Willem Avenant working to ‘decode’ Dakar for debut in 2025

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Credit: Pierre Lombard

The Dakar Rally is regarded by many as the ultimate off-road racing adventure, and those who grew up following the race have it on their bucket list. One of those hoping to turn their childhood dreams into reality is Willem Avenant, who hopes to make his début in 2025.

The journey to make the Dakar is long and can often be confusing. A meticulous person at heart, Avenant hopes to forge a coherent path for himself and others with the same goal by documenting his efforts to qualify for the race throughout 2024. He dubs this series Decoding Dakar, where he will try to provide a “realistic and accessible roadmap” for all who are interested in entering the rally to use for reference.

He revealed his plans in an episode of the Chasing Waypoints podcast.

“The process for Dakar, if you’re serious about it, starts pretty much eighteen months to twenty-four months before the time,” said Avenant. “One of the things we discussed is finding a team and finding a bike ahead of time because you can’t decide you want to go race and then just say, ‘Okay, I’m coming in June’; you have to have all of those things lined up. I’ve spent many years looking at the Dakar, like living the Dakar, dreaming about it, intensely following it, doing interviews around Dakar time every year, writing articles about Dakar. I kind of put together a plan that I believe gives me the highest possible chances of success while still needing a lot of good luck and support.

“The idea would be to say, ‘Okay, if we follow this roadmap, can we get to Dakar? Can we do it?’ I’m very excited to share that whole journey with you guys. I think very often we focus on dunes of the race and not of the eighteen months before the race. It’s been one of the things that I’ve struggled the most is finding the relevant information in a palatable format that I could easily understand.”

After following the Paris–Dakar Rally as a youth in South Africa, he began entering various races like the South African Kalahari Rally and events in North America. Much of his racing experience comes in the latter such as the Sonora Rally and Baja Rally, the former an ex-World Rally-Raid Championship round. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he started to develop roadbooks which he translated into becoming an instructor for rally navigation schools.

As he continued to gain experience on his bike, he has reached the point where he calls himself a “semi-professional amateur rally racer.”

His plans of entering the Dakar first took shape in March 2023. While doing research, he took note of many competitors who announced they would race the Dakar but ultimately did not and other failures, which are more common than one may think. As the biggest rally raid in the world, the Amaury Sport Organisation tries to accept amateur riders but still implements roadblocks to weed out more inferior candidates such as monetary requirements or needing to build a portfolio competing in certain races. Avenant struggled to synthesise these stories into an understandable formula, hence his decision to ‘decode’ the process so that others can follow his guide.

Amateur riders like Avenant would compete at Dakar in the Rally2 category, which is limited to 130 entries at most. Registration opens in June, during which riders submit a dossier about themselves outlining races they have run and their personal backgrounds. The ASO begins selecting who will be allowed to race a month later.

To bolster one’s chances of being accepted, it is virtually required that they enter one of the W2RC rounds or other rally raids. For 2024, the ASO introduced a system in which finishing certain races will earn points to increase the likelihood of approval; most W2RC races offer twelve points as does Sonora despite no longer being on the calendar, while the South Africa Rally-Raid Championship’s 1000 Desert Race provides eight points. Completing any desert race that lasts at least five days, such as the six-day Baja Rally, gives four points; Avenant has lobbied with the ASO to expand the criteria to include North American rallies. If a rider is not picked in July, they can still change the ASO’s minds by impressing in eligible rallies following the initial selection.

Even after being accepted, a ticket to Dakar is not guaranteed as amateurs are usually on the hook for entry fees and other expenses like travel, gear, and lodging. Ace Nilson and Justin Gerlach, who spoke with The Checkered Flag about their applications, both had to find ways to cover the costs like fundraising and selling pricey items; Avenant has also launched a GoFundMe of his own. The registration fee can be waived by winning the Road to Dakar challenge at W2RC races

Of course, Avenant stresses that his blueprint is not the only way to get to Dakar.

“I’m doing it from my personal perspective which is calculating step by step the best possible way that I can approach it,” Avenant explained. “By no means do I want to dissuade anybody by saying, ‘You’ll never get there if you just decide to go on a whim.’ I know people do do that as well, but I’m very systems oriented, and I think that’s a big part of the rally mindset is having checks and balances and systems.

“In November, I had to plan out 2024 and my schedule for 2024 is full. It’s crazy. It’s like every week, every month is something that you have to do. That’s part of not just the Dakar stuff, but planning how you’re actually going to make it and how you’re actually going to get there.”

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Justin is neither a NASCAR nor off-road racer, but he has covered them for The Checkered Flag since 2018.
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