When did you first think about racing Dakar?

Well, when did it first start? It was probably watching guys like Andy Caldecott in the mid-20005 that started getting me interested. But back then even the Australian Safari was a foreign event to me; I didn’t know what it was about or how it worked. The Dakar was definitely on the radar for me when Caldecott and Andy Hayden were doing well but I still didn’t really know what it was about. It wasn’t until I started doing my first bit of desert racing, which was Finke in 2006, that I realised I liked that style of racing after only ever really racing motocross. Then I did my first Australian Safari in 2008 and really got into the rally and navigation stuff, yet at that stage Dakar was such a foreign thing to me and was still in [North] Africa then. Everyone told me it would be at least 150 grand to go and have a crack at it and that was well beyond reach for me and the last thing I ever thought was achievable at that point. Then, after a few more years, the race moved to South America and there were a few more clubman-level Aussie guys having a go at the race. The price seemed to be coming down and becoming a bit more achievable. Then, when Jake Smith went across in 2011 and a few guys went that year, it was the first time it looked like it may be a possibility. I started to know more blokes that had gone which gave me an insight into the event; there’s more media coverage and the social media coverage really helped give me an idea of what it was about. When the race was still in Africa, it was really hard to find out much about it. Then my first opportunity came about in 2012 with Gary Connell on the Hochberg; we discussed it and at that stage it was really only a pie-in-the-sky idea. Then he came back and put a package on the table where he supplied the bike and a mechanic, we worked out a budget and turned it into a reality.

So in the scheme of things Dakar has gone from a dream to a reality in a relatively short period for you?

Yeah, it’s ramped up pretty quick; 12 months isn’t really that long to prepare for a Dakar. Training for the riding side of things is pretty straightforward if you’ve done some desert racing and rally events before. It’s more all of the logistics and obviously the financial burden for when I’m away — that’s what you need a good 12 months to get ready for. It takes a long time to get your head around it all. You know, they give you a little bit of information on how to work the GPS; then you try to get your hands on some maps from riders that have done it in the past. The maps are in abbreviated French which takes a lot to get used to on its own. So 12 months disappears very quickly when you’re trying to get all that crammed in. For the guys that have built and supplied their own bike, organised all their own vehicles, shipping and all the rest of it, I really don’t know how they do it. I haven’t had to worry about customs and getting the bikes in and out of countries because that’s all been done for me. It’s hard enough just getting yourself there, let alone getting the bike shipped and through customs.

Had you ever attended the event before you turned up to race it?

No, the first time I was there I was racing.

How much does it cost to line up at Dakar?

Well, for the average rider that wants to have a crack and is paying for absolutely everything — bike, gear, shipping, mechanic, the whole lot — you won’t get much change out of 100 grand. For me, obviously, sponsorship makes a big difference there; I get a lot of my riding gear and things like that supplied. Then it’s just how you go about racing the event. You can rent the bike from a team over there, which is what I did this year, or whether you get sponsored to a degree. You can pay more [than 100 grand], that’s for sure. I know someone who spent double that this year but that was the full six-star package with all the fruit. But minimum would be 100K.

Can you give us details on what your support package involved for this year’s race on the Yamaha?

Well, the contact started at the 2012 Dakar on the rest day. I had already bombed out by then and was just walking through the pits having a look around. I had a yarn to Helder Rodrigues who was the head Yamaha racer at the time — he finished third in 2012 — and I asked him what the best way would be to go about getting on a Yamaha. Obviously, that was my preferred choice because of our dealership and what I race here at home. He introduced me to the Yamaha France guys and the guy who runs the team who owns HFP Suspensions. He’s in charge of the team and also the bike rentals for Dakar. It really surprised me how much time he gave me on that rest day; they’re very busy on the only day off during the event but he showed through the team. Once I told him I was a Yamaha dealer and I raced YZs at home, he showed me the bikes in detail and allowed me to take a bunch of photos. I was impressed how much time he gave and we briefly discussed renting a bike for the 2013 Dakar but that’s about as far as it went Once I returned home from the 2012 Dakar I started emailing the Yamaha team and they came back to me with some pricing. I held off for a little bit initially, just to decide whether it was financially viable and also to see if there were any other Yamaha deals out there and if we could get support. In the end, I bit the bullet with these guys and I actually purchased the bike from them. That’s how we ended up going about the deal and how they offered it. The bike was completely set up for Dakar, ready to go. All the fuel tanks, suspension, cush drive hub and navigation equipment were fitted and set up. On top of the bike was their assistance package which included daily servicing, where they’ll do whatever needs to be done to the bike — which, luckily, on my bike was just general servicing, a couple of top-end rebuilds and I think we did a couple of sets of fork seals. Other than that my bike hardly needed anything, which was great. That support package was around the 13,000 euro mark, not including buying the bike. There is no rider love in that, so no tent for me or shade or anything like that; pretty much just hand my bike over at the end of the day and then go fend for myself. But it was a great deal. It’s well priced; they are very professional, have great mechanics and a great setup including a big six-wheel-drive Renault truck. They’ve been doing this event for years which was a big thing for me and it really showed in that I didn’t have to change anything on the bike. I rolled the bars forward a notch and had about two hours on it before the race and that was it.

There is a lot of talk about tactics at the Dakar and teams having riders helping each other. As a customer of that team, did you have any role in supporting their factory riders if they needed it?

