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Dakar Diary

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Dakar Diary-2

We were up around 4 in the morning on raceday. The day was only around 500km in total with 117 of that a Special Stage. I don’t remember what I ate that morning but I am pretty sure it almost all came up. They only allow you into the parc ferme 30 minutes ahead of time so there isn’t much time to mess around. I said bye to Spice and got ready in the parc. The atmosphere in the parc was really tense. Everyone is trying to start his bike after sitting for 3 days. There is the GPS code to type in, the roadbook to load, cables to plug in and general preparedness. A number of bikes wouldn’t start. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guys with problem bikes. There is so much going through your head at this point that a troubled bike is the last thing you need. I am sure eventually everyone got it together but what a pain. Despite the chilly temps I was sweating from head to toe. The adrenaline pumping through my body was making all those extra layers a nuisance. My goggles were fogging on the inside and soaked on the outside from the humidity. All in all I couldn’t see worth a damn.

I eventually was called up to the line leading up to the podium. This was it, the moment I had been preparing for for the last two years. I made it to the start. The sense of joy and anxiety made for huge butterflies in my stomach. I was so crossed up I didn’t know what to think. Sitting up on the podium I looked around and listened for Spice but the sounds of the crowd and all the motors running were deafening. The announcer introduced me and gave me a 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 and I was off on my first liaison of the 2007 Dakar Rally. WOW I thought! What a trip! I followed the crowd of a few hundred thousand spectators out of Lisbon and headed for the first Special. I couldn’t believe how many people were out this early in the morning. I am sure most of them were waiting in anticipation of the cars and trucks but the fact that they came out for the motos too was very special. They were throngs of people on sidewalks, storefronts and bridges for the next 75 miles. I later found out that they estimated the crowds at something like half a million for that first stage.

Shortly after I left the downtown area of Lisbon and got out on the road all that sweat started to cool off. I was really wishing for that heated vest I had back with Spice. One of the single greatest pieces of equipment I own is a heated vest-absolutely worth its weight in gold. Around 30 minutes into the ride I was freezing and shivering uncontrollably. The 115km ride to the Special was an amazing ride despite the cold. When the sun did finally come up and I arrived at the start I had a few minutes to kill. During that time I had to load the rest of my roadbook, clean my goggles, choke down a Powerbar and hopefully restore a little feeling to my numb fingers. I ran into Tim right away. I must have looked like a wreck because he told me more than once to just relax and calm down. The Nomads had warned us about this stage. They said to be very careful about the deep sand and buried roots. Even with the warnings I wasn’t prepared for the next 117km.

I have ridden in sand before and trained for this race for a couple years now but the sand in Portugal was unlike anything I had seen. At times the sand was almost two feet deep and heavy with moisture. It didn’t take long for me to go down, 4.6 km exactly. It wasn’t a very dramatic getoff but enough to stir the nerves a little. I was already tired and my arms pumped up as a result. I thought if this is what is to come I am in deep trouble. I sat on the trail trying to start the 640 but the battery didn’t last but a few seconds. “Great” I thought. “Here I am less than 5 kms into my Dakar and I am going to be the first one out. Ain’t that a bitch”. The carb was clearly flooded and the left-side kickstart wasn’t making much of a difference. I kicked and kicked until I was out of breath and pissed off. A flood of horrible emotions overcame me as I pondered being the first person officially out of the race only 5kms in. What a shame. How embarrassing. Bike after bike hauled by me at various speeds, some flying but most were tooling along cautiously. Since the first day is a reverse-start order day all the fast guys were still yet to pass me. With my #197 I was around the 50th bike out of the gate so I still had somewhere in the neighborhood of 196 bikes behind me. I had to calm down and relax a little before I blew a gasket so I sat still and tried to take in the moment. That seemed to help and I think my bike sensed the change in tension. It started right up and we got on our way.

The next 112kms were about the least amount of fun riding I have had on a bike in a long time. I did manage to go down no less than another 6 times but thankfully no more than 10 or 15 mph. The crowd loved it, especially the sandy faceplant. Anything for the crowd I thought quietly to myself. I am glad I could be of some entertainment. They certainly deserved it camping there all night in the freezing cold. It didn’t take long before the really fast guys started to pass. Elmer came by me like a bat out of hell. I saw him for about 8 seconds and he was gone in a flash. I couldn’t believe how fast he was going on his 660. After Elmer I recognized Jonah ripping by at an impossibly fast pace. He also made me reevaluate everything I had been doing on a bike for the last 5 years. I thought I was riding but in reality I was barely moving forward. Self-doubt is not what you want to be feeling on day 1 of a 16-day rally. Oh well, it can only get better from here I guess.

