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Race day 7 was a big one. The liaison wasn’t going to have the same issues as the day before but the Special was the second longest of the rally at 542km. We didn’t have a particularly early start but that just meant we would be getting in closer to sunset the later we started. According to the roadbook info packet we received before the rally today’s stage started out with fast, mixed ground for 77km then 81km of off-piste camel grass then 100km of stony track then 40km of dunes and after that we are greeted with more mixed, stony tracks, more camel grass, another set of dunes and wrap it all up with a short gravel section. Reading the book it is hard to tell exactly how difficult the tracks are but at least you go in knowing a little about the day’s course.
So Steve and I once again stuck together and set off for the desert two abreast as long as we could maintain it. The wind that day was unbelievable. Depending on what side of the track you were on the wind would either help or hurt you. Passing someone downwind was always more of a challenge than upwind so I would try to stay off his tail on the upwind side. The riders behind us must have hated us going two-track wide for miles and miles but you have to do what you have to do. There were a few times when we would get separated and completely lose the other. Once the wind really picked up staying together proved to be more of a challenge than we could deal with. There were no tracks to follow at all once the wind blew them away so constantly confirming the roadbook and heading was very important. This was the day Steve really shined. Steve was out in front and we were following a group of probably 9 guys into the desert. I saw him look down a few times to check the directions and his compass heading and suddenly he darted off course almost 90 degrees from where they were going. Without any tracks to follow we didn’t have a confirmation for a few km but once things started to pop up we knew he had made the right choice. A lot of people lost a lot of time that day due to navigation mistakes but Steve stayed on the roadbook like glue. From then on I called Steve “Magellan” for his uncanny ability to navigate in miserable conditions. I thought it fit him better
The camel grass was very frustrating that day for a couple reasons. Number one it just sucks to ride in but number two I quickly realized my bike wasn’t handling like it should so I pulled over to check it out. I hopped off and pushed down on the rear end and noticed I had blown my rear shock at some point during the last day. Shock oil was all over the place and made a real mess combined with the talc-like fine sand. I was riding on just spring for the rest of the day, no damping at all. That was real fun. As luck would have it I happened to grab a spare at the last minute and stashed it in my box. The timing couldn’t have been better with the rest day coming up though I still had to get through the stage.
After the camel grass the stony tracks once again proved murderous on my hands. I really had to slow down to avoid the big rocks as each and every one almost brought me to tears. The blisters had grown to include nearly every digit and the cramps in my knuckles were paralyzing to ride with. Thank god we had a rest day I thought to myself.
Despite the challenges of the riding I never got tired of the scenery. At times I got to thinking about the communities we would ride through daily and the idea that some of them were 7, 8 and 900 years old was just beyond me. You have to assume they haven’t changed much in the last 500 years either, save for maybe a few new well drilling techniques or some recycled pairs of Air Jordans from the US. There was definitely some beauty in the simplicity of their lives.
The dunes that came up next were a nice challenge too. I couldn’t believe how soft the sand was sometimes. I would just be riding along and all of the sudden my bike would sink up to the bellypan. If the whole thing didn’t sink then just the front would auger in and my feet would go skyward up and over the bars. At times it was almost funny but that wore off pretty soon. Earlier dunes weren’t as hard but the sand seemed to get lighter and deeper in a matter of minutes. Even when I found myself riding along comfortably connecting the ridges suddenly everything would go to shit. I had spent a few visits to Death Valley training for this very scenario but this was nothing like California. The sand was so soft it would just eat my bike. There is a certain technique to getting the bike unstuck so I tried everything I knew how to do. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. After repeatedly unburying my bike about 6000 times I was just about done. Not unlike on the first day when I needed to take a moment, I decided to chill for a minute and just take in the situation. I saw on the GPS that the next waypoint was only 1.5km away but it was straight up and over some small dunes. The size wasn’t the biggest obstacle, in fact the small size made it more impossible to get any kind of momentum going over the ridges. With the huge dunes at least you can get going and keep moving in one direction for some time. With this type of sand I found moving my 400lb bike a real bitch but I gathered it together and kept moving ahead. I couldn’t wait to get out of the dunes and into more rocks.
We eventually got out and away from the trucks. I cost us some time in the sand that may have put us into the dark by the end of the day but I couldn’t think about that now. Thankfully, Steve patiently waited at the top of the ridges to make sure I was okay. Not that he was ever going to come back and help me get out but at least he knew where I was. I think he stayed close to me in the dunes so he could constantly confirm to himself that he made the right decision with the bike. Initially we were both going to be riding LC4 based behemoths but, in a fit of rational thought he thought otherwise and bought a new Mecasystems 525 Rally bike giving up around 100lbs of dead weight. I know that must have made him feel good watching me pick it up so much.
The 525, as great a bike as it is, had some serious engine issues that would plague more than a couple people. Three days earlier Jonah had a catastrophic engine failure that ended his race and now Steve was on his way to the same fate. At the first gas stop he noticed some abnormal ticking going on that raised some attention. It seemed to get louder each and every mile to the point where he fully expected it to just blow up any minute. In the case of a catastrophic engine failure there isn’t much you can do in the middle of the desert to offset it. It is either going to stay together or go. In our case I thought for sure Steve’s race was over and I’d be on my own for the remainder of the race. The thought of finishing alone made me sick. Teaming up with and riding each day with Steve made my race bearable and worth completing. Without him there I really didn’t feel like riding. At the second gas stop when it seemed like failure was imminent I asked him to just take it easy and I’d tow him in at the end of the night. I would have done just about anything to make sure I wasn’t out there alone for the rest of the race.
