Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge blog

This year's Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will see competitors take their 4x4 vehicles, motorcycles and quad bikes on a grueling off-road rally through Liwa desert.

The UAE Charity Challenge Team, from left to right, Fransua Rachmann, Darryn Keast, Sean Curnow and Paul Anselmo. Darryn and Sean have since withdrawn from the competition after injuries.
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This year's Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will see competitors take their 4x4 vehicles, motorcycles and quad bikes on a grueling off-road rally through Liwa desert. Fransua Rachmann is taking part in the six-day event, which starts on March 28, as part of the UAE Charity Challenge motorcycle team. He will be joined by his team-mate Paul Anselmo. The pair are riding to raise money for the Future Centre for Special Needs in Abu Dhabi and the Malaria Consortium, a Uganda-based charity that aims to eliminate malaria, as well as other preventable diseases, from remote Ugandan communities. Follow Fransua's progress during one of the most physically and mentally demanding endurance race on the planet in his daily blog.

Did we, or didn't we? I knew when I decided to do the Desert Challenge, that it would be one of the hardest things I've ever done. There are just so many things that can go wrong in a race like this. Breakdowns must be the main thing to worry about and neither Paul nor I have got any mechanical experience or tools to be able to deal with even a minor problem. Injuries with motorbike riding are a given. It's almost a certainty that you will fall off sometime or another, or drop your bike. Something simple like a sprained wrist or your protective gear is chafing you or even a stomach bug can have you out of the race in no time. Some of the car drivers are still in hospital with injuries from this week's racing and we heard that one of the top bike riders, Sean Gaugain, has been airlifted to hospital today with a broken leg and collarbone. To complete an endurance race like this is just really, really tough and there is no shame in trying and not succeeding. The famous annual Dakar rally that was held in South America in January this year proves how tough a race like this is. In every category, (trucks, cars, quads and bikes) on average only 50 per cent of entrants finish the race. I'm sure the statistics are more favourable in the Desert Challenge though because the race is shorter and much easier than the Dakar. However, it was a tough day for Sean and Sharon, our loyal support crew. They packed up our whole camp with the help of Hein, Jayne and Brittany. Then Sean raced to the halfway mark with our snacks and extra fluids. Then they all raced to the finish to see us cross the line. They did not race there for nothing. They saw us cross the finish line and they have the photos to prove it and we have the golden medals to show for it! After today's 85km road section, 306km Special Stage and another 74km liaison to Abu Dhabi it was all done! We did it! We rode 2,076km in 5 days (1551km in the desert, 525km on the road) and we got through without any of the major problems. Today's Special Stage had a bit of everything, flat desert, sabkahs, big dunes, small dunes, soft sand, gravel road and we even got lost for a while when the wind was blowing so much we couldn't see the tracks the previous riders made and we had to find our own way through the desert for about 20km to the next waypoint. Today the Desert Challenge threw everything it could at Paul and me and, together with our friend Matts, we came out on top! I'm tired, my shoulders are really stiff and I just hope my drink at the dinner tonight won't fall out of my tired and sore hands. My bike is a mess, I had a big fall today when my front wheel dug into the sand like on the second day and I went flying over the handlebars again with the bike almost landing on top of me. But all of these things fade away when you look at your medal and see the photos. I finished the Desert Challenge, that's all that counts! There are so many people that helped us and supported us - too many to mention here. But I need to thank Sharon for her help and patience. I can't imagine how it would have been without your organising skills. The rest of the UAE Charity Challenge team, Sean and Darryn, you guys are awesome and you did a great job supporting Paul and I. I also want to mention all our sponsors, especially our platinum sponsors, Heritage Oil and Gas and Iteco, Your money will do amazing things for the Abu Dhabi Future Centre for Special Needs and the Malaria Consortium in Uganda. The Desert Challenge 2010 is done. We'll get to see the final results tonight at the gala dinner. For me, the time I did it in doesn't count. I finished it. Will I do it again? Everyone is asking that question. Tell you what; let me bathe in the glory of this one first, I'll answer that question another day...

