Racers Joust for Rally Raid’s Hand at the Silk Way’s Final Stage
It’s about 90-degrees and humid in Gorno-Altaysk. There’s no reprieve from the sun, the dust or the insects. Even the native spectators seemed to stir a bit in discomfort, not accustomed to the global heatwave in the northern hemisphere. A significant portion of adult men stripped down to the buff, generously covering their bits with tattered cloth believed to be their underwear. Any sane human is asking themselves why they’re here. Why put up with harsh conditions, oppressive flights [read: Charles de Gaulle airport], lengthy liaisons, sleepless nights? The list goes on. The common denominator tying together all these people, beckoning them to suffer in unison, can’t be masochism alone. It’s more like lust, adoration, obsession even. If love makes you do stupid things, then rally raid is the high-maintenance mistress who makes you carry loads of luggage, lay on a puddle so her Louboutins won’t get dirty or stay up all night dealing with mood swings. Her glory is not your glory, yet you’re revitalized when you bathe in her radiation, no matter how much it hurts. Waking up with mystery abrasions is a familiar symptom of a romance with risk. And even with an abridged roster, there were still plenty of infatuated idiots ready to grapple for her, the Silk Way’s, affection. But the answer is too complex for a single sentence response. It’s a culmination of several instances and emotions. Summed up, this time, in six days.
They said it would be dangerous. Whooped out, rutted, pulverized by the KAMAZ during Stage Two. And, of course, within a heavily wooded forest in Siberia, mud by the bucket loads should be expected. But when the three fastest men pulled up to Timing & Scoring the story was a little different. And depending on who told the tale, the surprise was a blessing… Or a curse. As usual, Bikes rolled out, then rolled in first. When Matthias Walker (#52, Red Bull KTM Factory) came to a stop in front of the big red tent to exchange papers, a swarm of a locusts in the shape of DSLR cameras clicked in harmony as they snapped all the same quintessential Finish photos and shot all the necessary “so, how’d it go?” videos. Walker’s response was the positive version: it was fast, and the road was smooth, it was gas the whole time (or something like that). The organization put so much emphasis on the dangers in this section, they shortened the course for the motos to “reduce the risk.” But an uncharacteristically hot summer kept the ground bone dry. And something, whether intentionally or not, filled in all of the ruts and blemishes marked !! in the roadbooks.
Walkner’s demeanor displayed relief – mostly to be bathing and hiding from the sun soon – and a feeling that he already knew he’d won. At the base of the podium that evening, Matthias accepted his heavy, bronze tiger with a Cheshire smile, knowing he wouldn’t leave the ceremony without roasting his back tire in a smoky exhibition. With points leader in the FIM and winner of the second stage, Ross Branch, forced to retire the following day due to engine failure, Matthias took advantage of the first available seat and sat firmly on his throne that day. This is where the scale began to tip towards Austrian. KTM’s titan would have had to make a major mistake not to leave victorious, or those behind him would have needed to have the performance of a lifetime to make up five and six minutes or more. Second to reach the interviews was Skyler Howes (#10, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna) who had a similar outlook but a little less hopeful. Like his KTM cousin, he found the stage ironically safe, noting it was in better condition when they first rode through a few days ago.
“I wish we had another ten days ahead of us still and could have gone to Mongolia. This last stage was so good, it’s crazy, but the trucks actually made it better. So, I can’t wait till next year! We had five good days of racing. I’m really proud of my result. The road was really good, the bike felt great, I had no mistakes at all. I got to thank my team so much, they put in such a huge effort. I wouldn’t be able to come here without them, but they put in so much work. I’m really happy to be here at the finish line.” – Skyler Howes #10, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory
Inversely, Howes was not quite as confident as Walkner in his own results – knowing his buddy Andrew Short (#29, Monster Energy Yamaha Rally) ended in 2nd in 2019. Coming into the final stage from the second position, he seemed like a shoo-in for at least the second step. And a minor miracle for the first one. Not that he isn’t worthy of the title, only, fate had arrived early in this race, and issues don’t resolve themselves quickly in competitions of this nature. So, even by the time he hit Control, Skyler didn’t know if he’d secured second place or if Franco Caimi (#2, Hero Motosport Rally Team) – finishing 55 seconds short of Skyler – put in a good enough effort to overtake the only American with a chance at the podium. Despite a solid ride from Daniel “Chucky” Sanders (#11, GasGas Factory), which made him eligible for the podium, his point of view was a little grimmer. The stage had absolutely no obstacles to slow down the top athletes, so Sanders had no real opportunity to make up time and catch up to his adversaries. An enduro star like him is the only sort of pro who would prefer a technical race to wide open. It’s where he shines. But it just wasn’t enough and ultimately the 1st, 2nd and 3rd places were nabbed by Matthias, Howes and Caimi, in that order.
