The Dakar Rally. Eighteen days riding through France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal. Some of the most stunning desert, mountain, and African savanna scenery imaginable. Hanging out with many of the best desert riders in the world and getting close to some amazing racing machinery. Most importantly, the enduring mystique of the Dakar Rally. These things call to the adventurous among us. The personal challenge, the huge obstacles facing the rider, the sweet taste of success reaching Dakar, of joining the very exclusive club of Finishers.I dreamed of competing in the Dakar for at least 20 years. As kids in early '80s New England, my brother Dave and I caught glimpses of the Rally in the poor US TV and magazine coverage.
In 2002, after a 6-month tour of Europe and Turkey with my wife, we decided, on a whim, that I should enter the El Chott Rally in Tunisia. With an entry fee of about $1000, and geared towards amateurs, the El Chott sounded like affordable fun. My tired old stock KTM 620 Adventure survived, and I finished well. I had raced in the desert back home, and even won some amateur class races, but rally racing was different. Riding at ten tenths was not so important; in fact, you're unlikely to finish unless you back off a bit. The real essentials are endurance, determination, and desert riding experience.
After the El Chott, I was hooked. The dream of Dakar was almost within reach. All I needed was a big pile of cash. If you are considering the Dakar, and you are not a millionaire, my advice to you is to have lots of room on your credit cards, and have a very supportive spouse. Better yet, be single, since you'll need to be obsessed with the Rally for most of a year. I spent most of 2003 begging for money and selling everything I had around the house to pay the entry fee. In the end, including maxing out several new credit cards, I spent just over $41 grand.
Just after Christmas, I flew to France, sporting some new gear donated by sponsors Shift, Alpinestars, 661, BajaDesigns, Aerostich, and others. I met up with David Lambeth, who had prepped my very used 2001 KTM 660R racebike by replacing the engine, most of the bearings, and any other damaged or worn items.
Dakar Scrutineering is an off-road spectacle on an astronomical scale. Hundreds of bikes from dozens of countries, colorful, million-dollar race cars, and the mammoth desert race trucks all had to file through the Grand Halle to be inspected, plastered with stickers, and shown off to the thousands of intense European fans crowding the boundary tapes. This is a major media event! I'm wearing a (hecho en Mexico) cowboy hat, which immediately identifies me as an American. Great PR move! I'm photographed lots and interviewed several times by TV crews. I'm even surrounded by autograph seekers. Cool. We no-names go a day before the pros, so I'm twiddling my thumbs outside when Scot Harden, Larry Roeseler, and Paul Krause of KTM USA are getting ready to go through. They seem a bit flustered, so I show them where to push their bikes. SpeedTV is there, and before I know it, I'm being filmed with them and described as the 4th American. All in a day's work for a big-time Dakar racer, you know.
The inspections themselves are quite perfunctory. Do you have your Elf, France TV, and Telephonica stickers? Has your check cleared? Sign this release. OK, you're good to go. Merci beacoups.
After Scrutineering, the race vehicles are wheeled directly into Parc Ferme, a gated parking lot, where they must sit untouched until the start of racing.
Courtesy of my parents, who are vacationing in France and not at all interested in cold-weather camping, I get a good dinner, wine, and a good night's sleep in a hotel on New Year's Eve. January 1, we wake up to snow and the Prologue; a 1.5 km ride down 2 parallel tracks in front of the fans. Tens of thousands are on hand to watch, but I am determined not to show off. Everyone has warned me not to crash trying to win any of the European stages. It would be a shame to eliminate myself trying to make time on short stages. A 5-minute deficit from Europe will mean nothing on a 12-hour African stage.
Quick primer: The Dakar Rally starts in France every year and ends in Africa, usually in Dakar, Senegal. Competitors race through timed "Special" sections every day. After these Specials, competitors travel along Liaison sections to the Bivouac (stopping place for the night) or to the next Special. In the end, the one with the lowest cumulative time on all the Specials wins. Penalty times are added for many infractions, including taking too long to complete a Liaison section. Three types of vehicles compete: bikes (including quads), cars (mostly SUVs) and big bad trucks. Europeans take it very very seriously, and good rally competitors are national heroes.
My Prologue start time is about 9am, and I am allowed in to the Parc Ferme at 8:50. "Click, bzzz." The battery is dead!
My Prologue start time is about 9am, and I am allowed in to the Parc Ferme at 8:50. "Click, bzzz." The battery is dead! My mechanic can't help me now, so I push. No dice. I ask other racers to help. Nothing. I grab TV crews and officials, anyone who can push. Most of the other riders have left the parking lot and I am sure I am going to miss my start time. Perfect, out of the Rally before it starts! Yes, I was panicked.
