Overland Journal

DAKAR RALLY RETROSPECTIVE

Nathan Rafferty, knee-deep in fesh-fesh.

I was very excited when I considered writing an article on the Dakar Rally. I saw myself flying business class to South America (where the event has been hosted since 2009), hanging out in the bivouacs with legendary riders like Stéphane Peterhansel, Cyril Despres, and younger stars like Toby Price, Sam Sunderland, and Matthias Walkner. Even seeing the nine-time winner of the World Rally Championships, Sébastian Loeb, would be a treat, though his success at Dakar has yet to be seen.

Yet, none of that happened, no business class and no bivouac interviews, no Stéphane Peterhansel. I did, however, get a chance to meet a true-to-life hero, a man from my hometown of Salt Lake City named Nathan Rafferty. He entered the Dakar Rally in the moto class as an amateur and actually finished the race. It’s no easy task, Dakar, and if you’re anything like me (drawn to armchair criticisms), it’s difficult to understand just how hard it is.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the rally is how closely its inception—from the fires of failure to outright legendary success—so closely match that of another famous French explorer named Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Antoine flew planes for the French military during World War I and crashed in the Sahara in 1935 while trying to break the flight speed record from Paris to Saigon. Later he would write a novella about the accident called The Little Prince, now published in over 300 languages.

Many believe the Dakar Rally began in 1978, but the idea was forged two years earlier in that same refiner’s fire that heated the creation of The Little Prince. In 1976, Thierry Sabine, a French racer, became lost in the Ténéré Desert (south-central area of the Sahara Desert) while participating in the Abidjan-Nice Rally. It was there he roamed for three days and nights sucking on a small stone to keep his mouth from drying out.

Sabine found beauty in the desert, the glittering stars mixing carelessly into the inky blackness of night. It was then—in the middle of a life and death moment—when his idea to form a rally race beginning in Paris, France, and finishing in Dakar, Senegal, was solidified.

A year after Sabine’s epiphany, in 1977, approximately 182 vehicles queued at the starting line for the inaugural run of the Paris–Dakar Rally. Only 74 would finish in the Senegal capital on the western coast of Africa—a fitting place to end since Senegal was a French colony until they declared independence in 1959.

The Dakar Rally, a modern-day gladiator competition without all the anger, is set up much like the Tour de France, with each day hosting a new stage of the event. These stages range from 750 to 1,100 kilometers, and for racers to perform at these distances day after day is a test of both man and machine—both mettle and metal.

As brutal as the rally is, there is a component of the Dakar which makes it very different from other modern off-pavement contests such as SCORE’s Baja 1000 or the Mint 400. Unlike the usual point-to-point or loop-style race, the Dakar is road-book based, necessitating a quick-thinking mind. To me, this use of roadbook navigation is brilliant, and a downright elegant aspect to the affair. Being navigation-based, the delta between success and failure rests in the details and is rather reminiscent of the fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

Rafferty, exiting a dry river bed during the 2019 Dakar Rally in Peru.

“It is the great equalizer,” Nathan explained. “You may very well be the fastest rider among the competitors, but if you don’t know how to navigate a roadbook, your race will only end in frustration—and possibly injury.”

For the uninitiated, roadbook navigation has three main components which work together in unison, left to the rider to reconcile as they go. First is a dual-distance odometer, usually an A and a B odometer which keep track of overall distance and the more detailed stage segments. Second, a digital compass which will show the degree heading after each major turn. The last one is the most important: the roadbook itself. If you’ve never seen one, it’s a rare treat. Rarer still are those who have participated in a roadbook-based race.

After cresting a dune, it is full-throttle in the special stage of the Dakar Rally.

BMW has a rich and storied history in motorsports, and with GS it is an impressive string of victories in the Paris Dakar.

Nathan Rafferty, battle proven, pleased with his first showing at the Dakar Rally.

The 2019 Dakar Rally was raced entirely in Peru.

In the 1980s, BMW dominated the Paris Dakar, including a win by Hubert Auriol in 1981, and then top of the podium again with Gaston Rahier.

Before you get too comfortable in your armchair and say, “Sure, Stevie, how many roadbook races have you participated in?” the answer, which might surprise you, is six. Yep, six. I’ve ridden motorbikes since college, but in the past 15 years with great regularity. I’m more comfortable on a big-bore adventure bike, but I do the occasional dirt bike race, and even more rarely, the roadbook-based race. I’m here to tell you, roadbook navigation is no easy task. It seems that most drivers on modern roads cannot turn, use a signal, and chew gum at the same time. Try riding a motorbike loaded with extra fuel while watching your odometers, double-checking your cap-heading, and matching it up to the roadbook in front of you—which you have to manually scroll for the next set of directions.

Alors, the first major running of the Dakar Rally was in 1978. Only a few manufacturers were participating at that point—most notably Range Rover—who took top prize in the car category twice in the first three years. Porsche came on the scene in 1984 and won their first attempt courtesy of René Metge, who had also won the Dakar in 1981 in the car class. In 1981, BMW entered the rally in the moto class and took the title. This win would not be BMW’s first. However, the bike they used was a first—and it’s this bike which ushered in a new era and altogether new classification that now represents the fastest-growing segment of the entire industry, the adventure bike.

