Britain’s only ever Dakar winner, Sam Sunderland is fresh from another swing at the toughest race in motorcycling. Ten days of racing with one rest day in the middle. 5500km looping in and out of Lima with 70% of the special stages in sand, according to the organisers. He came third overall, and just over a week later, he’s 6500 miles away, at the Bike Shed, ready to ride with Bike.
While I’m still full of optimism for what I might achieve in the next 11 or so months, it’s mid-January and the focus of Sam’s year is already over. ‘The calendar year of a Dakar racer is super strange, because it’s over in January. It engulfs my whole life. I’m fortunate that I can focus all my energy on it, but it has to be like that. I couldn’t live a normal life then go race the Dakar.’ He explains all this in his strange stew of an accent, before adding: ‘Not many people are aware we have a world championship outside of the Dakar. I could compare it to the Olympics and the World Championships in track and field. Everyone knows when the Olympics is on.’
According to Sam, the Dakar’s move to South America, in 2009, ushered in a new era of heightened competition and, in time, the return of multi-factory team battles. ‘Everyone wants to be that guy on the top step of the podium and the margins for error become a lot smaller. It’s no longer the days of Marc [Coma, five-time winner and now Dakar race director] and Cyril [Despres, also a five-time winner), who strategically raced each other. Now there are ten guys who can win the race and they’re flat out, 100% all day.
There are factory Honda, Yamaha and KTM teams. In Marc and Cyril’s era it was mainly factory KTM and the team was built around those two. Also, the nature of the race has changed. In South America the stages are a lot faster and punchier, like ten one-day races. The dynamic has changed so much, because in the Marc and Cyril days, a young guy might win two or three stages, but [the experienced riders] knew they could play the waiting game. Now, if you play the waiting game, or the safety game, you’re going to lose.’
We push the pair of KTM 1290 Super Adventure Rs from the enclosed bike park towards Shoreditch’s Old Street. Before we climb on, Sam knocks sand out of his Red Bull-painted helmet. The granules are from Peru. I decided to wear a motocross lid too, suspecting that’s all Sam would have and thinking the symmetry might work in the photos. I knock some sand out of mine as well. It’s from Mablethorpe.
We leave the Bike Shed to ride around the capital. The road’s slimy as a slug’s foreplay, the streets Dalmatian spotted with polished manhole covers. To me the KTM feels the size of a shire horse and I’m nuts-to-butts with 6ft 3in of photographer. Let’s do this! Sam almost immediately ‘brapps’ the 1.3-litre V-twin, spinning cold tyre on slick surface. I’m embarrassed to admit I had wondered how he’d take to riding in London. By concentrating on the attention-grabbing helicopter footage I’d forgotten the ‘liaisons’, long stretches, as much as 500km in one day this year, that precede or follow the timed ‘special stages’.
‘I’ve ridden through a Bolivian snowstorm at -2˚ and 4000m altitude,’ Sam points out, ‘You just suffer. Nobody enjoys it, but the suffering adds value to the result. The Dakar I won, 2017, the last special stage was only 60km. I finished it, won the rally, celebrated with my team, then rode 700km to Buenos Aires under control. I could have still lost the race if I crashed, had a mechanical, or broke the speed limit. I was bored, fed up, but I’d just won the Dakar. 700km at 100kph, that’s seven hours, following the rules of the road, with the vibration, the noise, everyone has to do it, it sucks.’
We’re not out for long before I see Sam stuffing his hands between the bodywork for the heat coming off the motor. The fluster of handling the bike with a gangly photographer swaying on the back is enough to keep me warm as we head towards London Bridge. The 2019 Dakar podium was a KTM clean sweep. The team started the race with the last three Dakar winners on their 450s: Toby Price, Matthias Walkner and Sam. Price won his second Dakar, riding the entire race with a broken scaphoid. KTM have won 18 Dakars in a row. The Australian finished the race in a combined special stage time two minutes shy of 34 hours.
