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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Day 7 – Finish

Profi Moto class: 60 kms – 70% sand piste, 30% dunes.

“I just can’t wait for the next one!”

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Despite the final stage being merely 60kms long in total, the last day of the Tuareg Rallye saw Team Dirtpunk/ZenOverland riders Paul and Gabriel snatch another place each in the overall standings. Riding together as a team the whole week, ultimately Paul finished just a few seconds ahead of Gabriel to claim 22nd and 23rd respectively in their first desert rally!

“We nailed it!” exclaims Paul “Or rather I nailed myself!” he reveals, describing how much they were enjoying the final stage before he fell badly and damaged his ribs. “We were going flat out on the first lap, thinking this is great – only two more hours to go! – when suddenly I hit some soft sand the bike stopped dead… I went flying into the handlebars, then hit my head on the floor – saw stars – I really feel I’ve broken something” he winces.

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Adrenaline meant he jumped straight back on the bike and continued, but he admits they had no choice but to ride the second lap much slower as the pain set in. “I was so worried when it happened” says Gabe “I could see how much he was hurting, and kept asking him all through the second lap ‘are you sure you’re ok?’” Paul nods “I think I’m really going to have to get it checked out* [with the medics] back at the hotel” he groans.

Despite Paul’s injuries, the pair were elated by their collaborative success. “It’s a fantastic feeling” says Gabe with a huge smile “The best thing is we’ve finished the event, we’re still in one piece – and so are the bikes… That’s all we ever aimed for to be honest, and the fact we’ve managed to stay in the Profi class, and actually do reasonably well too is a huge bonus!”

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“It’s funny to think at the beginning of the event, we were so worried about entering the Profi class” says Paul “We felt we’d most likely have to change to the Amateur class after the first day or two just to survive…” and Gabriel agrees: “I think we’d have been disappointed if we’d felt we hadn’t really pushed ourselves – we’d never have known what we were actually capable of… and we would also have missed out on so much of the really interesting [and technical] terrain that was really enjoyable.”

After the final parade convoy from the finish line back the bivouac hotel, they celebrated their success with their families who were waiting to great them, and after downing a well deserved beer, were already making plans for the future.

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“Red Bull Romaniacs next then!” offers Paul with a cheeky grin, and Gabe shakes his head in despair. “We’re actually planning to ride the Rally Albania in the summer” Paul reveals “That should be very different [to this one], and the event is also incredibly good value for money” he continues “But I’d still really like a crack at the ‘Romaniacs one day” he adds with a wink.

*Paul has now been checked by the medics, and they have suggested it is either two cracked ribs, or kidney stones!

Stage result: day 7/7: joint 20th (2h44m)

Overall position: day 7/7: 22nd

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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Day 6

Profi Moto class: 260 kms – 30% hard piste, 50% sand piste, 20% dunes.

“Anyone can ride fast – the trick is to ride fast, and not crash!”

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If yesterday’s sand-storms weren’t enough, early this morning the heavens opened, and the competitors woke to the sound of rain drops on their windows (or tents), together with puddles in the bivouac and ominously grey skies – split with alarming regularity by a bolt of lightning!

Fortunately the start (9am for Moto Profi), the rain had eased at least, but the sand was very wet, and soon cut up as the first few bikes passed into the dunes – it is going to be hard work for the riders today…

Clad in lightweight rain-gear – Team Dirtpunk #317 & #318 were ready for what could be considered perfect conditions for the British contingent – “For us it will be just like racing in the UK! – except the sand!” Grins Gabe, “It will be just like the Weston Beach Race!” adds Paul with a smile.

With 260 kms of sandy piste and dunes for the Profi riders to navigate today, this penultimate stage is renowned for catching out tired and unwary riders, who typically suffer from time penalties after missing the necessary checkpoints. Therefore Paul and Gabriel intend to take it easy today, conserve their now depleting energy and concentrate on navigation, and rather let others make the mistakes around them.

Results update for Day 5: due to a data processing issue late last night, the Organisation have now revised the overall standings to include a rider they had missed, which effectively dropped Gabriel and Paul one position in the overall standings: Gabriel is now 23rd, and Paul 24th, with only seconds splitting their equal stage times, having ridden together all week.

