Get the inside scoop on some of the lesser-known stories from the KTM Factory Racing’s winning run at the 2019 Silk Way Rally.
By now, almost everyone knows that the first motorcycle class victory of the modern Silk Way Rally went to Sam Sunderland, the fastest and smartest motorcycle adventurer over the forests, steppes and dunes of Russia, Mongolia and China. The win also belongs to the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Rally team and the KTM 450 RALLY.
Before leaving for the Wild East, KTM Factory Racing Rally team manager Jordi Viladoms said: “The main challenge for us will be to adapt as fast as possible to all the challenges: the terrain, the weather, the bivouac, people, the roadbook or even food. We will have to learn very quickly.”
After the team’s return from China, we quizzed some of the members of the team to talk about one of the wildest adventures they’ve ever experienced. We found out why this particular rally was the toughest for the assistance truck drivers, what made the rally so demanding and why the old-style bivouac added a bit of magic to the race. We also got to know why team members left their heart in Mongolia and how does ayrag – fermented mare’s milk – taste.
Racing against time
Thomas Kendlbacher, the youngest member of the team will never forget his first Silk Way Rally. Assigned with the task to drive the winning team’s truck back home from China, Thomas will complete 17,000 kms behind the driver’s seat. Together with the time needed to prepare the truck, that’s a total of 70 days from Thomas’ life.
“Before leaving Mattighofen, we prepared the trucks and studied the planned route. We couldn’t know what to expect crossing all different countries along the way, so we equipped our trucks with all kinds of survival equipment,” admits Thomas. “On the third day of our journey we heard the news about the floods in the area of Irkutsk. For a while it looked like we would have to take a different route, as many roads were closed.”
“This would have meant two extra days and we would have reached our destination too late. We took the difficult decision to stay on the same road, and got “lucky”. The roads opened soon after the tragedy and by driving 820 km a day instead of 540, we made it to Irkutsk in time. The most impressive and the best moments were the ones we had meeting the locals at our many stops.”
“Although the people don’t have much, they are extremely friendly and open minded. We had coffee together and shared our stories. On the other hand, driving through the flooded city was the saddest part of my trip. The water destroyed houses and many families lost everything. I’ll never forget the look in their eyes.”
An exceptional hospitality
One of the things team members will also never forget, is the treatment they got along the route. Still, the Mongolian customs seem to be unique as they are deeply rooted in nomad culture. Being a nomad is a bit like being a rally-raid team member. They need to be able to rely on each another no matter what. There’s no such thing as a stranger in Mongolia, so entering their world felt a bit like coming home.
“We had no clue of where we were going and what we would find there, so we brought with us enough food to feed an army. The trucks were fully loaded with everything including the kitchen sink,” tells Christian Petershofer, Silk Way Rally winner Sam Sunderland’s own mechanic.
“The hospitality of these countries, especially Russia and Mongolia, is extraordinary. The people were genuinely nice and the food was amazing. In China we needed to adapt a little bit our nutrition, but in Russia and in Mongolia we ate like kings,” adds Michael Angerer, the man behind the team’s logistic planning.
As soon as the team crossed the Chinese border, everything seemed to be different. “China is a different planet,” says Jordi Viladoms: “It pushed us way out of our comfort zone, which was also a great learning opportunity. In order to be a brilliant rally competitor, you need to be mentally flexible. In China for example, it wasn’t easy to find phone connection, SIM cards and other necessities. Finally we found a way, but we also realised how much we normally take for granted.”
“I have to admit that I didn’t eat from my lunch box, and this is another psychological limitation we all faced. It was funny though when we were trying to buy some snacks at gas stations – it was always a bit of a lottery, sometimes the tastes were simply too odd for us.”
