Hellas Rally Raid 2017: Heroes at the Gulf of Corinth
The cold slowly creeps in around my sleeves and the collar openings of my jacket. It’s almost five o’clock in the morning, and epic music with sounds of double-bass and electric guitars drift from my headphones into my ears. One last try to get a bit of sleep before going on to the final stage of the Hellas Rally 2017.For the last days I’ve been rolling through the Balkan countries, organizing my thoughts and trying to work through some personal setbacks that came up just before setting out. Motorcycle riding is therapy! The rhythms of the music are intoxicating, calming and eventually allowing me to get the bit of sleep I’d hoped for. Then suddenly, bright lights flicker before my eyes, and something rubs against my leg. I’m thrown out of the calm of sleep. “They’re here!” I think to myself and slowly open my eyes. To my surprise it isn’t Sandra and Bartek from our media team who were planning to pick me up here. No, it’s the Greek police. The situation is a bit surreal, the man in front gestures wildly, shining the flashlight in my eye. I see an ambulance and a bunch of blue lights. Taking the headphones off I stand up and explain that I’m fine and just wanted to take a snooze in the emergency parking lot of the empty highway. In the background I see the Polish van from Bartek and Sandra rush by and wave after them. “We thought you were dying”, he says relieved.
Mythology covers the history of the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. After my first Hellas Rally in 2016 it was clear that heroism resides in each participant, whether rider, organizer, mechanic, etc., and that together they bring the event up Mount Olympus. For that very reason my anticipation grew for the start of the 2017 edition.
On the narrow roads of the surrounding mountains I quickly catch up to the small bus from Team Xrepo (Sandra and Bartek). The clever Michal Latoch is again participating this year. He trains in Greece for his dream and would like to be a contender for the Dakar 2018 and bring honor to his native Poland. For me, it’s a great feeling to be together with this crew again. We reach the western Greek town of Napfaktos with its 13,000 inhabitants on the Gulf of Corinth. After the two-year stint on the island of Euböa, the Hellas Rally is returning to its old stomping grounds for this edition. Since 2011, organizer Meletis Stamatis has held an affordable rally in central Greece, one that even amateurs can participate in, thanks to a manageable level of difficulty. This year the participation grew to 199 riders from 25 nations, among them seven motorcycle classes, as well as classes for SSV and quads. There is something for everyone.
The Greeks welcome the rally with open hearts. Souvlaki skewers sizzle over the fire, ouzo (a popular Greek liquor) is poured, and the Greek salad displayed before me couldn’t be any bigger. It makes it easy to feel good here for all those involved.
In contrast to the African rallies where the bivouac changes location every night, here it remains in one place, changing the character of the event somewhat. For the traditional rally fans this might be viewed in a negative light, but it has its advantages and above all gives the amateurs the chance to concentrate more on their riding and having fun.
The prologue is short and intensive, going straight into the mountains. The terrain and surroundings are breathtaking. Fast stretches through patches of forest, smaller enduro passages with rocks, holes, and a continuous view of the sea. Doris, the goddess of the sea, has me captured for a moment and my concentration really isn’t on my press bike. Indeed, following a few bumps my rear tire skids way out to the side—I can’t control the heavy KTM 690 and all the camera equipment. A permanent grin softens the feeling from my swollen hand there on the first day of prologue. It takes a bit more time to get back in the swing of things but fortunately the pain goes away quickly.
Just like at the other rallies, here we also turn our hotel room into the “midnight press room.” We sit there deep into the night, sorting through photos, editing material, and planning the next day. It’s a blessing to be able to observe the rallies from different perspectives but at the same time a bit of a curse to withstand the permanent stress and sleep deprivation; I’m either riding, taking pictures, talking to the participants, or sitting at the computer.
The soundtrack from last year’s rally blares out of the alarm clock, yanking me from my slumber. Chronos, the god of time, calls me back to my bike, after just three hours of sleep. I get about an hour’s head start on the riders going into the stage. The night prior I had selected a route on Google Earth, a serpentine trail that clings to the slope and has views of the sea. I can’t permit a fall but at the same time need to be quick enough that I don’t get overtaken. After all, I don’t want my “rally ship” to be in the way when the fast guys speed by.
The spot turns out to be a stroke of luck, and I use the rest of the waiting time to relax. I’m not alone here, in one of the serpentine curves there is a small farm where feta cheese is made. The farmer joins me in the applause curve and hands me a bit of breakfast. It’s not just the speed and competition that count but moreover the feeling of adventure that brings people to these events, something that can also be felt in Greece.
Ugo Filosa on his Honda Africa Twin gets quite close to us on his way by, rocks flying everywhere, scaring up a horde of grasshoppers which fly around and disappear into the cloud of dust. His sound is forever engrained in my memory. Last year the Italian jockeyed for a win in the two-cylinder class with his brand-new Africa Twin. However, Dirk von Zitzewitz was able to take him out of the top spot with his modified Touratech Africa Twin. Again, this year Ugo comes back to the bivouac as “Malle Moto,” struggling like David against Goliath, only this time with New Zealander Chris Birch, the off-road coach who’s world renown for his artistic riding style. His machine is a KTM 1090, and he’s impressive on it. While Chris has a KTM mechanic on his side and is professionally accompanied by his clever Team Kinigadner, I catch Ugo that evening with his own tools and a head lamp, working away on his mistreated machine. Still, he seems to always have a smile ready for me.
