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Ready for Dakar: A 12-month task

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Dementor

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Ready for Dakar: A 12-month task

Posted in Bikes, Racing

As the KTM Factory Racing Team battled their way through the 2019 Dakar Rally in Peru all eyes were unquestionably focused on the job in hand – that of overcoming the event’s many and varied challenges. But Dakar is an otherworldly undertaking, one that requires a full 12 months of preparation.

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Toby Price (AUS) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

The two-week event is not part of any world championship and there is no huge prize fund for the winner – it is simply one of, if not, the greatest offroad motorcycling challenge. The Dakar Rally is the one everybody wants to win.

From a layman’s perspective, it might seem that there isn’t much in the way of competition for the KTM team. Toby Price´s 2019 victory marked the Austrian brand’s 18th consecutive Dakar victory. However, the unequalled record at the race is not down to luck, or a lack of trying by rival teams, it is down to an incredible team, passionate riders and intense preparation. All of which starts the moment the previous year’s rally finishes.

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Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Racing Team Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

The process of development is always ongoing. In late 2017, the team debuted the newest version of their KTM 450 RALLY machine at the final round of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship in Morocco – it won first time out under the control of Matthias Walkner who then rode it to victory at the Dakar a few months later.

“The new bike was a massive success,” tells Walkner. “It felt much safer to ride, although faster at the same time. Our sport has changed over the past few years and with the new, younger riders coming through they prefer the lighter, sleeker feel of the new bike.”

Despite its success, the bike has been continually developed throughout the 2018 FIM Cross-Country Rallies season. Work has been done to the engine to make the power delivery even smoother, this becomes incredibly important on the longest of stages where riders start to tire and anything that can conserve a rider’s energy becomes extremely valuable. The suspension is also an area that has received attention over the course of 2018. With such long distances covered and stages comprising a mixture of different types of terrain, the absolute perfect suspension setup is simply not possible. A setting that might suit soft, rolling sand dunes may not perform so well if the stage then takes riders onto a fast, rocky track. It’s all about finding a compromise and an efficient set up that handles well while not making the rider work too hard.

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Matthias Walkner (AUT) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

It’s not just the bikes that can be upgraded on the run up to Dakar, so can the riders. Fitness and strength are the obvious attributes needed to race for 100s of kilometers each day for up to two weeks, but one of the less obvious challenges faced by all competitors is the sheer fatigue and mental strain imposed by such a tough event.

Riders prepare for the Dakar by working closely with nutritionists and physiotherapists throughout the year and especially on the lead up to the event. Some, it has to be said, are stricter than others but the fact remains, to compete at the very top level, you have to be in excellent shape. The rally itself takes its toll on the riders, even with an accident-free run, the physical strain is huge. Crashes do happen and even the smallest of falls can produce bruises and sprains that have a cumulative effect as the race progresses. Carrying an injury when entering the rally is of course never a good thing – there can be a lot said for the power of adrenalin when competing. Sometimes riding is the best medicine.

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Toby Price (AUS) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

One aspect of cross-country rallying, and the Dakar specifically, is the lack of sleep and mental strain faced by the riders – this situation is not so easy to prepare for. There are few sports in the world where its participants have to perform for so long, at their maximum level, often alone and with very little rest in between each day. The mental strength required to pull this off is huge and not every top-level rider is cut out for the solitude that rallying can present.

“It’s definitely the hardest part of the Dakar for me,” admits KTM Factory Racing’s Laia Sanz. “Even after a couple of days you start to feel drained and the lack of sleep only adds to that. You wake up feeling tired and then have to ride again all day. Unlike other races, when you finish a day’s riding at the Dakar, you have to prepare your roadbook for the following day and then attend the rider’s meeting before you get any rest, it becomes really difficult. The loneliness can get to you, but there is a good side to riding alone too, you experience so many beautiful landscapes and I love the feeling of freedom the Dakar gives. Bad days can really cause you to start questioning why you’re there though, but at the finish it’s definitely feels worth it.”

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Laia Sanz (ESP) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

As the year progresses and the Dakar looms closer, riders and the team set about their final preparations for the most important event of the year. The bikes and team vehicles are packed up and loaded on to the ‘Heritage Leader’ that sets sail from Le Havre in France. Close to 300 race vehicles travel on the ship across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and arrive at the port of Lima in Peru at the end of December.

The team themselves undergo one last test in the dunes of Abu Dhabi, the aim of which is to finalize those last few settings on the bike and suspension, cover navigation skills one last time and to simply bring the team all together before the trip to South America in January.

