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Interview of the Month: The Zarco Effect – What will KTM gain for MotoGP™ in 2019 …?

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Interview of the Month: The Zarco Effect – What will KTM gain for MotoGP™ in 2019 …?

Posted in People, Racing

Red Bull KTM’s confirmation of a two-year contract with French ace Johann Zarco is one of the headline-grabbers of the MotoGPTM season so far. What can the works team expect once the #5 becomes orange? To gain some insight into the 28-year-old athlete we asked one of the people that knows him best; Aki Ajo.

The quiet Finn sits in his bare and immaculate race truck office in the Jerez MotoGPTM paddock. The subject of Johann Zarco is an easy one for the former racer to talk about. Ajo has strong and well-nurtured links with KTM and is responsible for the company’s first Moto3 crown in 2012 and continues to marshal the KTM RC 250 GP as well as the official Moto2 squad to this day. Ajo also has intimate knowledge of Zarco, his character and also his development in Grand Prix. He signed a young Johann (the first Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup champ in 2007) for his 125cc squad in 2011 and helped him classify second in the world championship in just his third term. Three years later and they collaborated again in Moto2 and claimed two titles; Zarco becoming the most successful French rider in history in the process.

“I’m not exactly sure when I met him for the first time – maybe when he was in the Rookies – but I started to get to know him in 2009 which was his first year in the world championship,” Ajo says, furrowing his brow and trying to recollect. “In 2010 we had a few more conversations and he joined our team for 2011 and that was his best season until that point. I think that Johann has changed a lot from these times. He was young, shy, a small boy that didn’t know his capabilities and what he could really do.”

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Aki Ajo (FIN) Barcelona (ESP) 2018 © Sebas Romero

Already at this time Zarco was adhering and depending on the counsel and advice of another former rider: Laurent Fellon. His countryman remains his manager and aide until this day. “Laurent was his coach but also like part of the family,” explains Aki. “He was very important for him and at the start of his career was very strict and strong and very ordered … but I think that was good for Johann. 2011 had its ups-and-downs but still good performances and it wasn’t always an easy year. We started to respect each other and both he and Laurent were making comments like ‘we’ll be back with you soon … ’.”

Zarco, eager to expand his experience and knowledge left the confines of the Ajo team for Moto2 and gained six podium results in two years and through a slightly unstable period. His old team manager meanwhile had allied with KTM for 2012 and didn’t look back. In fact, Ajo’s success in Moto3 only fueled his ambition … and made a pathway back to Zarco.

“My decision to go to Moto2 was made very quickly,” he recounts. “I did it on the spur of the moment before the Grand Prix in Silverstone in 2014. I asked IRTA and Dorna if a slot was possible and then my next call was to Johann and I half-joked that he’d be our first Moto2 rider the following year but he and Laurent were immediately ready and just after Silverstone – so only a few days – we had already shaken hands. I have to respect and be thankful to them because they were flexible and appreciated the situation that I was building the team quickly and with minimal parts. They were fully behind it and tried to help find some support and money for the team. He was almost riding without salary but he really wanted to win. His reaction convinced me that I really needed to push ahead in Moto2 and it was much better working together the second time.”

“2015 and 2016 were excellent years and I will never forget them,” Ajo admits. “Johann didn’t have a KTM contract at that time but it was like he was already in the KTM family because we had the Red Bull KTM team in Moto3 and the Moto2 was supported by KTM. Mr Pierer and Pit Beirer said to me ‘Aki, you are a little bit crazy to do this so quickly but we’d like to support you’ and I think they trusted that Moto2 could be something good. 2019 is definitely not the first time that Johann has been in co-operation with KTM.”

