Teo Brambilla, PADI Regional Manager, recently swapped sea for sand to race in Egypt’s world-famous Cross Country Rally. Interviewed about his experiences at the event, he had this to say:
Q: Tell us more about Pharaons Rally – what is the route and terrain?
Pharaons International Cross Country Rally is held in the Egyptian desert every year. The race is held over a period of around 7 days, covering a distance of over 2,500 kilometers and sees several countries competing against each other.
Q: What routes and terrain does the race cover?
Pharaons Rally starts at the beach resort of El Gouna, on the shore of the Red Sea:
- The first stage took us from El Gouna to Luxor, heading west and crossing mountains to reach an ancient camel track which runs along the Nile Valley and connects Upper Egypt with the Red Sea.
- On stage two we went from Luxor to the Western Oasis riding through rocky plateaus, sandy tracks and the first sand dunes.
- From Dakhla, on day three, we crossed the Western desert, heading north to reach one of the most ancient tracks in the area: a 20km route which leads to Farafra Oasis and the destination of Baharia.
- On day four, known as Baharia’s loop, we rode ride across the “Lybique desert” with amazing passages through massive sand dune chains.
- On the final day, the race left the desert to reach the point where Giza’s Plateau meets the Nile valley, finishing in Cairo on 24th of May at the boardwalk of the Giza Pyramids.
Q: What vehicles can take part in the race – and are they allowed modifications?
Normally in a Cross Country Rally, trucks, cars, quad bikes and motorbikes are all entitled to race, and of course you’ll need some modifications, subject to the rules. Mainly, you need to have drinking water fixed to the vehicle, a high fuel tank capacity (250km), and navigation/safety instruments. Your vehicle also needs to be set up for desert riding.
Q: So what vehicle did you have – and what modifications were made?
I was racing in the 450cc category, riding a Honda CRF450X bike. I had two fuel tanks (22lt at the front, 5 at the back), modified cockpit and changed the front fork springs, rear suspension stiffness, chain, sprockets and tires. For comfort I installed a steering dumper and adjusted the handle bar height and peg sizes.
Q: The rally is clearly a test of endurance. How did you prepare for this?
Originally, the rally was supposed to take place in October 2013, so my training schedule had been planned accordingly. Due to the political situation in Egypt, the race was postponed until May 2014. Although this might sound like a benefit – having longer than expected to prepare – it was actually harder. Pre-planned business trips and associated workload in 2014 meant it was harder to fit in training in the immediate run-up to the race, and an injury to my collarbone didn’t help!
My preparation focused on building stamina – so running and mountain biking were the only two sports I could practice during my trips away, and waking up extra early to train before work was hard! While in Sharm-el-Sheikh, my endurance training was replaced by bike rides; I was riding for 2 hours three times a week with a 4 hour ride on Sunday; I needed get used to riding for long periods of time, and test the reliability of the bike.
Q: So how tough was the main event? Did you ever feel like giving up?
Like any Cross Country Rally there were ups and downs! During the Special Stage I took things easy – I didn’t want to force it and fall down. On Stage 1, I focused on navigation and was confident on the bike – I had a great day and was extremely happy to finish in 15th place.
However, at Stage 2, things turned for the worse – I had a nasty fall that caused a big trauma on my right leg; it was very painful to stand on the pegs and I could barely make it to the second checkpoint where I was given an injection by the medical team. I wisely decided to finish on the road (hence the penalty). This was the toughest day of the rally with 12 hours riding – so there were lots of accidents and dropouts. In fact, by Stage 3 my team mates Gianluca and Gianmarco, together with the assistance truck, decided to leave the rally. Motivated and determined, I jumped on my bike and focused on the race!
On stage 4, despite a more ‘affordable’ route compared to previous days, the pain in my leg required a change in my riding position, as a result my forearms were killing me. After reaching the end of this stage, the bike wouldn’t start. For me, that was the hardest part – just one more stage left and a mechanical problem gets in the way! So, I spent all night working on the bike – starting at the basics until I could find out the problem (the intake valves were stuck). Without any assistance I had to seek help from official teams. Franco and his staff helped with repairs whilst David and “Pedrega” gave me the shims needed to get going again. For me this really sums up the “rally spirit” – people you’ve just met and who are your opponents, will still bend over backwards to help you finish your face.
The final stage was taken easily – I was tired, I hadn’t slept and I was aching all over. It is purely adrenaline and happiness which carried me to the Pyramids!
Q: That sounds demanding – both physically and mentally. What kept you going?
Just focusing on my objective: get to the end!!
Q: The daily route takes you over 400km of rough desert terrain. During this time, were you completely alone, or did you always have sight of other vehicles?
I spent the majority of time alone, as in areas as wide as the desert, just a few kilometers is enough not to see anyone else. There were moments when I was surrounded by kilometers of sand dunes; it’s the same feeling you have when you sail in the middle of the ocean. You feel how infinite and powerful nature is yet at the same time graceful, with a tree in the middle of nowhere or a little bird flying in front of you (that was not a mirage!) it was like magic. Even with the noise of the bike, I could feel the silence around me.
Q: So in the vast desert, how exactly do your find your way around the route?
You have three main navigation tools: roadbook, tripmaster and GPS.
