Swel­ter­ing heat and high al­ti­tude has made this year’s race ex­tra tough

Motorcycle News (UK) - - This Week In Mcn - By Jor­dan Gib­bons SE­NIOR RE­PORTER

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

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