Tuesday, April 23, 2024

INTERVIEW: Justin Gerlach pursues Dakar Rally dream

Justin Gerlach has been an off-road bike racer since his teenaged years, competing in enduro events and amateur rallies in Europe. However, he now has his sights set on something bigger: the Dakar Rally.

Last Thursday, as he prepared for his sixth Rallye Breslau, The Checkered Flag spoke with Gerlach on his quest to run the 2024 Dakar Rally.

Dakar Dreaming and Abu Dhabi

Gerlach’s interest in racing began from an early age with help from his father Hardin Gerlach. The elder Gerlach used to compete in rallies before stopping following his son’s birth in April 2001. When he was seven, he began following the Dakar Rally via news coverage in Germany, from which it became “the biggest point on my to-do list”.

“It all started when I was five years old. I got a motorcycle for my birthday,” he recalled. “I didn’t really expect it, but that’s probably where it all started. My parents decided that I should try that out. It just was a hobby for a very long time. I did some local races and just trained a bit together with my father. Just for many years, I switched to bikes, got a little bigger, but I was just like, ‘It was really a hobby for me.’

“When I was like fifteen years old, I decided I want to do my driving licence, which you can make when you’re sixteen years old here in Germany, and I had the question of which bike I should choose, which is good for street and for off-road racing because I had some standards there and not every bike would really fit them. My father and I decided to do a rebuild of an old KTM EXC and modify it to be street legal and that’s where it all started really, with the big bikes, still at 125cc, but with a good suspension. 

“Somehow, we got the idea to do the Rallye Breslau together with this bike at seventeen years and that’s basically how I came into the rally world. My father did rally in the 90s, and the year before I was born, in 2000, he did the Rallye Breslau the last time. Therefore, it was a cool thing for him to come back like eighteen years later together with me. He told me a lot about it and I was really excited just to be there.”

He ran his first Rallye Breslau in 2018 and has returned to the race every year since. In February, he branched out of Europe to compete in the World Rally-Raid Championship for the first time at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. Besides his father, Gerlach was supported by fellow local rider Maki Rees-Stavros, who raced the 2023 Dakar Rally as a Malle Moto competitor, and Tony Schattat of RNS Electronics.

The ADDC began with a fifteenth in the Rally2 class in the Prologue. The first stage saw multiple riders run out of fuel, but Gerlach managed to reach the end in thirteenth with enough gas, and he would spend much of the rally finishing in the top twenty in his category. After a fourteenth in the second leg, Stage #3 was marred by a plethora of mechanical issues that began with his bike’s battery dying before the start, prompting Benjamin Melot to jump start the vehicle, followed by not being able to shift higher than second gear for much of the day. Although forced to retire from the stage, the bike was repaired and able to race the next day.

Gerlach finished sixteenth and fourteenth over the final two stages to be classified twenty-second overall in Rally2, seventh in the Road to Dakar subcategory, and third among Junior Trophy participants for riders under the age of twenty-five.

“It was really, really crazy. It was an awesome experience,” he stated. “It was like ten days in Abu Dhabi with the preparation, going to the race, and racing itself the five days, but it felt like ages. It took me some weeks to really realise what has happened in these ten days and it was so many new experiences, so many new people I got to meet, so many friends I have now and obviously in Abu Dhabi, it was really great racing. It was really great turnout that I’ve never really seen.

“It was my second time in the desert. I’ve been to Dubai for five days, two years ago, but I’ve never seen such high dunes in Abu Dhabi. It was a really, really good experience, and when we look at Dakar, it was a very good thing to be in the Empty Quarter already and to face the terrain, which is really, really similar to Dakar. Also, I have to say to show in comparison to the big teams and to people who were in the big teams, it was very nice to show that you can also do it on quite a low budget. My father and I were a team, my father was always with me, and we started from the Berlin airport with two bags and a set of wheels and mousses and that’s it basically. I met a friend in Abu Dhabi (Rees-Stavros) who prepared the bike for me and gave me his tools, but we were really a two-man show with a rental car coming down with a bike. To show that this is possible also with such a ace was just amazing.”

While Gerlach made plenty of new friends in Abu Dhabi, he singled out Ashish Raorane as a particularly helpful colleague as the two rode together throughout the race. Raorane competed at Dakar in 2021 and finished the ADDC eleventh in Rally2.