Finally, the bike fires and I storm around the corner to see 50 bikes waiting their turn to be introduced on a podium. I'm not even late, but I can't take any more drama that day. I creep through the Prologue at a snail's pace in the snow and mud.
After the Prologue, the Organization decides that, because of the snow, motorcycles may be trailered to the next stage in Narbonne, 395 km to the South. A bit of a hassle for me, however, since I had planned to ride and have no truck. Ennio Cucurachi, #88, has room on his trailer, though, so I load my bike with him. I jump into an RV belonging to Rally Raid UK, and off we go.
Rally Raid UK, run by Paul Round, and arranged for me by RallyConnex, will support me from Narbonne on. RRUK has 2 large support trucks carrying tools, spares, and mechanics, and one Nissan Patrol carrying my mechanic, Gordon McPherson. All tolled, they will be supporting 7 bikes, two quads, and at least one car. For the European sections, they also have 3 RVs, now loaded with riders and drivers, speeding southward through the snow, trying to make our check in time in Narbonne. Our RRUK "team" consists of Mick Extance, UK enduro fast guy; John Walker, another UK enduro hotshot; Neville Murray from South Africa, on his third try to finish the Dakar- the oldest but most fit of our group; Christo Aspeling, Neville's big tough Afrikaner riding buddy; young Francisco Arrendondo from Guatemala, who smiles so much that you get the idea he may not know what he is in for; Bertil Marcusson, who has ridden his bike from Sweden and is uber-prepared; and me. From here on out, the schedule turns manic-hectic. We barely have enough time to stop and eat on the way. Since the bikes must be in Parc Ferme each night, we also have to find some time during the drive to sort out that starting problem.
Narbonne's stage is a bit intimidating. This is my first real off-road ride on the 660R. I'm not sure how the 400+ pound bike will behave on the muddy, rutted trail, so I again take it easy. The bike handles nicely, and the powerful motor redeems any of its faults. At the end of the stage, my bike won't start again, so Neville tows me to a McDonald's' down the road where our mechanics are waiting. Gordon finds that the choke cable is mis-adjusted, and that the choke is always a third on. And, he finds what he thinks is a bad ground for the battery. I hope we have the starting problems sorted.Throughout the entire European part of the Rally, fans surround us. Lining the fences of the Parc Ferme and the streets of the towns, cheering at the Special Stages, waving from every highway overpass, and gawking at us at every toll plaza, even in the driving snow. Cool.
In Castellon, Spain, I again tiptoe through the Special on the beach. The rest of the RRUK crew compares times and positions in the RV, but I have to bite my lip. I'm not racing yet.
Africa. A short ferry ride, a short ride, and a late night arrival at the airport in Tanger, Morocco. We set up our tents on the edge of the airstrip and sleep a few hours before waking to a nice breakfast and a 233 km ride through freezing and foggy mountains to the start of the first African Special. Now I can race! The Special starts out super fast and straight, so I use the top speed of the 660. I'm running one tooth more on my countershaft sprocket than most of the KTM riders, so I can really get going. And, I don't think the Europeans are as used to going fast like some of us are here in the US. I pass some of them like they are in 2nd gear reverse. But, I keep it cool and do not take any risks. The second part of the Special gets tighter and more rutted, so I back off and take it easy. In the end, my time is 41st best,10th first-timer. Most of those ahead of me are pros. Respectable, especially in the "backpack tourist privateer" class.
Every once in a while, the fast trail drops into a g-out that could kill you if you are not prepared.
The next day, from Er Rachidia to Ouarzazate, starts out with a short Liaison, and then a fun, fast Special of 338 km. The Special starts out rocky and fast. Then it gets more and more sandy until we are in some decent-sized dunes about 50 or 60 feet high. Up to this point, I am feeling good and going at a quick, but conservative pace. No drama. Then, just after the dunes, we enter a small village. The roadbook says to follow the electrical lines, but there are 5 electrical lines, all going in different directions. There are bikes headed out of the village on every path I can see, so I shrug at a crowd of locals watching the race, "which way?" Half of them seem to point one way, half another. In fact, they are all just cheering and waving their arms. No help. Somehow I find the right way, but I have lost some time. Luckily, the rest of the stage is fast gravel, rocky, and sandy track, so I can rip. There are, however, plenty of traps. Every once in a while, the fast trail drops into a g-out that could kill you if you are not prepared. I'm cruising slow enough to see trouble coming, but the dangers give me new respect for the pros who are under pressure to go fast everywhere. I finish 54th out of 191 bikes.
