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According to the Handbook, “Expert skidders are going to have the times of their lives here! On these tracks over laterite, the aim of the game is all about controlling your machine.” Even in French I understood that.
We had two real days of racing left and then the beach ride for Stage 15. If I could only keep the bike together for those two stages I’d be okay. That turned out to be a little tougher than I thought. My hands that morning had improved a little since the previous night in part due to the massive amounts of Aleve I was consuming each day. Aleve does wonders for arthritis problems and, as it turns out, motorcycle issues too.
The bike when I left the bivouac was in pretty good shape. We had 180km of liaison before we got to the Special. I was actually looking forward to our first sunrise in Senegal. The road unfortunately had something else entirely in mind. Shortly after leaving Kayes the roads turned to shit. They were seriously the worst I have ever seen in my life in anywhere in the world. Steve and I tried like crazy to avoid getting a front wheel sucked into a pothole but 5 times out of 10 the potholes won. The constant hammering was already taking a huge toll on my bike. It didn’t take long before all the work Jim and Gary had done on the subframe was history. Almost in an instant everything was shaking apart like a paint-can mixer and we still had another 100km to go. I pulled over and Steve followed to help. I am sure by this point Steve was getting tired of keeping my bike together with band-aids and bubble gum but he stopped and did what he could. I removed the fairing as usual and then suddenly we had another visitor, only he was on the GPS. I recognized the voice from three days earlier when I pulled over to fix my bike for the first time Sunday night. Same exchange. He kept on and kept on asking me if I was okay, did I need medical attention, was the bike okay, did I have support coming, etc., etc. I got so frustrated communicating with him that I just turned it off. I was certain he was just messing with me but it didn’t help the situation. I checked out the situation and thankfully between me and Steve we had a total of about 50 zip ties. The bad side was they had become so dried out and brittle that as soon as we would torque down on them they would snap. We kept it all together with the four remaining that didn’t snap and hoped for the best. I slowed tremendously to avoid every pothole I could and as a result Steve went on ahead. A lot of people were passing me on the road but I needed to keep it together considering we haven’t even gotten to the Special yet. Inside my head began a minor freakout. The ties lasted a total of 20km and the entire subframe was shaking like crazy again. Right about that time I came up on one of the Red Bull T4 trucks pulled over on the side and pulled over to ask for help. There was no way the bike would make it and I feared the worst. The Red Bull guys were waiting for one of their fleet of VW Touregs. I think ‘help’ is universal in almost every language so when I pulled up and asked for some “humongous zip ties” they knew exactly what I needed. Once again the spirit of Dakar answered my prayers in the form of some 1/2” industrial size plastic ties dressed in Red Bull blue.
I didn’t have time to fix it right then but at worst I could take my start and pull over later. As luck would have it again I got almost to the start of the Special and saw my buddies, Team Heartland/Dakar101.com, Jim and Gary. They were able to get the support truck almost to the start and we jumped in to start zipping. They pulled the fairing and I scarfed down a Powerbar. In no time they saw the problems and used me new ties to fix it all up. I was ready to go. For reasons unknown at the time they delayed the start by 30 minutes so I was still good. I would learn afterward that they did it for Cyril, he needed some more time. It is indeed good to be the King.
The landscape just kept getting better. We started on real dusty two-track and got into the forest right away. We stuck together and weaved in and out of the massive baobab trees for hours. The riding was actually a lot of fun but the dust made it nearly impossible to see. The two of us were twisting and turning and sliding our way through Stage 13. He would pull away for a little while and do some weaving and then I’d come up on him and pass and lead for a little while. The challenges of the navigation that day caught us out a few times. We got lost more than once and, even after following a group of Mitsubishi cars for guidance we still had a hard time getting back on course. We waited for the chopper to swoop in and save the day but it turns out the choppers were busy rescuing the overall motorcycle leader, Marc Coma. Apparently Marc got a little off course and cartwheeled his Repsol 690 into a stump and rung his bell a little. He was sitting pretty with a 52minute lead when this happened so in a matter of seconds his Dakar was over. Everyone hated to see this happen but almost across the board the veterans shrug their shoulders and remind me that this is the Dakar. This recent chain of events would put American hopeful Chris Blais in third position and on the podium if he just maintained his spot for one more day.