“If I could only get to the rest day in Atar” I kept reciting to myself. Reaching the end of the day was a huge mental and physical milestone in the race. Atar was almost exactly the halfway point, only 4209km left to reach Dakar, so if I could do that then I was “down into the short rows”, as they say.
At km439 we arrived at our final gas stop. The sun was dropping and the thought of riding the remaining 100km in the dark was about to become a reality. There was still a little bit of dunes, some more camel grass and some rocky piste to go. It didn’t look good from my seat. That’s when we met Mark and Jeanine.
We pulled up and Steve noticed a thin fellow, maybe around 50, waving a small American flag. Steve shouts out over the motors, ”You an American”? Yeah, Mark Jacobs, Wyoming”, and shakes his hand. Mark introduced himself and his wife Jeanine and you would have thought we had just met our long lost cousins from way back. We pulled over and talked and he informed us that the wind was so bad that they canceled the rest of the stage and we were to take a left on the highway and head straight to the bivouac. I have never been so happy. We missed the dark and Steve’s motor would make it to the bivouac either under its own power or mine.
Jeanine, we come to find out, is the American ambassador to Burkina Faso and they drove 3000 miles just to see the race. Steve and I had a blast talking to them and we all took some pictures together. Since they were sort of heading home they decided to try to catch up with the race for a few more stages. They would pop up in the most unusual places. Later on Mark told us he was a retired colonel in the military and that explained it all. I am sure he was into some sort of Black Ops or something or maybe sent there to keep an eye on us.
We made it to the end of the stage and the bivouac and the halfway point of the race. That was quite a glorious moment reaching the end and relaxing, even if only for a few hours.
Once again luck was on our side in the way of another blown motor. Since Jonah had dropped out earlier in the week that meant his spare motor was also up for rent. Steve just so happened to need one so the Rally Panam team made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and overnight Steve had a fresh 525 motor to hopefully finish up the race on.
Me? My motor was still fine but the rest day would find Jim and Gary and myself wrenching for the better part of 12 hours to prepare my bike for the next 7 days. That night we all relaxed a little and talked about the race and all sorts of other things. The attitude in the bivouac was jubilant to say the least. We had a lot to be thankful for but Elmer was still very much in every one of our thoughts.
The Rest Day
I tried to sleep in, really, but sunrise saw most of us up and ready to go. I stayed in my tent for an extra 30 minutes just taking stock of the previous week and the rest of the race ahead. That little bit of time was the most relaxed I had been in 8 days. I knew I had a mound of stuff to do on the bike but I also knew I was surrounded by good people and we’d get it done. That was Jim and Gary’s first full day of wrenching with Team Dakar101. I think it was clear that there was no way I’d be able to complete everything I had to do so once again they jumped in head first and helped me out. We talked about my plan over the usual breakfast of pasta, yogurt, a bunch of coffee and croissants. Neither of them had ever worked on a 640 so we started from square one and managed to get it all done. Jim and Gary are both very accomplished mechanics so the transition to my bike wasn’t much of a stretch after a couple hours.
I had a growing list all week that needed to be done: replace all the bushings in the triple clamps(they were all shot), all new grommets and brackets in the bellypan(destroyed), change engine oil this time with new filters, new tires and wheels as well as the spare wheels, clean and oil all the air filters from the past week(9 of them), change out rear shock for the spare, install new air filter and clean the airbox, re-engineer my license plate attachment system, it had completely destroyed the original, replace all the bolts and bushings in the front subframe, check the rear subframe work I had done at the gas stop earlier in the week and install the correct hardware, change out my grips to new rally grips and an assortment of countless other little jobs that I have already forgotten.
At some point during that day Chris Blais came over to our camp to check on things and chat about this and that. It wasn’t uncommon. He and Casey and Steve are all good buddies so I have to think it was easier to get along at our camp than the all-French ones if for no other reason than the language. He noticed I was changing the shock and, out of nowhere, offered to take it over to his factory WP guy to get it repaired. I thought that was about the coolest display of sportsmanship and camaraderie I had ever seen. I don’t know why it came as such a surprise considering how well respected he is in the bivouac and in the racing community but for some reason that really made an impression on me. There was no way I could return the favor right there but somewhere down the road I hope to. Oh yeah, I also REALLY needed to find a way to clean my clothes.
The sun came up and the sun went down. By the end of it all I had a fresh bike with fresh rubber and oil and everything was cool. I also decided to treat myself to a much-needed shower that night, my first of the rally. There really was no better place to do laundry than the shower so I brought all my dirty clothes in with me and scrubbed away. The feeling of all fresh clean stuff on my body was wonderful even if it only lasted a morning.
The rest day was anything but. Jim and Gary and I worked hard all day and that night shared pasta and wine for dinner. We all talked about the days ahead and those behind. I knew that the days after the rest day were always tough but amidst the anxiety I felt good about the second half. It was all very cool sitting on the beautiful carpets for dinner and sharing it with two new friends calmed my nerves like we had been buddies forever.
After two nights in Atar I was ready to get on with it. Tichit wasn’t going to be much better but at least we’d be one more day ahead. We had a pretty wicked 589km Special to contend with, the longest of the race. That was my toughest day yet and almost my last.
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