“I was riding with him a bit at some stages and I felt like he was really, really experienced and a really good rider, but he was also very, very helpful and friendly,” commented Gerlach. “Other than that, he is still answering a lot of questions for myself right now in the application process. If I have to name one and I don’t want to forget the others, it’s him.”

2023 Rallye Breslau

Located in Poland, the Rallye Breslau holds much sentimental value for Gerlach as the largest rally raid and amateur off-road race in Europe, and one that virtually served as his gateway into the discipline. While the forests, mud, and water crossings of the Drawsko Pomorskie military base are a far cry from the Dakar Rally and Abu Dhabi’s sweeping dunes, it is a popular stop for Dakar riders needing more track time. Among the nearly 200 competing in Breslau 2023, Richard de Groot, Jeffrey Otten, Toomas Triisa, and Janus van Kasteren raced at Dakar in January, with van Kasteren winning the T5 category for trucks.

“It’s still a very, very difficult rally even though it’s another style of course than a desert rally. It’s five days of very, very challenging routes,” Gerlach explained. “A lot of Dakar riders came to Breslau to prepare. If I have to think of some, it’s like Mirjam Pol or Paul Spierings, Tiziano Internó, Arūnas Gelažninkas who won Malle Moto two times, they all came. They are just for preparation and for people who come from Europe as myself, there are not many rallies who are up in that level and Rallye Breslau is a really good one. I have a personal connection: it has been like my first rally and I know the people. They call it the Breslau Family, and that’s true. The people are very, very friendly and I just know everyone and people are already asking me what to do and how to prepare for that. People are writing me on social media and I feel very connected to this rally.

“If you come from Europe, you have to find possibilities to train, and the good thing is the Rallye Breslau, also the organisation itself, swapped their style of roadblocks that is really similar to the FIM and FIA roadbook standard. So when it comes to learning how to navigate, the Rallye Breslau sounds really, really good.

“I have to say the navigation of Breslau is more difficult than at Abu Dhabi from my experience, because you have a roadbook which is that size,” he continued, showing a gap of roughly six cm with his fingers, “that’s really big, and in Abu Dhabi, we get a really small one. I think at Breslau, you don’t have to go twenty kilometres straight. Sometimes, you have the next turn after fifty metres and to get all that process during riding and being up to speed is really, really difficult. Especially for navigation, it’s good, also for riding for sure, but you can’t ride or you can’t train riding dunes in Europe, so you have to find other solutions.”

Gerlach is competing in the Enduro class, riding the #55 Husqvarna FE501. He finished sixth in the Prologue on Sunday and seventh following Stage #1 later in the day. A broken clutch and brake in Stage #2 relegated him to twentieth.

Ultimately, he mainly hopes to improve upon his previous finishes. He finished ninth in 2022.

“It’s getting more and more every year and they are very new faces,” Gerlach commented on the other riders. “I can’t really estimate how good they are, what’s their experience, but I finished P9 last year and my personal goal would be just to improve, especially from riding but also from the place in the end. If I be around somewhere P5 to P10, that would be really, really good for me, and that’s my personal goal. But the rally is very long and everything can happen. I just hope that I’m fine after the week, I have no physical problems, I’ve no technical issues. I’m trying to prepare for that and everything comes after. 

Between Abu Dhabi and Breslau, he gained a slightly different experience in the Fenix Rally in Tunisia, where he served as co-driver of a Land Rover Defender to Ali Gharib en route to a fifth in the Cars Open 2-Litre division. The Fenix Rally and Rallye Breslau are both overseen by RBI Sport.

Even if Fenix was done as a four-wheel navigator rather than a bike rider, Gerlach still had takeaways to help him on the two-wheel side.

“It’s a really different experience than riding dunes on a motorcycle,” he began. “I did it like the week after Abu Dhabi, so I have a very good comparison. I was in a Land Rover Defender, so at first, the field of vision is so small compared to on a bike. To express what you are seeing and what you’re interpreting from the roadbook to someone who’s driving and who has to understand what to do, it’s really difficult and you learn how to also have a specific look at details in the roadbook. When you’re riding on a motorcycle, you see it in a second and you know what to do, but you have to really be more careful when you are the navigator. Also, obviously just every minute you spend in dunes, in a car on a motorcycle, helps you to be able to read the dunes. Every dune has direction and sometimes it’s just helpful to have an idea where it goes after the dune. My rider and I were quite successful because I had the view and the knowledge because I was in Abu Dhabi the week before, and I had a good part with that and so we were quite successful in Fenix Rally.”