Steve and I were still close to Paul Broom but I think at some point in the twisties he took a wrong turn and we passed him. After the CP the roads turned into a little more high-speed forest roads like we’re used to back home, at least for the cars. The road was almost wide enough for two vehicles side by side. For some reason when the cars started to pass they didn’t see the need to use the Sentinel. I guess they figured all the extra space on the side was plenty for them to get by. The pros like the VW and Mitsubishi teams never failed to exercise a little caution and only pass when it is safe. Some of the other teams aren’t quite as considerate and they let you know by barely squeezing by.
Up to this point in the race, Stage 13, I had been very fortunate with crashes. My cautious riding style had kept me out of trouble enough to keep going. My luck would take a turn that day in two separate incidents in the wake of two inconsiderate cars. My system for getting out of the way when I heard the Sentinel horn was pretty refined by now. When it goes off I make a mental picture of what’s in front and prepare for blindness, especially in this high-speed dusty section. The roads were in horrible condition with huge holes littered throughout the stage for miles. It was like a gauntlet of potholes. I don’t remember the vehicle but in an instant I heard a screaming motor and was blind. He slipped right by me with only a few inches to spare and that was it. Now completely in a cloud of dirt, my front wheel was eaten by a hole and both of us were down and sliding across the ground. I knew I was okay but when I stopped rolling I raced over to check out the bike. I was already pushing it with my entire front end held together with ties and this surely was going to end it all. I couldn’t believe it. Not a single problem, only some new pinstriping down the right side. I could deal with that. This happened one more time that day almost exactly the same way but when the dust cleared I had about 75 of my closest African friends for help. That was the strangest sensation. I went down in what I thought was the absolute middle of nowhere when yet another car dusted me out. I happened to be in the middle of the track so when I did hear the Sentinel go off I knew there was a car hauling ass about to run me and the bike over in a cloud. I don’t think they would have ever even seen me. I ran to the bike and in one clean jerk dragged it over to the side to safety. When the dust did finally clear I was surrounded by natives that came running over to investigate all the ruckus. I guess they just wanted to see the crash. We dusted me off and checked the bike out for damage once again. Everything looked good so I cranked it up and gave my new friends the international symbol for “all is good and thanks”, the thumbs up. I chilled from there to the end. There was no time to be made in the forest so it was best to err on the side of caution and let the cars go. Eventually the forest cleared and we had 25km of almost flat out laterite road. Me and the bike needed that. We wicked it up a little to blow out the cobwebs and cruised along at a healthy fast clip watching the ICO tick away. I thought I was flying when I saw the gps read 150kmh but I later learned that Blais had his 660 up to 185kph, nearly 120mph. I guess that’s why he is on the podium. I also later found out that that was my first day into the double digits. I finished in 98th position that day, a mental milestone if for no other reason than my own private victory.
The Tambacounda bivouac wasn’t like the others, that was obvious from the get go. There was an almost carnival atmosphere with makeshift bars and restaurants scattered all over the place. Local artisans were selling their wares like statuettes, medallions and African clothing. Everyone was in a great mood with only one more stage to go. We had been warned by the ASO that Tambacounda can be a dangerous place, not so much for personal safety but for gear and equipment. We were all very careful to watch our stuff and not leave a single thing out.
Jim and Gary took the bike from me and started their now-daily routine of checking out the bike. As expected the subframe had exploded but this time we had a whole new set of issues. The welds Gary made earlier were still there but now the main brackets attaching it to the frame had literally broken in two. For me it was an “oh shit” moment but those two saw it as a neat challenge for the evening. With some of the extra metal my exhaust repair had left they made up some new brackets. They had both become quite familiar with my spares box and all the weird contents. It didn’t take long to fabricate something up. In order to avoid a complete disassembly like the previous days they merely made some splints and with some carefully placed holes and grinding I was ready for Stage 14. It would have taken me hours and hours to do what they accomplished in only a couple. They also mounted me up some fresh rubber front and rear that would take me to the finish and installed a new air filter. Other than that the bike was as good as it was going to get this late in the game.
