Finding Valentino - 2008 Rally GB

Amongst the frozen soil of the coldest Welsh Rally in recent memory, Valentino Rossi was pushing his Stobart Ford to the limit as he barged his way up to 12th place. This is our story of two days tracking down the elusive MotoGP superstar…

Like many dastardly schemes, our plot to kidnap Valentino Rossi was doomed from the outset. The basic outline was sound enough – track him down, bundle the furry freak brother into the back of a motor, hold him hostage for two weeks chained to a sofa and demand a ransom for his safe return – but was fraught with difficulties and danger.

So we decided to downsize the operation. “Rugby-tackle him,” announced Colin Goodwin after mulling it over for some time. “He’ll never expect it. All we need is a reasonable decoy, get the little bastard into open ground, you put your shoulder in hard and I’ll ask him about the one-tyre rule in MotoGP when he’s on the deck. The media will love it and he’ll see the funny side. No question.”

The speed and precision of the World Championship drivers as they blast their 300bhp motors completely sideways through mud and snow is completely gobsmacking. Provided you can find where the rally is. You need a map, basic navigational skills, and the right tools for the job. Enter (stage left) three gnarly, full-fat adventure bikes. BMW’s legendary GS1200 Adventure, the bike that made it possible to ride from Manchester to Marrakech in less than four days with no worries. KTM’s genius 990 Adventure represents the sharper side of adventure bikes, unashamedly sharp and powerful.

Finally, BMW’s new baby GS, the F800. Conventional suspension, chain drive and weird-looking, but it’s light, punches above its weight and easily capable of living with the bigger bikes. A flat twin, a parallel twin and a V-twin. These are the only bikes if you’ve got to ride from London to Wales in sub-zero temperatures, go places where cars can’t go, blast up cinder tracks and carry all your gear there and back in comfort.

BMW R1200GS Adventure

…according to Colin

This GS is particularly hefty because it’s fully kitted up with boxes, extra lights and pretty much everything else that you can throw at it from the accessories catalogue. The 1200GS is the Porsche 911 of the bike world: you desperately want to say something different about it and unseat it from its position as the best all round touring, fun and adventure bike in the world but unfortunately it’s rather hard to find fault with it because it really is rather brilliant. And like with the 911, people who sell them usually regret it within two years and buy another. It’s a handful on the dirt but riding around the country lanes and on the main roads around Mythyr Tydfil it is quite stunning. Only luxury touring bikes like the Gold Wing match it for comfort and easy-chair riding position. This GS has got a high screen which keeps the windblast off your chest and heated grips that all bikes should have.

It’s a big beast, the 1200GS, and you need to have hundreds of hours on the dirt behind you and strong thigh muscles to confidently play with it off road. Cantlie is okay because he is carrying an Arai motocross helmet as well as his on-road helmet and must therefore be a dirt God. He’s also 6ft 2in. Not that the chin guard on his helmet nor his scaffold pole legs prevented him from losing his balance on the GS at 2mph in a ditch and having to wave for help to pick it up. There’s no damage because it falls right onto the best engineered crash bars in the business, but fully laden it’s an easy 300kg of metal.

Loading Up

The 1200’s panniers (it comes with the unfair advantage of a top-box as well) take by far the most gear. You can keep shoveling spare helmets, boots, clothes and fine cheeses into the BMW’s spacious boxes until you run out of shit to put in there. In comparison, the plastic boxes on the KTM and F800 simply aren’t in the same league.

I was in Birmingham for the NEC and wheeled southwards down the M5, marveling at the sunshine and safely cosseted from the freezing winter air by the 1200’s bodywork. As I clicked the heated handlebar grips onto their hottest setting, I chuckled to myself knowing that the heated grips on the F800 that Goodwin was riding were defunct. And the upright ride position and screen of the smaller BMW would offer him little protection from winter’s icy blasts.

The Welsh rally takes place in a triangle between Swansea (service park) Cardiff (stadium specialstage) and goes as far north as Llanidloes. We based ourselves in the shell-shock town of Merthyr Tydfil and drew our plans. You have to be quick on your toes to get ahead of the cars and be able to navigate. Sebastian Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen and (we hoped) Valentino Rossi don’t hang about on the special stages and they don’t hang around on the road, either. You have to be careful, though. The Welsh police see this international event as a grand old excuse to mobilise every speed-trap and radar gun within a 100-mile radius.

Up at 7am the next day and it’s brutally cold. A thick layer of hoar frost covers the bikes, it’s at times like these that you seriously ask yourself what you’re doing on a motorcycle. The roads are slated in black-ice as we pick our way westbound. We pass the scene of a road accident – not the first we’ll see – as two cars have collided on ice. I’m on the R1200 still, hanging onto those heated handlebar grips for all I’m worth.

We come up to a section of road closed to the public and put our press passes to use. “We’re from ITV, here to pick up the tapes,” I tell the official on the gate. “Good, we’ve been expecting you guys,” he says. “Just follow the cars through to the next checkpoint and you’ll meet the crews at refuel.” We tuck in behind Francois Duval and skim along a glorious, twisting, sinuous little road as the sun casts us in orange and entirely unwarming light.