The big test There are at least 32 ways to sit on a motorbike while you ride on the road. I know because I counted them... It's an even number, because you have 16 ways with one bum cheek and 16 ways with the other. There are plenty more ways to do it with just sitting in the middle of the saddle- I had time to contemplate these things as we rode a 108km liaison section back to Moreeb bivouac after our 305km Special Stage in the desert today. An easy stage today - or so everyone else says. Even though it was shorter than yesterday, I thought today was more difficult. Like I said before, I'm less comfortable on the "flat" parts than on the dunes- One of the reasons is because that's how I injured my shoulder in September. On a training ride on a Friday we raced across a sabka plain, I hit some ruts and came off the bike really hard at high speed. I still have trouble with the shoulder even after loads of physiotherapy sessions. The other reason is that "flat" sabka, means ruts, bumps, small ditches and even some camelgrass. We started the morning stage on the sabka plains. I really had to push myself on the flats and my hands were in pain the whole day from that. We parked at the halfway mark with Sharon, Sean and Darryn waiting for us. I had my hand in the ice as soon as I could and took painkillers too. Darryn also made me take off my wrist guards to increase bloodflow to my hands. All of that must have helped, because the second half of the day went much better. After a long gravel road section we went into the sand and the painkillers kicked in! It wasn't long before I took over the lead from Paul and I had a great time in front. Not even a hard fall coming over a dune put me off and I kept going about for an hour before the painkillers wore off. Our mate Matts took over the lead and we got to a sand road and followed that for the last part of the stage almost until the end. All three of us did the day in about 5 hours 48 or 49 minutes. Minus the liaison stages... Thankfully my GPS and Iritrack systems were working today! If you looked at the map yesterday on abudhabidesertchallenge.com, it showed me doing 421kph over the desert in a totally different direction than the rest of the field! Today it showed me at respectable speeds with the other competitors. We have one day left. One more day to complete then we have done the Desert Challenge 2010! I hope I can write the blog tomorrow night from my hotel room with really good news.

