What an adventure.
I never believed that an event could be so difficult to accomplish. There has never been anything in my life that I didn’t believe that I could achieve and this one kicked the ^%$# out of me.
As you have been reading I have planned this Dakar since 2007 and have done everything that I could to prepare for what to expect. I scoured the internet for information, I read a few of the only books available on the subject, I bought a KTM bike and rode as much as I could, I even flew to San Francisco to meet Charlie Rauseo of Rally Pan Am to make sure I could see in person what was involved. In 2009 I trained in 2 of Rally Pan Am’s desert and navigation sessions in California, and I rode the 2009 Shamrock rally in Morocco that saw me end early with a broken leg. Any of my spare time during the year was spent visualizing how to get through each stage and the sand and dunes that were to come. I may have even taken a moment or two during work hours to get things organized like the sponsors, graphics and T-shirts. I was ready.
Day 1, Liason only:
What an Amazing experience, it is something that you could not imagine in your wildest dreams unless you were here. It is such an accomplishment to get to the start line that I think if the bike broke rolling out of the gate I would have still been happy. The feeling from the bike when you are riding through close to 1 Million people is euphoric.
We set off from La Rural and rode to the Obelisk in the centre of Buenos Aires. There was a podium set up so that every competitor could roll across for a photo and an announcement of his/her nationality. People from all over Argentina where there to honor us as we started the race, we were treated like movie stars. The first day was a liason stage only and we rode over 350KMs of highway that where lined with spectators the entire route. At times the crowds on the highway onramps were so tightly woven that I had to push through them like the riders in the tour de France.
Day 2, stage 1:
My start time was set for 5:18am. Of course I didn’t hear my $10 alarm watch so I slept until 5AM when Charlie woke me up, crap. I had 18 minutes to get ready and go, so I threw on my gear and raced for the start line. I was 4 minutes late for the laison but once I passed the line I knew that I had enough time to get to the start of the stage so I returned to the camp and ate a quick breakfast before setting out.
What I didn’t hear was that there was a change to the starting area and that we were required to advance our Roadbook maps 52KM into the special. I arrived just as my start time was ready. My battery had died on route because my charging system wasn’t working so I had to kick start my bike and go. I rode for 71 Kms before stopping someone to find out that the Roadbook didn’t make any sense. That’s when I was informed to move my Roadbook forward. After that the day went smoothly and I ended up finishing with zero crashes in 4th to last place. It was a good day.
Day 3, stage 2:
I couldn’t sleep in the morning so I actually was up 1.5 hours before I had to set out on the day. This gave me plenty of time to have breakfast, gear up and go. We rode the liason in rainy conditions but at least it wasn’t freezing cold. My Battery died again on route to the start, apparently the charging system gremlins got me again. It is such a pain in the behind to try and kick start a big tall Dakar bike every time you stop. I was getting worn down.
The race started and looked for a moment that it would clear up. Not a chance. It became very rainy and foggy and the visibility in some areas was zero through the goggles. I had to stop and get tissues from the locals so I could see again but then by the time I kick started the bike I had fogged up the goggles again… I fell 2 times early on because some of the track was a greasy clay and water mix. Before you could say Shazzam I was son the ground wondering what happened. Luckily there were always a bunch of locals there to help me pick up my bike. Kick start again, fog the goggle and go.
Most of the day was actually good with better visibility down the valleys and less rain so I began to pick up my pace and start passing a few bikes. I was feeling good. Then Shazzam, down again near the end of the stage but this time I put my bad leg out to stabilize the fall and I could feel the left leg ligaments stretching, ouch. I had pulled something and it didn’t feel good so I took a break at the side of the road and let the pain go down. After a few minutes I could feel that I could walk so I soldiered on to the finish. I had moved up about 10 places!
Day 4, Stage 3:
Today felt really good. Overnight my mechanic extraordinaire, Sid from the UK, had fixed my charging system for good. I also had blown my fork seals the day before and caused an oil leak near the sprocket; he had fixed it all and the bike was finally perfect. We set off again for a long liason road section and at the gas stop I moved my shifter up a notch, because of my bad knee and swollen ankle I needed the space.
