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...

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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.


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