After Breslau, he will return to Germany to compete in the domestic cross-country series, which provides racing akin to enduro. Gerlach will also head back to the Emirates for a roadbook training course at DUUST Rally Team‘s Rally Training Center in Dubai.

“To be better prepared for Rally Dakar, I do it in the two-cylinder class with the KTM 950 which weighs even more than a rally bike, it’s about 210 kilos I think,” Gerlach said about the German series. “I’m trying to get used to heavy bikes and big bikes, so therefore there are still four races in Germany I’m doing this year. Also, I’m planning on doing a roadbook school, still in Dubai, with the DUUST Rally Team which will help me also with even more ERTF navigation style and more roadblocks in the dunes and really, really professional coaching from previous Dakar riders. That’s my plan for this year until Rally Dakar because I’m planning on buying a KTM Rally Replica; from what I’ve heard from people, it’s really, really important to have ridden that bike before Dakar. You can’t show up there with the bike you’ve never ridden and it’s tricky to handle, but it’s a very specific bike so I’m really trying to get some hours on that in the dunes.”

Credit: Justin Gerlach

The Road to Dakar

Registration for the 2024 Dakar Rally opened in early June. On 20 July, race organiser Amaury Sport Organisation will select bike and quad riders who may take part, though additional applicants can be accepted in the following months. Gerlach intends to submit his application following Breslau.

The sign-up process, which Gerlach described as appearing to be “a very, very easy process” and “like a run-through,” consists of filling out a questionnaire with one’s racing background in select events and a dossier about themselves. To increase the chances of approval, riders are encouraged to take part in FIM-sanctioned races with emphasis on Road to Dakar legs.

The Road to Dakar, which includes the W2RC races like Abu Dhabi and the non-championship TGR 1000 Desert Race, guarantees free admission to said event for the best performing competitors on bikes or in an SSV if they had never run the Dakar Rally. Tobias Ebster won the RtD at Abu Dhabi, Francisco Alvarez and TCF interviewee Sara Price did so at the Sonora Rally, and Jayden Els recently punched his ticket at the TGRSA 1000.

“You have the online questionnaire, you have to fill out with all your details obviously, and then for new riders, you have to submit a presentation from which goes out, ‘What’s your experience? What have you done already? What’s your motivation?’ It’s called the dossier du selection,” Gerlach explained. His résumé will be put to the test against plenty of competition; approximately 120 slots are up for grabs, and over 110 riders had already signed up just a week after registration opened. Although Abu Dhabi is his lone W2RC race to date, he feels he has what it takes to be accepted.

“You never can be 100% sure on what ASO decides,” he noted. “It depends on the amount of people who are trying to do Dakar in the motorcycle class and the experience other riders bring, but I’m pretty confident that I showed in Abu Dhabi that I’m able and capable to face the Rally Dakar. Personally, if you consider that it was my first World Rally-Raid Championship, my first real desert rally, I think to be in the consistent midfield shows that my riding skills and my physical capabilities are good and that I’m really, as I said, able to make it to Dakar. Also, which the ASO unfortunately doesn’t take into consideration is I already did the Rallye Breslau five times. They are more focused on the FIM rallies, but I think that also shows that it’s not like my first rally I did in Abu Dhabi and now I got the idea to do Dakar. I’m preparing for it for quite some years.”

Even if his credentials prove strong enough to be accepted, Gerlach is still on the hook for various expenses such as the entry fee and travel. In fact, the money begins talking the moment one submits their application.

“If you send out that presentation and all the requirements filled out, you have to make a down payment,” Gerlach explained. “It’s five thousand euros. Before you get accepted or anything, that’s the first step you have to make, to have the €5,000; if you send that out, if you pay the €5,000, you are in the selection process. If you are in that, the ASO’s reviewing everything, having a look at every competitor and making a decision. If you are being selected, you get a place, maybe in Malle Moto, maybe in the mechanical or normal Rally2 class, depends on what you’re trying to do, and if not, you are maybe on a waiting queue that also can be so the whole process can go to the end of October. There’s a payment plan, you have to pay a further €6,000 in September and then €7,000 in October and then there’s only two months left and you are busy doing everything. It’s a long process and the process goes really until you are at the start line.”