It was sunny and not too hot in the morning so this felt like my best chance to have a great day so far. The stage was set for only 187Kms so that we could get back to camp early and prepare for the very early start the next day to Chile.
I started the race at 9:45am down a very dusty and soft sandy wash, I thought to my self that the bike felt very heavy right away as I rode it, it would not go where I was pushing it but it would try to follow the tracks from the previous bikes and then dig in and drop. Only about 5Kms in I had dropped the bike a few times and had to pick it up and restart, at least my electric starter was finally working. I realized not long after that I had never ridden in conditions like this and that is why I could not control the bike.
In North America there is sand but nothing like this, here they call it Fesh-Fesh and it is like riding in icing sugar a foot deep. Every attempt to get the bike on top resulted in the front wheel digging in and the bike dropping with me usually going over the bars. Then the whole process of picking it up and restarting would be repeated over and over. By noon the temperature was hovering at the 50 degree mark!! and I was exhausted.
I had been riding for just over 2 hours but had only travelled 20Kms. By this time the lead cars and massive trucks were starting to pass and it was getting really frightening. I was in a deep valley with only enough space for a car and every time I would hear the warning sentinel I would need to drag my bike into the side grass and wait and then try and start again without falling on the track for the next car or truck. Keep in mind that a Kamaz truck had killed a spectator a few days before so I wasn’t in the mood to be crushed.
I rode until 3PM and the first checkpoint at KM 71 and had pretty much decided that I was done. 5 hours of riding had only gotten me to KM 71 so how was I going to finish the next 110Kms before dark? Andrew Scott, an Aussie from my team, was there also, he decided to press on.
I waited at the Checkpoint for Half an hour and drank at least 3 liters of water while I contemplated what to do. Your mind gets clouded to the severity of heat exhaustion and the danger waiting for anyone caught in the desert with minimal water when you are thinking about the amount of time, money and effort that you put in to get to this point. So I pressed on.
I managed to ride for 7 more Kms into the softest dunes I had ever ridden on. I met Garry from Australia on the way and he was also having a terrible day. He had fallen earlier and torn up his knee badly and was contemplating the end also, you could see the anguish in his eyes and the sadness of knowing the journey will be over. I wished him good luck and moved on.
About two Kms later I had dropped my bike another 10 times and had had it stuck at the top, bottom and middle of every dune I crossed. I knew I was done. I saw the road in the distance and set on back to the Camp in Fimballa and to the end of my rally. It is nice how goggles hide the tears…
Dirk Kessler from my team had also twisted his knee on the stage and I met him on the way back, he was out also. Somehow he rode 30kms to the checkpoint with his bike pump duct taped to his leg as a splint. What a trooper. Andrew Scott made it back to the end of the stage, 18 hours after starting, at 4Am. I didn’t get to say goodbye because he was still sleeping when I left but after all of the effort he put out the organization could not let him continue.
3 out of our 5 bikes on Rally Pan Am were out in 1 day. This is a testament to the difficulty of the Dakar. The next day I was able to get a ride to La Rioja for a flight back to Buenos Aires with and Ex-pat Keith and two Turkish ladies who were heading home. Bonnie and Cooper where still there and I missed them so much, it seemed like a lifetime since I had seen them last even though it was only 4 days. Charlie made sure that the organization would take my bike back to the shipping containers and I said my goodbyes. It was time to leave this place that I had dreamed of for so long and that I had been part of for such a short moment in time.
In all I believe that I did everything I set out to accomplish except get the finisher trophy on January 17th. I was able to organize the right team with the most experience and have the time of my life while doing it. I met some of the most amazing people from around the world and saw the most amazing kindness and teamwork between people of all races and creeds. The fact the in the middle of nowhere, in 50 degree heat, a local Argentinean will give you his only supply of water shows the spirit of the Dakar touches everyone that it passes to the soul.