I did finish the Special after what seemed like an eternity. The end was amazing. I did it. I completed my first stage. I wasn’t going to be the first person out after all. Shortly after my finish I saw Steve and James come in. They both confirmed my dislike for the sand and suddenly I was in good company again. We set off for the liaison to Portimao to be reunited with our families for one last night. The gas stop was very cool. There were literally hundreds of competitors at a gas station on the way into town. This was another one of those feelings of being a part something very cool. I am in the Dakar. I am one of THEM. Inside the gas station I treated myself to the coffee vending machine-4 times. I have got to get one of those.

The liaison was 260km of highway and probably took around 3 hours to reach the port. We all pulled in and were instantly greeted by our team and families. We spent a little time talking about the stage and how it all went and of course trying to calm the nerves and plan for tomorrow. Right away there was work to do on the bikes even though we had barely started. Check the oil, water, tires, nuts and bolts, roadbook, wheels, etc. I had worked out a daily schedule of maintenance me and Paul were going to try to stick to and today was our first. That also included a nutrition schedule that I had worked out based on some desert racing I had done the past couple years.

Paul, admittedly, is not a very accomplished motorcycle mechanic but he was really excited about the opportunity to learn and soak up everything the Dakar experience had to offer including our hopefully elementary maintenance.

When day 1 wrapped up Spice and I were back in the hotel for the night and winding down from a truly nutty day. Thankfully the first one was over. We only had 15 more to go.

Race day 2 started with us up around 4 again. My leave time wasn’t until 630 or so but we had a lot do. The sunrise over the harbor was pretty spectacular as we both got to the bike and began my morning ritual of loading up the roadbook and checking the vitals. I don’t remember talking a whole lot on the way down. We were both fairly quiet while we pondered the next time we were going to see each other. We hoped it would be in Dakar in two weeks but there was always a good chance it wouldn’t be. Statistically there was about an 80% chance it wouldn’t be but we never even talked about it.

6:30 rolled around pretty quickly and we were off on the liaison. I waved goodbye in the roundabout where only minutes before two motorcycles had gone down, one with a broken arm. I couldn’t help feel the excitement of the upcoming stage. Today’s course would be a very twisty, mountainous, rocky course of gravel roads and river crossings. I hoped it was just like the riding in Colorado I had grown to love over the last few years. It turned out to be one of the funnest days of riding on the whole rally. For the first time I really felt relaxed and connected to the bike. I had this bike for over a year and a half and logged over 10,000 dual-sport and racing miles on it up to this point but for some reason the venue made me nervous. What a blast! Much to my joy I finished even better than I started and crossed the line with a huge smile on my face. If only the rest could be like this.

Shortly after the finish I found the Nomads and the trailers they had arranged for the 425km long liaison down to Malaga, Spain. James showed up, then Tim Hall and Paul Broom after that. We loaded up and set off for our rendezvous with the rest of the team about 50km down the road. We were all supposed to get there and have some time for maintenance but our loading debacle ate up precious time. By the time we got to the location we had about 15 minutes to work and we needed to get back on the road south.

The following day was our first in Morocco and a long one so we really needed to make sure the bikes were dialed. The use of the assistance vehicles was out of the question since they were leaving Europe from a different port. It would be another 36 hours until we saw them, supposedly.

By this time our truck had already had two flat tires on the asphalt ride down. There was obviously something wrong with the wheel and tire setup but it absolutely had to be rectified before Africa. Once the truck crossed over the chances of tracking down Ford F350 parts was almost zero. That frustration only added to the intensity of the situation. After we all were set to go one of the Nomads vehicles decided it didn’t want to start the drive to Malaga. That one happened to have James and Tim’s bikes on the trailer. When it was decided that we had no more time to wait the other trailer left with mine, Paul’s and Klaus’s bikes. They eventually got the other truck started but not until they pulled the bikes off and set out for Malaga on two wheels.

I don’t know what the problem was but everything had suddenly turned really hairball. The euphoria of the day’s stage, like most things in Dakar, was short-lived and once again we had our back up against the wall.