With almost an hour to catch up to the next rider ahead of them (in 22nd position) they are unlikely to improve their respective overall positions at this late stage of the rally. However, their more immediate worry is the rider only 9 minutes behind them in 24th position, catching and passing them in the overall standings.

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Despite the wet start and wind throughout the day, with the end of the rally tantalizingly close now, Paul & teammate Gabriel put in another solid performance, maintaining their positions in the overall standings.

Although they finished the penultimate stage together, the timecard procedure means Paul and Gabriel have effectively swapped places in the overall standings.

“As the rally has gone on, you can begin to understand how the more you do this [rallying], the better you get.” Paul begins “At first we were being passed by everyone, but while we’re not perhaps going appreciably faster now due to tiredness, we are certainly riding far more confidently through each stage.” I think if we were to continue to ride more and more events, we would certainly improve our results – already I feel able to tackle the terrain much more aggressively than I thought [ever] possible at the beginning of the week.”

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“For example there was a moment today when a couple of riders had got between Gabe and I” he continues “But I was confident enough to really put the hammer down and get past them – although I admit I did then almost lose it [in a big way] when I hit a ground-wave section – my arms and legs flying everywhere! – but the difference was, I was able to stay on the bike and just carry on…”

Togged up in wet weather gear for the beginning of the stage, Paul elected to wear his ‘Wales specification’ Gortex jacket that provided excellent protection early on, but soon proved far too warm as the day progressed “All of a sudden we were out of the wind, in the dunes, and almost immediately I started to suffer from heat exhaustion” he explains “My jacket was too big and bulky to stow in my rucksack comfortably, so I ended up having to zip-tie it to the back of the bike” he grins. Fortunately the loop format of the stage meant he was ultimately able to leave it with his service team at the refuel checkpoint.

“Today’s stage felt like they [the Orga] had put in a lot of tricky navigation and technical terrain to really test you… There were lots of dunes, the bikes were boiling over again – and even towards the end of the day, there was no let up – even though you were starting to feel exhausted, they continued to push you… I was begging for a nice smooth track!” he laughs.

Despite their obvious tiredness, Paul was still enthusiastic, and perhaps even a little despondent that the rally was almost at an end – “I did wonder [on the way back to the bivouac] if I could actually manage to ride ten days for example” he smiles “Then again, I’m actually having trouble picking up my pint this evening because my hands hurt so much… so maybe not!”

Stage result: day 6/7: 25th (8h01m)

Overall position: day 6/7: 23rd

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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Day 5

Profi Moto class: 370 kms – 95% hard piste, 5% sand piste.

“Today really felt like a rally!”

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The longest day of the rally this year (370 kms) ought to have been the scenic highlight of the week, instead turned into a test of endurance – particularly for the Moto riders.

Heavy winds all day brought in one of Tunisia’s famous sand-storms, making what would otherwise be relatively straightforward navigation exceptionally tricky, as visibility and ultimately the piste itself disappeared under the shifting sands.

“The problem all day as been the sand-storms” says Paul “At one point you couldn’t even see ten feet in front of you!” and Gabe nods in agreement “The problem with these desert rallies is all the sand” he adds dryly.

Despite the severe riding conditions, Paul and Gabriel endeavoured to remain in good spirits, and made it into the bivouac ahead of many of the other riders – although not without suffering their own fair share of drama during the day, along with witnessing the fate of many others. “There was no real opportunity to stop to eat” says Paul “There were riders everywhere running out of fuel, or lost in the sand storms… “We saw one girl had crashed, and heard another rider had been hit by a [local] car.”

The infamous ‘Silles Pass’ through the mountains gave neither rider any real cause for concern “It was a piece of cake actually” grins Gabriel “But then that’s exactly our sort of riding.” Paul was a little less enamored “There’s a time when a man has to get off his bike and push it… that was one of those times!” he laughs.

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However, the drama started soon after in the final sector before the finish “I ran out of fuel” says Gabe glumly. Despite being refueled by his service team prior to starting the last third of the day, it turns out they had not dispensed quite enough fuel, and Gabe ground to a halt in the middle of a sand storm amongst the dunes, not far from the finish of the special stage.