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Johann Zarco (FRA) Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup 2007 © KTM

Those two years (before Zarco hungered for a MotoGPTM debut in 2017) produced a windfall. The WP Suspension-shod Kalex gave the Cannes born athlete an invaluable education in tire preservation (Moto2 use Dunlop control rubber compared to Michelin in MotoGPTM) and race management. He totaled 24 podiums, 15 of those on the top step of the box. The potential – that Ajo claims was evident from his first appearances in leathers – had been realized in the intermediate category and those lessons would serve well for a studious, smooth and rapier-effective launch into the premier class. “From the Rookies Cup you could see he had talent but later he had some difficult times,” Ajo says. “He and Laurent were very clear about how they should do things and nobody really stopped them. They are so strong … but maybe their style did not fit with all the teams and people they encountered. Especially in the beginning … but now they have much more experience. They had difficulties but they kept pushing all the time and now you can see where they are.”

Zarco immediately turned heads by leading his very first MotoGPTM race in Qatar 2017. He went on to become a protagonist in the division, a front-row regular, usurper of factory-equipped rivals and Rookie of the Year with three podiums; a tally he has almost bested already ahead of his home Grand Prix at Le Mans. Was Ajo caught off-guard by the speed of his acclimatization to a world of horsepower, electronics and setup work? “I was, I have to say,” he smiles. “I was surprised by how he learned everything so quickly. He also surprised others who said ‘he’s a bit too old’ or ‘he’s been in Moto2 too long’. I was thinking ‘just wait … ’. I have to be honest I didn’t think it would be so quick.”

Johann is an unassuming, low-key and relatively humble ‘star’. He almost doesn’t seem like a MotoGPTM hero. “Yes, that’s true, but in a positive way,” Ajo observes. “He doesn’t seem like a superstar. He is not going crazy and doesn’t focus on things that he thinks are unimportant … like sometimes people do! In terms of his personality he is still the same Johann and he was sitting where you are now for a long time yesterday just talking. I don’t see any change. He is very analytical and focused on racing.”

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Johann Zarco (FRA) Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup 2007 © KTM

Perhaps there are parallels between the two. Asked if he feels like he has played a pivotal role in establishing and helping KTM grow in the Grand Prix paddock Ajo waves his hands. “Nooooo! I cannot say that. I feel lucky. In 2010 and I heard some rumors that KTM were coming to Moto3; I contacted Heinz Kinigadner and Pit Beirer and said I’d like to have a meeting. They were really open and interested to make a collaboration with us. I was really happy about this and thankful it has been so many years already. At the time we already had a partnership with Red Bull – from 2010 – and that helped and it became KTM in 2012. It was a great start and very important for myself, my company and all of us. I’m thankful for that.”

Ajo and Zarco might share humility … but also a thirst for detail that lead to success. Zarco’s signature was sought-after by many but secured and stamped in Munderfing. It is something of a coup for a team that have been on the MotoGPTM grid for just eighteen months but have already tasted GP points, the top ten and have moved through three engine concepts. Aside from publicity will Zarco’s working method and philosophy be a distinct gain for KTM’s objectives? Ajo is resolute. “Absolutely,” he says. “It is also a useful move for the whole KTM family because when a rider like Johann sees potential is there then it opens a lot of eyes as to what KTM are doing. He has placed his trust and his experience in the company, and his systematic working style is important for that type of project to both develop and also ‘prove’ things are going in the right direction.”

For all the talk of development and refinement of the KTM RC16, Motorsport Director Pit Beirer enforced the point that it is “the rider that has to open the throttle” in discussions with the press in Jerez. There is a feeling that KTM have exactly the personnel needed to make the next chop into the lap-times to reach the front.

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Aki Ajo (FIN) & Pit Beirer (GER) Sachsenring (GER) 2017 © Philip Platzer