Unfortunately, I needed more work than the bike so Jim sent me off for my daily medical visit. I loved walking around the bivouac. For the first time in the race there were actually tables at the caterer. Honestly I had grown to really enjoy sitting on the carpets and eating breakfast and dinner. I made a mental note during my stay to incorporate an African room in my house if I ever had the means. The rugs were great. Everyone was laughing and singing and drinking throughout the bivouac, especially the truck guys. I didn’t ever get a chance to hang out with the truck teams like I had hoped but I simply never had the time. I have been watching them with great admiration for years and really looked forward to getting to know more about the truck teams. Unfortunately my closest experiences were usually behind them in a huge cloud of their dust. On close inspection of them after 14 days they hardly looked tired, the drivers and trucks. I am sure a quick wash and detail and they’d look good as new.
Medical was a long walk over to the airstrip but it was more like walking through a circus. My hands needed some attention and the burn on my arm was looking gnarly. I also decided on this last day to finally try to do something about this cramping in my shoulder that had been driving me crazy since day 2. Inside I made an appointment with the massage therapist and asked if I could get my hands re-dressed while I waited. I was handed the greenest intern in the history of medicine. It took her more than an hour to dress my blisters and the burn, what previously had taken about 20 minutes. She started from square one with the syringes to drain the fluids and then the gnarly red liquid injected inside and finally with the replacement new-skin and origami bandage. I swear she had never seen or done anything like this in her life. I think for the first 14 days of the rally she was over in catering serving breakfast and on the last day they threw her a bone and let her work in medical. She was horrible! I just watched in amazement as she toiled away on my injuries. I wasn’t complaining. We talked about this and that and she was very sweet but she couldn’t dress a wound to save her life. Even as bad as her work was I felt like I could get through the next day with an extra layer of bandages I absconded. Plus, I had a massage to look forward to. After the hands I had to re-enter the system for my massage. A little stupid I thought but I was outnumbered here. I waited patiently while Frenchie after Frenchie entered and exited the medical tents. What the hell was going on here? I couldn’t help but think I was being passed over for not speaking French. Seriously, I think they were passing over me. A few frustrating conversations later and I just left. I figured I had dealt with it the last two weeks, what was one more day.
My walk back to our camp was just as cool as the first. This place was hoppin’. The sun started dropping and I still had stuff to do like the roadbook and nutrition. I had spent close to two valuable hours screwing around at Medical and all I had was some crummy bandages that were going to fall off as soon as they saw the first spec of dirt. And they did.
Going to the bathroom or taking a shower that night wasn’t really an option considering the conditions. I found myself taking a long walk out past the airstrip and into the bush. It was a little freaked out at first but when I looked around I realized I had plenty of company. I turned in early that night for a little quiet contemplation in my tent. My gear was pretty funky after all the washless days and my body wasn’t doing much better. My handy wipes were a real boon for my hygiene but even those can get overwhelmed after a while. My socks were about the worst I had ever seen or smelled. I couldn’t wait to get to Dakar for a real shower.
Senegal started to get hot. My sleeping bag had turned the tent into a sauna for the first time since we left. The anxiety and excitement made it nearly impossible to sleep so I just stayed up and enjoyed the noise and tried earnestly to embrace the moment. All I had to do was keep the damn thing upright and moving forward and I’d see Spice at the finish line. I can’t describe how excited I was at the thought of reaching Dakar. It literally was like a dream come true but that doesn’t come close to describing my head. This was something that has dominated my life for the better part of two years in every single aspect, emotionally, physically, logistically and mentally. The noise that night was deafening as usual but my earplugs helped to numb the outside world just enough and the wine didn’t hurt.
You would think for the last day the organization would throw you a bone and make up something nice. Not today, not ever. In the caterer that morning I took some extra time to take it all in. The attitude was very light and positive. Everyone was joking around and laughing obviously looking forward to arriving in Dakar. I looked around and quietly sipped my coffees and tried to enjoy the last bivouac of the race. People were congratulating each other for their finishes and positions for conquering the race one more time, or at least surviving the race.
The liaison was once again over the most horrible roads in the world. The potholes were impossible to avoid and of course I feared my subframe wouldn’t last. I didn’t have anything else to repair. I had zip tied everything that could possibly be tied and repaired every weld that could be repaired, or so I thought. With the fairing off it looked like a pin-cushion in there with all the ties hanging out. I took my time riding that morning careful to avoid anything that might jeopardize my last day’s ride. We had 124km to the start and I tried to enjoy every one despite the roads. The DOT must have taken the last five years off of work because they clearly had not done a single days work on the roads in years. There was nothing to gain by going fast but everything to lose so Steve and I just took it easy.