I watch the edge of the route through the search field of my camera and, in comparison to a large part of Chris’s riding field, it seems like a measured harmony of balance and strength. A very impressive and technical riding pureness! Chris invites me to lunch with his wife and daughter who accompany him at this event. As it is so often, such a life is only possible with the support of family. He had won the New Zealand championship eight times in a row before also winning the Red Bull Romaniacs, taking part in the Dakar, and now teaching off-road riding to between 400 and 500 people yearly. An impressive achievement, one that I tip my hat to. The smart family guy answers my question of what drives him: “It’s the satisfied participants at the trainings, their achievements, and ever-present challenges that arise within the motorcycle sport.” One of those is the KTM 1090 project. He raises the bar even higher this year, entering the Red Bull Romaniacs on the “Beast.” What he finds best about the Hellas Rally is its adventure character. More than just a race on a fenced-off track, it’s a ride through spectacular landscapes with access to the Greek back country.
There isn’t another event in the rally calendar I know of, where professionals and amateurs rub shoulders with each other and friendship prevails. No giant motor homes, private tents, or “star attitudes” but rather a common passion that connects.
Erebos, the god of darkness, dominates the mid-section of the Special Stage. Lightning, heavy rain, fog and hail through half of the route make it into an uncomfortable situation. I’m standing nearby at 1,700 meters trying to guide my drone through the fog back to safety before the rain hits. It’s not the drone I’m really worried about, rather the memory card! Just after packing it into my bag I’m overtaken by the weather front.
Back at the bivouac I find out about the other tributes that Erebos summoned. An accident had already occurred the day prior in which two riders ran their front ends into each other. Sadly, one of them was injured and in the hospital. Today it was the Spanish team with Isaac Feliu, who suffered several set-backs. Alongside a broken chain, defective radiator, defective wheel bearing, and resulting jammed back wheel, the team had broken ribs, a broken collar bone, and a situation that no one could believe: the back tire of Isaac’s BMW F800GS swerved too far out while crossing a small bridge, sending him six meters into a ravine! He must have had a diligent guardian angel as he came away without being hurt. Not so for his bike, as the fork, back frame, and various other parts are badly bent, and for him the rally had ended. I’m happy to see that back at the bivouac, his team is able to laugh at the turn of events. Yes, technical defects, injury, and in rare cases even worse things do happen in this sport. But everyone knows that it’s part of the game, and a life totally without risk….
Those who do prefer something more low key, without the pressures of competition, can take part in this event and have fun with other like-minded riders at the Adventure Raid, riding the rally tracks with GPS on an offset schedule. The good rally atmosphere is a nice bonus, and there’s something for everyone at this event. Michal, or as I call him “Mother Poland,” gives me a savory, very tasty Polish bratwurst from the grill and another glass of vodka. As part of the media crew, we’re there for him an integral part of his Malle Moto team, and after finishing all of his daily work he doesn’t hesitate to help me tighten all the bolts on my press bike. That evening I look at the day’s ratings, in the big bike class, following Isaac’s exit, only Ugo and Chris are left with similar times, struggling for the top spot. In the elite class it’s Gerard Farrés and Stefan Svitko who, just like last year, go head to head throughout the entirety of the rally and deliver an impressive performance. It doesn’t surprise anyone, however, as both are top riders with years of experience and podium spots at the Dakar.
Gerard and I meet for an interview, and during our conversation he sheds light on a totally unexpected POV from a professional in the sport. He is one of the private riders who has almost seen it all in this sport. The Spaniard is like the guy next door, who tells me about his life, taking part in his first race at 15 years old in a small Spanish village. He often needed to pull out of races as a result of breakdowns, when his family didn’t have any leftover money for repairs. However, he never gave up his passion, which serves him today as his biggest driver. His eyes fill with enthusiasm as he begins telling me about his time at the Dakar in Africa and later South America. In the beginning years of the Dakar he had technical difficulties and was not competitive at all. He was the water boy for Marc Coma, gaining experience while passing up an offer from Honda. Being his own boss was his goal, and he developed an intensive partnership with his current main sponsor. He believed in those around him and they in him. The result was a third place as an independent rider at the Dakar 2017, working together with a common ambition, passion, and cohesion. To my question, how long he planned to keep doing this came his quick answer, “As long as my family stands behind me in this.” His wife and both daughters mean the most to him, and he tries to offer them the best this sport has to offer. When the Dakar in Africa got canceled, he thought first about the people living there. He sponsors a child in Africa and supports him and his family with the important daily needs. Those are the values he strives to pass onto his two daughters. As such, following our conversation I send him the link to my video report about the school project from Fabrizio Meoni in Dakar, with the request that after the rally he watch it.
