BLOOD, SWEAT & MORE SWEAT
Sweltering heat and high altitude has made this year’s race extra tough
The heat is stifling. It is indescribable. My hands are wrinkled from the sheer quantity of sweat they are wiping from my body. It is only 9am and I’m sat down doing nothing. Thank God I’m not on a bike.
“I raced in 50 degrees once,” says Kurt Burroughs (2017 Dakar competitor). “It was like riding towards a wall of hairdryers. You can feel the wind but it doesn’t cool you down, it just dries you out.”
December 31, Dakar -2
Today is scrutineering and tomorrow is the podium parade. There are five British riders in this year’s race and three of them are rookies. There is Sam Sunderland, who races for the KTM Factory team and is widely expected to do well – if he doesn’t crash out as he has done previously.
Also with a factory team ( HT Husqvarna) is Max Hunt. He’s a former British Superbike racer who first picked up a rally bike in January 2016, so he’s something of an unknown quantity. There are two privateers, David Watson and Kurt Burroughs, who are both stalwarts of the domestic enduro scene and accomplished rally riders. Age is against them, however, as they are both over 50 and it’s their first Dakar. Finally there is Lyndon Poskitt, who, having finished 46th in 2013, is back again to race Malle Moto (a self-supported class). In the intervening period he has ridden a bike around the world and then ridden the length of America to reach the start.
January 2, Dakar Stage 1
The bivouac for Stage 1 is an old motor racing circuit and there is not one iota of wind. It has been 39°C all day. I find Lyndon riding around shirtless, desperately looking for his kit. I catch up with him later, working on his bike in the blazing sun. He’s changed his wheels and now needs to attend to the spare set.
“I’m changing them now, so that if something happens tomorrow, and I come in late, I won’t have to faff around changing them again.”
‘I took it easy at first as I didn’t want to be that guy who crashes on day one ’
I catch up with Max, who admits his novice status caught him a little short today.
“I took it really easy at first because I didn’t want to be that guy – you know, the one who crashes out on day one,” says Max. “But when someone overtook me I picked it up a bit.”
To my great distress, Max kicks me out of his air-conditioned camper so he can sleep and I make my way back towards Kurt’s van.
The story at Kurt’s van is similar as he too has been affected by the heat. When Kurt returned it appeared his bike had developed an oil leak, but it turned out it was so hot the grease had melted off the chain and flung everywhere. I catch up with Lyndon again. It takes two hours for him to finish marking up his roadbook, so it’s 10pm and long since dark by the time he can get to bed. This was supposed to be an easy day.
January 3, Dakar Stage 2
I find a muddy-faced Lyndon stood in just a pair of underpants.
“It’s too hot. The stage today was carnage. Huge great big mud puddles on the route. It was mad because it was so fast, so you’d be flying along at 170kph and then you see a big load of mud. You can’t slow down because braking would mean you bin it, so you give it more throttle and hope for the best.”
Lyndon puts on some clothes, uses an old umbrella as a makeshift sunshade and changes his oil. I find David on a beach chair filling in his roadbook. “Yes, it was fast and there was plenty to catch you out. Big bombholes. I had a little fall off, daft really. I call it a flop off.”
I agree to meet Lyndon for food 10 minutes later. He is well over an hour, but says that is a Malle Moto 10 minutes. Kurt joins us. Soon he and Lyndon discuss war stories while watching footage of the day’s action on a big screen.
After an overnight bus transfer, I awake in Bolivia roughly 3500 metres above sea level. I make my way to the end of the Special Stage and catch Sam for the first time. He was in second place, but some bad navigation lost him a lot of time.
“There was a really tricky place after the dunes with a lot of vegetation. I was trying to find a piece that wasn’t very visible and yeah, I guess I just spent 10 or 15 minutes looking. It happened to other riders too – I think there were only two who made it through clean.
