A sandstorm blows out of nowhere and the horizon is soon obscured in a murky blur of airborne grit. Every part of exposed skin is blasted with the tiny grains, but it’ll take more than that to get me off the bike. Then a man in an orange shirt with a teutonically-accurate watch calls time on my riding session..!
Returning to our temporary paddock, I’m buzzing. On the open going the bike is utterly phenomenal - fast yet resolutely stable no matter what you ask of it. And I adore the experience of carving turns on something so predictable and forgiving. But I simply don’t have the confidence to blast through the smaller dunes: I don’t trust my memory as to what lurks on the other side nor my ability to gather it all together when something does go wrong. I ask Marc how to carry some speed in such conditions and if there’s a way of reading the dunes.
‘Experience is important. It’s not like a track that you know, you only ride it one time. You must imagine what you might find and always leave a safety gap. The dunes do give you a lot of information - you learn things from their colour and the wind direction.’ Marc pauses, before explaining his love of sand riding. ‘I prefer the open desert and the big dunes. What you are doing there is really special. Our place is in the desert.’
‘The 690 was special for me. I was there since the first test and we grew together’, Marc explains, referring to the development work he put into the bike when I ask him if he misses the big bikes. ‘But now the 450 is the way, and I’m really happy with it.’ He stops for a moment and then finishes with a smile, ‘and there’s less weight for in the soft sand!’
With its ‘open class’ chassis the 450 Rally doesn’t feel as nimble and familiar as a converted enduro bike, though nor is it as weighty and as daunting to ride as the 690. It seems the ideal compromise between the two - perfectly suited to the varying terrain of the South American Dakar, where the route blends technical rocky tracks with super-fast open plains and mammoth dune sections.
That chassis gives the potential to cover the ground way quicker than I could - something Marc and Ruben ably demonstrate when they take to their bikes - and almost eggs me on to push it harder. Yet there’s no feeling that it’s not happy at this pace; that it’s not really working; or that it’s lacking in feedback until you really get it working.
In the deep sand you do have to keep on top of the motor, a quick fan of the clutch or a timely downshift generally does the job when the power begins to wane, whereas on firmer ground you get to really experience how it’s quick without becoming lairy.
I expected the bike to feel incredible and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Like many factory machines, what really stood out was its rideability. And really the most intimidating thing about the ride was the terrain itself…
Thanks to: Paolo Carrubba, Joachim Sauer, Eva Priewasser, Marc Coma, Ruben Faria and all those involved with the 450 Rally test.