Ace Nilson, who spoke with TCF last year prior to his Dakar début, had to pay over USD$100,000 (€91,730) to get there which he satisfied via fundraisers and special events. On the other hand, Gerlach hopes to afford the trip by leaning on his day job as an industrial engineer, having graduated from Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University in October with a degree in that field, and “trying to save every euro I can.” Furthermore, he will make “quite some sacrifices which no one can really understand here in Germany. More people are asking me if I’m going crazy.

“I plan on selling my car, plan on selling my own motorcycle, to close all my savings accounts I have, I’ve paid in them since I was fifteen when I was starting my first job in the motorcycle workshop. I try to gather as much as money together as I can. Still I have to live somewhere, obviously, but I’m taking all down. I’m taking everything away which is possible. Then I’m taking a credit to have money for the bike because I don’t want to pay for an entry fee with a credit, but for a bike which has a value still after the race, that’s why I’m taking the risk to have a credit. Otherwise, I’m having some partners who are supporting me already and still need some more to be able to afford everything. I’m happy to have already convinced partners to follow my dream of becoming the youngest German to ever compete in Rally Dakar and hope to convince others still and that there are others who are sharing their dream also with me.”

If accepted, Gerlach will go up against a rather unique Dakar route from previous editions. Although the rally has exclusively taken place in Saudi Arabia since 2020, over half of the 2024 edition will be in new territory. The centrepiece of the new changes is the Chrono Stage, which replaces the traditional marathon format: spanning over 600 kilometres, competitors will have forty-eight hours to complete the stage, though they are required to stop at one of nine camps at 4 PM on the first day before resuming at 7 AM the next. Marathon rules still apply, meaning they cannot rely on their teams for assistance with their vehicles.

“I talked to a lot of people about last year. I’m trying to gather every information I can,” he said. “As it seems, it was really, really challenging last year, especially also with the rain and with the weather conditions. I don’t really expect it to be any less challenging next year. But from what I’ve heard and from what I’ve read, there are like 60% new routes and I think that’s really exciting because no one really knows what to expect and even less than normally. Even people who already have been there last year don’t know what comes.

“From what I’ve heard about the 48-hour stage, the Chrono Stage, I think that’s spicing things up a bit. You have like 600 kilometres to do or so and have two days just until 4:00 PM. That, I think, from what I have in my head right now, that’s really, really cool. You have no connection, no phone, and you have to be a bit off the connection to other riders and you just have to focus more on yourself and on your reliability more than on a normal marathon stage. It’s really, really cool and exciting from my point of view.”

When in Saudi Arabia, he hopes to make the journey a special moment for the family by having his father join him.

“I’m trying to bring my father if I can do it financially because, as I said, he’s the one of the biggest supporters actually until here,” Gerlach concluded. “I also mentioned my father did some rally racing back in the 1990s and he also met his idols back then which were like Fabrizio Meoni and Richard Sainct and my whole childhood he told me about the moment he met Fabrizio Meoni for the first time and what a really kind guy he was. But he often says he also would have wanted to do Dakar but couldn’t do it because he had family responsibilities and I was on the way, so I also see it kind of as an accomplishment of the dream which has been passed on by my father and to take him there also. I can’t imagine how it must feel for him that his dream lives on and I can really accomplish that.

“As always, we two are going to be a team. He’s supporting me in each and every way he will do, I’m pretty sure, and as a team, I hope we can make the dream come true.”

Looking Ahead

While Dakar is his current focus, Gerlach did not rule out running more W2RC races in the future. If the opportunity arises, he is more than open to doing a full season.

“Even though I might have accomplished that dream, it’s going to be really hard, but I’m pretty sure I will come back to racing some races of the World Championship for sure,” Gerlach remarked. “If everything works out, if I have the background, if I have the possibilities, why shouldn’t I do the whole championship? I think there are other really, really interesting races other than Dakar or Abu Dhabi. I think Morocco is really, really interesting, also to go to Sonora Rally really excites me thinking about that, but with the possibilities I have right now, I’m just trying to do Dakar and that’s the biggest challenge I have ever faced. It’s really crazy what amounts of work you have to put in just to be there for twelve stages, fourteen days to do all that.

“Sometimes, I ask myself how I came into that and the next morning, I wake up and I forget everything and I’m again really sure what I’m doing here. Every rally addict has the same thoughts and problems, if you can consider that a problem.”

The 2024 Dakar Rally begins on 5 January.

Interview on YouTube