The wind blows, the scent of moist plants hangs in the air, and water vapor rises from the drying pavement. At 5:30 this morning the motor sends an orchestra of sound over the empty mountain road, and I enjoy the ride on one of my last and longest stretches of the week. It is Helios, the god of the sun, who means well with me this morning. I turn onto a small path, up into the highest chain of mountains of this rally at 1,700 meters. A breathtaking scene unfolds before my eyes. The surrounding valleys below are shrouded in mist and I breeze alone through the stage, still ahead of the other riders and leave behind the first tracks of the day. My motorcycle roars along like a hovercraft over the rock-studded trails. It takes a while before I can let myself stop to capture the surroundings on film. A great feeling! Having arrived and after a short pause to relax, I see Gerard and Stefan fly by in first place. This time however not in full-throttle mode. No, they ride together, Stefan’s roadbook broke today and Gerard has taken him by the hand. Together they ride side by side toward the day’s finish line. Another moment of goose bumps!
To my surprise the day ends in rain, although this time I stay dry. I’m already sitting in the bivouac as the weather worsens and see Stephanie Rowe from England, trembling and limping through the camp. “She did it,” I think and walk towards her. Her eyes radiate both exhaustion and happiness, and I can only think of one sentence, which I give her on her way: “Steph, you can really be proud of yourself.” A smile from her bluish lips is enough of a reply. For more than two years Steph struggled back to life following an accident at the GS Trophy. The doctors told her she would never be able to walk without pain again, and now I see her here in the bivouac. For her just entering the rally was a huge win!
The moment has finally come, floodlights shine, and the flash of cameras capture the excitement-laden atmosphere. The voice of organizer Meletis booms out over the joyous crowd, medals and trophies are presented and all of Nafpaktos celebrates its guests. Gerard Farrés receives the crown in the elite class, followed by Stefan Svitko and Andrew Klimchief. For the big bikes it’s Chris Birch who claims the title, followed by the week’s nice guy, Ugo Filosa. For the Quads it was Gary Aldington ahead of Sebastian Souday and Alexandre Giroud who delivered the best performance. And then there’s Steph, dancing wildly in front of the podium! Perhaps it is Morpheus, the god of dreams, who made it possible again that so many participants were filled with courage and passion. In almost obligatory fashion, Sandra and I move along with the fantastic and familiar crowd swarming around the crazy-for-motor-sports Kinigadner family into the city, celebrating this finished edition of the Hellas Rally Raid 2017.
A smile spreads across my face as I check my in box on departure day. “Thank you very much for this great video. I cried with emotion. It is unbelievable, thank you very much. Gerard Farrés.” Rally sport is much more than just a race, it also shapes our compassion for others!
View the embedded image gallery online at:
Facts about the 2017 Hellas Rally RaidArrival: The event location of the Hellas Rally Raid has been, up to this point, moved to a different location every two years. With planes one can be in Greece in less than three hours from anywhere in the EU, and your motorcycle can be transported to the event through a service team. If more time is at hand, one can also arrive there on their own vehicle (motorcycle, etc.) and combine the rally with further travel. The route through the Balkans provides excellent travel opportunities.
Accommodation: The Hellas Rally doesn’t have a “wandering” bivouac and therefore one can check into one of the many hotels for the week. Those who want it closer to nature can pitch a tent in the bivouac.
Navigation: As in other rallies, here roadbooks are used for route navigation. The roadbooks are given out daily at the evening briefing. The navigation with the “prayer scrolls” takes some getting used to, but there are various trainings offered. For participants of the Adventure Raid, there is no roadbook but rather navigation takes place with GPS Track.
Entrance/Cost: From professionals to amateurs, everyone participate in the rally and for each motorcycle the right class can be found. Starting fees are around 600€. On top of that are the costs for room and board, material, and a service team, assuming one wants mechanical tune-ups, and transportation organized. More information can be found at HellasRally.org.
Weather: Greece is warm and Mediterranean. The rally takes place in May and therefore the temperature allow for motorsport. Cooler temperatures can be found in the mountain stages or with a cold drink of the evening bivouac ambiance.
Service Teams: With or without a service team depends on the different situations. I normally prefer a service team for beginners and those who arrive riding their own motorcycles. The costs for the service vary and are often dependent on the depth of service. A list of available service teams can be found on the Hellas Rally website.
Raids: It’s also possible to ride the same or slightly changed routes outside of the ratings. The word for that is raid! One is free from the pressure of competing and rides an adventure tour with GPS. This year there was a raid parallel to the rally, and for safety reasons the routes were ridden offset from the times of the normal rally.
Medical Assistance/Safety: The different routes have various checkpoints at which there are medical personal at hand. The off-road routes of the Hellas Rally are mostly not far from paved roads. Therefore, in serious situations fast help is at hand. As an extra safety net each person receives a GPS tracker, over which the current position can be monitored so that no one is lost.
Bastian Brüsecke, who grew up around motorcycling, believes in choosing the right tool for the job—whether it’s written articles, photography, or film. His goal is to bring stories to others in such a way that will motivate them to get out there and experience the adventurous life for themselves. He’s a member of Rally Cool Photographers, a collective of adventure travelers, photographers and storytellers. Their office is the deserts, high mountains and bivouacs in the middle of nowhere. They live their dreams and aim to capture moments that inspire others. MotoVenture.de