Photos: Sebas Romero | Philip Platzer | KTM


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      Tip 1: prepare well for your adventure
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      Eddie de Vries KTM 1090 ADVENTURE R © Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions
      Tip 2: check your motorcycle thoroughly
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      KTM 1090 ADVENTURE R © Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions
      Tip 3: assume the right posture
      “The important thing when you’re riding offroad is being able to feel what your machine is doing. To achieve this, you usually need to get into a standing position. You should not extend your limbs fully as they act as human suspension components. The knees and elbows need to be able to absorb unevenness in the surface you’re on. They won’t be able to do this if they are ‘locked’ straight. Because you’re standing, you also have more pressure on the foot pegs and that’s the main thing for balance too. The position of your feet on the pegs is also important. The ball of your foot should be doing the work. I still see far too many people riding with clown’s feet. It’s dangerous too, because the risk of getting pulled off your bike is that much greater. In terms of your hands, just keep gentle, relaxed contact with the handlebars. In fact, you only need them to apply the gas, to change gear and to brake. Imagine you’re playing the piano. Don’t hold on for dear life or it’s not going to work. At higher speeds you generally steady your bike with your knees, but when you’re going at creeping speed you need to keep your knees slightly away from the machine. That way you can let the bike move nicely between your legs to keep your balance. To get a proper feel of the effect of standing on the bike, do a bit of a test. By letting your machine break out, you’ll feel the difference instantly. If you sit on the seat, your whole body will make the same movement as the bike. Then take up a standing position: when the rear wheel breaks out it will feel much more controlled. Once you’ve experienced this, it won’t feel so worrying next time it happens and that in turn is good for your self-confidence. And, if there’s one thing that’s important for offroad motorcycling, it’s having confidence in your own abilities.”
      Eddie de Vries KTM 1090 ADVENTURE R © Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions
      Tip 4: steering on unimproved roads
      “It’s just like skiing. Just because you’ve bought a pair of skis, it doesn’t necessarily mean the next thing you need to do is book a winter sports holiday. Start by learning to ride on rough terrain nearer to home. It’s definitely helpful to go on a course, then you pick everything up that much quicker. Whatever way you approach it, riding offroad needs a different technique to road biking. It’s a good idea to learn the basics first on gravel tracks. Gravel still gives you a reasonably hard surface, but you still need to use all the offroad techniques to stay in control. When you’re riding an adventure bike on gravel, create pressure on the front wheel by standing. Keep your speed low and build up your confidence. Initially, avoid using the front brake altogether and learn to drop your speed using the back brake. It’s not that easy to recover when you lose your front wheel on gravel. Of course, modern bikes have special ABS settings for offroad use that provide extra control. On reasonably hard surfaces you ultimately steer with your body and you think yourself round bends. Look well ahead and make sure you have enough time to anticipate unexpected situations. You need to see your adventure bike as being more like a steamboat, while a true offroader feels more like a speedboat. Its hefty weight means you need to build in a bigger margin. Riding in soft sand demands a completely different technique again, because in this situation you need to make sure you keep the weight off the front as much as possible. You also need to make sure the bike keeps pulling, albeit you don’t want to be giving it full throttle all the time. When the bike is pulling, the front forks will not plunge in. If this does happen, then the front wheel has a tendency to act like a castor. In loose sand try to keep a straight course as much as possible. Keep your weight towards the back and make turns using the rear wheel, once again controlling it using the gas. Weight and application of the throttle are very important for riding on sand. If you’ve never tried it or only have limited experience, I’d definitely recommend doing an offroad course. You need to know what it feels like when it’s working right to be able to ride on sand. If we’re talking about sand, dune riding has to be the ultimate. Be warned, it’s pretty hard-going cruising through dunes on a heavy adventure bike. Having a play in the dunes is great, but I wouldn’t recommend spending a whole day riding in that sort of terrain. But, if you think dune riding is really your thing, then it’s best to get a lightweight offroad machine.”
