Merzouga is a rather surreal place. Out in the middle of nowhere in Morocco, it takes some travelling to get to from the country’s largest city, Casablanca. You’ve probably heard of Merzouga because the place is renowned for its massive dunes that play host to the mighty Merzouga rally. Today, however, the pace is going to be much slower and far less spectacular, as I’m part of a busload of journalists that’s heading to the dunes. After hours of driving across vast Moroccan landscape, we knew we’d arrived when the flat land suddenly rose several stories into enormous mountains of yellow sand that extended beyond the eye could see; magnificent, awe-inspiring and mildly terrifying, all at the same time, because we were about to hop onto some very serious off-road machines.
Rally Lite’s 450cc motor feels like it pushes over 50hp!
The motorcycles in question are a juicy line-up of Sherco rally bikes, including a 300cc enduro, a 450cc enduro and also a 450cc factory-spec enduro rally bike. For those of you unaware, Sherco is a French off-road specialist that TVS has partnered with for its Dakar pursuits. Now I’ve never put a wheel in deep sand before, so it helped that the first bike I rode was the friendliest of the lot – the 300 SEF-R.
Clearly, I’m not much of an off-road rider and I foolishly carried my street gear to the desert. But one look at the dunes and I knew my racy fitting Dainese jacket was way too restrictive for the occasion. Thankfully, TVS’ Abdul Wahid Tanveer, one of the two Indian riders on the team, graciously offered me a spare set of body armour and one of his Sherco team jerseys. Looking halfway ready for the job, I nervously ventured out into the sand.
Suspension is by French off-road specialist, MAC.
It’s fascinating how the same rules of riding technique hold true no matter what you do with a motorcycle. A few tense and stressful minutes into the ride, I realised that the usual magic formula of a smooth throttle hand, a light hold on the bars and looking where I wanted to go make all the difference. Finally, having gained a little more confidence, I could pay attention to what the 300 SEF-R was doing beneath me. I really liked this motorcycle because it walked with me instead instantly trying to spit me off. This enduro bike is quite light, somewhere around 120kg, and even though its 950mm seat height sounds scary, the reality is that it’s very narrow and you also hardly ever end up sitting on it.
Second fuel tank for more range on those long stages.
Soon enough, I started to get the hang of the small dunes that we were testing the waters with. Gas on the way up, ease off towards the top – just enough that you don’t fly over the edge (you never know how sharp the drop is on the other side!), but also sufficiently enough that you don’t bog down before you get there and get stuck halfway up the climb. I passed my own acid test when I followed the Sherco lead rider over the blind crest of a dune, but about 10ft off his line. While he had a clean descent, I came across a terrifying drop that I could swear felt like 30ft deep, but in reality was about five. ‘Alright, there’s no escaping this,’ I told myself, so I just gassed it a bit, moved my weight towards the rear and the bike landed neatly on the other side. Phew! 15min in the soft and deep sand is a lot of work, so it was a small relief when the lead rider guided us back to the base. I was exhausted, but ecstatic.
So many controls for the navigation tower!
What bike to take next then? I angled for the bigger enduro, the 450 SEF-R, assuming that it would be faster but familiar. The organisers, however, had other plans. I was shepherded to the scary-looking 450 Rally Lite, the very bike that Tanveer won 2nd place on in the Enduro Class at the Rally du Maroc a day prior.
This was a much more serious machine, a fact driven home by the big navigation tower that sits atop the handlebar. Just as I was about to set out, David Casteau, the Sherco Racing Team manager and a wild rally rider in his own time, sidles up to me and says, “This is my personal bike, don’t hurt it.” David had a smile on his face, but it didn’t do much to hide the genuine concern that lay beneath. I don’t blame him, I was even more worried than he was.
Front brake is startlingly powerful.
30sec out and my visual gauging of the bike wasn’t wrong – this is a serious, serious machine. Everything on the Rally Lite feels so much sharper and more amplified: the throttle demands much more care, the brakes are surprisingly powerful and the suspension feels firmer, but also much more sophisticated in its damping and ability to take impacts. Sherco won’t reveal power figures, but it feels like this bike is making well over 50hp and it has just about 135kg to carry around. The extra weight over the 450 SEF-R comes from the navigation tower and a second fuel tank that increases the range on long rallies.
Soon, David pulls up next to us in his cool V8-powered Jeep Wrangler, points at me and says something to the lead rider in French. I suspected he must’ve had enough of me on his precious machine, but as it turned out, not dropping the bike so far had earned me the right to venture a little further into the dunes!
Exotic-looking full system exhaust by Akra.
Two sets of dunes further in and it’s a whole new world. The climbs are enormous and the drops at least two stories deep. We even come across a group of dunes that have formed a circle, almost like the mouth of a volcano, and, incredibly, the Sherco rider leads me for a spin around the entire circumference of the top edge. I didn’t dare look down because the valley below was so deep, I wondered how we’d ever get the bike out if it went in there... Sadly, there was no photographer around and I didn’t have a GoPro running, but those few minutes in the deeper dunes will stay etched in my memory for many moons to come. My pulse gets racing, even as I type this.
Emerging from the dunes, it dawns on me that I haven’t once had the spare mental capacity to even glance at the navigation tower, let alone constantly control and monitor it (as rally riders have to, all day long). Exhaustion sets in after just minutes in the dunes; it is a place so disorienting, I’d have surely been lost if there wasn’t someone more experienced to follow. I bow low to the immensely talented, hardworking and brave few who take on this terrain at breakneck speeds, for thousands of kilometres, for days on end. They are another species.
What a deliciously minimalistic tail section!
It was a privilege to ride these motorcycles, but the experience leaves me with a tinge of sadness, because Sherco has no intention to sell its bikes in India at the moment. Internationally, the 450 Rally Lite is the highest specification motorcycle that the company offers to the public, and its full-size, rally-raid machine that attacks the Dakar rally is reserved only for the Sherco TVS factory team. As for me, the 450 Rally Lite is miles above my abilities, but I’d love to get my hands on something more approachable like a 300 or even a 450 Enduro someday. Until then, the memories will have to suffice.