Words: Georgia Wells
The riders have reached the half way point of this year’s rally, and the long awaited Rest Day. The trials and tribulations of an incredibly arduous first week, which led KTM’s Matthias Walkner to describe it as “the hardest Dakar ever”, can finally be put to bed as the riders relax and refresh before a frenetic part two.
La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, plays host to the rest stop this year. At 3640m above sea level, it’s the perfect location for the competitors to adjust to the dizzying heights of the stages ahead and hopefully guard against altitude sickness.
For the mechanics it’s a chance to keep the bikes in tip-top condition before the Marathon (zero assistance) stages. Just a handful of years ago, Rest Day would often mean an engine change, even for the top teams, as the risk of mechanical failure was just too high. A move which is allowed, but would incur a 15-minute penalty; any subsequent engine changes thereafter would add a further 45-minutes. This often resulted in a game of tactics, with teams watching their rivals’ every move, and trying to decide if the quarter of an hour deficit was worth the risk of a DNF down the line. In the last couple of years the manufacturers have managed to exponentially up their reliability and this has led to a more level playing field – last year no top rider changed an engine. With 2018 so far producing such close racing, it’s exciting to know that the leader board likely won’t be affected following Rest Day.
You can never say never though, and for some riders it can be well worth losing 15 minutes if it means getting to the end of the race.
For the exhausted and weary competitors Rest Day is a chance for physiotherapy treatments, decent nutrition, and a bit of a lie-in! Those on factory teams even had the opportunity to stay in a luxury hotel for a couple of nights. Although the top riders also had media duties to carry out, and most couldn’t resist a bit of socialising around the paddock and catching up on stories from week one.
For those in the brutal Malle Moto class, Rest Day means two nights in a basic dormitory packed with more than twenty bunk-beds. However, even this is a significant upgrade to their usual accommodation; a tent out in the open. Malle Moto translates roughly as ‘box bike’ and it does what it says on the tin – these riders simply have their bike and a box of tools. It is by far the hardest way to participate in the Dakar as riders are forced to fend for themselves.
After hours riding in extreme conditions the riders collect their boxes from the organisers – containing all their clothes, their tent, and their tools – and they set to work on their bikes before grabbing a few hours sleep on the ground in everything from rain and thunderstorms, to searing heat, and freezing cold. It’s often said that the Malle Moto riders are the true heroes of the Dakar, and it’s hard to disagree! Current leader of this class is Olivier Pain. The Frenchman is a former factory rider with 10 Dakars under his belt, including 3rd place in 2014. He fancied a go at the “biggest challenge in the world” before a likely retirement from racing. In addition to leading the Malle Moto class, Pain sits in an impressive 41st overall.
Stage 7 will see the riders set off from La Paz and head 727km to Uyuni. This year the route, thankfully, bypasses the now infamous salt flats which caused chaos in 2015 destroying bikes and leaving several riders hospitalised with hypothermia. But nevertheless, the 7th stage will be incredibly difficult; the fast dirt tracks could turn muddy and slippery as heavy rainstorms continue to linger around the mountains. But the most crucial aspect of Stage 7 is that it marks the start of a two-part Marathon stage!
The Marathon is a set of ‘back to back’ stages where the riders and bikes – even those riding for factory teams – are put into a remote and often basic bivouac overnight. This bivouac is secure and mechanics and team members are forbidden from carrying out any work on the bikes. The riders are allowed to fix and maintain their own bikes, and help team-mates or fellow competitors if they so wish.
Typically the Marathon situation puts extra pressure on everyone, and it’s often hard to find a balance at this mid-point of the race; push hard but be careful. Even the slightest crash could cause irreparable damage. But on a more positive note, the ‘remote bivouac’ is usually a chance for each and every rider to socialise together and some great camaraderie has been witnessed in past years.
It will be enthralling to see how the next two stages play out, especially with the Top 5 of Benavides, Van Beveren, Walkner, Barreda and Price covered by just nine and a half minutes!
In the second week we can expect more shake-ups in the standings.
Price, who this year has been much more cautious than usual, will put on a charge as the terrain comes to him. He and his team-mate Walkner will be determined to bring KTM another victory. Former Enduro riders such as Meo and De Soultrait are also likely to become even stronger as the race makes its move away from sand dunes and onto dirt tracks. Experienced riders such as Farres, Svitko and Sanz should know how to pace themselves as the race creeps towards its end, and should also be adept at dealing with any bike issues occurring during the Marathon stages. The likes of Barreda and Quintanilla, who have both had many years of trying to top the podium, will be desperate to finally get the victory they have dreamed of for so long.
And young guns Van Beveren and Benavides will be eager to make history in 2018, with Van Beveren able to become one of the youngest winners at just 27 years old, and Benavides to become Argentina’s first bike class winner, especially on home soil. And whilst Kevin leads the rally, his younger brother Luciano, a rookie, currently sits in 16th overall – could they become the most successful rally brothers since quad riders Alejandro and Marcos Patronelli?
Week 2 will see rain, mud, farm tracks, and twisting routes through canyons as well as high altitudes. There is guaranteed to be more drama before the finish line next Saturday in Cordoba! Stay tuned….
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