“Finally, the day was really good. It was again the same loop, like in the Day Two, but today it was much nicer. The track was smooth. The stage was quite short, but so much fun to ride. Thanks to Russia. The tracks are quite fast, so you need to find a little bit harder setup, but in the end the bike reacts really well and [does] a really good job. I’m happy to be on the podium.” – Matthias Walkner #52, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
By SS4, there were plenty of “sure things” for the Winner’s Circle. Quad champion, Aleksandr Maksimov (#102, Mari Team), was decided the day Rafal Sonik (#101, SONIK TEAM) endured some mechanical issues. A figurehead in the category, Sonik had lost too much time early on in the race to catch up to his Russian rival – no matter how strong his results were thereafter. But of the groups, it was the Quads which exhibited their king most clearly from the start. A feat achieved only once before by Nassir Al Attiyah in 2019, Maksimov dominated the Silk Way Rally as Genghis Khan had, invading a then unclaimed Siberia centuries ago, with a sweeping command over his enemies. In Maksimov’s case, he had only a single nemesis, but the accomplishment of securing every stage win is no less historic. With only two remaining in their class as well, Russians Sergei Kariakin and Anton Vlasiuk (#404, Snag Racing) gained an advantage of about 40 minutes over their French (friendly) foes in SSV #407 by the Penultimate day’s end. After today, despite a stage win from the Frenchmen, Matthieu Margaillan and Axelle Roux Decima were only able to gain one minute #404. Coming back after a five-year hiatus from rally, Guerlain Chicherit rejoined navigator Alexandre Winocq (#202, Serradorri) to confront a strong lineup of T1 warriors. It wasn’t a simple open-and-shut case. They had to work for their four-minute-plus SS5 triumph and, subsequently, besting locals Denis Krotov and Konstantin Zhiltsov (#203, MSK Rally Team) by nine-plus. Coming in at Third, 00:22:24 behind the best, were Jerome Pelichet and co-pilot Pascal Larroque (#205, Raid Lynx).
“It’s amazing to come back to racing again, I’ve been waiting for it for four or five years. To be back, especially at the Silk Way, was one of my dreams. It’s a little bit too bad that we can’t go to Mongolia, but it’s like this. At least, we kept racing, and the organizers managed to add two more stages to the race. For me it was good to get the speed, be back on the course, get the confidence and work again together with Alex. We made two mistakes – quite a lot, I have to say, but it’s good. Dakar is the main goal to fight. I was really impressed yesterday with a really rough section, full of the rocks, how fast the trucks can go. It’s a bit frustrating to be behind them, but it’s a sport, you have to wait your time to overtake them. Today we started and after 20 km we caught up to a truck and we did 40-50 km in the dust. It’s upsetting, because it’s easy to make a mistake, when you drive in the dust. But we finished the race, so I’m pretty happy. The landscapes and the people were really amazing.” – Guerlain Chicherit #202, Serradorri
The battle wasn’t over for everyone today. To include the motorbikes, where contention was more for the bottom two steps. However, there was still plenty of fight between the KAMAZ and the… KAMAZ. Oh, and let’s not forget the Maz SportAuto boys from Belarus – the only beast on-course giving hell to the “Blue Armada.” To take on a team famously conditioned by Mother Russia to execute each event with flawless precision (or someone might disappear), requires such a sizable set of balls, the Spanish dump trunk could’ve used an extra axle to carry the weight. Although #502 driven by Siarhei Viazovich with cohorts Pavel Haranin and Anton Zaparoshchanka took the golden ticket over KAMAZ in the finale, this result still placed them as runner-up in the General Standings, which is in fact the best outcome “Big Red” has ever acquired at the SWR.