At the start we had a few minutes to relax so we took off our helmets and walked around the bikes a little. There were so many faces that you recognize but never got a chance to meet. There were also a lot of faces missing that for one reason or another had made an impression on me. Where was the German guy I met at scrutineering that was here for his 4th time? How about the old English guy that was there for his 8th? Neither had finished before so their hopes were high for 2007. Looking around the bikes were tired. There was plenty of duct tape holding on fairings. There were a number of other machines and body parts held together with as many zip ties as mine. I was in good company here at the start of the last stage.
The start was in the middle of a tiny village. There were hundreds of locals crowding the starting line and walking all around the bikes. The kids were full of huge smiles and waving Dakar flags and the ladies were adorned with beautiful colorful long dresses. I wish I had some pictures of the start because I’ll never forget the scene.
I took my start right behind Steve and we quickly fell into our rhythm. What I had hoped for before, a little bone for the last day, was not going to happen. The course was as crappy as ever-more rutted out sandy two-track. There were hundreds of turns and multiple opportunities to get lost. The navigation was a challenge through some of the forests and villages unless you stayed within the dust of the guy just in front. I tried to stay close but I had let Steve go after about 50km to check out the bike. My Speedo/CAP had quit working so I had no way to know my heading. The culprit was only a loose cable so I figured I had the time to pull over and do some business. About that time I noticed a British rider named Steve coming up to pass while I was stopped. Steve had some issues along the race and I had come to think of him as something of a black cat. I couldn’t stay behind him for long for fear of something bad happening. Steve at one point had fallen asleep on a liaison and crashed off the side of an asphalt road. Another time Steve had crashed three times on this sandy two-track road we were on each time barely avoiding some other riders. I wicked it up a little for about 10km and made an effort to pass the black cat. I needed all the luck I could get.
I slipped into a groove after that and put my head down to make some time. Eventually I came up on Steve again after he had made a few small navigation blips and slowed down to compensate. I kept him in my sights for the rest of the day trading off the lead back and forth. By the time we got to CP1 Duct Tape Paul had put his head down too to make some time. Paul, on the last bivouac, had removed his rear tank to lighten up his load and reduce the chances of something vibrating loose once again. His rear subframe no longer was wrapped in silver tape to hold everything together. He was light and focused and ready to rip. He went by me and Steve pretty easily on a mission for Dakar. Unfortunately at some point Paul must have taken a wrong turn because we never saw him again until the finish. There were so many little trails and turns and virtually no tracks so unless you were positive about who you were following constantly confirming the roadbook was critical. I think he got in with another fast guy and together they got off course.
Millions of thoughts were racing through my head all day. The Special was only 225km and we finished in pretty good time but it seemed like an eternity. “Just keep it up and moving forward”, I kept saying. I thought about Elmer and his brother a lot. I was so excited to see him at the finish in Dakar that no matter how amazing the experience was going to be there was still something missing. I wanted to share it with him, to thank him for helping me get there. I wanted to congratulate him for his unbelievable finish and his new contract for next year. I wanted to shake Phillip’s hand and congratulate him for getting his brother to the finish and overcoming the adversity of the support truck debacle. None of that was going to happen. He was gone forever but will live on in every ride I take.
The roads never got better. The sand was a drag and the cars eventually caught up but I didn’t care. Once we got close to the end the roads opened up and we flew for the last 25km. This was exactly what I needed. It was nice and easy and fast and smooth and lined with fans. As the ICO ticked away and worked up to 225 I found myself welling up with emotion. I tried not to but off in the distance I saw the finish and just about broke down. I slowed to a crawl and rolled into the finish line for the second to last time. At the line the first person I noticed was Paul’s new fiancée Susan. I knew she would be there. I also noticed the ambassador and her husband, Mark and Jeanine. That was a little bizarre seeing those guys. I couldn’t believe they were still along the race and they made time to come over and say hello and big congrats. I swear he was into some CIA stuff or something. With all the fans and locals you would have thought we just came in first and second place but in reality we were 89th and 96th or something like that. After the line I went into slow motion. I sat for a few moments by myself and just took it all in. I sat quietly on my bike and looked all around at the people cheering and it was like someone had turned off the sound. I saw everything but heard nothing. I was overwhelmed. Steve and I didn’t say much. We took a minute to eat a Powerbar and rolled off to the liaison.