First Contact

If the 1200GS is the heavyweight of the group, then the 800GS is the flyweight and the KTM990 a WWF wrestler. If you want to play in the dirt, pull wheelies in front of your mates and generally ride  like a terrorist when you get to your destination, the bright orange Katoom leaves the two BMW models behind. It’s revvy and upright, it’s very ugly and the frantic nature of its V-twin engine entices you to play and slide it around. Just as well that its race-developed chassis is more than capable of joining in the fun. The 990 is clearly the GSX-R1000 of the adventure bike world, a comparison that will doubtless sit comfortably with KTM’s rabid mission statement.

Through a series of U-turns and back-tracking we find ourselves in the refuel point for Stage 11. Has anyone seen Valentino? “Not yet,” says a PR girl called Rachel Marks. “In fact he’s one of the few that hasn’t been through yet.” “He’s probably crashed it and is already on his way home,” says cynical motoring journalist Colin, not without some justification. Rossi has a long history of stacking it early in rally events. Then, bizarrely, at that very moment Valentino Rossi pulls into the refuel point.

At this point, our carefully-rehearsed plan to tackle Valentino collapses. Howard the photographer goes running off to get a wide-angle lens just as Rossi emerges from his car to sign more autographs. He’s out in the open, and I have a clear run. But he turns to look me in the eye and I falter. I walk up and stick a microphone in his face.

I can’t help it, it’s habit. And Colin, who is to deliver the “what do you think of the one-make tyre rule in MotoGP” line, is star-struck, with a vapid shit-eating grin on his face and incapable of speech. What a disaster. “Er, is it slippery out there Valentino?” I ask – without doubt the most stupid question of the month. Of course it’s fucking slippery, they’re in Wales racing on gravel and it’s minus five degrees. “A leetle beet, yes…” Valentino replies, turning to sign more marshal’s bibs. Just then, Howard comes back with the right lens. In mere seconds, we’d come apart like amateurs…



…according to Colin

I’d be surprised if ten percent of these things ever see a patch of mud, but if you fancy trying out a bit of green laning or something a bit more demanding I’d suggest that you give the 1200 BMW a  miss and use this product instead. It’s far lighter and more manageable. The baby F800GS has got heated grips but one of them is on the blink today. Fortunately it’s the left one so I can cruise down the motorway with a Napoleon-like hand stuffed in my jacket. With bikes like these so much is down to what tyres are fitted and the wee GS has road-biased Dunlops that slipslide and just make steam off road. Pity, because as it’s the lightest of the three bikes here it’s perfect for someone whose off-road skills were honed in the car parks at Brands Hatch rather than across the Sea of Sand in Tamanrasset.

Is looking like Charley or Ewan that important to you, or do you make yearly trips to Cape Town or even Malaga? If not the 800GS is a more sensible bet than the 1200GS. It doeesn’t have the big bike’s phenemonal fuel range but then rarely will you ride 330 miles non-stop. Being chain drive and with a conventional fork arrangement, the little GS is remarkably nimble and tremendously good fun to ride. The screen could do a great deal more to protect you from winter’s worse, but the parallel twin is involving and gives plenty of oomph off the throttle. Most importantly, there’s a very big difference in price. GS Max costs £9,995 in standard trim and £13,320 in this loaded form; GS Small is £6,695 basic and £7,515 with abs, heated grips and fuel computer. Three grand is three grand. On the ride home from Swansea to London, blasted by council gritters, the 800GS cruises at an easy 90mph.

Second Time Lucky

Our first encounter with the most famous motorcyclist in the world had left us bemused and slightly forlorn. Our inability to act, frozen to the spot by the grandiose of the man himself, revealed us for the pathetic shams that we truly were. Still, we had big motorbikes and people seemed to think that was pretty cool around here (at -5 degrees it was) and so we took off for stages 13 and 14, at Halfway and Crychan respectively.

I’d finally relented by now and allowed someone else (Colin) to ride the 1200, which meant I was zipping around on the 800. It’s a fine little thing, angular and weird-looking like the KTM but in no way vast or staggeringly tall to ride like the other two bikes here. A normal-sized person (sub 6ft) could happily live with the 800.

A locked gate blocks our way. We know where we need to be to pick up Rossi’s scent but there’s just one way to get there and it’s closed. Time to wield the press passes again, this time on an extremely friendly (and, it has to be said, not unattractive) blonde policewoman. “Where do we get to the start of the stage,” we ask. “Up this track, but I don’t know if you’ll get those things up there – it’s pretty cut-up and muddy,” she says. Ha, nothing like laying the gauntlet down to Adventure Bike Rider – he loves a good challenge. With a rattle of keys she’s unlocked the Forestry Commission gate and we’ve got five minutes to cover before the stage starts.

It’s here, on the loose stuff, that the KTM is king. You can just blast it sideways in 4th gear at 80mph, there’s so much feedback from the chassis you know what the tyres are doing even when they’re spinning in different directions to each other. The 1200GS has a sure-footed, solid feel to it on the cinder roads. You blast through stuff rather than sliding over it, but it still feels as eminently uncrashable as it always does. On its road-based tyres, the little 800 is clearly out of its depth here. A change to chunkier dual-purpose rubber would work wonders, I am sure.