      Eddie de Vries KTM 1090 ADVENTURE R © Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions
      Tip 5: it can go wrong
      “We touched on hand guards and crash bars earlier. These will help to avoid damage if you take a fall. Another point to be aware of in terms of safety is riding with others. If you’re planning to go offroad, make sure there is at least one other rider with you, and always keep each other in sight. If something does go wrong, at least there’s someone there to help. You don’t want to be waiting hours for the next vehicle to go by because you’re in a sparsely populated region. If your bike is lying on the ground, then you need to have the strength to right it again. Given the right technique, this should be within everyone’s capabilities. A good approach is to push your bottom into the saddle from the side with knees bent. Pull one handlebar toward your body and hold it with one hand. Put your other hand down as low as possible on the other side of your body and grasp the bike. It’s then a question of taking small steps backward until the bike returns to an upright position. Don’t forget, by the way, to put the bike in gear so that it can’t roll away while you’re busy righting it.”
      Eddie de Vries & Eric Verhoef KTM 1090 ADVENTURE R © Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions
      There’s one other thing to remember when you’re offroading with an adventure bike: practice makes perfect. Have a go, maybe take a course and get as many kilometers under your belt as possible. You never know, you might be standing at your employer’s door in a few weeks’ time with the all-important news that you’re off on your travels in a couple of months. If that’s you, then we’d like to wish you a fantastic trip!
      Eddie de Vries KTM 1090 ADVENTURE R © Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions
      Photos: Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions
    • De Dementor
      Dakar Rally Fast Facts
      With the start of the 2019 Dakar Rally growing closer and closer, we take a look at 10 things you probably didn’t know about the world’s toughest cross-country rally. From the fuel used by the bikes on the long, arduous days to what the riders do when it comes to bathroom breaks when out in the desert …
      KTM 450 RALLY 2019 © Sebas Romero
      1. Origin of the rally
      2019 marks the 41st edition of the Dakar Rally and the 11th successive year the event will be held in South America. Of course, the race got its name from its original final destination – Dakar, the capital and largest city of Senegal, West Africa. The race was first held in 1977 and was the brainchild of Frenchman Thierry Sabine who, after getting lost in the Ténéré desert while competing in the Abidjan to Nice rally realized that navigating the wide-open dunes would pose quite a challenge for a rally. 182 vehicles took part in the inaugural Paris-Dakar Rally, just 74 made it to the finish – 40 years on, 335 vehicles made the start of the 2018 event with just over half completing the 14-stage event.
      Antoine Meo (FRA) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2018 © PhotosDakar.com
      2. Mousses and tires
      All of the KTM Factory Racing bikes run Michelin tires and mousses during the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship and at the Dakar itself. For the 2019 race, which will cover a lot of soft sand, the team will run the desert mousse and tire combination that has proved so successful in competition. The mousse itself is a foam insert that takes the place of an inner-tube, inside the tire. It’s puncture-proof and can withstand a lot of abuse from even the roughest, rocky stages.
      KTM 450 RALLY 2019 © Sebas Romero
      3. Fuel and regulations
      Unlike other motorsport events where a control fuel is used, petrol at the Dakar is not regulated by the organizers. The team will always try to use the highest quality fuel available to them and will aim for a minimum of 98 octane for maximum performance. During the race riders will stop at refueling points, which are placed so that there is never more than 250 km between stops. Suggested petrol stations are listed on the road book too, should competitors need further fueling. Receiving petrol from fans or locals is not allowed however, although if a rider is forced to do this it normally means he’s having a seriously bad day and protests are rarely made in this case.
      Matthias Walkner (AUT) KTM 450 RALLY 2019 © Sebas Romero
      4. Riders’ tools and maintenance
      Part of KTM’s pre-Dakar rider training program involves working on the bikes. Riders are shown how to fix the problems they may face while out in the desert. Although they can’t carry a huge array of parts and tools, generally riders carry sets of brake pads, spare clutch and brake levers, a fuel injector and the tools required to replace these items, and to carry out basic maintenance on the bike and fuel tanks. Two of the biggest issues faced in cross-country rallying is damage caused by a crash or when the bike is flooded, when crossing a river for example. Damage can easily happen to the navigation tower in an accident and when a rider loses their instruments, they have no option but to either wait for another team member to guide them home or to follow the tracks in the sand ahead of them from other riders. If the bike is flooded, riders have to first remove water from the exhaust system and then from the engine itself by removing the spark plug and turning the engine over on the starter. If water gets into the gearbox or fuel system the rider’s problems become much, much worse.
