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Dakar Diary

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Dakar Diary-8

Atar to Tichit

Stage 8 was another unassisted stage, a marathon stage as they call it, and deservedly so at 589km. For me it truly was a marathon stage, my longest of the rally.

The assistance vehicles had to get on the road early before any of the bikes left. That meant packing up the tent and airplane box before anything else. That by itself isn’t a huge deal but it broke the usual rhythm of the morning. I think I was still hovering around the 105th or 110th place area or close to it, so we got off around an hour after the fast guys. The liaison was mostly dirt that morning but still only 35km. It wound up and around and through a few villages that may as well have been on Mars.

By this point we were well into Mauritania and the people and landscapes really showed. Mauritania from my seat seemed noticeably more dirty than what we had previously seen. There was trash everywhere and not just pieces of trash but loads and loads all over the place. I have traveled a little through emerging communities and gotten used to the differences in waste management but this was crazy. That alone wasn’t very disturbing but it didn’t go unnoticed for miles and miles. The people also took on a distinctly different look and attitude. Where in Morocco we were surrounded by people clapping and cheering us on, the Mauritanians seemed to have their hands out for gifts at every stop. It wasn’t uncommon for thrown rocks to follow us after passing through certain villages at the mandatory 30km but that also happens in Atlanta occasionally. Throughout this part of the race I got the impression that we were very much in some of the poorest parts of Africa and any pride that the northerners displayed was missing down south. This is completely my own experience and in no way should be considered as a demographic study but from what I could see through my dirty goggles the air had clearly changed.

The course started out like the others but, crappy rocks surrounded by deep sand but shortly changed to dunes. Looking back on it now and watching the tv coverage I am so glad to hear the professionals talk about how soft the sand is. There is nothing that comforts my pride in riding ability more than watching Cyril Despres and Marc Coma go over in the soft sand. My bike just didn’t want to work that day. I would bury it up to the axles time and again to the point where I just didn’t want to continue. Steve and I lost each other pretty early on in the dunes. A few times during the day I would be rolling along at 10mph in the sand with the motor screaming at redline in third gear. I was waiting for the thing to blow up, and sometimes hoped it would. If it blew that meant I could go home and have a good excuse. Fortunately, me and the Cycle Dynamics motor never gave up. The dune section wasn’t that long but it took me forever to get unstuck. Even the slightest incline would stop the 640 dead but 10 feet away a guy would come ripping through like it was nothing. The wind created these pockets of really soft sand that were completely hidden. Sometimes I would hop off and try to walk the bike along while going up through the gears, again all the way up to redline but to no avail. I tried lugging it but the air filter had already packed up so much that I couldn’t get enough air moving to find the power. I felt so bad for the bike. It had gotten me this far and all I could do to return the favor was to hammer it for the next 12 hours.

Like the rest I eventually got out but I was already tired. Pushing that damn thing wore me out. I had heard from some others that this year’s course didn’t have the long all dune days that past Dakars have had so I felt fortunate to have chosen a good year. The course was littered with small dunes they called “dunettes” on the roadbook for the rest of the day. The dunettes were sometimes a little fun but the wind could create some nasty drops and ridges that were undetectable on the road. You really had to approach with caution else be caught sailing off a 10ft drop. More than once I caught a few of these drops and the bottom would slam into the ground with the force of 600 flying pounds but the bike never objected. The bellypan would smash on the ground but the worst thing that could happen to it is it bends all the brackets I replaced on the rest day and sits funny. Still, the dropoffs were never fun.

The rocky pistes that kept us busy the rest of the day were a real challenge. Everyone knows how important it is to get into a rhythm offroad but the tracks today just didn’t allow it. I didn’t know if it was me or the bike or both or the stars but for some reason I just couldn’t get it together. Steve was long gone and in his own race that day so maybe that had something to do with it. Either way it was slow going. The rocks were just nasty and my hands were about to call it quits. In the high-speed sections every single pebble absolutely killed! I had hoped the rest day would do some good but nothing changed. When the rocks did finally end we were greeted with some neat, fast, sandy sections. I fell in with a group of three Honda 450s that seemed to be going about the same speed as me and we stayed together for probably 50km. At times it resembled riding a snowboard on fresh powder. There wasn’t quite the vegetation that the camel grass sections had but just enough to keep you aware of the speeds. I don’t dare say it was fun but there were some moments in there that would have made for a nice day riding if they lasted more than a few minutes.

I had hoped I would cross paths with Steve or Paul at one of the gas stops but I guess I flailed around too much in the dunes. He said later on that he waited as much as he could but wrote me off when I never showed. You can’t fault someone for continuing on. Teams are teams but in the end you are always and always have to be looking out for number 1.