Men of the Cloth

We make it to the start of the stage with seconds to spare. We watch as Loeb blasts out of the box, the tail of his Citroen spinning wildly but in complete control. These rally cars are surprisingly quiet, nothing like the ear-shattering din of an F1 car, and they’re basic, rugged, proper workmanship. I like the fact rally drivers have to get their hands dirty and fix their own shit out in the field.

Rossi is headed towards the start. We know this because they’re running the start of Stage 14 in reverse order, we know he’s lying in 16th place and the first 14 cars have come through. There’s a man with a small, blue cloth who busily wipes down the side windows and race numbers of each car that comes through. We have a word. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance we could do that role when number 46 comes through?” I ask him. “He’s a good friend of ours,” I gesture towards the parked motorbikes. “And we’re helping him along. He’d appreciate it.” “You know Valentino Rossi?” the man asks, agog. I shrug that sure, yeah, we’re kinda mates, and he presses the cloth into my hands. And that is how we became Valentino Rossi’s official window cleaners at the Welsh rally.

For those brief seconds, we were an invaluable part of Team Valentino. Rossi slithered into view, the exhaust from his 300bhp Ford popping and banging as Colin and I descended on him from the left. Wipetty-wipe, the driver’s and rear windows were sparkling. Round we went to the right-hand side, doing the same for the race numbers. Then we swapped places and this time it was me, face-to-face with Valentino Rossi as the one minute board came up. He’d clocked us by now, he knew it was the same idiots as before, and he busied himself with his helmet, his gloves, looking straight ahead. Busted.

With a final wipe of his wing-mirror I tap on his window and gave him an idiotic double thumbs-up, complete with daft grin. “That should destroy his concentration seconds before the start,” mumbles Colin as Valentino returns my enthusiasm with a curt nod and a half-smile. The 10 second board comes out and seconds later he’s vanished in a blast of turbo whistle and flying gravel. He finished in an amazing 12th place, but I firmly believe there’s no way he could have done it without us.

An idiot’s guide to… Rally driving

Rallying doesn’t really work on the telly. You need to be standing in a forest being pelted by stones and gravel by some crazy Finn with an unspellable name and a deep-seated conviction that pine trees are made out of Styrofoam. We’ve been driven by talents like Brundle and Webber but these F1 jocks are rank amateurs compared to rally drivers. Men like Loeb and the late McRae are the TT riders of the four-wheel world.

Talk to a proper bobble-hatted rally fan (Thermos and old Ford RS branded Puffa jacket) and he’ll tell you that rallying isn’t what it used to be. And he’d be right, too. Rally Wales is confined to a small area of South Wales but a decade ago the British round of the world rally championship was a moving circus that visited iconic venues like the Kielder forest in Scotland as well as muddy bits of Yorkshire and Wales. What’s more, you didn’t have to pay to watch and could get really close to the action. Dangerously close.

Next year the Rally Wales is a round of the World Rally Championship but from 2010 it’ll be every other year. Which is a tragedy, but that’s a minor problem. The championship itself is in a bit of a pickle. Subaru have now pulled out, leaving only Ford and Citroen with teams and that makes it somewhat less thrilling than it was just a few years ago. The problem, as you can guess, is that it’s got too expensive. Formula One has sucked so much cash out of motor sport to feed its own greed that there’s little left for rallying. Daft because a rally car is far closer to what you and I drive than any circuit car.

The FIA has just changed the technical regs so from next year the cars will be cheaper to run. They’ll still be 2.0-litre turbo 4WD cars but the cars will be nearer standard with teams buying a kit to turn them into full-on competition rally cars. And they’ll be good to watch. But then any rally is an amazing spectacle. If you’ve not been I’d recommend getting yourself to Wales next year, knobblies on the back of your R1, a bobble hat, thermals and a hip flask. Go to for tickets and information for the 2010 event.

KTM 990 Adventure

…according to Colin

It’s no lightweight but the KTM 990 Adventure feels much more manageable off-road than the 1200GS. It’s got the right tyres for the job, but it’s also narrower which enables you to get your feet in a good position on the ground for supporting it. On road it feels more sporty than the big BMW.  The V-twin is a cracking motor with plenty of power and great throttle response. Sure, you can get your knee down on the GS and even a pannier if you’re really keen to grind even more expensive material from your bike, but the KTM’s suspension and throttle response give it a more precise and punchy feel. It’d be fantastic in the Alps on a sunny day. And it looks so cool, too, from its orange instrument backgrounds to the twin filler caps on the tank. Not that it’s all orange and image, there are some really neat touches too like the little storage bin on the top of the tank that’s perfect for toll money and plasters.

The Orangemobile is £9,495 and smack on BMW money. It’s greatest selling point is, of course, that it’s not a GS and that you won’t have amateur comedians coming up to you asking whether your Ewan. Don’t laugh, it happened to Cantlie. If I had any talent for off-roading I’d choose the KTM for hunting small Italians in Welsh forests.