The hardest day so far We made it. We got through 337km of dunes, flat desert and sabka. Today was tough, really tough and it started already early this morning when my bike showed the same GPS problems as yesterday. As I lined up for the liaison start - when we meet up to then ride out to the race start - we realised that our service crew took out the good GPS and Iritrack antennas that were issued to me yesterday and installed the broken ones! The GPS guys did a great job of replacing it within 10 minutes. I missed my liaison start, but it was not that bad, I still had the allocated 55 minutes to get to the race start, which was 54km from the bivouac. I still had to refuel my bike too, so it was touch and go. We got to the start just in time and it wasn't long before we were off. Our friend Matts rode with us again today and we quickly got into the routine again: Paul in the lead and Matts and me taking turns to ride second or last. We pass each other every now and then because Paul is faster than me on the flat parts while I like the dunes better (surprisingly still even after yesterday's mishap-) so we are back and forth the whole time. Then I stalled my bike between two dunes and had trouble getting it out of the soft sand. I overused the clutch and damaged it, I felt it immediately when I got back on my bike and started riding and changed gears. I had to use the clutch as little as possible from then on. A big pain when you go fast over flat sand and then have to go through big dunes, because that's exactly what we did over and over today. We got to the halfway mark where Sharon and Sean waited for us with food and drinks. We get just 15 minutes to refuel the bikes and ourselves before the clock start ticking again. Sean didn't know whether he should take pictures of us or help getting us ready again, but he is the most enthusiastic support crew member you'll ever find. Our service crew fiddled with my clutch but there was not much they could do at this stage, so they just me on my way with a few tips on how to preserve the clutch. We set off for the second half of today's racing and in the rush I forgot to tie my chin strap for my helmet! Luckily I realised it soon and stopped after a kilometre to tie it up but I could kick myself for the silly mistake. We probably lost another three minutes. Paul and Matts waited for me and wanted to know what went wrong, but I raced past them anxious to make up the time lost. I had the chance to lead! Usually when I ride in front, the other guys sit at the back and yawn and watch the scenery. Not today! The track was pretty flat with small dunes, so I just went as fast as I can. Flat out on the straights, hard on the brakes before going over the dunes in fourth gear instead of third so I don't have to use the clutch that much. Paul once came too close behind me and had a close call when I slammed on brakes in front of one of the dune drop-offs. He tried to avoid a collision, stalled his bike and broke the road book switch on his bike. I didn't know this was happening behind me and kept going hard. The adrenaline was pumping for the next 60km and I kept in front, leading Paul and Matts until the next stop. I ran out of energy by then and Paul took over leading again from then on. Physically and mentally it's so tiring leading. You have to be extra cautious, extra alert and you have the lives of the riders behind you in your hands because they take their cues what to do from you in front. If you do something silly and hurt yourself, there's a chance they will end up doing the same thing. Or worse, ride over you! There was still about 100km to go. Endless dunes to go over. Over and over. We reached some sabka plains and then for the last 20km, the organisers thought they'll make the race interesting for us and planned the route through Liwa's massive dunes. We went up about three of them and then had long steep drop-offs on the other side. The kind of downslopes where you feel like the bike is still sliding down uncontrollably. When you do hit the sabka plain at the bottom it feels like hitting a wall with your front wheel. We ended up at the Moreeb bivouac tired but pleased. Sean was waiting for us with cold drinks in hand. We completed the longest stage in one piece. My clutch held up, my hand that is still bothering me, held up. It is now in ice. We're halfway through the Desert Challenge. But there is a reason why they call the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge one of the toughest races in the world. Quite a few competitors were treated today for dehydration and a few auto drivers are in hospital after crashes. Also a friend of ours, Matthew Trehy, were not so lucky today, on one of the smaller drop-offs he fell with his bike and broke a leg and collarbone. Hope you get well soon, Matt. We have two days to go, we just hope our skills, stamina and quite a bit of luck gets us through to the end.

First mishaps of the Desert Challenge On the start of Day 2 we had an 85km ride to the starting point. We set off at 7.30am and we started the race at 9am. It was Paul's turn to wait for me because with yesterday's results he had to start four minutes ahead of me. Once I caught up with him, we had long open sections and maintained a decent speed. Then, 20km into the race, I had my first major accident. I went over a dune and didn't have enough speed on the downslope and my front wheel dug into the sand. I flew over the handlebars and the bike somersaulted almost on top of me. Luckily the sand was so soft, neither me nor the bike had any damage (or so I thought) and I got up and got going again. There was plenty of big dunes and soft sand today so the going was slow, we had just a few minor hiccups and a few "technical laydowns" (as a fellow rider called it) on dunes, but no major problems. We caught up with a friend of ours, Matts Landgren, and the three of us went up and down dunes for miles. There were a few flat parts too, but it's rolling flat dunes and you can't always see what's on the other side so to play it safe, you always hold back a bit approaching them. Sharon had food and water ready for us at the service point at the halfway mark. We also had to refuel our bikes because we had more than 150km to go before the end of the day. Paul stopped shortly after the pitstop to fix his camelback pipe (the device that supplies our water as we ride), which had become disconnected. As I was waiting for him, I saw my GPS system had a loose connection and I tried to fix it, but was unable to. My GPS was broken and the Iritrack sender that shows my location online, also stopped working. This meant Sean couldn't follow us online, much to his shock and alarm. Only later at the camp did I find out that the fall I had early in the race also actually broke the sender's little antenna, which is fixed to the bike - That is one of the major reasons why Paul and I ride together on events like this. I just followed Paul all the way for the rest of the day and relied on him to get me home. Matts was also still with us and we rode together up and down massive dunes for what felt like ages, before we reached some sabka flats (salt plains) close to the end. Between us and the bivouac there were only the last big dunes before a shower and a decent meal. Paul led the way and we crossed them without too much trouble and rode into Mureeb Hill bivouac tired but satisfied. I am quite tired today, but I worked hard on my fitness before the Challenge so I don't have any aching or sore muscles luckily. My hard work on the rowing machine and exercise bike paid off. One thing that is sore tonight is my hands, especially my right hand. It has a constant dull ache. Today's ride was more than six hours and we had an 85km liaison before that. My right hand was almost in the same position from 7.30am to 3.15pm! Any other bodypart you can switch positions or move and your left hand moves the whole time with the clutch and you sometimes don't even have to hold on with it! The right hand is just throttle and front brake and holding on tightly. I'm sure it will be fine, maybe a bit of ice and I just need a good meal and a decent night's sleep. Paul is at the moment 27th in the overall standings and I'm 30th after two days of racing. Paul's time today was 6hrs 15min and mine was 6hrs 11min. Today was a tough day and we should have maybe done a bit better, but we're not looking at the time sheet. The purpose of us putting our bodies on the line is still only to raise money for the Abu Dhabi Future Centre for Special Needs and for the Malaria Consortium in Uganda. So to finish each day is great. Any good times and results are just a bonus.

