Motorcycle rally roadbook navigation



Rally is a term that gets easily thrown around, sometimes as a verb (ex: we rallied our rental car), sometimes as a noun referring to closed course rally racing (WRC or time speed distance events), and sometimes referring to navigation rally races like the Dakar. All of these uses describe activities that are both fun and irresponsible, but here we’re focused on the last one- roadbook navigation events.

Motorcycle rally roadbook navigation

Roadbook navigation originated in North Africa, much of which was colonized by the French. While these protectorates came to an end in the middle of the last century, European and especially French motorists continued to explore the deserts there, much the way that Americans might choose to go riding in Baja. And where people go exploring, inevitably, they want to go racing.

Rally racer Mason Klein

The terrain in North Africa lends itself to cross country races across big distances. In the 1970s, when these races were becoming popular, GPS was not yet a thing, so creating a racecourse across such desolate territory was a challenge. The open terrain in Africa led race organizers to create a paper roll chart of instructions, using roads where they exist and compass headings where they did not, to define the race course. Because the distances in North Africa are so large, the sport made more sense as a multi-day endeavor. Modern rally racing is truly a product of the topography where it was born.

Motorcycle rally roadbook navigation

The lack of a marked course creates a very different kind of race. A racer must use many parts of their brain- they must simultaneously do arithmetic for mileage and compass calculations at the same time they are trying not to die and move forward as fast as possible. Because the sport originated with the French, racers must also figure out what terms like Piste and Cuvette and Cailloux mean. If this sounds difficult, it is. In my opinion, the uncertainty surrounding navigation is the defining characteristic of these types of rallies, more so than speed.

As we approach the grandest rally of them all, the Dakar, here is a primer to help you understand what the racers are coping with as they follow instruction after instruction, mile (or kilometer) after mile, during this amazing event. For the racer trying to interpret all these hieroglyphics at speed, there are a few practical considerations.

Motorcycle rally roadbook navigation
Motorcycle rally roadbook navigation installation

First, your mileage typically won’t match the roadbook perfectly at all times. Maybe your wheel size is slightly different, maybe you took a sharper apex through a corner, maybe you did some excellent wheelies. For these reasons and more, mileage is a game of probability rather than precision. To improve your odds, every time you are sure of your location, you “mend” mileage, meaning you use the button by your left grip to make your display match the roadbook at the moment you are certain.

Second, drawings are easy to look at, but subject to interpretation. If the roadbook includes a CAP heading, this is the next most important piece of information after mileage. Often, especially on roads, intersections look alike, so CAP will be the best way to tell if the turn you made is the right one. The tulip drawing can be helpful or misleading, so they must be taken with a grain of sand.

Motorcycle rally roadbook navigation

Third, the use of way-points has totally changed the sport since the days of actual compasses. These virtual checkpoints can be placed anywhere (like the top of a difficult dune) and have no visual clue. The penalty for missing one is severe, so racers will circle trying to find the spot. They know they hit it when their GPS beeps at them, but that’s all that happens- then they are on to the next note. Their GPS includes a satellite phone (one of two on the bike, to help in emergencies) so the beep they hear is transmitted to race control and becomes the timing and scoring we see when following the race at home.

  1. Main odometer. The key to the whole event. You will ‘mend’ this mileage whenever you are certain you are on track.

  2. Blank space for organizations instrument. This will tell them where you are using a satellite connection. It generally does not tell you where you are.

  3. Mileage where action takes place (and incremental mileage from last instruction). Colored Blue to indicate also a masked waypoint, which you must pass thru to collect.

  4. ‘Tulip’ or drawing of what will take place. In this case, double danger (serious), right then downhill into an arroyo, several bumps, left and exit on a compass heading (CAP) of 85. This is a lot to take in at speed, and you never know which part of the note is critical. This note might be simple in practice, or there might be several options to choose between.

  5. Note. In this case, the instruction means to cross the bottom and follow the arroyo. The 26 indicates the number of the way-point. 

  6. Dakar has been making navigation more difficult with more ambiguous instructions. The 118 > 60 shown here means your cap heading will generally drift left/ from SE to NE. This might be straightforward, or you might have many roads to choose between as that occurs. These will be split second decisions! 

  7. “Modif” means that whoever pre-ran the course saw a need for a change here. These changes will be given at the start line for the rider to fill in.

  8. Backup odometer. Typically this is also a clock (shown) and a compass repeater. If you were through the wadi and headed out, you would want this to read 85 degrees. 

Annotated motorcycle rally roadbook navigation

As soon as the instruction has been completed, you’ll use the switch by your left thumb to advance to the next note. If the track is smooth and straight, you might try to memorize a few notes ahead, but generally, your time in the saddle is a somewhat frantic division of attention between riding and navigating. Even the best can’t excel at both things at once, so the penalty for leading a stage physically is that your pursuers have an easier time with your dust as a clue. This creates a need for strategy that goes beyond our space here!

Rally racer Mason Klein

In practice, some of the time everything matches up effortlessly. Your mileage is spot on, the picture looks like what you see, and the notes make sense. This is the best feeling in the world, and it is fleeting. At 120 KPH, .5 km is 15 seconds, so the next instruction is already coming at you, and it’s another opportunity to beat your rivals or make a mistake that costs you the race. A stage in Dakar might have 300-500 notes, each of which represents an opportunity and a risk. Sometimes, nothing seems to work, and that’s where a racer’s true colors are shown. The best systematically find a solution, others flame out and let their emotions take them away.

  1. Main odometer control. Grey buttons add and subtract mileage. Red button changes mode.


  2. Roadbook switch. Pushing forward advances paper scroll. Pulling back reverses it to check a previous note.


  3. Backup odometer control. Same function as primary.

As I watch the race, I am of course impressed by the tenacity and athleticism of the competitors. I love the landscapes and the speed and the distances. I love the machinery and the rawness. And because I understand the navigation, I am perhaps most impressed by the clarity and focus that the top riders show as they ride like the wind and do math like an abacus.

Motorcycle rally roadbook navigation controls




This story was originally published in Issue 65

Issue 65 cover