“I’ve toned it down a bit. After I did my leg last year and missed the Dakar, it really had a big effect on me psychologically. I had an operation in a horrible, horrible place in the middle of the desert in Morocco and it was a tough time. I had to learn from that and I’ve definitely taken it a bit easier here and there this year. But I still want to go fast, you know. I’m a racer but when it’s tricky I’m taking my time.”
By early evening, the wind is howling across the open bivouac. Every boot and tyre kicks off a miniature sandstorm. I try talking to Lyndon while he replaces some broken switches, but I get a mouthful of Bolivian toothpaste and give up. On the way out, I notice some poor sod trying to change his clutch under a tarp.
January 6, Dakar Stage 5
I can no longer recall what colour my clothes were before I set off, nor can I truly be sure if I have tanned or the desert has embedded itself in my skin. We are now in Oruro, Bolivia, in what appears to be an old prison camp.
A short time after lunch a horrendous storm rolls in. After a rider was struck by lightning on Stage 3, they’re obviously leaving nothing to chance. Soon the rain is replaced by hailstones, the hailstones by lightning, the lightning by thunder and the thunder by sunshine, only for the cycle to repeat itself over and over.
Sunderland is first back and, despite his many layers, is visibly shaking from the cold. He won the stage and has taken the overall lead with it. I find Lyndon and the other Malle Moto riders hiding in the food tent for shelter. He says it’s the hardest day’s riding he’s ever done and continues to eat the lunch provided by ASO, consisting of a small tub of fish paste smeared over one Ritz cracker.
I head back to my tent for a few hours and emerge to discover the entire place has flooded, bar the small bit of high ground I pitched on. People are running around like headless chickens.
Cars and vans everywhere are stuck in the mud. A small network of paths has been built out of old pallets but they soon succumb to the torrents of water, which knock out the lighting.
It is unlike anything I have seen before – the closest thing I can imagine to a war zone. We traipse around in the mud until 11pm when we find a bus that promises to take us to a gym in La Paz. At 3am, I receive an email informing me that due to the rain, and the fact many cars are still stuck out on the course, tomorrow’s stage has been cancelled.
January 7, Dakar Stage 6
We arrive in a military base at 8am and stagger around like drunks. I set up my tent in the hallway, much to the disdain of the cleaners, in the hope it will dry out. Jurgen van den Goorbergh – exMotogp star and now Dakar racer of some success – is perched on a bunk at the end of my room, looking a little lost.
“I fell asleep on a bus last night while hiding from the rain and I woke up here. I don’t have any of my things.”
I ask him about his crash that took him out of the race. “Yeah I was in a bad way. I don’t know how long I was out after I crashed but I sat at the side of the road for an hour-and-a-half until I felt happy to ride. At first I couldn’t see properly, but my vision came back so I rode on. When I got back I went to the medical tent and they said I had broken four ribs. I rode the next day but it was too much, especially when I got to the dunes. I could feel the crunching and cracking of the ribs and I was sick from the pain. I couldn’t breathe properly and I knew it was over.”
The stage cancellation means an extra rest day. I’ve never seen such rider dedication in the face of everything that has been thrown at them over the past week. The actual racing is only half the challenge, the rest is just surviving.
Ever since I arrived, the answer to the question ‘why the Dakar?’ has left me puzzled. Now I know the answer, except it cannot be spoken, written or explained. It has to be lived.
‘I’ve toned it down a bit. After I did my leg and missed 2016’s Dakar, it really had a big effect on me’ SAM SUNDERLAND
David Watson’s team make final changes
A rider goes ‘foot out flat out’ on the way to the podium
(inset) a rider catches a catnap Lyndon Poskitt wakes at 3.30am to prepare, while
Poskitt tackles a steep dune as he fights for a top 10 in the Malle Moto class
Sam Sunderland is in the driving seat at the haltway mark
Max Hunt looks down into La Paz and its mountainous backdrop
Humour helps riders and crew get through super-tough times
Sunderland tells reporters how he’s changed his Dakar mentality