The riders then have a few weeks remaining to train, to relax, to prepare themselves mentally for the challenge ahead. Each rider spends his or her time differently with some choosing to maximize their training time and others taking a final chance to relax with friends and family.

2017 Dakar Rally Champion Sam Sunderland is one rider who makes the most of his downtime, he’s never far away from a bike, or the sand.

“During the final few weeks before the race I go to Dubai to get more time in the dunes,” tells Sunderland. “Dubai is like a second home for me anyway, I have family and friends there and always enjoy the atmosphere. Apart from that it’s more training in the gym, maybe some motocross with friends, then we have Christmas and then it’s off to Dakar – there really is very little time to rest. For me I try to push right until the last moment, I think it’s important to keep training and stay sharp.”

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Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

Photos: Marcin Kin


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      Sam Sunderland (GBR) 2019 © Sebas Romero
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      Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
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      Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
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      Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
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      Sam explains exactly how events unfolded: “I went to go in the stage and they stopped me saying there is a problem with your iritrack, there was no power, I changed the fuse and I was ready to go. I could have left sooner but they re-seeded me to fourth place at the start line.”
      Innocent until proven guilty? Not in Dakar. Back at the bivouac race organization made the leap Sam had deliberately tampered with his bike in order to not be first on the stage. “I was fuming,” explains Sam. “I had big discussions with the organizers, the FIM, with my team manager and it was no budge. They were standing firm on it and I was out the rally effectively.”
      In the rider’s mind at this point all is lost. 12 months leading up to Dakar, all the issues already overcome during the 2019 rally were blown away with a blown fuse. Sam says he was so angry he was ready to throw in the towel but out of respect for his mechanic and the KTM rally team he continued onwards.
      “Having four or five hours sleep each night and riding for hours or whatever is tough but to have all this other stuff piled on is difficult,” explains Sam.
      The perhaps unseen effect of getting a penalty from the organizers is how you are then viewed by your peers: “When the organizer gives you the penalty it is like a stamp of confirmation that you did something wrong. It looks to everyone else like they found factual evidence – of course I knew I hadn’t but from everybody’s side it looked like I had.”
      “How did I deal with all that piled on top? Not very well to be honest, my head was in the clouds,” says Sunderland. “The worst was day nine because it was a long stage, I got lost a lot, made mistakes, rode in dust a lot and it was tough.”
      Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
      In the end the Dakar organizers quashed the penalty but only after the race had finished and after Sam had raced two stages with his “head in the clouds.”
      Emotionally, every sportsperson takes knocks physically and mentally. In offroad sport those knocks can come with a turn of the wheel but at Dakar, the toughest race on the planet, those knocks can be with sledgehammers.
      Last word to Sam: “I race to win, I was in really good shape, did all the hard work and went to Dakar to do that job but we didn’t get to play the full hand of cards. In the end, after everything that happened, I’ll take that third place and live to fight another day.”
      Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
      Photos: Sebas Romero | Marcin Kin
    • De Dementor
      Race hard, play hard, chill out hard – it’s rally style!
      Posted in Lifestyle, People We caught up with KTM´s Dakar 1-2-3 finishers and asked them about their after-Dakar life. Is it paradise?
      Feeling second-hand
      “This Dakar has been a tough one, the body is definitely feeling very second hand,” says current Cross-Country Rallies World Champion and the most epic winner in Dakar history. Toby Price did the impossible: He endured the insane pain which drove him crazy, and occasionally having to rev the bike with his left hand. There were moments, especially in the stages 3 and 7, when he already felt beaten; the win was far away on the other side of pain. After ten bloody battles, he won the war with inhuman will, and consistency. “I am so glad I didn’t give up,” said Price after crossing the finish line.
      On the rest day in Arequipa, the 2016, 2017, and 2018 Dakar winners of the bike category, who would later finish on 1-2-3 spots of the podium, were being interviewed by several media. There were a lot of laughs and banter, even though none of them believed they could win this year. Despite sitting in 2nd place of the general standings, Sam Sunderland had to open stage 6, and that meant a sure loss of time. Matthias Walkner was 7th overall, Toby Price 4th, and all three were carrying injuries. It indeed has been a very tough one, and that’s why we did a special debrief, asking them how they would unwind afterwards.
