Common Tread

Anatomy of a rally racer

Mar 17, 2016

I ride old Harleys, but I generally feel quite a bit of camaraderie with off-road fellas.

We often do things similarly. We play in the woods, we break stuff and rig it back together to get home, and we do it on a shoestring budget on bikes others think of as junk. When the day’s done, we usually swill a massive amount of beer.

Considering that, it’s not strange I got along well with John, a former Zillan. (I can’t give you any more info. He’s one of those old-fashiony “off-the-grid” types.) John’s a tough cookie. He ran in the 2014 Merzouga Rally, an annual race that is quickly becoming a test bed for Dakar entrants. In the searing heat of the Moroccan desert, the 200-kilometer (124-mile) stages are an excellent test of both rider and machine, day after debilitating day.

Sand dunes really aren't the toughest obstacle a rally racer faces. Photo by Orietta Marchetti.

There are a million cool things John’s told me about this rally. My interest initially was in the machines: What preparations must be made to a motorcycle in order to compete? As both a rider and a wrench, John's naturally quite good at explaining what works, what doesn’t, and why. He has plenty of on- and off-road riding experience, and he’s also a pretty accomplished mechanic and fabricator. John could afford to pay someone else to turn the bolts for him, but he made an interesting point.

“By prepping the machine myself, I knew every inch of it," he explained. "When I broke down in the middle of a desert, I knew exactly what to do to access different parts of the bike. Waiting for help when it’s 120 degrees with no shade is not an attractive option.”

That's not just a regular ol' dirtbike - this machine's a purpose-built one-lunged tank. Photo by John.

I started picking his brain a little further, and two hours later, I was ready to start putting together a rally machine of my own. Here’s a rundown of some of the more notable things John did to make sure his bike survived. Before we get down to brass tacks, let me encourage you to check out the photo gallery. John provided us with some pretty incredible shots. The bike-y ones are in the article, but Morocco is evidently the most photogenic country in the world.

This is a pretty sturdy way to cover miles on a rally, but unfortunately top speeds are severely limited. RG Rally Team photo.

Bike selection

Choosing the right bike was important, because of the different terrain the course covers. Weight and carrying capacity are a delicate balancing act. Since a rally-style race traverses public roads, the machines need to be street-legal, too. John elected to start with a 2009 BMW G 450 X.

“You’ve got to remember, you’re adding a bunch of items to the bike, so starting with something as light as possible is really important," John advised. "The weight becomes noticeable when you have to keep picking up a bike in the sand and heat and you’re exhausted and dehydrated.” In that context, a single-cylinder motorcycle makes a heck of a lot of sense.

Mechanically, John’s running gear was pretty close to stock.

“Race officials make sure you’re not swapping parts by putting witness marks on frame, engine, and pipes.” John did run a “race only” fuel map, one of many advantages fuel injection offers.

Here is a "witness mark" put in place by a Merzouga Rally official to ensure that tampering didn't occur. Photo by John.

Go juice

“The BMW’s stock fuel system was inadequate for the Merzouga rally," John explained. "I modified my fuel system, but I probably would do it differently, knowing what I do now. My bike is a little strange in that it has a tank under the seat with about two gallons of fuel. I've run out of fuel at 55 miles when wringing its neck. She's thirsty when she's angry, too, so I added a fuel tank in the standard position that held another 3.3 gallons. I also had another plastic Safari tank, but I wound up not using it.”

John went on to explain that his five-gallon setup was too much fuel because it made the bike heavier than it needed to be. “It was too much fuel for a race like Merzouga, which had about 150 kilometers between fuel stops, but the setup would have been pretty good for a race like Dakar, with a bit more distance between checkpoints with fuel.”

After plumbing everything, John cut second lengths of his fuel line and zip-tied them to his fresh fuel lines. This enabled him to carry spares easily and cut down on some of the installation time needed to make a switch in the event of a mechanical breakdown.

Note the red tape marks on extraneous lines, as well as the labeling so John could easily find his main and auxiliary tank lines in the event of a malfunction. Photo by John.

The bike’s not the only thing that needs juice. The rider does, too. Merzouga rules require riders to have water on their bikes and also on their person.