“Anyway, these stops were always fun – you see people exercising everywhere and gas stations are no exception. They line up in formation, the music blaring and for five minutes they dedicate to star jumps and stretching. Maybe I shall introduce something similar for our assistance team…”
Travelling back in time
“In Mongolia, there were big herds of wild horses, drinking from lakes all along the way. We also saw wild camels and other animals, thousands and thousands of them. You get a glimpse of what the world once was,” continues Viladoms. “Mongolia blew everyone away. In this wild and untamed place under an incredible sky. There is three million people and 40 million animals living there.
Asked about the best part of the rally, Christian Petershofer says: “We were all amazed about the big, open landscape in Mongolia, and how fast the stages were there. In China, it was really cool to see the giant dunes and how fast the terrain was changing. The taiga forest and Baikal lake in Siberia were simply stunning. In the end, we didn’t just pass three countries but the most varied terrain one could imagine. This is what makes a true rally.”
“There was a lot of bear talk before the race started there in Russia but luckily we didn’t come across any,” mentions Sam Sunderland, the new king of Silk Way. “On the other side, we saw masses of other animals, especially in Mongolia. They are beautiful to see if you are not racing.”
“All in all, the Silk Way Rally was really a cool adventure – to go from Russia through Mongolia and arrive in China also meant crazy changes in terrain, scenery, temperature and culture. How Russians can be so tall and western looking and just across the border people are small and Asian looking? It’s a crazy world and makes you think about human evolution.”
Horse’s milk, anyone?
From bears to beers… Traditionally the team prefer to celebrate victories with Austrian beer rather than French champagne. In fact, they even tend to avoid it, mostly when it’s being sprayed. It happend to Michi, when during the winning ceremony, he ran away from it, fell off the stage and took the FIM jury out like dominos. “It’s a bit painful, yet funny memory,” he recalls.
Discussing about the fermented horse’s milk, considered to as the Mongolian beer, opinions vary. “I felt quite honored when the locals offered me a glass of mare’s milk, called ayrag. I actually liked the taste. Mongolians performed every evening a show in the bivouac, allowing us to enter into their world and their culture. Ayrag is their traditional drink, which really fitted into the scenery,” comments Jordi.
The bivouac magic
Multi day rallies are tough and sleeping in luxury hotels doesn’t make them any easier. What does make them more bearable is the bond between team members, which occurs mostly during their bivouac nights. Sleeping in tents, improvising briefing locations, sharing thoughts, worries, joys and fears – that’s what makes rally racing so special.
“The teamwork in this rally was cool, we had no campers, we used no hotels, so we either slept in tents or in the trucks. Riders were always around, painting the roadbook, relaxing, everybody was there, helping others,” says Christian. Michi’s impression is quite similar: “For me it was one of the best rallies we ever had and I’ve been in the sport since 2003. We were close at all times, so the team spirit was pretty high, just like the old days.”
It’s also been a long time since the team manager slept in a tent. “Tasting the bivouac and its spirit was amazing, this is exactly how I discovered the discipline many years ago. The best thing is sharing, good and bad, this makes the team what it is. For me, as leader, is also easier to see what’s really going on. I can say this rally made us even stronger.”
Ride fast, adapt quickly
To wrap things up, a brief race report by Jordi might as well be needed… “We knew at the beginning that the winner would be the rider best able to adapt as we were going from country to country. We started with technical tracks in the Siberian forest, high pace and not so much navigation. Afterwards, we jumped into the Mongolian steppes, tackling flat and extremely fast stages.”
“On one of them riders raced at an average of 120 kph. Besides the speed, the tricky navigation in Mongolia made it a real test for our riders, and this is where Sam won the race. I didn’t sleep much in the steppes, to be honest, the connection was surprisingly good so Google Earth kept me company. China, on the other hand, offered slow but very technically difficult stages with lots of waypoints.”
“The weather was changing as fast as the terrain and the rally was even tougher because of its length. It was an amazing journey, a ten day long dream. Especially in Mongolia we made a big step forward, everyone individually and as a team. I couldn’t be happier with the final results.”
Photos: Rally Zone/KTM