Getting my wheels dirty Left Radisson Blu in a rush at 6.30am to be at the starting point about 90km out of Abu Dhabi. We met up with other riders who, like us, were taking their bikes there by trailer. We got to the starting point on time and the bikes were in a secured parking area at 8.30am. As if everything was not stressful enough, Iritrack, my GPS navigational equipment, didn't want to work. But the crew fixed it and I was ready to get the countdown to start my first Desert Challenge. Paul had to start eight minutes behind me because of his slower qualifying time yesterday, but the plan was always just to finish this race, not to try and win it, so we are riding it together. So I raced off from the starting line guns blazing, throttle open, wind in my face! But then I had to park 2km later to wait for him... I calmed down, watched some other riders come by, gave a few thumbs up, a few waves, then Paul caught up with me. "The greatest feeling in the world" does not do justice to what I felt as I fell in behind Paul and we finally started our Desert Challenge. I must have had a grin in my helmet for the first 50km! The track was flat, the weather hot but managable, the pace fast. We had a few dunes along the way, but nothing serious and we cruised all the way, meeting a few bikes and quads along the way, some we passed, some passed us. The first half of the race went without incident and we pulled up to the halfway mark to refuel the bikes and have a quick bite to eat. Our crew, Hein, Jayne and Britteny had our coolerbox with snacks that Sharon (Paul's wife, our "Desert Angel") packed in and we spent a few carefree moments with them before we jumped on the bikes again and were off. It was all about speed - after a few dunes and technical sections we hit a huge sand highway that felt like it went on forever. Paul and I pushed the bikes up to speeds of 130kph on this long section and made good time. It felt like ages before we reached the end of that road and finally the end of the stage. Thinking back now it went by in a flash, but a flash I'll never forget. We just had another 118km liaison to ride to Moreeb Hill after our race, but it was not a problem because Sharon and our driver Christian were waiting for us already with a camp that was almost set up and cool drinks. We settled down and had a team meeting and dinner. But there has been no time to sit down tonight because we had to prepare our gear and roadbooks again for tomorrow. The bikes have been serviced by Gecko and we have to be at the starting line at 7.30am tomorrow. Sean, one of our original team members, apparently followed us online on the map the whole day and texted Sharon updates every 10 minutes. Thanks for following us, Sean - but we would have wanted you on the bike next to us instead. Still there's always next year... Pauls time today was four hours and 24 minutes and mine was four hours and 31 minutes. Todays winner did the stage in just three hours and 11 minutes! So we defenitely don't stand a chance to even get near top positions. But for the thrill I got out of it today, they can keep the trophies. Tomorrows riding will be a contrast to today. During tonight's riders briefing, the organisers said they eased us into it today, but we were warned that tomorrow it's down to business. We're in Liwa now and the dunes will be huge and the sand very soft. Tomorrow will be a tough one. Bring it on!

