Mix the Dakar rally with an adventure race and you've got BMW's GS Trophy. Warren Pole rode with Team GB on their quest for glory as the Trophy blasted 1300 miles through rural Africa

(The Telegraph)

AS THE BMW F800GS cartwheeled out of view in an explosion of dirt, rocks and shattered parts and I finally slithered to a halt face down in the middle of the track, I was glad to have only recently overtaken the event medic’s truck. When he arrived minutes later I’m told I greeted him with the words, “I’m fine, nothing really happened”, a statement somewhat at odds with the mangled, smoking bike now lying 50 metres away in an adjacent field and the blood dripping from my right sleeve.

Patched up enough to make it the final 25 miles of the stage to our camp for the evening, I was about to climb into the medic’s truck when one of the Trophy’s hard as nails riding marshals intervened. “You can get on the back of my bike,” he said, “that way you can still ride this one in”. Five minutes later and we were hauling down the same track that had just claimed my own bike, as the marshal yelled over the windblast,  “I never leave a man behind”. It was like being in a movie.

The Trophy covered 1300 miles across every terrain imaginable from heavenly flat out trails like to hellish deep sand via river crossings, swamps and everything inbetween

Which sums up 2010 GS Trophy experience. It was a place where colours were brighter, friendships stronger, the riding tougher, and where each day passed in a breakneck blur of hard-paced riding, tough challenges, and scenery so knockout it burned the eyes.

Held biannually, the GS Trophy is an off-road biking event like no other. Participants from around the globe must conquer grueling selection challenges to make the cut for their national three-man team. Those that make it are then sent to compete, all expenses paid, in the event. Ten teams in all arrived in South Africa – host nation this year – where their bikes and kit awaited.

Elephant traffic jam, KwaZulu-Natal

The bikes were all immaculate F800GS machines, brand new and prepped to perfection for the 1200 mile test ahead and which would see them and their riders blasting over 1300 off-road miles in a week through sand, dirt, rocks, swamps, and river crossings as the event route wound across South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique. Each bike was marked with its riders name, country, number and blood group, as were helmets and riding gear. This last touch confirmed the test coming up would indeed be a harsh one.

The safety net was strong however. There was a backup crew of 50 following the event as it criss-crossed Africa including medics, mechanics, spares trucks and a helicopter on permanent standby. It was thanks to this support that I was able to swap my aforementioned mangled bike for a fresh one and finish the event with the team.

Team South Africa were the early favourites to win, closely followed by the Canadians, Americans and the Nordic team. Motivated, fit and excellent riders the South Africans had trained endlessly together in conditions mimicking what lay in store. Team GB – Mark Kinnard, Alistair Allan and Kevin Hammond – were by contrast older, had spent one day training in some very wet Welsh hills, and had me riding with them. But whatever the Brit boys lacked on paper, they brought a wealth of dirt riding experience to the table along with three very level heads and devilish determination. This combination stood them in very good stead.

When riders did get a chance to break focus from the track ahead, views were stunning

The event format saw us tackling up to 220 miles a day across dirt tracks, forest swamps and rutted rocky trails, with challenges strewn along the route. These could be riding challenges like a trials obstacle course or a race across 20 miles of deep sand, mechanical challenges like a double wheel change with minimal tools against the clock, or physical challenges like a canoe race across a crocodile-infested lake.

The latter came on day four, and by this stage the British team had pulled into the lead with South Africa trailing closely behind. With the teams racing in pairs for this one, it was pure coincidence that drew South Africa and GB together. The result was paddles at dawn as both sides ran neck and neck, scrapping and shunting in a fight for the racing line. The Brits made dry land first to hold the unexpected lead we had held since day two of the event. 

On the riding side, it was the sheer relentless nature of this contest that made it so tough. Most seasoned dirt riders could manage one day of this, but to put seven together back to back, spending every night in a tent and scratching five hours sleep at best between 12-hour days in the saddle calls for a lot more endurance.

Luxury accommodation, Trophy style

Those who did keep going were rewarded with the most intense introduction to Africa possible. Because bikes can travel to places no other vehicles can reach, and because on a bike you are immediately a part of the environment you’re in, the scenery, people, sights, sounds, and smells of intoxicating Africa were indelibly stamped on all competitors who reached the finish.

Better still, when that finish arrived it was Team GB who took the win. As the Champagne flowed back in Johannesburg, the intense bonds of camaraderie that had been created among the teams as they battled through this event fuelled one hell of a party.

A jubilant Team GB (l to r: Alistair Allan, Mark Kinnard, myself, Kevin Hammond) savour the win

The GS Trophy will be back in 2012, for more information go to www.gstrophy.com


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