“Today we took risks and showed our maximum at 100%. We pushed hard. Before that, we saved ourselves for all 10 stages, and when at the 3rd one we learned that there will be five of them, it turned out to be too late with this pace that exists today between the rivals of MAZ and KAMAZ, this number of stages is not enough. We won the third stage against Dmitry Sotnikov in 40 seconds, most likely, we won a little bit today, but in the end the result of the “Kagan’s Gold” was repeated, the same podium. It’s great that we drive after each other, we run away from each other, we go faster than the Car category. I enjoy such races when everything is in seconds.” – Siarhei Viazovich #502, Maz-SportAuto
This special was fast for everyone. A joyride-meets-footrace, Earth spun under burning rubber as the only task at hand was to not be run over by one of the purpose-built garbage trucks. Or, if they were one of the said garbage trucks, their only focus was to clean off all the roadkill at the washing station. All joking aside, if there was any question as to who would fill a seat in this game of musical chairs, those victors would be the fastest and most ruthless today. Thirty-six-year-old Dmitry Sotnikov, plus Ruslan Akhmadeev (RUS); Ilgiz Akhmetzianov (#501, KAMAZ-Master Team) maintained their killer instinct all the way to the end, finally confirming what they already knew: they’re champions. What’s most intriguing is that their brand new, updated Kamaz 43509 edition – a response to the coming spec changes in the FIM – only finished its preparations the day before shipping to Omsk. Not bad for its first test run! It was most exciting to watch how #502 would fare against this edition’s 3rd overall KAMAZ #500. In the struggle for power, KAMAZ captain Anton Shibalov and first men Dmitrii Nikitin and Ivan Tatarinov (#500) conceded to third, still happy to bring another medal back to headquarters.
The Lightweight Prototype class was the only other group to remain shrouded in a bit of mystery – at least regarding the pecking order. Until the finish line, it wasn’t clear who would place where. Punctures were unlikely on the smooth, hard-packed roadways. Space was narrow and lined with trees, so passing was also a hurdle of its own. Jean-Luc Pisson Ceccaldi and Jean Brucy (#225, PH Sport Zephy) had a heaping spoonful of glory as their timecard decided a landslide triumphant over “the Pavel’s” in T3 SSVs #223 and #232 who trailed behind between 11 and 34 minutes. But making good time today just wasn’t enough to tear the overall win away from #225. Some of the more exciting moments to witness, however, came from the fairer of competitors. Each day the women in this class were steadily climbing the proverbial ladder, and today they shined with three female-controlled vehicles that broke through the Top Ten. Number 222, Anastasiya Nifontova, concluded in 5th, Maria Oparina (#226) in 7th and Tatiana Sycheva (#231) in 8th. Notably, Belarusian Anastasiya Lianiova finished her first major rally raid, in spite of many arduous challenges like flooding her KTM 450 EXC-F in a river-crossing or avoiding the rolling rubber stamps under the “musorovozy.” From riding three different motorbikes around the world (a Honda Transalp 650, a KTM 690 and a WR 250 R), trading that sort of exploit for enduro, and now a rally, Lianiova has officially realized what many only dream of: being awarded the finisher’s medal in an FIM event.
“At the finish of the 5th SS, Ekaterina and I arrived 5th overall and 2nd in the T3 class – lagging only 10 seconds from the first SSV and from the Russian crews (except for KAMAZ). The second-place finish in our class was not accidental, and I think we figured out our pace.” – Anastasiya Nifontova #222, Nifontova Anastasiya
Our Lady Rally had been relatively drama free all week, with its few setbacks as inconsequential issues. But no serious damage or injuries, no heartbreak or huge emotional barriers to cross (well at least caught on-camera) burdened tournament. Perhaps that’s the result of a magnificent competition cut short. Or maybe, unlike others of its kind, the Silk Way Rally isn’t just meant to punish all involved. Instead, it’s intended to make their competitors think, feel and understand these places they explore so deeply. To have as many experiences and adventures as they have trials, tribulations and life-lessons. They did as rallies unofficially aim to do – bridge social gaps, test the sense of self, find balance between the natural and artificial, create harmony with the combustion engine, and, often at the finale of one’s Hero Journey, find enlightenment. Facing unforeseen factors which intervened with the Silk Way’s “perfectly made plans,” the organization sprung to action in response to Mongolia’s sudden border closures, which inevitably meant the stages would be abbreviated, but the contest would carry on. And so, what could have been a major blow for everyone involved became a welcome alternative, ending in burnouts, champagne showers and the clinking of plastic cups filled with Siberian moonshine (made by the resident Media drivers, no less). Tens of Nationalities and cultures came together to share passions, hardships and tradition. So, before we say our Goodbyes… Sit, be merry, and sip homemade whisky. Then when you’re finally inspired to speak your mind about the last two weeks, do it in classic Russian fashion: stand up, raise your makeshift glass and cheers to good health and great friends. “Za zdorov’ye!”