Super Special Stage and Ceremonial Start We rode our bikes to Al Forsan after a great buffet breakfast at the Raddison Blu hotel. Riding on the highway with the wind trying to jerk your bike back and forth was an indication of what our day was going to be like. At Al Forsan, we rode on a sand track in the middle of what looked like a building site. We had plenty of spectators and Sean and Darryn, my injured would-be team-mates, drove from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to see us. The Super Special stage had two bikes at a time race each other on parallel track to determine tomorrows starting order. Paul is a true blood desert rider and doesn't care much for track riding so he took a relaxed ride around the track and qualified at number 60 for tomorrow''s start. I went took it easy around the track too and qualified at number 47. With all the hype about the Super Special Stage, it was quite an anticlimax being on the track for only two minutes and 28 seconds. We watched all the bikes have their turn on the track and watched just a few cars before we made our way back to the hotel. Smile for the camera! At 7pm we had a ceremonial start at the Grand Mosque. Luckily we left early (with the bikes on the back of the trailer this time) because we took a wrong turn or two (guess who was driving-). We had our 15 seconds of fame under the bright lights on the podium with President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who set us off one by one with the UAE flag. At the moment everything still feels a bit unreal and we're just going through the motions. On the bike. Off the bike. Gear on. Gear off. We're all tired, but it doesn't feel like we have done that much yet! I might regret it later but right now, I just want to get out there in the sand and go for a ride on my bike. I want to see dunes! I want to open up the throttle on a long flat section and feel the thrill of competing. After a few logistical problems sorted out, we decided to put the bikes again on the trailer tomorrow to get to the start point of the race, more than 100km outside Abu Dhabi. Then we're heading for Liwa and the big dunes. Tomorrow I'll see sand, taste the dust and feel the power of my bike under me. Let's see if I can do all that and stay on top and keep the rubber side down. I'll tell you all about that tomorrow from the shadow of Tal Moreeb in the Empty Quarter.

The silence before the storm Paul, Sharon and I went around to our unfortunate teammates Sean and Darryn before we left for Abu Dhabi today. They are very disappointed for not being able to join us on the adventure but they will still come down and support us during the week as spectators and service crew, so even though the competitors are fewer, the team spirit is still intact! Sean is still a rock anchoring the team; hardly rested from his operation, he delayed taking his painkillers so he can assist us with the last of the packing details and logistics to send us on our way. Hope you're feeling better, big guy, and we hope to see you here soon! Kelly! Your snacks for the road went down a treat! Thank you! We booked into the Radisson Blu and after yesterday's antics with the bikes inside and out, most staff now know us and are doing a great job of making us feel right at home. Our bedrooms with a seaview will be the last luxury we have before we head out into the desert on Sunday! We went to pick up my press pass from one of the friendliest ladies I've ever met! Fiona Swaffield knows our whole Charity Challenge story and she was really helpful in getting all our passes and documents sorted out so I can write this blog! Riders briefing at 7pm was the 1st time all the drivers got together to get details about tomorrow's prologue and the week of racing. The Desert Challenge official total distance is 2076km. 1551km is in the desert or in 'Special Stages' and there are 525km of road sections or 'Liaisons'. Sometimes we have to ride a liaison section to get to the start of a Special Stage. Sometimes the Special Stage starts right at the bivouac (camp at Moreeb Hill the 650ft high dune where the Desert Challenge is based from) Safety is a big concern in endurance races like this and a big part of the briefing was all about safety measurements, rules and emergency procedures. Our night ended with a Desert Challenge welcoming party at the Crowne Plaza hotel. Loads to eat and drink while getting to know fellow competitors. Tomorrow will be in stark contrast to the peace and quiet we had today. The Super Special stage will be our first taste of Desert Challenge 2010 and we can be sure of heat, dust and lots of action! I can't wait!