“I carried three liters in my CamelBak, and another 2.2 liters on the bike," John said. "I know that sounds like a lot, but it’s hard to imagine the toll the heat takes on you. It was very difficult learning to conserve water. Early in the race, I was blowing through three liters in one and a half hours, when it should have lasted three or four. Your sweat evaporates instantaneously. Several days I drank eight liters of water, and I wouldn’t piss all day.”


One of the primary reasons for failure in a rally is electrical. John wasn’t about to fall prey to electrical gremlins.

“You pack a ton of spare fuses, obviously. I also wired the bike to a central power distribution module. Power was on one side of the bike, and ground was on the other. I ran an extra power and ground wire, but I ran them to opposite sides of the bike, so if I had a crash on one side, and something was damaged, its replacement was on the other side of the bike.”

John also wired an ignition bypass in. Dual-sport bikes like the G 450 X don’t make a bundle of excess electricity, and Merzouga bikes actually have to run two separate GPS systems. One is an intentionally handicapped unit that gives very basic information, such as ground speed, number of waypoints hit, and speeding violations. (Isn’t that nuts? A race with speed penalties?!) The other is basically a fancy version of a SPOT that allows race officials to find competitors who are lost, injured or immobile. They are required to be wired upstream of the ignition switch.

John’s G 450 X doesn’t have a kicker on it, so he figured that if his battery showed signs of weakening, he could always just turn the GPS stuff off. A brave decision when you’re a lone man on a motorcycle in a desert, eh?

Here's what a rally stem looks like from the cockpit. RG Rally Team photo.


John was pretty thoughtful (and realistic!) when it came to breakin’ down.

“Everything that was redundant had red paint or tape on it so I could quickly identify “live” items, like wires and fuel lines, from the backup items ziptied to them," John said. "And everything was clearly labeled. It sounds like overkill, but the sun and the heat can make your brains work wrong.”

And here's what John's rally stem looks like after all the body work is stripped away. Note the spare clutch lever, marked with red, the "superfluous" color of choice. Photo by John.

John also zip-tied spare levers to his rally stem. (That’s the piece that holds the GPS units. Think of it as a second dash.) He couldn’t afford to bring a whole separate set of wheels and tires, so he brought spare tires and an extra set of mousse tubes. He brought tools to use for repairs each night, and also tools that were carried on the bike. Spare parts were also a necessity. The oil and air filters were changed every night.

I could live with daily oil changes if I had this rig. RG Rally Team photo.

I thought the way John carried spare fasteners was particularly crafty.

“I took my aluminum skid plate, and drilled a number of holes in it for the common fasteners on my BMW. I then tapped all the holes, and stuck fasteners of varying lengths into it from the outside in, allowing me fast access to a spare bolt if one rattled loose,” he explained.

Of course, it goes without saying that a bunch of zip ties were used and carried at all times. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that John brought a variety of sprockets.

“They allowed me to switch up my gear ratios for the terrain we’d be facing each day. Our sprockets were all steel. Aluminum just won’t hold up to the grinding paste that is created when lube and grit mix.”

Slicker than a snotty doorknob. You can see John's spare fasteners lined up neatly, and the crafty tool pouch area sitting below. This is a great use of space. It does not impact the vital cooling airflow, nor does it reduce the bike's ground clearance. Photo by John.


John beefed up the front suspension with some heavier weight springs due to all the extra gear on the bike, and fitted a more rugged aftermarket shock to the rear.

EPM Performance custom-built a rear shock and calculated spring rates based on my best guesses on weight figures. The bike performed very well on very harsh and varied terrain.”


Rally racing may be one of the last frontiers besides land speed racing that allows privateers and professionals to race shoulder-to-shoulder competitively. The bike preparation is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also not outside the grasp of most home wrenches who have a few extra bucks to burn. I asked John: Would he do it again?

“At first I thought no, I’ve done it, I’ll move on to something else," he said. "But then you start thinking about all the things you’d do differently and now I’d like to go again in 2017.”

And the one thing he took away from this experience? “Deciding to do something scary is usually the hardest part, but in the end, what do we really have to lose?”

The terrain is hard on mousse tubes, but it's easy on the eyes. RG Rally Team photo.

Perhaps that’s more than rally advice. I bet Morocco’s more beautiful in person.