Early morning light strikes the Siberian tundra in a way which highlights all of its most handsome features. Color had never looked so brilliant. Who knew there were so many varieties of green? Along the innumerable waterways lay sleepy villages, some recognizable for the hundreds of bright, vivid blue, teal, amber, crimson metal rooftops which create a staggering contrast to the vast sheets of viridescent velvets and silks of the countryside. It’s not unfamiliar – the race only ventured here yesterday, yet the time of day, the angle, the weather all offers its guests a multifaceted perspective. There are lessons to be learned from a redo. Repetition is how you achieve mastery, so maybe retracing tracks from Special Stage Three was just what some of the drivers and riders needed. Not to mention that with a relatively unchanged roadbook, navigation would be more of a memory game than deciphering an encoded scavenger hunt. Some may see this as leveling the playing field. Others believe we’ve handed the title over to whomever has the biggest proverbial balls and stickiest throttle hand. In four-wheeled categories, willpower and velocity may not be adequate to alter predestination in a single impending special. And although the rally puts a thick wedge between the talent of the grassroots racers and the pros, among the elite group, speed and courage seem to be evenly shared. However, this means the instruments and fortune could eventually be the real determining factors.
For some, like mini-truck #209 in the Car class captained by Aleksei Ignatov and Evgeny Pavlov (XTREME Plus), the machine gives way under pressure, leaving them stranded for hours on the course, which happened to be in the fesh-fesh parallel to a river, giving other competitors few options to maneuver around. Clouds of light khaki powder polluted the air while cars, UTVs and KAMAZ found their way past the obstruction. While most just added to the thick veil of shimmery dust blinding onlookers and filling every orifice in fifteen-meter radius. The rebel, as one might guess, was #513 who, when faced with the obstacle, made a hard left without any hesitation (full send) and waded through the water swiftly and unbothered like an African elephant gracefully crushing everything in sight. In true KAMAZ fashion, the f*cks were set to zero. The team pioneered a path which, considering the overall attitude towards the swift currents and slippery stones of the Altai Region, only two followed suit. It might have been a broken axle, but whatever turned the Gaz A22R23 into a makeshift roadblock was fixed with a little bit of left time to cross the finish and stay on the board. They aren’t even dead last. At 7th place, they still have a spot on the upper tier of results, however with only one special remaining, it’s unlikely they could make up the time needed to break the first five spots. Only four minutes apart, the final day really goes to the top two T1 vehicles: #202 and #203. Russia versus France, a common trait among the different classes. So much of the outcome here appears to determine the podium already, but as is said, this is rally and anything can happen!
“Great! We had a really good speed on the stage. Full attack!” – Guerlain Chicherit #202, Serradorri
That same metal monster who (sort of) crossed the river the car-made barricade rolled over the finish line in 5th with Bogdan Karimov at the wheel and Aleksandr Filiakin by his side – the only two-man KAMAZ team. Their Red Bull brethren #501, with Dmitry Sotnikov, Ruslan Akhmadeev and Ilgiz Akhmetzianov in the cockpit of the brand new T5 vessel, took the number one seed. Fans and OEM alike are excited to see this innovative update to the fleet possibly claim victory during its first trial at the Silk Way Rally. All the while Anton Shibalov, Dmitrii Nikitin and Ivan Tatarinov (#500) managed to move up two spots to the second rung by the end in an epic battle against brothers, foreigners, nature and self. KAMAZ-Master promises to clean house. But there’s one band of Belarussian brothers determined to upset those plans. Although flanked on both sides by Russia’s blue giants, Siarhei Viazovich accompanied by colleagues Pavel Haranin and Anton Zaparoshchanka (#502) are holding their ground at Second Overall, giving MAZ-SportAuto a sincere chance of, if nothing else, keeping the “Masters” from standing on every step at the award celebration.
“We had a good stage. I drove faster than yesterday, because I know the Russian roads now. It’s difficult to fight with KAMAZ in Russia, but we did a good job. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.” – Maarten Van Den Brink #503, Mammoet Rally Sport
Cars once again put on a good show, although there’s only #202 and #203 really left in the running. Today it was the former, driven by Guerlain Chicherit and Alexandre Winocq (SERRADORRI), who beat out the latter with Denis Krotov at the helm (MSL Rally Team) by only 00:03:44. Unfortunately, the favored duo who have been in the running supremacy all week for suffered – as fate would have it – Considering the circumstances of revisiting a route in such a short time, with every turn and jump and speed zone memorized still, the French hieroglyphs were likely set aside altogether, scrolling just to keep tabs. But that’s up to the competitors to admit. This heat – SS4, a day after we celebrated freedom as Americans – was the tangible experience of liberty. Letting go and giving it all the gas you have in the tank and in your gut. We saw this feeling with a lot of contenders on-course, but it seemed like the Bikes appreciated it the most.