“The sand storm was so severe at that point that we couldn’t [safely] syphon any fuel from Paul’s bike” Gabe explains. “Fortunately after a while, two riders from the Orga[nisation] came by and although they were low on fuel themselves, offered me a litre which was just enough to make it to the fuel station after the finish…” “Although I had to tow him the final hundred yards!” adds Paul with a smirk. “I’d say overall we only wasted about forty-five minutes” Gabe concludes.

Not only were the weather conditions physically punishing, but the navigation became increasingly difficult as the day wore on, as the tracks and any other points of reference disappeared under the shifting sands and clouds of dust. After his disappointment regarding the previous day’s stage “There is no doubt that today felt much more like a rally!” exclaims Paul.

Stage result: day 5/7: 25th (5h13m45s)

Overall position: day 5/7: 23rd

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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Day 4

Profi Moto class: 320 kms – 90% sand piste, 10% dunes.

“We totally pushed ourselves to the limit today…”

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Traditionally the mid-point of the Tuareg Rallye features the toughest stage – and in Tunisia, this means a long day (8+ hours) riding in 100% sand, in the heat of the desert sun.

Located in a soft sea of sand dunes north of Nefta, an abandoned Star Wars set is the backdrop for what has been billed the ‘make or break’ day for those riders looking to ride the Tuareg Rallye without any time penalties.

For the 2014 edition, the Moto Profi riders would also have to ride 33% further than last year, in effectively a race against the clock with a sharp cut-off (and corresponding penalty points) for anyone unable to complete the course in the time allowed.

The evening before, Paul had voiced his concern that they may have to forfeit their plan to make every single checkpoint, in an effort preserve energy for the rest of the week – illustrating perfectly their considered approach so far. “Ultimately we came here to finish the rally” he reiterates “Of course it would be nice to do so avoiding any time penalties – but we have to consider the consequences of exhausting ourselves only half way through the event, which could easily compromise our overall goal.”

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Riding together for the duration of the day, each had their own personal battle with the terrain “For me it was trying to navigate though the camel-grass sections” says Gabe “I found that very exhausting”, while Paul was the opposite “For me it was the long soft sandy sections, that got more and more cut-up as the day wore on” he groans.

Paul continues “Although I was pretty exhausted when we came in at the end of the third lap [and despite clearly not having enough time left to finish the final lap] at the same time I was really buzzing, and keen to get as far as we could [in an effort to minimise our time penalties]” and Gabe agrees: “I honestly felt I rode the last ten minutes of today right on my limits, and faster than any of the previous laps!” he grins.

Gabe also recounts the moment when they finished their third lap late in the afternoon, and the event director came over to congratulate them, thinking they had completed all four: “When we admitted we still had one lap more to go – he quickly withdrew the handshake with a look that said ‘Get back out there then!’” he laughs.

Despite their best efforts to get one more checkpoint before the time cut-off, they were ultimately denied by just three minutes. “Although we didn’t quite make it in time, I really enjoyed the fact we totally pushed ourselves to the limit today” Paul concedes.

However, he was a little less complimentary about the format for the day itself “I honestly wouldn’t chose to ride in that sort of terrain” says Paul “I really don’t understand why they made you go round and round on [basically] the same course all day – that doesn’t feel like a rally to me – there was no sense of adventure – you’d get through a tricky section, but with dread that you’d have to do it all again and again in a little while…”

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Fortunately it appears the following day will be far more to their liking – at 370 kilometers it is the longest of the rally this year – featuring a long navigation stage interspersed with three more technical timed sectors, through some of the best scenery Tunisia has to offer.

Gabe revealed that despite the disappointment in receiving a time penalty, their plans had not changed. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ll endeavour to ride the rest of the rally and avoid any more [time] penalties” he says, “If we can achieve that, then we’ll certainly consider our campaign a success” and Paul nods in agreement: “I also think if we do that, then almost inevitably we will finish with a good result” he smiles.

Stage result: day 4/7: 28th (14h17m – inc. 6h penalty)

Overall position: day 4/7: 27th

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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Day 3

Profi Moto class: 200 kms – 40% hard piste, 55% sand piste, 5% dunes.

“A lucky escape…”

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As the rally approaches the halfway point, team Dirtpunk/Zen Overland riders Paul Castle and Gabriel Bolton have another successful albeit eventful day, and look forward with some trepidation to day four – billed as the most arduous stage of the event this year.