Checkpoint and gas stop 3 came at 411km into the Special. It was around 430 pm and I knew there was still 175km of camel grass to go before the end. I was dreading the camel grass in the dark so I put my head down and focused as much as possible on making time before the sun went down. The camel grass at night was going to be miserable if I didn’t do some serious riding. It blows chunks during the day but at night it is nearly unrideable. Picking lines in and out of the grass clumps is so important. They looked like the harmless clumps of sea oats we see on the Gulf of Mexico beaches but underneath is something more akin to a buried pile of cement. Going through more than likely meant yet another sail over the bars. By this time a lot of the cars had already been through and chewed it up pretty good. Staying in their line wasn’t really an option so I was forced to stay out in the fresh grass.

I felt good for about 90km but started to notice my gauges and navigation equipment shaking more than usual. The thought of stopping just before sunset to check it out was a real drag so I kept on as long as I could. That turned out to be a mistake. The extra shaking I was seeing was actually my front subframe welds cracking and wiggling out of the screws. If I had stopped right away I would only have to deal with one but continuing on and chasing the sun only made it worse. Pretty soon, around 6, I had to stop. It looked really bad and the sun was about gone.

I pulled over as much as I could to have some distance between myself and the course. The trucks couldn’t be far behind and when they came I wanted to be as far away as possible. As soon as I stopped I got out my headlights to prepare for working in the dark. I always carried two plus a flashlight in my safety kit. A few minutes after stopping I heard a voice from the bike. It definitely had a French accent but I couldn’t figure what it was. He called again and I realized it was race control checking in on me through my GPS. They saw that my bike had stopped for more than 3 minutes on the course so they called to check in on me. They asked a few questions about why I stopped and if I needed help. I said ‘no’ and tried to keep working on the bike. They asked again if I needed help and if there was a medical situation. Again, I said ‘no’ and tried to keep working. Pretty soon they called again and again and kept asking me questions about the bike and what was wrong. I got so frustrated trying to discuss the situation with the French guy because he was keeping me from working on the bike. I swear he was just messing with me. One last time I let him know I was okay, the bike was broken, I did not have a support truck coming and I would try to fix it. I was almost yelling at the guy but he wouldn’t shut up. Shortly after that the first truck came by. What a bummer!

I got to work on the bike removing the faring and pulling out all my spares from the toolbox. What I saw was a disaster. All the work we had done the previous day on the vibration dampers was all messed up. I think what happened was when we replaced my original system of rubber plumbing washers and steel washers with grommets and bolts it didn’t allow for anything to flex. The result was busted welds. There is so much weight so high up on the roadbook bracket with the roadbook, two ICOs and speedo/cap that it simply cannot handle the constant pounding. The only thing holding it all together was the front headlight mount and I really needed that. I was amazed at how many other bikers there were behind me that stopped. I would say probably 75% pulled over to see if I was okay. No one wanted to stop and hang out to help me fix it but they made sure I was okay. I thought that was pretty cool.

I took apart as much as I could take apart and realized just what the deal was. There really wasn’t anything to reattach or repair if I didn’t have a welder. I tried the liquid metal again figuring it helped me out once, maybe I could use it again. No luck. I needed steel and this was aluminum. I was pissed for a little while but thankful for the other time I used it. I sat in the sand for a little while contemplating the situation and watching the behemoth trucks race by. Man, they are awesome. I couldn’t help but admire how quick and fearlessly they rode through the desert. I also pulled out my bandanna that Spice had made for me. Before we left Spice asked everyone in my family and her family to think of something inspirational to write for me and she would transfer them all onto two bandannas for me to pull out and read anytime I needed some help. I always kept it in my pocket and used it almost every day but I never read it. I used it to clean my dusty face at the stops. I used it to clean my goggles every day and even Steve started using it once he saw how convenient they were.

I purposely didn’t read until I knew I would really need it. This was the first time in the rally that I really thought it might be over. I still had about 75 miles to go, it was dark and my bike was a mess. The thought actually didn’t bother me a whole lot. I may spend the night in the desert but I had water and I had food, at least it would be over. There was a little bit of comfort in knowing I had everything I needed if I couldn’t go on. I thought about a lot of stuff in the desert that evening. My brother was a huge inspiration for me. I knew he had some trying times in the military and persevered to the finish so I figured I needed to muster up the stones to keep going. I fought reading the bandanna because I knew I would break down. I was about spent that day but I did use it on the goggles.

I did happen to have some 4mm screws and lock nuts long enough to pass through all the broken welds as well as some red Loctite. I ripped all the old crap off and started trying to bolt new stuff on with Loctite, fatter washers and a million zip ties. I had to hold the two broken pieces of each side together and tighten the screws at the same time. I must have looked like an idiot the way I was hunched over this thing trying to make it all happen at once. If it moved even a little out of the washers that were squeezing it all in I would be back to square one in no time. I torqued down with everything I had until my hands wouldn’t let me go any more. I hoped that with all I had done and the additional 50 zip ties it would at least stay together until the bivouac down the way. I really had to take care of it. One crash and it would be done. I decided to ride as slowly and carefully as I could while still moving forward.