      Matthias Walkner (AUT), Sam Sunderland (GBR) & Toby Price (AUS) Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
      Toby Price
      He broke a bone during his first slightly more daring motorcycle race, rolled his car in his first 4-wheel race, and, maybe it’s a good thing he is not flying planes. The latest price he paid was a broken scaphoid, a souvenir from the final test last December. The injury was far from healed when on January 1 he boarded a plane to Lima. Like a casino gambler who beat the dealer, he grabbed the jackpot.
      We were sitting in a hotel in Lima after the Dakar celebrations, when he said: “Back home, I am going straight to the hospital first, that’s pretty much my second home.” His doctor would later tell him the bone was about to collapse, and another screw was needed. “There is a question mark hanging over the trip I have already organized. I should go to Vietnam with my family and friends, but unfortunately this is a motorbike tour we are talking about. In the land of old Chinese bikes I would ride a KTM 690 ENDURO R, and I am so excited about that. If everything goes well with my wrist, I will soon check off my bucket list the second biggest cave in the world, and a golden bridge held by big rocky hands. Though the best of all is that I am gonna have a KTM motorcycle, hoping to get some pretty amazing footage and some cool stuff for my vlogs. From there, I don’t know exactly, but for sure I will book a holiday also on my own, some nice place with white sand and crystal water, where I can drink from a coconut and let my body recover,” he explained his plans.
      And how Toby Price zones out in his free time? “I just love being around friends, and family. I’ve got a KTM 690 DUKE for my adventures back home. It’s an amazing bike, I am pumped to have it and to explore on it. I love mountain biking and getting to know new faces. Some days I love being in the city, having everything at my fingertips, while there are other days I just want to get off the grid and just find a hidden spot to light a camp fire. At the end of the day, I am no different to anybody else. Motorcycles are my life, but they are not everything; I like doing fun things in life. I love being at the beach, to spend time with my friends and wakeboarders, Harley Clifford and Cory Teuniseen. Sounds like a privilege, but I am telling you I am very terrible at this damn thing. I can only control handlebars and steering wheels.”
      Toby Price (AUS) Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
      Matthias Walkner
      Hurting his ankle in the 5th stage didn’t slow down the 2018 Dakar winner. Shining on the toughest stages where riding and navigational skills were fundamental, Matthias Walkner finished the 41st Dakar edition as runner-up. Even though he didn’t win, he is convinced he rode his best Dakar so far. “Now I deserve to party a bit, because I worked really hard for this Dakar. It’s not easy to start with number one, it sure adds extra pressure,” he admits. But since there are some medical issues on his to do list, party time will be short and sweet. “In my first two weeks back I’ve got some press stuff to attend to around Austria, and to cheer on my friend Marcel Hirscher.” At the end of January Matthias went to one of the most famous downhill ski races in Kitzbühel, before visiting the night race in Schladming. “This is what helps me relax, watch a good ski race and hanging out with friends.” At the time of writing, Matthias already successfully underwent knee surgery, and is waiting to have the pin taken out of his femur. “It’s going to be three or four months of recovery, and then, in the summer, I hopefully will be ready to race again, at least on two wheels,” the car enthusiast explained. The last Dakar came with a special prize, a brand new KTM X-BOW, and now it’s the time to take it onto the racetrack.
      Matthias Walkner (AUT) Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
      Sam Sunderland
      This year’s Dakar was a bit of a rollercoaster for the 2017 Dakar winner Sam Sunderland. Only on the last stage he was granted the removal of the one-hour penalty issued for missing the start of stage 8 and was promoted to third place. “This Dakar was really, really tough on every level: physically, mentally, and emotionally. I had so many ups and downs, that I feel completely drained. Drained, but happy, we could say, because obviously this is a big achievement for KTM. On day 8 it still didn’t look like it would happen, we fought till the last meter. The top ten riders were really strong, and it wasn’t clear which one would dominate. It was more about who would make the least mistakes. Saying that, I feel really tired and just want to relax. I want to go home, and finally see my dog.  He’s with some friends now, but I know, he misses me likewise. Everybody loves Oli,” he smiles and adds: “Wouldn’t hurt to spend some time with my girlfriend too, to go for some nice food and just be together.” Otherwise Sam confesses he has a bit of a bad habit. “I play too much PlayStation, with teenagers over the world. I know it’s not very healthy, but it’s my way of relaxing. Of course, nothing compares to walking Oli in the beautiful Andorran mountains. I am happy to have moved here to live, the nature here is truly amazing. Besides that, Andorra it’s close to Spain, if you want some extra sunshine,” says a citizen of the world, while he prepares his ticket to Paris.
      Sam Sunderland (GBR) Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin
      Photos: Marcin Kin
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