Five-time AMA National Enduro Champion Russell Bobbitt talks about his experience riding the KTM New Zealand Adventure Rallye.
There are certain opportunities that arise which immediately spark a feeling of—I have to do this! While attending the North American KTM Adventure Rally in Park City, Utah earlier this year, I received an invitation to take part in the KTM New Zealand Rallye.
Ding, ding, ding Yes, please! Explore all of Northland? As soon as those words entered my brain, I was sold and began putting plans into motion to get down there.
The last time I was in New Zealand was in 2006 for the International Six Days Enduro. The ISDE took place on the Northland, as well, based in Lake Taupo, which served as one of the favorite events I have ever raced. I loved racing in New Zealand. It didn’t hurt that we won the ISDE Junior Trophy and I got to take it back to USA, either!
By Russell Bobbitt | Photos by Danny Wilkinson
Rosie Lalonde was heading up the NZ event and, as we communicated before the ride, it was clear she dialed in every last detail, making this Rallye (yep, with an “e”) sure to be one to remember. With over 40 private properties and farms making up the bulk of the riding terrain this was shaping up like a multi-day enduro on big, badass bikes. There would be no other way to have access to the places we were riding unless you attended this event. This just keeps getting better!
The week before departing for the event I received a dossier with an overview and my excitement went through the roof.
Unlike the U.S. rally, where we cloverleaf out of the same location for loops, NZ would be a point-to-point ride with a sag vehicle to carry our bags. This took some serious logistics and it was impressive to see the staff manage the 101 riders, and all their gear, that was present.
Six days and over 1200 miles of adventure riding were on the schedule. Several breakouts from the main route were graded with variable difficulty so that there was something to suit all levels of ability. The breakouts were color-coded and rated with chili peppers for their difficulty. One chili would take you off the tarmac and onto some gravel with a soft spot or some slick bits. Two chilis would be quite a bit spicier and also means you will leave the comfort zone for V-twins and get into some more challenging situations. Three chilis mean the trail is rated for one that is keen for some technical and rowdy trail! You will most likely break a sweat and need to have a drink of water after this section.
On top of all this, the NZ Rallye would also serve as a KTM Ultimate Race Qualifier—a series of challenges across the globe aimed at fielding the best real bike owners (not professional racers) to race the all-new KTM 790 Adventure Rs in Morocco!
I flew into Auckland with my friend, Mike Brillanti, who had also been at the U.S. rally and participated in the KTM Ultimate Race Qualifier in Utah. It was going to be really interesting to compare the qualifier in the U.S. versus down here.
We made it to KTM NZ Headquarters in the morning and were stoked when we saw a brand-new 1090 Adventure R and 690 Enduro sitting there prepped and ready for us. Everyone welcomed us and was incredibly helpful. The bikes had custom event graphics with our names and number as well. I’ve been a professional racer for a long time. And this felt like Adventure-level factory treatment! After mounting our GPS units and a tankbag we jumped straight into it, as we needed to ride 150 miles north to Paihia, the starting point of the event.
I appreciated the large “Keep Left” arrow on my windscreen to keep me on the proper side of the road and I constantly reminded myself, “short left and long right” at every intersection. Within the first five minutes of riding, the bottom fell out of the sky and we got completely drenched. It was proper product testing, as it was the first time wearing my Fly Racing Adventure Gear and it actually kept me dry—thank goodness! Nothing worse than riding and starting to feel that slow creep of cold water trickling down your crack!
Finally, out of the city, we started to hit some curves and began to see some of what this amazing countryside has to offer. Beautiful green hills and coastline roads that were immaculately paved were ours to ride. Stoke level remained very high.
We made it to Paihai, where we stayed at the Copthorne Resort at the Bay of Islands. Throughout the day riders trickled in, registered, and went through tech inspection. The 1190 was the most popular model making up 34 percent of the group, while the 690 was second with 24 percent. Three pillion riders (two-up) signed up and an incredible 13 countries were represented!!
During registration I was introduced to professional rider and KTM ambassador, Chris Birch, who is local to the area and an absolute legend! We had some free time that afternoon, so we went and played around on a local farm and got to take some pictures with the event photographer, Danny Wilkinson. I was quickly impressed with Chris’s mad skills on the adventure bike and it was really cool to see someone pushing the boundaries of what is thought to be capable on the V-twins!
After dinner, riders had the two options of uploading the day routes to their GPS or downloading the GPX files to their phones through the Rever phone app. I had both Rever running and my Trail Tech Voyager Pro updated with all the breakout routes.
KTM New Zealand ADV Rallye: Day 1 (211 miles)
Our jet lag was minimal, despite transporting 16 hours into the future. The unprecedented amount of rain leading up to this week had conditions expected to be slick at the lightest. I would be riding midsweep to help with mechanicals and bogged riders on any technical bits.