The lights that James and Elmer had rigged up 6 months before weren’t bad at all. I knew eventually they would wear the battery down but I had to keep going. The only problem I had now was the roadbook light had somehow gone out. I later found out that the weight of the busted subframe had been pounding on the ground wire feeding the LEDs and pierced it so my roadbook was useless. That made for a new challenge but the riding part wasn’t too bad until the trucks would come by. At any speed they would cause an absolute whiteout of dust. The first hint of my Sentinel going off and I was over and in the weeds out of harm’s way. The course turned rocky for a while but thankfully nothing like we had seen earlier that day. Mostly it was camel grass with some rocks thrown just because. I wasn’t the only one out that night. There were a bunch of us that got caught out on the longest day of the rally. I came up on a French rider that had completely lost his lighting system, front and rear. He jumped out in the middle of the track and scared the crap out of me. He started yelling frantically about this and that but all in French so of course I couldn’t understand him. I knew what he was saying. He didn’t want anyone to leave him in the desert all alone without any lights. I told him he could ride next to me but that I was going slow because of my subframe. Pretty soon another rider came by quicker and he jumped in behind him to speed up. I didn’t mind really. It was hairball trying to ride that close to someone in the dark anyway. Later on I caught him again on the side of the trail and just kept going. I don’t know if he made it or not.

Believe it or not I made it again that night. I think it was around 10:30 but I made it. That means I spent about 4 hours to go 115km. Definitely not race-winning speeds but maybe it was race-finishing. I could only hope. It was late as hell and I knew we had an early morning. Steve must have been in for hours I thought. My spirits were at an all time low for the race so far so I went straight to the caterer in my gear to stock up on nutrition.

The first person I saw was Steve. I couldn’t believe how such a simple encounter could lift me up so easily. We talked about the day and it turns out he had just made it in 30 minutes before. He had his own series of mishaps that cost valuable time on the trail. Number one had taken a nice fall at some point during the day and broken his hand. Already it had swelled up like balloon. Toward the end of the stage he had gotten off track to get out of the way of the trucks and looked for fresh sand to ride in. Apparently he hit a big clump of grass and went over the bars. Of course the bike stalls out and he is totally disoriented. Without any reference to follow he has no idea where he is and starts to ride off in the wrong direction. After some kilometers of unconfirmed roadbook points he stopped to rethink his options. In the darkness he sat still and listened for any vehicles but there were none. A little panic set in and only once his eyes had adjusted was he able to see way off in the distance a faint light that he assumed was the bivouac lights. Lucky for him that was exactly what he saw and soon he was on his way home, to the bivouac anyway.

Once again Steve and I shared a nice dinner of pasta and baguettes and delicious French cheese. We were both hungry and tired but mentally rejuvenated from talking about the day. Since it was a marathon day we had work to do after dinner. I had to figure out a way to better secure my brackets and he had a broken hand to deal with. In the bivouac we set up next to Casey McCoy for sort of an American camp. Casey, even after a long day in the saddle, was very focused and getting ready for the next day. He is a racer’s racer and never messed around if it didn’t have something to do with the race. According to him he never really turned up the wick and raced hard throughout the entire rally. Even with his casual pace he managed to turn in a stunning finish somewhere around 30th place for his first Dakar. Very impressive indeed.

By race day 8 I had settled into a nice schedule of post Special duties. After dinner I would set up my tent and sleeping stuff, make sure the bike was good, change the air filter, prepare my camelbak for the next day, check my bars and Gu, prepare the roadbook and finally settle in to my bag. This night was going to be a little different just for time. In my airplane box I had stashed about a million ties for just such an occasion. I didn’t have many options for the subframe so I re-did everything I fixed earlier and used every tie I had on the existing brackets that had not yet broken. I knew that if I could make it to the next day Jim and Gary, the engineers that they are, could figure out a more permanent fix. After I had finished what I could do it looked like a pin-cushion with all the ties coming off it. Next I had to check the air filter. I had one an extra one of those stashed in my backpack just in case but I never took it out. I should have earlier in the dunes. I removed the filter cover and noticed all the sand inside that wasn’t there before. At some point during the day my air filter had come dislodged and uncovered the air intake. It was literally packed with sand almost up to the carberator. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The bike had been breathing sand for who knows how long. It could have just happened or it could have happened leaving the bivouac15 hours earlier. Well, there was nothing I could really do about it then so I just cleaned it out as much as I could. I am a firm believer in not messing with things that are working and it came in on its own power so I installed a fresh filter and hoped for the best. Throughout that day and every other, the bike never once even hiccupped so I had no reason to think anything was wrong. It never happened again but I couldn’t help but wonder not if, but how much damage was done that day. I’ll never know.

The roadbook looked nasty for the next day and did not disappoint. I didn’t even take off my clothes that night for bed. I just laid there in my braces, thankful that I had made it to the end and hoping the next day would be better.
The next morning was tough.

— Chris

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