This year’s epic Dakar Rally saw its first ever Brit winner. Aboard his factory KTM 450, Dubai-based Sam Sunderland blasted through the deserts and mountains of South America leaving the rest behind to choke on his dust...
It’s finally sunk in…
It didn’t sink in for a while with all the rushing around doing promo stuff after the race. It’s really nice to come back to England and see the reaction.
The race is my sole focus
I don’t consider anything else. People and friends at the race, even family back home, you just don’t have any contact with them. It’s definitely pretty full on when you’re there.
It was pretty tough
This year the riding was really physical, and you’re fighting the bike all day over difficult terrain. Our longest day was over 800 miles (that’s London to Milan – Ed), on something like day nine, which took 18 hours. We’d already done 400-500 miles on every other day. You get five or six hours’ sleep each night.
We were up at 4,000 metres for about six days which gives you headaches, making it harder to concentrate. We went from 2°C in the morning in the mountains to 46°C in the desert. I lost around a stone and a half in twelve days, and I’m not a big guy. You can’t eat enough calories to replace the 8,000 or so you burn each day.
It’s really intense
You’re always riding on new terrain at up to 120mph in places. You can’t afford to drift off. If you’re lucky your mistake will be small. If you’re unlucky it can be your last crash. Our road book doesn’t show every stone!
It can be scary
You certainly have your moments. This year, day two in Paraguay, there were lots of stray animals. I was doing 90mph between high bushes and a big cow ran right in front of me. At first it was a shock, but for the next few kms you scare yourself thinking what could have been. Then you just get back to it, as there’s nothing you can do.
Navigation is tricky
They made it more difficult to try and slow the race. They took out lots of info from the road book, and you had to get closer to the way-points to avoid a penalty. You really have to read the road book accurately, Your life depends on that road book.
You’re never far off a crash
Yeah, there are so many things that can go wrong. You can crash, have an engine blow up, hit a cow… You’re on your own for such a long time. You can’t ride that far, for that long on your own without something happening. It’s how you manage those things that makes the difference. You have to accept you’ll have stressful or dodgy moments. You just never know when they’ll arrive.
Real life isn’t any easier
After I’ve been training in places like Morocco and seeing kids with absolutely nothing, listening to people moaning about some trivial stuff back home can then sound pathetic.
Being ‘normal’ takes time
Six weeks after, I’m still not back to my normal weight. It takes a while to come back down, but I tried to relax a bit when I got home and just got bored. Not being able to ride a bike just now has been driving me mad.
You have to stay strong
It’s tough at times. No matter how you prepare, you’re always going to have times when you’re so hot, cold, or tired, you wonder what the hell you’re doing it for. But stuff like eating cold pasta at 3am is all part of the challenge. Getting to the finish is what keeps driving you through it. When I won it was a really special moment. It was a massive, emotional relief.
To win a Dakar you need…
To be a good, experienced rider. You’re always learning your craft, often from mistakes you try to avoid repeating. You learn to pace yourself, push more, or take less chances when you need to. Leading and winning it taught me a lot. Sometimes I felt frustrated being too cautious and losing time. But the way I rode, taking extra care sometimes and not risking crashing or breaking the bike, turned out to be the right way to win the race. Always fighting isn’t the right way. You must reach the finish!
I struggled getting the trophy home
Yeah. I tried to take it on the plane as hand luggage, but they weren’t too keen letting me on with a ten kilo lump of metal. After taking a few pictures with security I got lucky and they let me on though.
What’s next for me?
I’ve got the first of the five round World Rally Championship coming up, and then the big step up to do another Dakar.
INTERVIEW: CHRIS MOSS IMAGES: JONNY CAB, KTM