Dakar hero Sam interviewed
Sam Sunderland managed to do a little more than finish the Dakar – he won it!
It’s taken 38 years, but on January 14, 2017 Sam Sunderland became the first ever Briton to win the Dakar. In doing so the 27-year-old claimed one of the biggest and most prestigious prizes in motorcycle racing.
Dakar is a race like no other; over 5000 miles in 13 days with this year’s event literally pushing the world’s best rally riders to the absolute limit across South America.
The 2017 race will be remembered for its extreme terrain, altitude and navigation along with unprecedented weather conditions, which saw two stages cancelled due to devastating floods and landslides. Riders also had to contend with near-freezing riding conditions on one day only to be confronted with close to a horrific 50-degrees the next.
Fourth time lucky
Having never finished the Dakar, despite three previous attempts at the gruelling race, Sunderland did not start as a favourite, in fact he arrived under the radar. But the way he won Dakar was anything but inconspicuous; leading from day five he soaked up the pressure and maintained his incredible speed without making mistakes to secure victory by 32 minutes.
MCN caught up with the factory Redbull KTM factory rider at his home in Dubai to see how life in the history books is panning out for the laid back and humble Brit.
“It still feels funny when anyone says to me that I’m a Dakar winner. After the race I travelled back to Dubai where no-one knows what Dakar even is and I’ve just gone back to normal. I’m about to go out and walk the dog!
“To be honest, it still feels like a dream. It’s so cool to be the first Brit to win it. I live in Dubai, but I’m English, born in Poole, and I’m proud to be English. I hope that it generates some interest because the story of Dakar is a story that I believe everyone can take something from.”
Never give up... ever
“I managed to win the race, but I can still easily list 10 times where I thought my race was done. You have to keep going, no matter what gets thrown at you. I think that’s the ethos of racing Dakar and I think it’s a cool mentality to have in life.”
But while Sam remains philosophical about his achievements, his route to the pinnacle of the sport has been anything but easy. Up until this year he hadn’t even made it to the end of the first week in any of the three Dakars he’d contested and he’s failed to even make the start of the race twice due to injury.
“It has taken a huge amount of work and in a way winning it actually feels like a relief because of all the ups and downs I’ve had over the years. I know there had been a question mark over my name because while I’ve obviously had good results in the past, Dakar has always eluded me. I’ve spent my career dragging myself up and trying to get back to fitness after some big crashes and injuries. When you work hard for something for so long and then you have it all lining up perfectly and then it goes away, it’s hard. So when it does actually all work out it makes me feel proud and it gives it even more value.”
It’s not all about speed
His resounding success in this year’s race has been the result of a change in mindset. As a former motocrosser, Sunderland has never lacked speed or bravery and even among his Dakar riding peers when it comes to racing open desert there is simply no-one faster. His problem has been untimely crashes and subsequent injuries, including a horrific femur break during the Morocco Rally in 2015.
“As a result of the Morocco crash I rode differently in 2016. I tried to stay calm and be safe in the world championship season to make sure I arrived at Dakar in good shape. I know that I don’t have to worry about my speed, my worry is getting to the finish of every day and not doing anything crazy. And by being more measured in the world championship rounds all year it helped my mentality when it came to Dakar. I stopped trying to make something happen when it wasn’t possible.”
Dealing with pressure
This change in mentality saw Sunderland put together a brilliant season in the 2016 FIM World Cross Country championship, finishing second overall. But while his calmer approach and ability to lead and win races in the shorter world championship events is beyond doubt – winning the two-week long Dakar is a challenge like no other.
“I knew it was going to be big pressure leading the Dakar, because I’ve dealt with the pressure from leading other races before, but I didn’t think it was going to be so intense. From the outside you wouldn’t have known and whoever asked me I was just saying ‘I’m taking it day by day and not even thinking about the win’. I was telling people that to try and convince myself! But of course I was thinking about winning Dakar! It’s all I’ve been training for and thinking about for the last seven years!”
With his name on the Dakar trophy, Sunderland has achieved his lifelong goal. You won’t meet a more dedicated and focused racer, with his entire life centred around a race that happens only once a year. He’s already one of Rally racing’s elite, he’s the first Brit to get his hands on the trophy and at the age of just 27 he has plenty of time to dominate.
ÔIÕVE spent my career getting back to fitness after some big crashesõ
When you live in Dubai you can’t drive around in a knackered white Ford Transit Two contented individuals - Sam with his Dakar trophy and Beau with his best pal Redbull don’t make branded shoes Determination earns you a factory KTM in your shed - and multiple broken bones