Documentation and scrutineering: an eventful day It was all high spirits and banter this morning in Abu Dhabi as Paul and I reported with the other riders to get our paperwork sorted out at the documentation process, which was done at the Yas Marina Circuit. We received our GPS, Iritrack and Sentinel units so we don't get lost in the Liwa desert. These units were attached to the bikes for us by our mechanical support team, Gecko Honda. They have more than 30 bikes under their care for the week. While we waited for them to attend to us, we fitted our racing number stickers and the sponsor stickers on the bikes. The high spirits were slightly dampened during the day because the riders had to get their bikes through scrutineering. That's when we find out if our bikes and riding gear comply with the rigorous safety standards. At scrutineering, we got to see some of the trucks that are competing on the same routes as us. In some sections they're even faster then the bikes and while it is amazing to see these huge machines charge through the desert, it will be intimidating seeing them come up in our rearview mirrors. When they pass us, we will end up eating their dust ! After we got the all-clear to compete, we headed off to our hospitality sponsor, Radisson Blu Hotel, for a photo shoot. Who of you has ever gone inside a hotel lobby with a motorbike?! We got loads of pictures to prove we did, and we received the honorary Radisson Blu "Yes I Can" motto pinned on our shirts by the GM, Torbjorn Bodin. Our friendly host, Rafat Kazi, had us and the bikes up in the lifts onto the mezzanine floor and by the pool for the photo session! The first day was exciting, stressful, funny and tiring and we haven't even started racing yet! This will surely be a week to remember if the first day was anything to go by.

I'll be riding in a two-man team, the UAE Charity Challenge team. Neither of us are professional riders - just ordinary guys, riding the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge for charity. The team is Paul Anselmo and myself, Fransua Rachmann. Paul completed the 2008 Desert Challenge but this is my first time. Along the way we have had to overcome mechanical failures as well as personal injuries. However, with the event now just days away, the nerves are really kicking in. Unfortunately our two other riders, Darryn Keast and Sean Curnow, will be unable to join us after both withdrawing with injuries. Darryn hurt his Achilles tendon playing in last year's Dubai Rugby 7s and Sean broke his collarbone after coming off his bike in last month's Desert X race and then broke it again just days before the event, having just passed his physical. Our team can best be summed up as 'Broken Bikes and Broken Bodies - all in the name of charity'. Before racing for more than 2,000km over five days in the Liwa desert as of next Sunday, the Challenge gets underway with a Super Special Stage on Saturday in Abu Dhabi. This is a day for spectators to get up close and personal with the vehicles and competitors that will be taking on some of the biggest dunes in the world. The Super Stage involves a race around a 2km track purpose-built track at the Al Forsan International Sport Resort with the results determining the starting order for the next day in the Liwa desert. Later that evening, the 2010 Desert Challenge will be ceremonially flagged off after sunset on the grounds of Abu Dhabi's spectacular Grand Mosque. The next morning the real racing gets underway with the first leg taking the competitors from Abu Dhabi on a desert route that has them finish for their first overnight halt at Moreeb Hill, the UAE's tallest dune near the oasis town of Liwa. Here the rally will be based for the next four days at a specially prepared desert bivouac. March in the UAE desert is notorious for sandstorms and high winds. With strong winds, the tracks left by the leading competitors disappear almost as quickly as they are made and navigation becomes a big factor. It is very important to stay on the route as you are penalised if you miss any waypoints. In March we also run the risk of rain - hard to believe I know. Rain can cause chaos on the sabkha (salt flats). What appears to be a hard surface is in fact a thin crust overlying wet mush below. We have heard horror stories from seasoned competitors of having to roll their bikes out end-over-end to get them free from these shallow bogs - as if the actual race itself was not hard enough. The fourth leg on March 31 finishes at the Qasr Al Sarab resort - a great location for spectators to view the competitors. On the last day, we tackle a desert section starting at Liwa and finishing in Abu Dhabi city. Hopefully both myself and Paul will see you there.