On a good day the ride should have taken 5 hours but on the day the Dakar Rally circus pulls in the crowds and traffic extended it another 2. We had a very definite deadline to get on the boat and check in or suffer time penalties. The ride down was wonderful Spanish interstate with mile after mile of beautiful countryside. I couldn’t help but think about returning with Spice on a nice casual touring bike. Klaus and I spent time trying to catch a few winks in the truck while Carlos drove. About 10 kms out of town we reached an absolute gridlock. Me and Paul and Klaus decided the only way we were going to reach the boat on time was if we pulled the bikes off and hauled ass to the port. Not a big deal but there was no time to get fully suited up. Since Paul’s girlfriend was there also with her own car we decided it would be best if she carried everything down to the port and met up before the boat left. I don’t know what we were thinking at the time but seemed logical. Realistically it could have been the beginning of the end for me and Paul.

I gave Susan my brand new carbon fiber knee guards and my new Leatt neck brace. With all the talk of neckbraces and broken necks this year I promised Spice I would wear it for the entire race. Paul gave her all his tools, spares and Camelbak. If we didn’t hookup with Susan for our stuff Paul and I may as well go home because we weren’t going to ride without it.

Only a couple km into our ride it was obvious we would need a minor miracle to ever see Susan again. The crowds turned ridiculous and the traffic a nightmare. Just to get down to the port required no less than three security checks and a couple hundred thousand handshakes and pictures with the locals. Once we got there Paul and I realized we were screwed. Without a phone or any way to contact Susan in her car she would have no idea how to find us. I couldn’t believe I did something so stupid. I just jeopardized my entire Dakar effort and everything I had put into it for the last two years for a shortsighted decision. Just for the hell of it we took a walk up to the street party to see if in fact we were due for a miracle. By this time we allowed around an hour for Susan to cover what we covered in 15 minutes on the bike. There was no way she’d make it but we had to check. I’ll be damned if the first car we see isn’t Susan stuck in traffic about to enter the last of the security checks. I still have no idea how she made it but she did. I have never in my life been so glad to see someone other than Spice than at that moment. I knew Paul and I would be okay. I vowed to never let any of my gear out of my sight again. That was a simple lesson that could have turned really bad.

The only thing left to do now was get in line for the boat and load up. It was getting late and no one had seen James at this point. Thankfully he pulled up right behind me just as I was about to get on. He was on the phone and had this look in his eye that said everything wasn’t quite right. My suspicions were correct, the truck is down and may be gone. He had been on the phone all day with the support crew, David, Paul, Philip and Duane and they had some bad news about the truck wheels. Apparently the wheel and tire combination couldn’t hold up under the weight of the truck and they were cracking down the middle. We hadn’t even seen any dirt yet. No one wanted to think of the possibilities of the truck offroad but we knew the answer. James talked of possibly bailing on the race and riding his racebike to Casablanca to arrange for wheels. He was immediately on the phone with Atlanta and got 6 steel Ford wheels on a plane to Casa asap. If everything worked out perfect the truck would have the wheels and meet us a day later in Er Rachidia. If it didn’t work out perfect we would miss a day and see it in Tan Tan. Not ideal but what could we do? If we didn’t see the truck in Tan Tan then it would be disqualified and me, Steve and Elmer were on our own without spares and mechanics. The thought of this happening was a little sickening to think about considering everything that had gone into our support efforts. Tens of thousands of dollars were on the line and many tens more in danger if the truck bailed out completely. None of us really thought we’d never see it again. Certainly something could be done in the next three days.

I checked into my room around 9pm and met my 3 Hungarian roommates for the night. The room was only around 25 square feet but somehow they fit 4 bunks in it. I literally slept on all my gear, though there wasn’t much sleeping to be had. Statistically two of us in the room were not going to finish but that’s not really the stuff you talk about at dinner. They had all been in a Dakar before but none had finished yet. Come to find out one did make it to the finish line and once again history repeats itself.

I still had to do my massive roadbook to do for the 650km day that lay ahead. The ASO had a doozy planned for our first day in Morocco and the roadbook confirmed it. While doing so I ran into Steve, Elmer and James all doing theirs and the outlook was grim. I tried to dissuade James from leaving the race for a crapshoot with the truck but he insisted on doing everything in his power to make sure we had support for the rest of the race. He said, “without support, you guys will never make it”. The thought made us all sort of sick.

I finally turned in around 11 but never really made it to sleep. Thoughts of what was ahead overwhelmed my mind. The bike, the spares, the truck, my mechanic, everything gone for some stupid wheels. After countless sheep and hours of snoring Hungarians I resigned to the fact that I could only do what I could do. I made it the Dakar Rally and whatever happened after that was meant to be.
230am was here before I knew it.

— Chris

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