      Toby Price (AUS) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2018 © PhotosDakar.com
      5. Getting some sleep
      The Dakar Rally is tough. Even at a slightly shorter length of 10 stages the 2019 event, held exclusively in the Peruvian desert, will pose a huge challenge to all riders. The physicality of riding through the open desert will be matched by the mental strain of navigating the route – the four days in Peru easily proved to be the toughest of the 2018 race. After spending hours in the saddle, riders have little chance to rest due to the time required to go through the following day’s road book and rider briefing, from the organizers. On average, even the factory team riders only get six hours of sleep per night before each grueling day. Riders in the Malle-Moto class who have to work on their own machines each night before they can even think about getting some rest, often survive on only three-hours sleep before setting off again once more. It takes incredible mental strength just to make it to the start line each day, let alone complete the rally.
      Matthias Walkner (AUT) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2018 © PhotosDakar.com
      6. Food and nutrition
      Skill and speed on a bike alone are not enough to get you through the Dakar Rally. The KTM Factory Racing riders work closely throughout the year with nutritionists and trainers to maintain the level of fitness and health required to compete at the very top level of offroad motorcycle sport. The team will aim to be at the absolute peak of their condition when the rally kicks off in early January. Of course, the nature of the sport means that this is not always possible – injuries sustained during the season can pose problems when racing for days on end in the desert. Illness and sickness can also arise when riders are physically tired or exposed to unfamiliar conditions.
      Making up an important part of the KTM squad are a chef and a doctor, both of which stay with the team for the duration of the rally. The chef provides the balanced diet required to sustain the riders over such a long and arduous event, the doctor is on hand to maintain their physical condition. Even a small injury sustained in a crash early on can have a huge effect come the end of the rally. Bruises, sprains and general muscle fatigue can be countered with the correct medication and physiotherapy. In the same way that the bikes undergo maintenance at the end of each regular stage, the riders too need a certain amount of tuning.
      Luciano Benvides (ARG) KTM 450 RALLY 2019 © Sebas Romero
      7. Altitude
      Although not so much of a factor in 2019, riding at altitude can cause huge issues for both the rider and their bike. Luckily, with a h of around 2,500 meters above sea level, the highest stage in the forthcoming event will not challenge the competitors anywhere like the 2018 event. It is estimated that the stages held at close to 5,000 meters reduced the power of the KTM 450 RALLY bikes by up to 30%. The effect on the riders themselves was perhaps even worse. Already tired from the days leading up to the mountain stages, riders found the route through Bolivia exhausting. The lack of oxygen at such an altitude robs the muscles of strength and makes it extremely difficult to concentrate – two things that are most definitely required when averaging 90 km/h through fast, rocky terrain. Again, overall fitness is very important for the riders with many spending the winter break training at altitude in preparation for the rally.
      Laia Sanz (ESP) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2018 © PhotosDakar.com
      8. Bathroom breaks
      It’s a fact of life and affects everyone, but when faced with hours on a rally bike while trying to maintain the highest average speed through a featureless desert, using a nice clean, well-appointed bathroom is not always possible. The choice of how to handle this issue ultimately comes down to the rider and each one will approach it differently. Often the biggest worry when expending a lot of energy on the specials is more a case of dehydration. Temperatures on the Argentinian stages last year topped 40 degrees around the town of Fiambalá, if a rider has an accident and loses the water from their hydration system it can pose a real problem if they are still a long way from the next checkpoint. Illness is another factor and can easily force a retirement from the event. Unfortunately, if faced with a case of vomiting or diarrhea while contesting an event, the rider has no choice but to go on route. As unpleasant as this sounds, it can still mean the difference between securing a good result at the climax of the event or suffering a DNF. A good shower however, is definitely necessary at the end of each day!
      Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2018 © PhotosDakar.com
      9. KTM’s support rider
      For 2019, Mario Patrao will ride for the first time as a fully-fledged factory rider within the KTM team. It’s not his first Dakar or the first time riding as support rider, but it is the first time the experienced 42-year-old will be officially classed as riding within the team. An accomplished rally competitor, Mario is the most decorated Portuguese offroad rider with over 25 national titles to his name. His highest Dakar finish was 13th in 2016 where he also won the marathon class. Due to take part in the 2018 event, a bad case of appendicitis caused Patrao to miss the race after having to undergo surgery just days before the start. Although aiming for a top-10 finish at Dakar 2019, his role as support rider within the KTM Factory Racing Team means he may be called upon to assist a rider ahead of him should they run into trouble. If a rider fighting for the win should suffer a technical issue or have a crash that damages their machine, Mario can stop and assist them to get them back on track as swiftly and efficiently as possible. His help could be the difference between a rider winning the event or being forced to retire.
      Mario Patrao (POR) KTM 450 RALLY 2019 © Sebas Romero
      10. 17 consecutive wins
      Nowhere else in top-level motorsport is there a domination such as KTM’s over the bike class at the Dakar Rally. Matthias Walkner’s win at the 2018 event was the 17th consecutive victory for the brand and the team are just as keen to make it 18 in a row when the rally comes to a close in Lima, Peru on January 17th. Imagine your local football team winning the league for 17 years solid or a single manufacturer dominating Formula One for so long. Starting from the late Fabrizio Meoni’s win on his KTM LC4 660 R back in 2001, the Austrian brand has won every single Dakar Rally since. Even when the event switched to South America in 2009, KTM kept on winning – 10 of the victories went to the legendary pairing of Cyril Despres and Marc Coma who between them won every single rally from 2005 to 2015. Through changes to the continent, different countries and even a reduction in the bike capacity, KTM has remained on top. This is purely down to the team working as one to produce an unstoppable force in what is truly the world’s toughest motorcycle event.
      Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team KTM 450 RALLY 2019 © Sebas Romero
      Photos: Sebas Romero | PhotosDakar.com
    • De Dementor
      Nicola Dutto: “Always looking ahead”
      Never will he stop trying new things. A horrific crash left Nicola Dutto bound to a wheelchair, but even with that setback in mind, he’s still out to achieve his goals. His next challenge will be kicking off on January 7, 2019. That’s the day he’ll start the Dakar Rally.
      © Francesca Gasperi
      Certain dates are etched in the mind. A beautiful memory like your wedding day, the birth of a child, or perhaps even the first time you swung a leg over a new motorcycle; your mind archives the day for you, so you can come back to that specific memory on its annual anniversary. Dark days unfortunately follow the same routine. One man that knows all about it, is Nicola Dutto (48). March 20, 2010 is one of those dates; one that will stick by him until the day he dies. On that day fate took a turn for the worse, when he experienced that which all racers fear. It was during that year’s Italian Baja in Pordenone that left Dutto paralyzed from the waist down. “The last thing I remember is kicking the bike up a gear from fourth into fifth. What happened right after, I don’t know. The next thing I remember is opening my eyes, wanting to get back on the bike. But I couldn’t get up.” Spectators quickly gathered round the fallen Italian, in an attempt to help him up. “I told them right away not to touch me, because they were moving in to take my helmet off. I needed medical assistance above all, quick too.” Some of Dutto’s spinal vertebrae could not handle the impact of the crash and cracked as a result. There was no way around it at this stage; the Italian Baja specialist knew pretty quickly he was paralyzed. “But that wasn’t even my main concern at the time, because the doctor that had rushed to the scene pointed out I was still critically hurt, since my heart wasn’t functioning properly and the blow had also reduced my lung capacity to around twenty percent of normal.”
      Fourteen weeks of nothing