BMW’s version was called the R 80 GS Paris Dakar. For those of you who follow motorbikes, the R 80 GSPD is the godfather of adventure bikes—the first iteration and the last bike you really need to know anything about. Without the success of the R 80 GS, Ewan McGregor would not have gone around the world on his R 1150 GS Adventure. As an aside, the “GS” in the model name is a German acronym meaning gelände/straße or “terrain/street.”Though the bike raced by Hubert Auriol was heavily modified, the production version of the R 80 GSPD was well received and has become quite rare. I should know since I am lucky enough to own one.

There are a lot of hurdles for a professional racer, let alone an amateur, to participate in a competition as big as the Dakar Rally. One must have the right gear, training, state of mind, and most of all, money. The Dakar isn’t cheap. Just to register for the modern Dakar will cost the average rider €16,500 ($18,500) which includes medical assistance, food at the bivouacs, insurance, GPS live tracking, “technical advice,” and fuel assistance during the special stages. That fee does not include the price of your vehicle or getting to the race itself—all of this is the rider’s responsibility. You also have the option of bringing a team, but it’ll cost you. If you’re one of the lucky ones who ride professionally, most of these logistical items aren’t a worry. But for an amateur, the entire prospect of curating the gear, training, paying the entry fee, and getting to location is hard to fathom.

The rally used the same basic layout (route and classifications) until 1992, when the organizers moved the finish line to Cape Town, South Africa, to entice the dwindling number of participants. (Thierry Sabine passed away in a helicopter accident during the 1985 running of the Rally, which took a toll on the Dakar in various ways.) The rally also started using GPS technology in 1992. And in a long line of firsts, Hubert Auriol took the podium in the car class, becoming the only person until then to win the rally in two different classes. If you’re thinking Auriol is a badass, you’d be right.

In 1994 the competition returned to Paris for the starting line, ending (again) in Dakar, Senegal. In 1997 the race took part exclusively in Africa for the first time, eliminating the segments from Paris to Northern Africa. Then, in 2008 the rally was canceled due to terrorism fears—attacks in Mauritania to be specific—and the race was moved to South America. The event maintained the name Dakar Rally as it had become a trademarked, registered name. As such, from 2008 to 2019 the Dakar label was still used, including the now-famous head-wrapped African Bedouin logo, even though the rally no longer had segments in the continent.

Those first years in South America saw riders revving full-tilt-boogie through three countries: Argentina, Peru, Chile. In 2019, the Dakar took place exclusively in Peru where the never-ending dunes and impossible fesh-fesh (ultra-fine sand that is even more refined than talcum powder) caused further trouble for riders. It is this event that Nathan Rafferty participated in, giving me the closest glimpse of the bivouac.

“So, the morning of the race,” he began, “I’m in the bivouac with some of the biggest names in racing—not motocross or X Games stuff—but real international roadbook nav rally racing. Toby Price, Ricky Brabec, Sam Sunderland, Laia Sanz, not to mention some real giants of the SUV class in the bivy next to us like Sébastian Loeb and Mr. Dakar himself, Stéphane Peterhansel, who has won the Dakar a record 13 times.”

“THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS IN THE WORLD CANNOT BE SEEN OR TOUCHED, THEY ARE FELT WITH THE HEART.”
–THE LITTLE PRINCE, BY ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY

The stories from the modern iteration of the rally are not different from those early competitions: men and women racing in spite of injuries. Rafferty and Price both ran several stages of the race with broken wrists—on their throttle hands no less. There were navigation problems; Sébastian Loeb blamed organizers for the misdirection, even though he was one of the few who went off course. Mechanical issues wreaked havoc. Ricky Brabec was well on his way to being the first American to win the overall podium in the moto class when the engine of his Honda crapped out. Human errors took their toll as well; consider the fate of Pablo Quintanilla. He didn’t heed the triple exclamation “danger”symbol in his book when, in the final stage, he failed to slow down and shot off a plateau-style dune like a consequences-be-damned Evel Knievel. After sailing over a 50-foot gap, then crashing his bike on the next dune, he was badly injured. But like any participant who’d come so far, he returned to his bike and finished the race.

Rafferty himself finished under duress after a crash in Stage 7. “It was a rookie mistake, cresting a sand dune,” he explains. “Those things just sneak up on you, and if you’re not paying attention all the time, they’ll ruin you.” The backside of the dune was a 20-foot drop—not a distance you want to take fast. This is a cautionary tale which Pablo might’ve listened to if he wasn’t such a committed racer, taking calculated risks to edge out the competition.

The 2019 Dakar Rally marks the end of an era, though. Shortly after the race finished in Peru, the organizers announced the 2020 Dakar Rally was moving to Saudi Arabia—evidently for the next five years. There had been much rumor and gossip about this change, but to see it unveiled officially shocked people. It’s a fascinating play for an event that is always full of surprises. Being navigation-based, the delta between success and failure rests in the details and is rather reminiscent of the fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.”