Stage 6 goes from Ouarzazate to Tan Tan, Morocco. We ride a 176 km Liaison before, and another 266 km Liaison after the 351 km Special. The first bikes start the first Liaison at 4:25 am, and my start time from the Bivouac is about 5:15 am. Yawn. All the riders do whatever they can to keep warm in the pre-dawn cold. Many have made cardboard and tape hand gaurd extenders. I'm wearing every stitch of riding gear I brought, and I'm still shivering. These long, cold Liaisons and short nights' sleep may be wearing on the riders just as much as the racing. The Special is perfect: rocky, sometimes twisty, and bumpy, with incredible views of the Moroccan desert. Once, I head down the wrong sand wash, and another time I ride like a dork through a rocky river crossing in front of some cameras, but I lose only 20 minutes or so due to errors. Near the end, on a fast and twisty gravel track, a Frenchman on one of the Euromaster-sponsored bikes comes by me. Not so fast! I stretch the throttle cable and we dice at silly speeds for the last 10 km or so. As we get our cards stamped at the Check Point, I see what he was running from. Stephane Peterhansel is less than a minute behind us in his Mitsubishi car, going warp 11. Peterhansel slides sideways through the finish line and nearly takes out half a dozen mechanics waiting for their riders. I score another 54th, vying with Mick for first among the RRUK riders, but I think I can do better. I'm still 12th first-timer; LR is 9th. Mick and I arrive at the Bivouac before the assistance crews, just around dark. The riders behind us won't get much sleep tonight.
In the Bivouac that night, Gordon and the RRUK crew try to stop my bike's several oil leaks. I'm also concerned that my "low oil pressure" light has come on several times. Tomorrow's start time is about 1:30 am, so I eat quickly and get a few hours sleep on the ground, and hope the bike holds together.
The next day is the big one. The longest day of the Rally at 1055 km from Tan Tan to Atar, Mauritania. Most years they do this stretch in two days. What a surreal night ride! We head down the road through Western Sahara, disputed territory and heavily mined. Then we enter a military zone where we follow fire-pots and fluorescent lights marking the sandy track through the border area. Finally, on the edge of a chott, or dry lakebed, we stop for a breakfast of coffee, bread, cereal, and cold cuts. At 7 am, we head out across the chott to a GPS point where the Mauritanian military is waiting for us. They check us through and we get ready to start the Special as the sun comes up. I consider fixing my oil light with a piece of tape, but settle on removing the bulb. I wish Larry, Paul, and Scot of KTM USA good luck, and I hope I don't look as tired as they do.
The piste is very fast, so I decide to turn up the heat. I pass bunches of riders with fancy corporate paintjobs and am feeling really good. Headed for my best stage finish yet. I'm in that zone that comes after hours of fast desert riding. Even though the scenery is whizzing by, I feel like everything has slowed to a snail's pace. Easily manageable and smooth. At the first Check Point I'm in 38th place. Then, coming over a small dune, I break an unbreakable titanium chain. Bummer. It's not easy trying to find a chain spit out somewhere in the deep sand along the last quarter mile while dodging bikes and fast cars cresting dunes behind you. I find it and fix it, but it ends up a bit too short and too tight. So, I slow down to save my countershaft and rear wheel bearings. Later in the afternoon I make a rookie mistake: I follow some tracks straight into some dunes when I should have turned left. Half a kilometer later, I realize my mistake, but instead of turning straight back, I try to cut directly left toward the parallel track I should be on. At the top of an immense dune, I see a truck on the road I should be on, half a kilometer away, but huge, soft, steep dunes surround me. It takes me at least half an hour to extricate myself. I make it through the next set of dunes at the end of the Stage before dark and finish 85th. Still in the hunt, and early enough to get good sleep and food before the next day.
I would like a new chain and sprockets, but Gordon and the Nissan are not in the Bivouac when I get there. Most of the assistance crews are having trouble getting through the dunes near Atar. I need to sleep, but I gather the parts and tape a note to my bike for Gordon, who arrives in the middle of the night, battered and bruised by the rough ride in the Nissan. In the morning, my bike has a fresh chain and sprockets, air filter and oil, and Gordon is working on Paul and Mark Round's turbocharger, not having slept all night. Tough guy. We have to jump-start my bike that morning, which worries me. The pace of the Rally is beginning to take its toll with some people looking completely burned out. As I ride to the start area just outside the Bivouac, several bikers are just arriving from the previous day's Stage. They have slept in the desert and will have very little time too eat and repair their bikes before leaving again. It will be an especially tough day for them.
