Ride Race Repeat
December 12, 2016
Layer Up
December 15, 2016


Chris Evans


It's standard these days to have a GPS device of some sort strapped to the handlebars to take the stress out of getting to where we need to be. If map reading is becoming a lost art then roadbook navigation is ancient history. Unless you're a motorcycle rally racer.

The ability to understand the few squiggles that a roadbook offers can make or break a rally competitors chances of success. As Lyndon Poskitt readies himself for Dakar 2017, our man on the ground Chris Evans opens the book on what will be required to get through 9000km of South American wilderness.

The roadbook used on the Dakar since its inception in 1979 was derived from those employed on traditional rallies and, despite comprising of low-tech black and white ‘tulip diagrams’ printed onto paper, they have managed to resist the considerable march of progress. On the very first event riders simply placed the sheets of paper given out by the organisers onto clip boards mounted on to their handlebars.


As they followed the route they would merrily tear the sheets off as the went along, which while not very ecological, worked fine until they went wrong and had to retrace their steps… To avoid the problem of chasing after scraps of paper blowing across the desert, rolls were introduced shortly after, making their appearance along with the electric road book reader that has hardly evolved since they were first invented.


The only time this slightly archaic means of navigation has ever been seriously threatened was in the early ‘noughties’ when GPSs started to become commercially available, but their functionality was quickly brought under control when the organisers introduced the Unik GPS, developed specifically for the event. Their motivation for investing in bespoke technology was the realisation that unbridled GPS took away a large part of rally-raid’s charm, turning an orientation event, where the ability to navigate is as important as being able to ride a motorcycle very fast across the desert, into an out and out sprint.

Of course GPS offers so many advantages in terms of ensuring that the competitors follow the route, respect speed limits and avoid sensitive areas that they couldn’t do without them completely, but with their Unik system the GPS only functions roughly 20% of the time, lighting up when competitors approach compulsory Way Points. The rest of the time competitors follow their roadbooks using the distance from their trip meter and the compass cap heading to keep them on track.


Obviously this is not easy when charging across the desert at speeds of up to 180 kph and so professional riders spend a considerable amount of time each evening, anything from between 2 and 3 hours, poring over their roadbooks (given to them as they enter the bivouac that evening) marking them with highlighter pens to make them easier to interpret.

Typically they will mark ‘!!! Dangers’ with red highlighter, changes in direction less than 500 metres after the previous note in green, etc. with each rider having their own preferred code. Obviously amateur riders, particularly those in the unassisted malle moto class like Lyndon Poskitt, have much less time to devote to their road books and isn’t uncommon for them to start the next day with a roadbook in glorious black and white. If you’re not trying to win the race this isn’t too disastrous, but any competitor’s day becomes much more complicated if they don’t have time to incorporate the ‘openers’ notes. These are the sheets of paper given to competitors along with the roadbook roll, featuring the modifications made by an experienced ex-competitor, who ‘opens’ the route 24 hours ahead of the race and updates the roadbook that could have been made as much as 6 months previously.


While the organisers have managed to limit GPS use (by banning riders from carrying smartphones for example) they haven’t managed to curtail the activities of the map-men now employed by virtually all the factory teams. Often based back in Europe and benefitting from a comfy office and a high speed internet connection, they transcribe the roadbook onto Google earth to help riders visualise the route. Because making a roadbook isn’t an exact science, the possibility of giving riders inaccurate information is considerable and map-men with a good ‘rep’ can make good money as a result. As the map-men work overnight, it also requires the riders to get up half an hour early to take a look at their handiwork. Some of the top riders actually find the information gleaned distracting and prefer to enjoy a lie-in instead, but most use the information to visualise two or three notes that they have identified as particularly difficult to interpret. Lyndon Poskitt and his colleagues will be navigating the old fashioned way…


Some images: photodakar.com


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