“It was really nice, honestly. It was cool to ride with not so much navigation, because you can see all the tracks and just push a lot. But the river crossings were tricky, because the cars and the trucks moved some stones, and every river was a big challenge. Finally, I had a good day, I felt confident, and the landscape was again super-super nice. The stage feels really different, than yesterday.” – Matthias Walkner #52, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
Moving so fast their lightweight machines floated off the ground taking all power away from the gravel roads and sharp rocks which lie waiting to ruin your day. The rivers and creeks were the only cause to cut power (a little) and help balance the advantages of faster bikes and greater skill to the slower versions and less proficient pilots. Daniel Chucky” Sanders (#11, GasGas Factory Racing) surprised no one when he hopped onto the 400-plus kilometer liaison, a sure-fire winner. Even his friends from opposing teams put their bets on Sanders, who is known for his sticky throttle hand and inhibition on a racecourse. The only thing slowing him down was the navigation, and with it being of no consequence, he was able to twist the throttle and gas(gas) it like he’s a convict escaping prison and gain 11-minutes on his previous results. But, even with a performance like that, Sanders is still eight minutes behind the overall front-runner, Matthias Walkner (#52, Red Bull Factory KTM). And with only one more stage left in this abbreviated event, Walkner’s only two rivals, Skyler Howes (#10, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna) and Franco Caimi (#2, Hero Motosport Rally Team) better pull out all the stops if their going to keep him off the tallest step at the ceremony June 6th.
As the gaps are just four and five minutes apart, the possibilities are slim unless the KTM golden child makes a huge mistake, or kismet steps in to take control. Maybe it’ll be Howes, who’s second overall and in SS4. Wearing his black, white and gold colors proudly, we’ve seen little wavering from him in that position in the latter half of the event. And if consistency is the secret ingredient to a successful stage, then Howes might just find the right opening to sneak into the Winner’s Circle. However, Franco Caimi, the third fastest motorcycle in Stage Four, wasn’t so far behind the leaders, but similarly to Skyler, has a lot of work to put in if he wants to climb the corporate ladder. And if he’s bothered much by the thought of being the bottom of the best, we may just see Caimi spring into action and attack over the ultimate round, if nothing else, confirming his place on the podium. Where was Andrew Short (#29, Monster Energy Yamaha Rally) in this race? Despite a pretty flawless ride all week, it was machine which beat man this time, keeping Shorty far from the throne. Even so, the brawl on Tuesday will surely produce several glorious moments of racing.
“The stage was a lot of fun. I expected it to be worse after the trucks. The most difficult part was the rivers, that are really deep, yesterday I had a problem. I’m happy to go back and keep the bike moving forward. The problem with the last waypoint was the same for everybody, I just went. At this point I’m pretty far out of the race, it doesn’t matter so much, I just make it to the end.” – Andrew Short #29, Monster Energy Yamaha Rally
The T4 UTVs are a sure thing. With only two side-by-sides left and now, a forty-minute disparity between front-men Sergei Kariakin accompanied by Anton Vlasiuk (#404, SNAG RACING) and Matthieu Margaillan with Axelle Roux Decima (#407), only a DNF could alter the future. Things look a bit better for the Lightweight Prototype class where more men and women are still going strong, constantly rearranging themselves in the pecking order all competition long. This category is the only to see not just one female-driven team, but three, in the Top Ten, with #222 Anastasiia Nifontova and Ekaterina Zhadanova primed to conclude among the first five. But there’s really no contest for the Holy Grail, because Frenchman Jean-Luc Pisson Ceccaldi and navigator Jean Brucy (#225, PH Sport Zephy) have already put eleven minutes and two seconds of dust behind him. The first team to eat said dirt coming in after them is from the MSK Rally Team, #223 carried by Pavel Lebdev and Kirill Shubin.
We’ve all been there before, a memory you didn’t know you had of somewhere you didn’t know you’ve been – triggered by insignificant moments yet striking a strong chord. Today was a little different because everyone had been there before. And those vague recollections are from reliving, which only adds to the familiarity which lets the pilots put their guard down. They’d expected the roads to be so much worse, having fifteen or so garbage trucks going all-out across the terra. But what was found, instead, was smooth, silty and fast. And although the waterways were a nervous point for even the cream of the crop, knowing they were part of the challenge helped many of the teams, riders especially, forge alternate routes using fresh strategies. It’s a relief sometimes to see your heroes crack a little under pressure. Or show even the smallest amount of fear. It humanizes them. It gives the little guy hope for a glorious future. And admitting shortcomings among any community can bring the people closer together. Yes, the obstacles were overcome. And no, there is not much time for trailing teams to catch up to the head of the pack. But it’s not always about placement. Or points. And when those points are removed from the equation, the real prize comes from self-fulfillment. From outdoing yourself and learning hard lessons. In rally raid, it’s also about connecting with people and cultures, finding compassion in their circumstances, and witnessing vistas which could bring a tear to your eye. Today and tomorrow might be reoccurring, and as tough as it is to be going home six stages short of the true finish, just when the teams, organizers and even the media find their groove, the music stops. And yet the tone of the participants isn’t bitter, but sweet. Grateful and humble and worried and, had they been given the opportunity, would put in a request for the same song over and over again, if it meant that the Silk Way Rally would play on repeat.