The Austrian Walkner was nine minutes back, with Sunderland four minutes off second place. As you can imagine that’s only part of the story. ‘On day five I had to stop for Paolo Gonçalves who crashed in front of me. In those moments the race comes second, you care about the other rider as he’d care for you. As much as you’re fierce competitors, you know the guy you’re giving the eyeball to at the start could be the guy saving your life in 30 minutes. ‘I saw the crash and it was bad. I helped him until the medics arrived and got him in the helicopter. While it’s nobody’s fault, that changed my strategy for the race a lot. It hampered my chance to be on the podium, but I kept fighting like hell.
The next day I hit a rock and ripped my rear disc and caliper off.’ Sam lost time cutting off the damaged parts, before continuing. ‘No rear brakes in the dunes is a bad day, I can promise you that. Touch the front brake and you cartwheel. I lost 22 minutes and the overall winning margin for the race was nine minutes. It’s ifs and buts… I’m happy for Toby. He raced with a bad wrist and pushed through it to win.’ This crop of Dakar competitors remind me of Isle of Man TT racers. Sam looks like a professional athlete, but his teammates could have been dragged out of a Birmingham Kwik-Fit.
Sure, they’re plastered in an energy drink veneer, but they haven’t been dulled by PR training or polished by stylists. And then there are the risks… ‘I don’t know about other riders, but waiting to race for six or seven hours in unknown terrain I’ve never passed through in my life, I can promise you I’m very scared at the beginning of every stage. In a way I think it keeps me sane and safe. If you weren’t scared you wouldn’t last very long.’ Sam considers the psychological side of the race. ‘It’s huge. You’re tired, you’re running on four or five hours sleep and when you’re tired everything is a bit exaggerated. I’ve been laid in riverbeds, broken, waiting for the helicopter, you don’t forget those experiences.
I try to use it in a positive way, pay attention, don’t take crazy risks. It’s better to hesitate and have that little margin. The race has changed so much since the Africa days, when it was more of an adventure.’ Sam wheelies over Tower Bridge and it reminds me to ask him something I’ve long wondered: why the Dakar, or any race, doesn’t mutate to become a Superbikes for the big ADV machines. Compete on Adventures, GSs, Multistradas, Tigers… The public interest would break the internet.
‘I’ve ridden the 1290 Adventure R in South Africa and it was incredible. It was the first time on one of these bikes, and I saw how amazing it was on switchback roads out of Cape Town. You could have your panniers on and I saw what it was all about, the sense of freedom. But taking one through the dunes of Merzouga, come on… They could survive a rally in Argentina where it’s a lot of WRC tracks and piste... It’s doable.’ There was controversy this year too, when a blown fuse meant Sam couldn’t start a day’s stage in first place. ‘I rocked up [on day eight], the first rider to leave and a fuse for the Iritrack system was blown. It was fixed and I was ready to go in two or three minutes, but [the organisers] held me to reseed my lap time. This Dakar was so tactical, because so much of it was sand, and the opening rider loses a lot of time navigating while those behind can follow the track, pushing like hell.
Riders set off at three-minute intervals and the first bike has to validate all the way points. As other riders rocked up they didn’t want me in the middle, because there would only be a one minute interval and they’d be riding in my dust. I said, “come on guys, let me go” [and] left one minute behind Van Beveren, in fourth. So I had his dust. Really, I didn’t have an advantage from it.’ Sam was given an hour penalty, but it was rescinded before the end of the race, and he was on the podium at the end.
Back at the Bike Shed, hands wrapped around a coffee, I ask Britain’s best rally raider for his short term future plans. ‘I want to race, I want to go as fast as I can every day. I love that sense of adventure. We say goodbye to the boys at 2 or 3 in the morning and you’re off on your own all day. The longest stage I did in the 2017 Dakar was 1250km, 16 or 17 hours. My arse was destroyed at the end of it. I’d pissed myself three or four times.
You can’t stop and have a pee, so you do what it takes and it takes a certain level of self-disrespect. I’ve seen live volcanoes and the Bolivian salt flats, and then there’s the people themselves. One time I stopped at traffic lights in Argentina and a woman gave me a baby to hold. As she stood back to take a photo she disappeared into the crowd. The lights turned green and I’m stuck there asking “Whose baby is this?” It’s things like that I still love. Cross country rallies are still wild. I love to watch Formula One and MotoGP, but it’s so controlled and political, and it takes away some of the spirit. Rally is like the TT , it’s madness. That’s why I love it still.’