By the end of day three, they both feel as if the initially daunting navigation procedure is now becoming second nature, allowing them to concentrate fully on riding the terrain.

Gabriel: “We’ve learnt so much already, and it’s funny how the days just seem to be blending into one another – while day one feels like it was three weeks ago!” he laughs, and Paul agrees “I feel far more confident, we’re not having to [consciously] think so much about the navigation, it seems to be far more instinctive now.”

Continuing their plan to ride together for the duration of the rally, due to their slightly differing start times this morning (riders are set off in pairs, each minute), Gabriel shot off at top speed before pulling to a halt at the side of the track after 200 meters and waiting for Paul, much to the bemusement of the rider who had started next to him!

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Once reunited, Paul and Gabriel enjoyed a fast flowing high-speed first half to the day. “We really got into a good rhythm” says Paul describing how they were making really good progress with the tricky navigation compared to many other riders.

The suddenly he had a moment that could easily have ended his rally: “I’d been holding back overtaking a slower rider, when I saw [what I thought was] the perfect opportunity, only to find that the piste turned sharp right just over a crest that wasn’t marked as a hazard… “I was carrying far too much speed, jammed on my brakes, slid sideways – it was one of those moments where you thought it could only end badly… “I don’t know how I managed to make the turn and avoid ending up in a deep ditch at the side of the track – I really thought it was going to be all over at that point!” Paul sighs with relief.

Similarly a little later in the day, Gabriel also narrowly avoided a potentially serious accident, thanks this time to teammate Paul. “There was a really long, steep and aggressive climb that was marked ‘Danger do not jump!’ in the road-book” Paul explains “And right at the top I realised why – it was almost vertical on the far side!”

He continues: “I stopped immediately to avoid flying over the top, only for Gabe to run straight into the back of me, and fall off!” he laughs. Gabriel nods in agreement and appreciation – “If you’d have gone off the top of that peak, even at only 15 mph, it was so steep that I think you’d have simply flown through the air and landed in a heap at the bottom – it doesn’t bear thinking about really.”

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Recomposed, they enjoyed the final sector of the day’s stage into Nefta, and arrived at the bivouac in good time to relax with their respective families, who have travelled out to Tunisia to support them during the race. They were further pleased when the results for the day showed the pair have climbed back up the overall leader board, and are now comfortably in the top twenty of the Moto Profi class.

However, the both started to look nervous again when it was revealed at that evening’s race briefing that the following day [stage 4] would make or break many rider’s campaigns.

Featuring a series of loops through the soft sand dunes north of Nefta, it is effectively a race against the clock, with severe time penalties for those riders unable to complete the course in the allotted time.

Stage result: day 3/7: 27th (2h42m)

Overall position: day 3/7: 26th

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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Day 2

Profi Moto class: 310 kms – 95% hard piste, 5% sand piste.

“A real feeling of adventure…”

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Riding together as a team for the second day, Paul & Gabriel keep to their strategy of riding a steady rally in an effort to finish with no penalty points – despite the temptation to try and increase their speed, encouraged by their unexpected result the day before.

Catching up with them both that evening as they prepared their road-books for the following day, they were equally enthusiastic about what lay ahead.

“The route today was awesome – very different to yesterday, and the real feeling of adventure – of traveling across country from one place to another” Paul begins. “The terrain was stunning – we climbed into the mountains, then descended into valleys, crossed wide open plains – it was really varied.”

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Paul also revealed they were becoming increasingly confident with the road-book style navigation: “It was a great feeling to be following the road-book for hour after hour, and finding that actually every instruction was exactly where you were expecting it! – it was very reassuring [we were doing things right]” he adds.

“There was one particular section that was pretty confusing” he admits “But it was a relief to see all these tyre tracks on the ground in different directions, that we weren’t the only ones to get lost!” he says with a grin.

Gabriel shared his delight at the variety of the terrain, and at the same time, their relief that the going wasn’t as overly challenging as they had been expecting: “I think we were pleasantly surprised – there were no real nasty surprises on the route” he begins “Although that might have been because we weren’t really going fast enough to get into trouble!” he adds with a smile.

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Paul agreed: “It was really nice to not be ploughing through dune after dune today – the faster rocky tracks and the dry lakes were much more enjoyable. It was also far kinder on the bikes too!”

