Perhaps the most exciting decision to make is about what bike to ride. Not only is this a critical choice for the chances of finishing, it also defines the experience of the race. Without anthropomorphizing too much, I find a very intimate relationship with any bike that I ride for an extended period, and this will certainly qualify!
There were three realistic options that I considered.
1) 2006 KTM RFS based Mecasystems Bike (Jonah Street’s 2007 Dakar bike, which I own)
2) Yamaha WR450 with JVO kit
3) KTM 450XCW with minimal rally kit
Let’s start at the top and I’ll explain my decision.
First, racing the rallybike I already own. This bike started as a 2006 KTM 525XC, and served as Jonah Street’s racebike for the 2007 Dakar. It blew up on day 4 after the ASO removed the speed limit rule at the riders meeting, which forced Jonah to ride the bike faster than it had been designed for. After the race, it was sold to James Embro (2006 Dakar finisher) who added it to his impressive collection of Dakar bikes. I convinced James to part with it, believing (correctly, as it turned out) that it would make an ideal adventure bike. I rebuilt the motor as a 576, addressed a few other minor issues, and as it sits, the bike lacks nothing. In fact, this bike is part of the reason I was inspired to consider racing Dakar.
However, I ruled out this course of action for three reasons. First, it needs to be a 450 for Dakar, and that would mean finding a few new motors to start with and build to Dakar spec (not cheap!). Second, the bike is more complicated than I want. The focus on mass centralization undoubtedly improves performance, but necessitates an additional layer of components- a fuel pump, a low pipe, etc. Each of these parts is another failure mode, and ultimately, my goal is to finish, so improving performance is a limited benefit beyond simple ride-ability. Third, while it’s relatively fresh, with a total of only about 2000 miles, it’s not brand new. Every part becomes a question mark, and when faced with the investment of getting to the starting line, it’s hard to justify not replacing even perfect pieces. So it’s for sale (email me if interested!) and despite how much I like the bike, I decided against racing it.
Second, the JVO WR. These bikes are neat, and I had an offer of inexpensive bikes from Yamaha as a starting point. But, I have no time on the motorcycle, and no spares, nor any experience with how they work in different conditions. Starting over seemed like too much work.
Which brings me to the final option, a new KTM 450 XCW, built with a minimal rally kit. I’m going this way, for a few reasons. First, I’m very comfortable with the bike. I got one of the first 530EXCs that came out, and have had 6 of them in the years since, so I’ve got a lot of experience with the chassis and engine. In a tricky situation, I know how the bike will respond, knowledge which takes a lot of time and miles to gain. Second, these bikes have been very reliable for me. The Dakar will be a bigger challenge than any test I’ve put one through, of course, but I’ve found the package to be both durable and reliable. Third, I already own 2 of them (a 400 xcw and a 530 exc) so adding a third means I have loads of spares already collected, a huge cost savings.
Finally, building my own setup means I’ll be intimately familiar with all the details. When something breaks, I’ll know where to start looking. The effort of building is time intensive, but to be honest, I haven’t found buying stuff is necessarily less so- there are always issues to fix and development to do, at least this way, I’m working on those problems with more of my budget still intact. And a few friends stepped forward to help- Chris Vestal, my shop-neighbor and close friend, who had been working on a bolt-on nav support package anyway, and Scot Ganshert, who has been playing with composites for years and offered to help come up with a great fairing.
Next post: The first weekend of building!