      Nine hours of surgery later, Nicola Dutto spends an additional five days in the ICU. Two weeks later, he’s moved to a rehabilitation clinic near his home town of Beinette. “All the broken bones had to heal, which meant I had fourteen weeks of doing absolutely nothing to look forward to. The staff would lift me off the bed with a sheet, so they could put me in an electric wheelchair.” Because he was basically bedridden at this point, with rehab waiting for him once the broken bones had healed, he had quite a bit of time to ponder the whole situation. “Thinking about it all at the time, it’s really difficult to try and see the light,” he admits in all honesty. “I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t shed a tear. Once I started to figure out what the consequences meant, I cried a lot. It’s like someone pushed a button. The one moment you’re out there racing and the next you’re confined to a bed, without functioning legs.” Dark clouds had been gathering over Nicola’s head, but he was fortunate to have Elena Foi by his side. The couple had met at a party at Scorpion Bay, six months before Nicola’s life-changing accident. “We’d only known each other for a little while at that point, and the first thing Nicola told me when he woke up after surgery was “You don’t have to stay with me.” Naturally I wanted nothing else but to be there for him, even though I didn’t know what was going to happen at all.” Elena lives in Brescia, almost three hours from Turin, where Nicola was treated in the rehab clinic; traveling back and forth as often as she could. “We lived three hundred kilometers apart, so that was problematic, especially since I had a job and two daughters to raise. I lost my job in the end, unfortunately, but my parents couldn’t have been more supportive. It was a tough period, but Nicola’s recovery was going well and after nine months he could return home. After that my daughters and I moved in with Nicola.”
      © Francesca Gasperi
      The sole Italian
      Before his accident, Nicola Dutto earned a living racing professionally. It wasn’t until Dutto was nineteen he started racing, but that did not stop him from building quite a career in a relatively short period of time. After moderate success riding enduros, the Italian shifted his focus to Baja races. Cross-country races with arrowed out routes seemed to be his forte. “A friend of mine pointed out this particular new sort of racing. In Spain the sport had taken flight and I just fell in love with the game. Eventually I moved to Spain and lived there for six years, just to put all my time into the Baja.” Dutto regularly competed with Dakar hotshots like Marc Coma, Isidre Esteve Pujol, and Nani Roma. Back in the day he was something special, being the sole Italian in a field full of Spaniards. In Italy they held only some fast enduro races, but nothing like a ‘real’ Baja. Dutto managed to make a name for himself in the sport, eventually taking the European Baja title in both 2008 and 2009.
      Dutto’s beloved sport first came to be on the Mexican Baja California peninsula, and in 2010 he had intended to race the legendary Baja 1000 race there too. Unfortunately, that never happened that year, but – believe it or not – despite his injuries and his time rehabilitating, Dutto’s name was back on the entry list the year after, as a buggy racer this time. “My crash had ruined my chances of racing a motorcycle in Baja, but my rehabilitation gave me time to reconsider my options. In the end I decided on racing the Baja 1000 in the buggy class, together with Elena.” The Italian couple’s adventure ended with them stuck in the Mexican desert, after a transmission belt got fried. “The problem was aggravated because we just couldn’t replace the belt on site. The belt was behind my seat, so it was impossible to get to. We waited for assistance in that riverbed all night. I had made up my mind right then and there; this never again. Four wheels mean trouble. So, I needed to get myself back on two wheels.”
      © Francesca Gasperi
      Spanish connection
      Three-time AMA motocross national champ Doug Henry inspired Dutto to follow in his footsteps. After the Italian saw the roll cage Henry had used on his bike, he started to work on building his own version. “Motorcycle racing is the pivot point of my life, although getting back on a motorcycle after my crash had seemed impossible until then. I had thought about trying my hand as a race organizer, because it was still the world I wanted to be a part of. Riding bikes again myself? No, that had never crossed my mind in the beginning.” After seeing Doug Henry all that changed, and the Italian was back on a bike soon after. Thinking about that day immediately puts a smile on Dutto’s face. “I felt like such an idiot getting back on a bike again. I was terrified too. We had mounted sort of like training wheels to the bike and at first I went completely pale at the thought of actually riding it. What had I gotten myself into. But a few hundred meters in, I found my balance again. I was certain then I was going to ride again.” After those first tentative steps back on a bike, Dutto enrolled in a Baja race. Just four months down the road, Dutto scored a 24th place in the Baja Aragon. “I had really intended for it to be a fun ride with friends. Just cruising through the mountains, but I couldn’t deny I wanted to get back in the sport. I needed to get in touch with some of my Spanish friends.”