Gabriel admits that after such an encouraging first day, he feels a temptation to perhaps go a little faster where possible and try and improve their overall standings: “I think it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the competitive side of things” he says “Although it’s still very early days, I think no matter where you are in the rankings, you are always looking ahead and thinking how nice it would be to move up a few positions.”

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“The highlight of the day for me was when we’d been following a group of riders who had initially overtaken us, only to see them take a wrong turn, while we continued at our pace and knowing exactly where we were [supposed to be], and took the correct turning” says Gabriel, illustrating perfectly why their considered approach is already paying dividends with another penalty-free day.

Stage result: day 2/7: 37th (4h06m)

Overall position: day 2/7: 31st

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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Day 1

Profi Moto class: 130 kms – 30% dunes, 70% sand piste.

“Thank goodness for Mondo Sahara!”

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Paul and Gabriel were clearly in a confident mood at the end of the first day, finishing comfortably in the top half of the Moto Profi class having avoided any penalties.

“It was absolutely brilliant” he grins “It was very very sandy, but really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be – although I’m glad we did Mondo Sahara (three weeks riding in the Mauritanian desert), otherwise we’d have been in real trouble I think!”

“I came off quite a few times – flying over the bars, and got stuck numerous times too, but overall I think the cooler weather [this year] means thankfully the sand isn’t quite so soft.”

The first day of the Tuareg Rallye in Tunisia is notorious for throwing the Moto riders right in at the deep end – and therefore allows riders to change class without penalty should they feel.

“I’m so glad we chose to enter Profi” says Paul “I think we’d have felt short-changed at the end of the first lap if we’d thought that’s all there was today…”

Despite the prospect of riding double the distance required by the amateur competitors, Paul and his teammate Gabriel Bolton attacked the 2nd loop with confident enthusiasm; and together with overcoming Gabriel’s mechanical problem, actually managed to finish the second half of the stage faster than the first – crossing the line together with a total time of 5h 41m.

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“The navigation was fine – and to be honest after the first lap, we realised there were so many [GPS] waypoints to guide us [in the open dune terrain] that it was more about sticking to the compass headings and following the GPS arrow, rather than the roadbook instructions.”

“Everything went really well, really smoothly, other than Gabe’s clutch problem of course – but fortunately we were able to pick our way through the dunes and get to the end with no penalties. “I had a small issue with my brake hose rubbing, but again an easy fix once the bikes were back with our support team [Desert Rose Racing] – while we could relax with a beer!” He grins.

Stage result: day 1/7: 29th (5h41m)

Overall position: day 1/7: 29th

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Tuareg Rally 2014 – Scrutineering

“Avoiding penalties – that’s our goal”

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With his bike arriving from the UK early in the morning on the eve of the rally, Dirtpunk chief bottle washer Paul Castle immediately set to work undertaking the last minute preparations required prior to event scrutineering.

“The atmosphere is like a carnival” he smiles as he describes the apparent chaos around the bivouac that precedes a typical desert rally. “This is the first time Dirtpunk has entered an event like this, so it’s a mixture of excitement and nervousness – not really knowing what you need to do, or where you need to be at a particular time – but somehow it all comes together after all” he grins.

For example, there was a mild moment of panic during the scrutineering inspection when his rear lights refused to work: “I was under pressure from the officials to fix it right there and then – fortunately it was simply a connector that had come undone while I’d been applying the [Team Dirtpunk/ZenOverland] graphics to the bodywork earlier – and it’s all good practice” he smiles.

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Paul was impressed with the shear diversity of the competition “There are some amazing vehicles here – and the majority of the competitors do appear pretty serious [about it all]” he concludes. “Of course I don’t really consider ourselves actual ‘competition’ in that regard – We’re really just here to see what it’s all about – I just want to ride my own race, and concentrate on my navigation – make sure I get every waypoint [and thus avoid an penalties] – that’s my goal.”

Despite his modest intentions, there was also a glint in his eye “Of course I also love speed, and I love riding in dunes” he says “But at the same time, I’ve only really just recovered from a broken wrist (sustained in training before Christmas), so I really don’t want to repeat that!”

Paul will be riding the Tuareg Rallye 2014 with his Dirtpunk/ZenOverland teammate Gabriel Bolton, in the Moto Profi group with consecutive race numbers #317 & #318.