Route: Arequipa – La Paz
Terrain: Dirt tracks (91%).
Words: Georgia Wells
Images: Dakar/ASO/HRC/KTM Images/PhotosDakar.com
As the riders prepared for yet another extremely long day on the attack they were handed a life line. The start of the special, which rose to a vertiginous 4800m, was cancelled for the bikers as temperatures dropped dangerously and low cloud and rain showers began to creep in. With some competitors apprehensive about this brutal start to Stage 6, its cancellation came as welcome news. They were then able to use a 356km link to reach the second half of the special, which went ahead as planned.
While the shortened day was ideal for those trying to defend their positions at the front, it made things a lot more tricky for the riders who were desperate to make up lost time as the event reaches its half way point.
After his dominant victory on Stage 5, it was Joan ‘BangBang’ Barreda’s duty to open the day’s proceedings, keen to keep building on his impressive progress since a mistake hampered him on Stage 3, the pressure was certainly on the Spaniard.
But it was Xavier de Soultrait and who initially pushed forward, chased closely by Himoinsa KTM’s Dani Oliveras. Pablo Quintanilla also put himself in contention early on, the Chilean was incredibly keen to make an impact on the stage after losing almost 30 minutes on Wednesday with a bike issue. In the end he took 6th on the stage, exactly two minutes behind the top rider.
The KTM riders were hot on the heels of their rivals and intent on proving that they still have their sights set on the Austrian brand’s 17th consecutive Dakar victory.
Although Matthias Walkner had a steady day (11th), Toby Price and Antoine Meo looked more than comfortable on the stage, which was much faster than any special so far. Price, who won in 2016, has had a quiet and cautious start to the rally, eager not to see a repeat of last year’s monster crash which put him out on Day 4 with a badly broken leg. But the Aussie is well-known for his frighteningly fast onboard videos filmed at Australia’s Finke desert race, and the opportunity to open the throttle on Stage 6 clearly couldn’t be passed up!
He came home in 3rd place – just thirty seconds behind the stage winner.
Similarly, team-mate Antoine Meo is no stranger to wild riding and fast pace. The 5-time World Enduro Champion is known as ‘The Alligator’ and he certainly bit back on the day’s stage, snapping at the heels of his fellow competitors until they could resist no longer. As the riders reached La Paz, Meo still had the advantage and managed to take his first Dakar stage win.
7th in his Dakar debut in 2016, the Frenchman has the capability of going further than his current 6th place overall – but he might have to be careful not to overdo it on the unforgiving fast farm tracks.
Antoine Meo (FRA, KTM. 1st stage/6th overall):
“It was tricky at the start because I felt like the bike was losing power and then it was very slippery on the stage, but I am happy! Finally I have set a fastest time and it feels great!”
The terrain on Stage 6, although still picturesque, was strikingly different to anything seen as yet in this year’s Dakar. The dunes are long gone, replaced by mud and puddles in the valleys, and snow in the extremely high mountain peaks.
This change seemed to suit Diego Duplessis and Dani Oliveras, both riders earned their best Dakar stage finishes in 4th and 5th respectively. And Duplessis wasn’t the only Argentinian to feel at home in Bolivia; Kevin Benavides had another excellent day, coming in just 30 seconds behind Meo! This allowed the young Honda rider to move into the overall rally lead, something he never expected to do before arriving in his home country next week, if at all! He was enchantingly overwhelmed about the situation…
Kevin Benavides (ARG, Honda. 2nd stage/1st overall):
“It’s an indescribable feeling of happiness! I am the leader of the Dakar Rally! It has been a very hard week, and this is the best possible way to come into the Rest Day! Thank you to everyone who has supported me, unfortunately I can’t reply to all your messages but I can tell you that you are all giving me so much energy!”
Yamaha’s Adrien Van Beveren and Xavier de Soultrait, whilst only managing 8th and 16th on stage, have kept themselves in the overall running where they are still 2nd and 4th. The pair set off together after a 2am wake-up call, and both complained of struggling with the freezing temperatures on the long road section. At the finish line De Soultrait had moved ahead of Joan Barreda, the Spaniard finishing just 9th on stage despite a day deficit of only three and a half minutes. But a penalty was later added to De Soultrait, putting him back to 5th overall and allowing Barreda to keep his 4th place. At the time of writing we are not sure of the reason for this penalisation.
The goal for the 110 riders left in the field, having already traversed 3000km, was simply to arrive at the Rest Day. La Paz, with its vibrant and friendly welcome, is the perfect place for them to recharge their batteries and adjust to the high altitudes before setting off again on Saturday. The battle in the overall is still incredibly close, the Top 3 (Benavides, Van Beveren, Walkner) separated by just two minutes and fifty seconds, the Top 5 split by just over nine minutes, and the Top 15 by fifty-three minutes. There is so much more to come…!
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