Sam Sunderland: “Anyone who says they are not scared at the Dakar is either stupid or lying”

Sam Sunderland - Dakar rally 2017 - winner
Sam Sunderland in action en route to winning the 2017 Dakar rally - the first time he'd managed to finish the gruelling off-road event in six attempts

On January 6 the 40th edition of the world’s toughest race gets underway in Peru with Sam Sunderland, the first-ever British winner of the Dakar rally, defending his title against more than 160 competitors.

As a motorcycle racing feat and spectacle the Dakar rally hovers in the same sphere of thrill, danger and questionable sanity as the Isle of Man TT.

For the forthcoming edition that cuts across three countries, traversing desert dunes, mountain ranges and near desolate landscapes through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, almost 200 steel-nerved riders will cover nearly 5,500 miles in less than two weeks.

And all with throttles pinned from dawn to dusk, not knowing what the trail has in store.

“To be honest it’s scary,” says Sam Sunderland, Britain’s first ever winner last January for what was his sixth attempt at the race and the first he’d actually finished.

Sunderland celebrates with his team a year ago

“Before each stage I’m afraid. Everyone has those [pre] race jitters but at the Dakar I’m not only worried about the race but also my life. We go so fast and anything can happen; there are animals on the route, a stone or rock can catch you out or there’s a fence that shouldn’t be there.”

Sunderland, 28, will have the cherished #1 on the front of his factory Red Bull KTM Rally 450 – a light and robust motorcycle specially modified for the diverse climate and terrain challenges that await.

One of the more gruelling parts of the trek will be Stage 9: the second part of a stint that involves almost 500km of timed “special” stages through Altiplano and the widest expanse of the Andean Plateau, one of the highest settings on the planet.

The reigning champion faces questions ahead of this year's event

Sunderland faces a potent threat from Honda, Yamaha and Husqvarna; all factories that invest millions into motorcycling rally technology. 

Sunderland’s status, the weight of expectation and the prospect of the unknown out on the map mean the Dakar is a mountain both figuratively and often literally. “It’s a one-time thing, one start. Get it wrong and you’re out. That creates a special dynamic,” he explains.

“There is a lot of pressure for the riders, teams and mechanics. Once it starts it is like a big moving circus and you cannot afford to fall behind.”

Sunderland's factory KTM wears the coveted #1 plate for the start in Peru

Discarding the danger, there is something pure and uncomplicated about the Dakar and rally racing in general. The competitors will be kicking up dust on a pre-arranged trajectory of territories but riders will often see the sun rise or set on an untouched topography. Do they even have time to admire the rugged beauty of their surroundings?

“More so on the liaison, the link section where we are not racing and we have to follow the rules of the road,” offers Sunderland.

“Then you get into the ‘specials’ and sometimes it is super-early and miserable weather but you pass through some insane places. I remember going over the Paso de San Francisco [a pass through the Andes that connects Argentina to Chile] at 5,000-odd metres high and past all these volcanoes chugging out smoke and seeing all these strange animals.

In training for the 40th edition of the world’s toughest race

“It was like being on Mars: you feel that sense of loneliness and adventure at the same time. It is just you and your bike. We have a team - and we couldn’t do it without them - but we’re still on the bike for 12, 13, 14 hours and you only see them at night. It is a long, long time by yourself.”

The solitary element of the Dakar is another barrier to overcome. “You have a lot of time to think on the liaisons,” Sunderland says. “Sometimes it is even hard to stay awake. You get up at 2.30am and you are deep in the rally: it will be dark, freezing cold but you put the kit on again and head back out.”

After up to 14 hours alone in the wilderness, competitors are relieved to reach the end of the day's stage

Countless inhabitants of the towns and remote hamlets between Lima and Cordoba will defy safety to line zones of a perilous chase and one of bike racing’s harshest narratives.

Sunderland knows the fastest machine and steadiest right hand still might not be enough and has experienced the lows of the Dakar but that sustained adrenaline feed is a powerful draw.

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