      With motorcycle racing back on the cards, the Dakar Rally soon came up for Dutto, too. “Before my accident Bajas had been my main focus, but since it, I’ve been seeing new opportunities everywhere I look. Like the Dakar. It was never a dream for me like it is for most, but to me racing the Dakar is like taking part in the Olympics. Three years ago, while watching the race on TV, I thought to myself why not do the Dakar?”
      © Francesca Gasperi
      How adversaries became ghost riders
      Despite his handicap, Nicola Dutto is no different than other potential contestants, in that he has to qualify to be allowed to take part in the world’s toughest race. He did so last year when he finished the OliLibya Rally. Every competitor needs a team to even have a shot at finishing a race, but for the Italian having capable people around him is beyond crucial. During rally raids the KTM rider is accompanied by so-called ghost riders. These ghost riders go by the name of Pablo Toral, Victor Rivera, and Julian Villarrubia. “We will start the Dakar Rally as a four-person team. One rider will ride in front, because I can’t just stop to have a look around, to see where I’m supposed to be going. He guides me onto the right trails up a dune for instance. He’s also the one to ‘catch’ me when I have to stop for fuel or when I reach the finish line. The other two riders follow in my wake. In case something goes wrong, they’ll be there to pick me up. As I’m tied to the motorcycle it’s important having the two of them, because it’s not just the bike they’re picking up, but the roll cage and myself with it. For me it is even more important than it is for ‘normal’ riders to have a team I can rely on; it has to feel like a family. I am fortunate to have three incredible ghost riders – guys I’ve known for a very long time. They used to be my adversaries in the Spanish Bajas!”
      © Francesca Gasperi
      Since Dutto is paralyzed from the waist down, he needs more than just his three ghost riders with him; the bike needed quite a bit of work as well. His KTM 450 EXC-F has undergone a transformation to allow the Italian to be comfortable on the bike. Dutto uses an electronically controlled shifter as well as an automatic Rekluse clutch. The rear brake master cylinder has been moved to the handlebars, too. His legs are secured and guarded by a framework. Other important parts on Dutto’s unique KTM are the Vicair seat and back support with a three-point harness attached. “Comparing my current Dakar bike to the bike I first built to get back on two wheels, you could say a lot has changed. On the old bike the roll cage was pretty big and bulky, where on my new bike it’s brought back to a very minimalist design. It allowed us to shed quite a bit of weight from the bike, which helps controlling the motorcycle. It’s also worth noting the engine of the KTM enduro is a lot better, too. Engine characteristics and the fact it has a six-speed gearbox is perfect for me.” Obviously, Nicola had to adapt his riding to the new situation. In his own words, it now feels like normal riding without using his legs. “It’s pretty difficult explaining how I have to ride a bike now. It is a very involved manner of riding, and it has taken a lot of time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Working on getting the suspension to work for me was interesting, because I’m unable to stand up to take the blows anymore.”
      © Francesca Gasperi
      The best example
      The paraplegia has led Nicola Dutto through a deep and dark place, but his eyes were always on the light shimmering on the horizon. He couldn´t be happier he decided to approach his rehabilitation as only a professional athlete would. “I put in the hours of training, with the clinic staff telling me I was mad. Instead of going for just an hour of required physical therapy, I pushed on. If I could, I would try two or even three hours. That sped up progress drastically. I still felt like a professional athlete, even without functioning legs. Preparing for the Dakar Rally I’m back in that zone again.”
      His entry in the Dakar Rally is the best example of Dutto’s will to enjoy life – especially since he can combine life with motorsports again. “I consider myself a happy man, not just because I’m still alive, but also because there’s still so many projects left to do for me. In 2013 my good friend Kurt Caselli lost his life. That was hard to swallow, but at the same time it made me more determined in making the most out of life. Look, the accident left me with two options. I could’ve looked back, thinking about the time when I could still walk, but that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. I decided to take the second option, because when I’m on a bike or when I’m skiing – another passion of mine – I’m always looking ahead. And that is how I’m living life with my paraplegia, too.”
      © Francesca Gasperi
      Want to follow Nicola Dutto during the upcoming Dakar Rally? Check out his social media pages:
      Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nicoladutto/
      Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nicola.dutto.official/
      Photos: Francesca Gasperi
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