Within a few miles, we turned off tarmac and onto a well-graded gravel road. They are called metal roads here and they were the perfect consistency for getting your drift on. The gravel ended and changed into some familiar clay. However, the rain had done its job making the ground feel like a sealed concrete floor covered in Motorex grease.
The first breakout we reached had a stacked field in a bottleneck. Nothing too crazy, just insanely slick conditions and enough peanut butter that turned any loss of momentum into a complete fail. Birchy was there riding bikes up and I helped push a few dedicated riders up before riding a few more.
After getting the crew back rolling again, we came to our second breakout, which turned to actual single track. This had been what I was looking forward to—taking this bike in places you don’t think it should necessarily go. Vibrant green fern trees and tons of tropical foliage made you feel far away from home. The kauri trees were incredible to see too, some of the oldest trees in the country were located on the tracks we were riding.
We were running a bit behind on schedule and had to skip lunch to make the ferry so we could do the last breakout of the day. To further the day’s diversity, we began heading toward the beach crossing some sandstone ledges before dropping down dunes onto the coast. The tide had begun coming in making the sand really soft between a tall, banked wall and the ocean. We managed to crossover some volcanic rock to get off the beach and back onto the road that would take us to our stay for the night in Taipa Beach.
KTM New Zealand ADV Rallye: Day 2 (210 miles)
Days two and three shared the same hotel. Baz, the trail boss informed us that sand, sand, and more sand was in store for the day. I got a bright start in the morning with wheels down at 6:30 as I went out with the lead crew to mark some of the course that needed some signing. Waking up and heading straight out onto the beach was awesome. I stretched the throttle cable and got up to 105 mph to get my adrenaline fix straight away. Nice way to wake up.
Then we dove off into some tall grass and gum fields littered with mud bogs between the beach and roads for a while. I was a little concerned with how many people could make it through some of these sections, as they were getting dug out fast! We setup a re-route to make sure riders had an easier option.
The next section was one of my favorite parts of the entire ride. We entered into dirt-bike heaven when we took off into the pine forests. Massive old pine trees spaced out with plenty of room and a loamy sand/soil mix made the ultimate playground. Being the first ones on the trail was the best—making fresh tracks and ripping up the green moss that coated some of the ground. I was riding with the Rallye wrench, Harry Norton, and we were just frothing, eating each other’s roost and blowing up sand berms every chance we got!
After leaving the forest we kept heading north, toward the most northern point of NZ. We crossed through some timbered land and avocado farms on some super fun trails and roads. There were groups of wild horses running and some of the riders had to wait for them to get out of the trail.
We grabbed a bite to eat and filled up on fuel before heading to the tip, Cape Reinga! This was a sight to see, as it was where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean’s currents collided making what looked like its own Bermuda Triangle of ocean-current chaos.
As we began heading back south to Taipa, we dropped into the Te Paki Stream that paralleled some huge sand dunes. The stream had a hard sand bottom and dropped us out onto the black sands on 90-mile beach. We then rode down the beach for over 30 miles before diving into some deep sand breakouts that made the riders work for it! It was a massive and physical day!
KTM New Zealand ADV Rallye: Day 3 (181 miles)
The group wasn’t as spry this morning. Everyone took a little more leisure in preparing for the day. More rain came in overnight and there was a good chance a couple of the more difficult breakouts would be blocked off. I would resume my role as mid-sweep and assist on the slick clay areas. I was thankful for my Georgia red-clay riding experience! The terrain turned back to clay-based and gravel two-track.
The massive drama of the day came from a French rider diving off a small creek crossing into a deep hole that swallowed his 1090 completely! We began to break it down but decided to call sweep to come pick up the bike and take it back to the bivouac for proper work that night.
We stopped in a cool little town called Kerri Kerri for a long black and egg/bacon pie before catching a ferry to the Russell Forest.
One of the best gravel roads of the entire ride was in this forest! I had the chance to ride with former supercar racing great, Greg Murphy. He said he had actually raced a rally section on this road before. I can see how this would be the ideal spot for a road rally, as all of these gravel roads are kept up unbelievably well. The Kiwis know how to build a proper road.
The perfect tilts send you from one bermed turn straight into the next where you try to nose in tight around the inside flirting your bars just inches from the inside forest wall. The turn exits are equally as fun with the pea-gravel surface. Finding the right amount of power to spin the rear wheel and carry that drift from one corner into the next is an absolute blast!
The last stop was at a dirt-bike farm where they allowed us access onto some single track that crossed the property and weaved in an out of trails. The dirt had just enough sun to tack up for full traction. I did manage to sink my bike in a bog when I turned around to check on our group. Cheers to the guys that helped me get out! That isn’t a one-man job with these bikes.
