Breakfast begins well before dawn and moto competitors depart around 5 a.m. First, they drive a Liaison route along normal highways, then enter that day’s Special, the timed section of the race. Specials can be as long as 650 km, across oceans of sand and dunes, and everything in between. It can be a very long day.
The previous night will have been spent studying the “road book”, a chart describing the next day’s route utilizing 125 symbols that indicate every possible hazard riders might face. Earlier Rallies allowed competitors to use standard GPS systems, but too many were falling off cliffs or driving into mountains trying to race between checkpoints. Now, a prescribed route is followed, and time cards must be stamped in order.
I have ridden motorcycles since I was 16, but nothing prepared me for what the Dakar moto competitors endure. Their “road book” is a paper scroll fitted into a box mounted on the bike’s handlebar. Buttons are used to advance the scroll and, at times, directions for only a tenth of a kilometer can be viewed. The most experienced riders seem to have an innate ability to know where they are going. Less experienced riders careen all over the course.
And many get hopelessly lost. At one checkpoint I could hear engines starting and stopping everywhere around me. It was a particularly difficult section, and clearly no one knew where they were. But once the proprietary Dakar directional systems signaled its location (they kick in within 800 meters of a checkpoint), vehicles were coming at us from all directions, spectators scattering as police hastily tried to move people out of harm’s way. It was chaos.
But if you get too far off course, it’s game over. I got to know three Turkish privateers, determined and perhaps reckless individuals who had risked their money and well-being just to see if they could simply finish the Dakar. They had gone astray on one very challenging Special and were told it might take two or three days before anyone could rescue them, if at all. I saw more than one competitor stagger out of the desert having abandoned their vehicle, exhausted and dirty trying to find help. It’s not a pretty sight. And later in the bivouac you hear vehicles arriving all through the night, hoping to make the necessary repairs and catch some sleep before departing at dawn for another day’s racing—because if you are not out of the bivouac by the prescribed time, your Dakar is over.
Breakdowns are a major issue, and competitors must know their vehicles inside out. One member of our team tore half his coolant system off his bike in a nasty collision with a boulder. He quickly whittled two small sticks into points, jammed them into the leaking hoses to preserve what remained of his coolant, fixed everything in place with duct tape and cable ties, and limped into the bivouac with enough time to make repairs and head out the next morning.
While competitors try to sleep, around them 2,500 people in the bivouac are active and noisy. The all-night growl of diesel generators and high whining drills is punctuated by the rattle of pneumatic wrenches, the scream of air compressors, the deep pounding of hammers and the bleep of powerful, high performance engines uninhibited by mufflers that drain horsepower. I slept fitfully in my hot claustrophobic tent, and I didn’t have to negotiate the dangers of the course every day.