A Roadbook is essentially a pilotage ‘paper roll’, listing three columns: the left column shows a distance marker, the middle shows diagrams of the trail, terrain and landmarks at that point (the “tulip”) and the right side just gives extra details. Often it uses lexicon symbols and CAP headings, and you are constantly consulting these notes through a special reader which is electronically controlled by a switch on the handlebars. The Tripmaster (or ICO) tells you how many kilometers you have covered, and the GPS is a limited tool to tell you your CAP heading (like a compass).
As you ride you keep your eyes on the trail, looking at your instruments only when it’s safe to do so. You’re checking the distance you’ve covered, comparing the kilometers with your roadbook notes whilst scanning the horizon for landmarks and references, with a quick glance at the GPS to make sure you’re on the right bearing.
As if that wasn’t tricky enough, you also have the challenge of finding special waypoints – Waypoint Masked (WPM) – which as you might guess, are hidden from your GPS within a specific radius. Each one you miss gives you a 20 minute penalty, so navigation is of huge importance in this race.
Q: Did you experience any moments where you thought the terrain might be too difficult to cross – a “shut your eyes and hope for the best” moment?
Well, my training in the Sinai desert unfortunately didn’t include massive sand dunes. So, although I was used to many different terrains it took some time to get the same confidence when climbing dunes. There’s a specific technique – you basically have to approach the dune at full speed, ensuring you have the right balance on your bike to stop the front wheel sinking, then about a meter before the peak you have to stop your bike and check what’s behind the peak. Although it doesn’t matter what you discover… you shift your weight backwards and at full throttle, you surf down. Draw your conclusion on this one!
Q: So what was your one most scariest moment, and why?
Honestly, I didn’t have any truly scary moment during the race itself. I was quite concerned when I fell on stage 2; it was on a rocky downhill section and it was really painful. My first thought took me back to the accident I had last July (when I broke my collarbone whilst training) – but after a quick assessment I knew everything was ‘in place’. My second concern was the bike, but luckily she started (albeit a little dented!).
Another tough time was on Day 4, when I reach the dunes section at midday. The sun was so strong that the sand looked flat – and this lack of depth perception meant I couldn’t tell if I was riding downhill or uphill, so I got stuck a few times. The solution sounds simple – dig the sand from below the tires, lie the bike on its side, wait for the holes to fill up then lift the bike back up in a straight position hoping it will start smoothly. But add blinding sunshine and 50+ degree heat and it gets pretty tough!
Q: After finishing each stage, what was the atmosphere between competitors? Was it friendly comradeship, united admiration for everyone’s endurance – or resentful?
It was a really friendly atmosphere! That said, there’s a really big difference in behavior between racers such as myself who spend 6 hours on the bike whose only objective at the end of the day (after servicing your bike) is to eat and sleep – and the professionals who reach the bivouacs at lunchtime, take a nap while their mechanics repair the bikes and then join the others “fresh and clean” for dinner.
Q: So where did you sleep between stages?
In El Gouna and Luxor we stayed in hotels, but the real rally spirit was over the following days when we slept in tents beside our bikes. At the end of each racing day you reach a bivouac prepared by the organisers – there’s a huge “Bedouin style” tent with FIM/FIA offices, race HQ and restaurant inside and toilets/showers outside. Spread around you are the teams’ assistance trucks and tents. It’s at this point that you’ll receive your roadbook for the next stage, listen to the briefing and enjoy dinner.
Q: Do you stop for refreshments on the road, or just keep going?
It depends on the length of the stage. Where necessary, a refueling stop is scheduled (by the organisers) in the middle of the stage. It means you have 10/15 minutes rest where you can top-up your fuel tank and water reserve, stretch your muscles and eat some energy bars.
Q: Do you have any plans for next year? Will you race again?
This is a hard question! As I was discussing with my new “rally mate” Maurizio, every time you finish a Rally (as amateurs, like we were) you think “I am crazy to be here – I am never doing this again”. But… after a few months, the evil part of your brain starts to tease you and you begin reconsidering your previous thoughts. This year, 2014, was my second Pharaons (my first was 2009). So – maybe in a few years!
Q: Last but not least – tell us why you have PADI on your bike?
As Regional Manager for PADI in the Middle East, I thought this was the best tribute for THE scuba diving training agency that (back in the 90s) changed my life forever! If I was not working for PADI, I would not be where I am today – most probably, working behind a desk as an accountant or business consultant. Instead, I’ve owned a Dive Center in Sharm-el-Sheikh for 11 years, worked for some of the top players in the diving industry and achieved the grades of PADI Course Director, TecRec Instructor Trainer, CCR and Cave Diver and, recently, Instructor Examiner. Through scuba diving, I’ve travelling the world, met so many friends and – of course – completed so many incredible dives.
Diving is more than a job – it’s a passion, and I wanted to share it with the rest of the world. What a better opportunity than the exposure at one of the most famous Cross Rally Country in the world!
Both the desert and sea give me similar feelings… whether you are diving into the water or riding surrounded by sand dunes, the ‘charm and silence’ around you is unique! In these moments you truly feel how boundless, beautiful and powerful nature is!
For more information about Pharaons Rally - click here