We rolled into Whangarei close to 5 p.m. Getting off the bikes, Mike told me he wasn’t sure what he had gotten himself into and questioned whether or not he’d be up to finish! The big days were taking a toll physically and mentally.
KTM New Zealand ADV Rallye: Day 4 (197 miles)
I woke up with a light fog from the previous night due to the pale-ale special. Day four was more like a liaison day, as the group needed to make their way back to the southern side of Auckland and over to the town of Thames on the Peninsula. This is when the Ultimate Race Qualifier events began to take place. The main objective that day being a timed special test around gravel piles and a wet grass track. The track was setup at a horse-racing facility and had all of the entrants there to spectate the good racing!
It was impressive watching these guys pin it! You could tell everyone took it very seriously and came prepared. The sun and rain decided to play nice as well, so it was a pleasure to watch.
Tire support was available that day for anyone who wanted fresh knobbies. Tech was on top of things as well and managed to get the watered-out 1090 back running!
KTM New Zealand ADV Rallye: Day 5 (109 miles)
This day was set to be spectacular from the get-go! The organizers obtained permission to have a special test hosted at the most scenic property on the coast at Port Jackson. A twisty coastal road covered with a canopy of Pohutukawa trees made for a plush morning ride.
The local Colville School hosted a home cooked lunch with pulled pork, lamb rolls, and your choice of several desserts. Rally participants raised $2000 for the school through their generous donations.
Before lunch was too settled, the Ultimate Race qualifiers headed out just behind our lunch spot and poised themselves at the bottom of a massive grass hill. This would be the start of the spectacular special test that began with a flat-out hill climb to the top on incredibly slick grass.
I took a sight lap around the course with Birch and actually got stuck on a tricky corner where the pitch turned a steeper grade. My shredded rear tire with 30 psi of air didn’t quite help, but it was no joke of a hill. What really got me bothered was the other side on the way back down! Having a 500-plus-pound machine pushing you down a grass hill looking straight into the ocean’s depths is a bit intimidating to say the least. I was praying I could control my momentum enough not to lock up the front wheel.
Watching the racers themselves give it their all on the course was mind blowing. They were absolutely flying and the top five really put in some impressive times.
Once all the riders had finished, the remaining field took off and were treated to more green mountains and got to traverse the 2000-acre farm that felt like you were poaching Avatar!
KTM New Zealand ADV Rallye: Day 6 (158 miles)
It was hard to believe we were waking up to the last day of the Rallye. We took off on a chill schedule lacking a bit of motivation from being woke up by an absolute flogging rain at 6 a.m. But all stoke was restored when I walked out to my bike and spotted a sharp knobby front tire mounted. Harry put one on and said; “There is no way you were going to ride where we are going today with that 50/50.”
Man, he couldn’t have been more right. The reason for the seemingly mandatory tire change was due to the trail in store called the “Carolina Reaper.” Rated with five chili peppers this one wasn’t for the faint at heart!
The course brief described the breakout as “a long climb up to a ridgeline bush track. Frictionless clay descents with consequential ridges if you blew a corner. Be prepared to bulldog your bike if necessary.”
Wow, they were hyping this up, but had been on point with their chili system so far and I was excited to see the gnar! As soon as we pulled off for the breakout, we dropped our tire pressure to 10 psi in the rear and about 18 psi up front. What a mega difference this made, especially coupled with a knobby front! I could steer again!!
This was by far the most challenging trail of the Rallye and it lived up to its name. It was off the charts spicy! I had never been so thankful for a sharp front tire in my life. The rear, however, did manage to pass me on one downhill and I made a graceful dismount into the side bush.
When all the ridges were complete the riders split ways to make their way back to the final bivouac. KTM Ultimate Race qualifier riders had one more special test and the top two, who would qualify to go to Morocco, would be decided at night.
Rain set in and the temperature dropped 15 degrees bringing a little chill into the bones for the transfer back to Whangamata.
The dinner and awards at night was great fun filled with stories, laughs, thanks, and of course plenty of beers shared around. Maxine, from France, took home the hard-luck award. Due to losing his bike in a pond, being stung by bees, and getting his bike stuck in a ravine! However, the most prominent awards went to the top two Ultimate Race qualifier’s Elliot Kent and Kevin Archer. With Kevin taking the win, these two friends will attack Morocco and have their chance to win a 790 Adventure R bike to take home!
The party went on as fellow rider, Sweet Jesus, provided some acoustics with a found guitar and sang some Stevie Ray and Dire Straits covers.
The next day Mike and I would head back to drop off the bikes at KTM New Zealand, and high tail it to the airport for our 3 p.m. flight home. Our time at the event was unbelievable and it felt like we were actually participating in a rally, and not just a KTM-fest. Is it too early to say we can’t wait for next year?CN