The next day, Stage 8 from Atar to Tidjikja, is rough. I crash into a big hole in a sand wash early and crack a rib. Then, I get a bit lost, like most everyone, and lose about an hour. The fast cars and trucks pass me. OK, today I just survive. I take 1000mg of Ibuprofen and just go slowly. Next time I'll bring better painkillers. The course takes us through some stunningly beautiful landscapes on a gigantic scale. Huge mountains of sand and towering rock formations as well as vast, brutally rocky plains. Then, about 150 km from the end and a few hours before dark, I run out of fuel. I was topped up in the morning, but some must have leaked out after my crash when the bike was upside down. I flag down every passing vehicle, but the bikes have none to spare, and all the cars and trucks are diesels. Hours later, the KTM Red Bull truck stops and gives me 20 liters, which is plenty to make it to the next check, where there is gas. I'm going to be late and get a penalty, but I'm going to make it. Maybe I'd try for a good stage finish sometime later in the Rally, but not today.
In the dark and in the dunes, I catch a few slower riders. At one point, I'm leading Ennio, who took my bike from the start to Narbonne, and Yuki Tanaka, a Japanese woman #130, both on 660 KTMs like mine. An Organization doctor in a Land Cruiser stops us and tells us to stick together for safety. So, I lead them through the darkness with my super-bright HID light. Ennio seems to like to fall and rest, and Yuki has trouble picking her bike up, so the going is slow and I help both of them out a lot. My battery gets tired from starting and restarting (and maybe some other problems, I don't know), and they have to jump-start me several times after our stops, but we continue. At one point, we sleep for an hour and a half because we, (mostly Yuki) are exhausted. At about 4 or 5 am, we come to a difficult and confusing navigation section. We try several options but can't find the right way through the soft sand and boulders. Ennio's navigation equipment is smashed and does not work. My GPS has somehow lost its power from my battery, and Yuki's GPS plug is damaged. We fix Yuki's GPS with some of my tape and she rides ahead to find the trail. Then, I stall. She keeps going and Ennio stops to jump-start me. She never returns, and Ennio and I are in trouble. Half an hour later, a TV crew shows up and offers to show us the way. Great! We follow along, but I stall again in the deep sand and rocks and watch my chances fade as they drive off into the distance. I have never considered the possibility of not finishing that stage until then! This makes no sense! I am strong and feeling good. My bike is, except for the battery, running great. But, there is no way of starting the bike and I am not going to make my start time. I will be excluded from Stage 9 and the rest of the Rally.
Several hours later, Patsy Quick and Clive Town ride by and start me. We know it is too late, but we continue until I fall again in the rocks, hurting my ribs so badly that I cannot lift the bike. I tell them to continue without me and decide to wait for the Sweeper Truck. I find a nice flat rock to sit on, dig through my pack for the sat phone, check the GPS coordinates, and call Dakar HQ in Paris. I'm out this time, but I'll be back.
I have unfinished business in Africa.
Late that night, the Sweeper Truck, full of Dakar carnage including Christo and Francisco from my RRUK Team, comes to take me into the town of Tidjika. Christo and I take our bikes off the truck and repair them. We're not done yet, so we ride our own route across Mauritania and Senegal to Dakar, where a small bribe gets me on an overbooked flight to Lisbon, and 4 more flights and 2 days later I am home in San Francisco, dejected.
Some say the Rally was too tough this year, but I think I could have finished well. 65 bikes, about one third of the starters, finished. Usually, almost two thirds of the bikes make it to the end.
Rally Raid UK's Paul Round said: "This Dakar was an extremely difficult rally. I have been competing in the Dakar for 6 years now and up to this year had a great time even when we had big problems. We did not enjoy this Dakar. It was sadistic, and whoever did the route should be locked up."
Sure, but I can't wait to go back.
Brothers Charlie and Dave Rauseo will team up to compete in the 27th Edition of the Dakar Rally in January 2005. Preparation is underway. Right now, they are training and preparing for navigational practice with Jimmy Lewis. Charlie and Dave are now actively seeking a MAJOR SPONSOR for their 2005 Dakar Team. GRASSROOTS SUPPORT went a long way supporting Charlie in 2004. Charlie and Dave will give something back to all the Dakar fanatics willing to chip in to fund their dream by raffling off a trip to Europe to be part of their Team and watch the first few days of rallying. For details, updates, T-shirts and stickers, visit www.USADakar2005.com.
Team press contact: Charlie Rauseo
Team website: USADakar2005.com
Dakar website: http://www.dakar.com/
Television Coverage: OLN
Daily Team updates: http://www.onewheeldrive.net/