a test rider for Michelin.
Taking serious risks
In 2006 Jurgen van den Goorbergh called it quits, but soon a new challenge came up, when he enrolled himself for the 2008 Rally Dakar. Unfortunately, the 2008 edition never came to be as a terror threat saw the organizers cancel the race. The following year he showed his prowess when he finished the rally in seventeenth place. “In the first week I was fighting for fiftieth place, but as I was starting to get a hang of it, I gained places fast. Seventeenth was sublime, and becoming best rookie was the icing on the cake.” That performance had to have rekindled the professional racer in him, but he is more than well aware that he will have to take some serious risks if he were to be willing to better that achievement the following years. “It all worked out that first year. That allowed me to perform as good as I did. I might have been eligible for a works seat, but I wasn’t in the Dakar for that. Of course a final result like that is mega, but I was in it more for the personal challenge than anything else. I was never going to be able to run within the top ten, especially since Frans Verhoeven [the best Dutch motorcycle racer in the Rally Dakar after the millennium] was a regular training buddy of mine back then. He wasn’t just a little bit faster than me, and I saw firsthand the risks he had to take to be able to ride that hard. I just wasn’t willing to go to lengths like that, simply because it was never realistic to close the gap and run in the top ten.”
After that attention shifted to racing in the buggy class with the GoKoBra project he had started with his good friend and sponsor Kees Koolen. His first attempts would prove to be in vain, and the buggy did not make it to the finish. Then in 2012 and 2013 he found himself at the final finish line in respectably sixty-fourth and sixty-seventh place. The following year he returned to the Rally Dakar, this time alongside Kees Koolen as his navigator in the truck class. But then in 2015 van den Goorbergh found a new challenge, once again on two wheels, when he managed to finish the race in the Malle Moto Class – meaning he had to do all his own work, and participate without a team. The Dakar is cruel mistress as it is, but in the Malle Moto Class you’re up against a tougher opponent altogether. Not only did he finish, but it looked like he might just win it at first attempt, battling with Thomas Berglund for the victory. In the end he had to settle for second place, but it would soon shine through the Malle Moto Class was the way to go for 2016 as well. “It’s Dakar as Dakar was always meant to be”, van den Goorbergh says. “Rob van Pelt used to race the box class, and that really inspired me; it’s so impressive. I had to do the Rally Dakar like that at least once. It’s just that little bit more difficult because it is all up to you. To me, that makes it extra special when you do make it to the end.”
Completely lost my way
At his second go in the box class back in 2016, van den Goorbergh didn’t just make it to the finish line; he went on to win in his class. In last year’s race van den Goorbergh tried to add yet another dimension to the race by building his own Rally bike. He took a KTM 450 EXC-F and set about building the bike to his own specifications, only to face some serious hardship when push came to shove. “By the end of day three, I went down. It looked to go really well, since I had already built up a thirty-minute lead on my competitors. With just twenty odd kilometers left in the stage, I wiped out in a big puddle. I really sort of highsided. There must have been a big rock of some sorts in the water, because I can’t really explain it otherwise. I had completely lost my way, and just sat there for about an hour. The crash had knocked me out, and every single time I tried to get up, I would just fall right over. Something was wrong; that’s a given. When a fellow Dutch participant came by, I managed to hitch a ride back to the bivouac. Once there I had two options: either work on the bike or go see the doctor. I went with the first option, because the crash had done some serious damage and the bike needed attention. But while working on the bike, I just kept running into more physical problems. Every time I would bend over, I would just tumble right over. Obviously I was badly concussed.” Somehow the KTM rider made it to the start the next day, but seventy kilometers into the stage, he had to throw in the towel. “I had taken a lot of painkillers, but I just couldn’t breathe. We were at altitude, but it turned out I had broken four ribs in the crash as well. I had no power left in me, and then you know you’re just done. I had to push the emergency button, which means you’re out of the race right then and there. Months of hard work, building and setting up everything and after just four days you’re done. It took a lot to take that in.”
The disappointment could hardly be any bigger, but just two weeks after Dakar 2017 preparations he began to get back on the bike and headed back to South America. For the upcoming edition van den Goorbergh wants to show that the bike he built has what it takes to make it. “In 2016 I saw stages had gotten way more technical. So I knew the bike had to handle well, so I set out to build a bike that is much lighter than the readily available Rally bikes. KTM’s 450 Enduro bike is a solid base to start from. Developing the bike takes up so much time, which caused the brunt of the disappointment when I had to quit the race last year. For 2018 I want to show my bike can be a good alternative for the guys who have a tight budget, but still want to run quality machinery.” By building his own bike the Dutchman has figured out a way to make his KTM a lot lighter than the competition. “That is a really big advantage, because weight reduction like that you are definitely going to notice. I’ve managed to shave off a good 24 kilos, getting the dry weight down to about 120 kilograms. I’m running a stock engine as well, so reliability is never going to be an issue. Well, stock; I have only changed the ratio for fifth gear, since it was incredibly close to sixth. But that´s it.”
Obviously the stock engine leaves him down on power a bit, but the handling is improved significantly. “In the past I had adaptation problems switching from my Enduro training bike to the Rally machine. It felt odd, because I would hardly ever ride it. With my new bike the change is seamless; it feels like I’m on my Enduro bike.”
Though he hasn’t got anything to show for right now, he has managed to find three customers for the bike already. For the former GP rider this is a means to an end, so he can stay involved in Rally raid racing after he retires. “This is it; my final go at the Dakar. So I’m really hoping this can keep me a part of the sport for a long time. Just selling the kits should do it. I would really like that.”
An entire Dakar before the Dakar
The primary reason for this being Jurgen van den Goorbergh’s final Dakar bike entry, is the crazy life involved in participating in the Rally. “I’m certainly not the youngest participant anymore. Riding isn’t the problem, but the body isn’t too happy about it anymore. Apart from the physical aspect, you’re also really straining yourself in the build-up to the adventure. It gets stressful, especially having to arrange everything yourself. It would be nice to have couple of quiet months during the winter.”
Preparations for the upcoming Rally raid are going smoothly, but van den Goorbergh has a new ‘project’ that takes up quite a bit of his time; his son Zonta. Not that it really bothers the 47-year-old, as the youngster is following in his father’s footsteps. “He’s twelve years old now, and he’s really got the right feeling for racing. He’s progressing fast, and his racing is becoming serious. That means you are going to have to put in even more time.”
Being on the road with Zonta, supporting him in his motorcycle racing career, hasn’t put any strain on preparing for the Rally Dakar at all. To the contrary, he’s feeling even better than he did at the same point last year. “I took up running again back in March, knowing I’d be doing the Dakar again. By the time I fly out to South America in December I’ll have done about five-hundred kilometers running.” Plus, he’s been doing quite a few Enduro rides as well, with a few more to come in the following weeks, stating he wants to have done an entire Rally Dakar before heading out to do the Rally Dakar. “In preparation I try to do about ten-thousand kilometers offroad, roughly the same distance we’ll be doing in the race. It isn’t easy to fit all of those rides into my schedule, as I’m still working three to four days a week in making sports wheelchairs. Though I do try to clear my schedule for December, so I can focus on the race. It all comes down to that in the end.”
Early in December the second episode of the series will be put online. Don’t want to miss out on Jurgen van den Goorbergh’s process in the meantime? Then make sure you follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Photos: Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions