Interview Dakar rider Julien Toniutti.
At the beginning of a new year many people have good intentions. Hopefully an inspiring story like this one can help you to follow through! Because Julien Toniutti, fivefold French road rally champion, is definitely not a dreamer but a doer. The French Isle of Man TT lap record holder didn’t have any off-road experience before 2018. Nevertheless, he is about to start the Dakar, the world’s toughest rallyraid.
Eleven years ago Toniutti started his competitive career in the French road rally championship, two years ago he made his Isle of Man TT debut. Now he has his sights set on the Dakar rally. From a plus 124 mph average speed lap around the Mountain Course, The Manx GP and the Open Trophy in Chimay over the dunes of Morocco, the Shot Race Gear rider does not shy away from any challenge. Or in his own words: “The biggest risk in life is not taking risks.”
Outside of France motorcycle road rally is not that well known. Can you explain what it is?
Toniutti: “Well it’s very similar to rally for cars really. We ride on small, winding roads. The speeds are much lower than in the Tourist Trophy, but it’s still a motorcycle race on the road and there are always dangers. Whether things go wrong and you hit a tree at 75 mph in a rally or you hit a tree at 135 mph in the Tourist Trophy, I think the result is the same in both cases! You always have to build in a large margin, which is what I will do in the Dakar as well.”
You’re riding for 2B Moraco, a French elite team that competed in motocross GP’s and enduro. It must be an asset to race for such an experienced group?
Toniutti: “It is always important to be well surrounded, but I am a beginner in everything regarding off-road! That’s why good guidance matters so much, whether it comes down to physical preparation, riding skills but also when choosing the right equipment. With Team 2B I can race in the best possible conditions, although I am a real amateur in this discipline.”
In April you rode the Merzouga Rally in Morocco, the first rallyraid of your career. That’s where you qualified for the Dakar. Tell us about that experience.
Toniutti: “I knew beforehand that it would be a great adventure, but I was not sure if I could finish the race. I really did not know what to expect, I started with a lot of insecurity. However I was very well prepared physically which was also a matter of trying to compensate for my lack of riding technique. It was reassuring to wrap up the Merzouga although I realize that it doesn’t mean a lot compared to what the Dakar has in store for me! ”
In terms of riding, the differences between what you were used to and off-road are enormous. What was the hardest?
Toniutti: “Racing on the street and riding in a rallyraid is a bit like comparing football and rugby, both are played with a ball, but not in the same way! In terms of riding technique it was anything but easy in the beginning. Off-road riding is so different from riding on the road, so finding grip is always one of the main challenges. What made impressed me most in the Merzouga were the dunes. For the first time I also discovered riding a motorcycle in very, deep and soft sand.
Just getting it slightly wrong is so easy. I had to be very focused and attentive, to understand how to tackle the dunes, you just need hours and hours of experience. By now things have improved, luckily. I have learned and I have some experience under my belt.”
The Dakar is also a long battle against fatigue. You arrive late in the bivouac, at night you can be surrounded with noise from repairs, the next day you have to get up early to leave. How do you prepare for that?
Toniutti: “Well, that’s just part of the extreme nature of this race! There is no other motorcycle race in the world where you ride so many kilometers every day, so fatigue will just be one of the more difficult aspects to manage.”
Tell us a bit more about your Dakar bike.
Toniutti: “It is a very easy and capable motorcycle that comes fully equipped as it is. The KTM 450 Rally is made specifically for rallyraid, if you buy it, it is ready to race out of the crate! I feel that is one of the best bikes out there for this type competition. I have all the bells and whistles you need: the extra large fueltank, Akropovic exhaust, a navigation system and lots more.”
As far as navigation is concerned, you’ve got a pretty good baseline to work from with your roadrally background.
Toniutti: “Yes absolutely, navigation is probably the least worrying thing in the Dakar. I have been doing it now for more than ten years in the French Rally Championship. In road rally we use road books as well so I developed the habit of keeping one eye on the roadbook and one eye on the road! Of course this doesn’t mean that I can not make navigation errors! The only difference with road rally is that the navigation in the Dakar is based on the direction in degrees. (ed. the direction described in the roadbook is expressed in an angle of inclination between 0 and 360 °).
At first sight, the Tourist Trophy and the Dakar couldn’t be any more different. But both are big, complex challenges that require a lot of planning and management. Can your learnings from the Isle of Man TT be transferred to South America?
Toniutti: “I’d like to think so. I surely believe my experience of the Tourist Trophy also helps in other extreme races like the Dakar. Even on the mental level I’m convinced that it will help me. If you’re pulling off a good result in the Tourist Trophy, one of the the most dangerous races in the world, it gives you a great sense of achievement. You get the feeling that there’s a lot more your that you’re capable of! But I know that it will be very tough, I am not sure I will make it to the finish line because it is so demanding physically. When it comes to mental toughness I feel very ready. I think I would start with a lot more apprehension if the Dakar was my first big, extreme race! ”
How did your program look like to come to terms with mastering off-road riding skills as quickly as possible?
Toniutti: “I rode enduro two or three times a week. For fun I also participated in the Aveyronnaise Classic (ed. a three-day French enduro classic in the South of France) In October I spent a week in Morocco together with the team to practice navigation and crossing dunes. I also did a clinic with Serge Nuques (ed. Former French enduro champion)to improve my technique in the sand. Next to my work on the bike I kept putting in the work to keep my fitness up with cycling, running, strength training, core and balance exercises… ”
What is your advice to motorcycle riders who want to take their first steps in off-road riding?
Toniutti: “(laughs) I’m sorry, at the moment I’m not the one to dish out advice! For the time being I am still in the learning phase, I hope I can say something more useful after I finish the Dakar. For now I feel too much of a noob.”
What attracts you the most in the Dakar?
Toniutti: “Pushing my own limits, the dedication and total implication you need to to reach the finish line. For me it would be a win if I could finish this Dakar! It also would be a first for a rider to have pulled off, the most extreme road race in world, namely the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy and the most extreme off-road race the Dakar. This has never happened before, even for a rider who has done either the TT or the Dakar, you can say that it’s quite an achievement in its own right, but if I finish the Dakar, that will be a first!”
Thank you for your time and good luck in the Dakar, Julien!
Toniutti: “It was a real pleasure!”