We still had 227km of “road” to get to the Meridian Hotel in Dakar and the official end of the stage. We had African country roads for a while but the atmosphere changed pretty quickly. It became more and more dense and dirty as the miles clicked off. Along the roads we rode through numerous villages packed full of roadside markets selling everything from whole goats to Nike knock-offs. I had never seen anything like it in my life. The traffic was absolutely crazy. There were traffic lights but little or no regard for them. The taxis were basically blown out vans with a bench on each side and the doors off the back. Usually they had a step mounted on the back so you could just jump on without it ever having to stop. If they saw someone on the side of the road looking for a ride they just veered over to the possible passenger and slammed on the brakes. As soon as the traffic cops would see the competitors coming they would stop all the traffic and wave through the bikes. The only problem with that was all the other drivers didn’t always see the motos and would just continue on through the intersection. Total and complete madness! And then the cars came. Once traffic got tight and came to a crawl the car drivers turned into assholes. I was amazed that they didn’t kill anyone. The absolute disregard for anyone or anything else was deplorable. They would cut through the markets running donkeys off the road, scaring the locals and pushing taxis off the road. The bikes had a little better time at getting through the traffic but we had some hair-raising moments. I followed for a little while and Steve followed when I found a hot line. One time when cutting through a few busses a kid risking his life crossing the highway popped out in front of us. I thought Steve was going to demolish him. He locked it up and the kid jumped up about four feet in the air. I swear there could not have been more than two inches between the two of them. When I saw Steve’s rear wheel leaving a skid mark for 20 feet I hit the brakes and barely missed them both. This went on for probably two hours weaving in and out of traffic and then Paul came up on us. Paul again was on a mission. He was turning hot laps through the traffic like he had done this before. Turns out Paul used to be a motorcycle courier in northern England and honed his skills on the crowded streets of Manchester.
Dakar was something of a letdown. I don’t know what I was expecting but for a city with the legendary status of Dakar I think I had something else in mind. There is a very definite line where the European vacation spot starts and the traditional western-African culture ends. Either way, I could see the ocean and smell the finish. We pulled into the Meridien among the throngs of fans. I imagine this is what it is like at the Tour de France where you only have a handlebars width to ride through. The scene was utterly and completely mad. The only thing I cared about was finding Spice. I knew she was close but finding her might be a mess. I told myself I was going to try to keep it all together and not breakdown when I saw her but that didn’t last long. The people parted as if on cue and all I saw was Spice in the middle of everyone. I pulled up to her and lost it. I didn’t even take off my goggles and I grabbed her in a huge tidal wave of emotion. I cried like a little girl but I couldn’t help it. I tried to hold back and keep some composure but it just came pouring out. Everything for the last two years culminated in this one brilliant moment of emotion that I could not possibly have been prepared for. We hugged and kissed, still with my helmet on, while the fans around us snapped away. Words simply can’t describe it. I have never and probably will never experience something like that again. It was the happiest time in my life.
After a few dizzying minutes she hopped on the back and we made our way to the Rally Panam camp. Everyone was there reveling in the finish. I saw Gary and Jim. Steve’s entire family was there waiting in earnest. Charlie and his band of merry brothers were there. Paul had made it in just before us and was well into his celebration. Clive and Patsy Quick were also there already making their plans for next year.
We all sat around and talked about the day and the race and of course everybody congratulated everybody on a job well done. The feeling in the camp was one I wish we could reproduce. The camaraderie and teamwork was like no other I had ever seen. There wasn’t a single person at the finish that did it alone and there were so many thanks to hand out.
Spice had been on her own adventure of sorts in Morocco so between the two of us I don’t think we ever stopped talking. We had stories for days. I couldn’t wait to hear everything she had been doing for the last two weeks so we retired to the room for a break and a very expensive can of Pringles.
That night we all met for a big buffet at the hotel restaurant. In our group we had the Laroza entourage, myself and Spice, Jim and Laura Radcliff and their close friends Dennis and Zora and Gary Sparks. We ate and drank and talked well into the night. It was such a glorious moment in my life that I will never forget. I was surrounded by an amazing group of people that I consider my friends forever. We all gorged ourselves on lamb and vegetables and all sorts of stuff. Pretty soon it was time for bed and planning for the next day.
I hardly slept a wink that night. The whole bed thing was killing me but the shower was awesome.
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