No, I was just a fend-for-yourself privateer. They had three of their own factory riders and they’re on the next generation of YZ Dakar bike that they’ve developed. It was slimmer, lighter and faster then the one I was riding. Those guys just did their thing and as far as tactics go I didn’t have any other than just taking the event one day at a time.

You mentioned the bike is all looked after but you’re left to fend for yourself at the end of each day. What does a typical evening consist of once you’ve dropped your bike off to the team?

Unless you’re pretty cashed up — which none of the Aussies were — you just slept in swags or those little pop-up tents. We normally just throw a sleeping bag down so you’re always sort of in the wind and the dust and the heat. As far as food goes, it’s provided by the organisers; they have a big marquee set up that’s always there at the end of the day. They have a 24-hour pasta bar set up which sounds glamorous but it’s really just spaghetti bol, which you get pretty sick of after a week and definitely by the second week. It’s good, though; if you get in at three or four in the arvo you can go and grab a big feed of spag bol. At night around seven or eight o’clock you go and have dinner. It varied a fair bit. Sometimes we ate it, sometimes we didn’t; just depended on how dicey it looked. You might just go back and get more spaghetti, you know. The dinner area is a big setup and it probably seated about 1500 people at a time, keeping in mind the camps are constantly rotating and can have anywhere up to about 5000 people at once. Plenty of people complain about the food but we are in a foreign country in the middle of nowhere and they are feeding the masses, so really they don’t do too bad. They have the portaloos and porta-showers for everyone — pretty much a cold shower every night which, according to guys like Timmy Cole, is supposed to be good for you but I think it’s debatable, especially from a morale point of view! A cold shower is just something you don’t feel like sometimes. I’ve spoken to some guys that have done the old-school African ones and they say the facilities now are first class compared to those days. You know, it’s not terrible; it’s liveable.

What time does it kick off each day?

Probably on average a wakeup time of around 3.30am. Some days were 3; some were 4. That would give you about an hour to get ready because some of the start times were 4.30am when you had to head out. You would just get up, go and have breakfast, gear up, pack your bag so your crew can take it and then get stuck into it. You get a GPS code which you load into the GPS each morning and that then is set for the day. So it’s definitely early starts. Most nights you’re probably lucky to be asleep by 9 or 10 o’clock even if you put a big effort in to get to bed early. Probably working off around five hours’ sleep over the whole event and that definitely catches up with you, too.

Was there a certain period of the event that you found the toughest?

The two days that I probably found the worst mentally and also physically were the two straight after the rest day, which was on day nine. I think after the rest day you are sort of detuned a bit rather than actually refreshed. The start positions each day generally go off the positions from the day before, but after the rest day I went from being seeded about 41st to 60th and Benny Grabham went from about 32nd to 54th, which was a real kick in the nuts. Their only reasoning for the way it was seeded was that the elite riders who are on a special list basically got seeded forward. It’s like seeding forward your A-grade riders. Where the real kick in the nuts came from was that Ben and I had pretty well finished in the top 25 every day and were both running well within the top 20 outright by the halfway stage and yet they still seeded us back. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had a few more days in the dunes but we went straight into two days of narrow single-track through the hills, which was dusty as hell. I even got seeded back behind three quads which was just bullshit. The quads took a lot of passing as did some of the other guys. When you can’t see from dust and you have cliff faces on the outside of corners there is only so much that you can push. So it made those two days tough. It felt like I was racing as hard as I could trying to make up the ground, you know, either full power or hard on the brakes everywhere, which takes its toll. In one of those days I went through a complete set of front and rear brake pads, blew a fork seal and totally wrecked one of the rally rear tyres we use. It was hard on the bike and hard on me physically and mentally and a big part was because of where we were pushed back into the slower riders.

The navigational side of an event like this is amazing; can you run us through how it works and what you need to do as a rider?

It’s actually pretty hard to explain. Even for guys that have done the Safari, It’s hard to explain the depth of navigation at Dakar. Parts of it are like a Safari, but. Just in the road book alone, before we get to the GPS, it’s in abbreviated French. Their icons on the map roll are different from what we have in Australia. It will show a corner with, say, a washout in it. but where it differs from what we see in Australia is that in the comments page it will have a whole story there for you to read. It might say, «After the hole, left 200m ahead there is a bad washout on the right followed by a fence and a gate and a cliff face on the corner before the creek.» To top it off it’s all written in two- or three-letter abbreviations in French. So if you just look at the icon you don’t see any of that detail in what’s coming up. So you’re trying to read all this shit at 150km/h and that’s something that only comes with experience. If you’re European and you’ve done this event or other world rounds that use that style of map roll you’ll be more comfortable with it. Then you have the GPS part of your navigation. Most people I talk to have the wrong idea about it — they think you just get guided from point t< point but it’s not like that. Generally, you’ll go off the road book and you’ll get to a certain part of the road — it might be a creek it might be hill — and from that point the road books says, «Head off at a heading 250 degrees for, say, 5km.» You’ll do that off the compass reading that you have on your bike and the next call on the road book will be a waypoint. So you head off at 250 degrees for 5km and there will be all sorts of things in your way: hills, creeks and the sand dunes are the most interesting ones. You can’t always go straight through them so you’re going left and right but trying to keep coming back onto this imaginary line which is your heading of 250 degrees so you can pick up the waypoint that is 5km away. Once you reach that waypoint you might pick up the road book again or it might be another waypoint. You have to get close enough to the waypoint for it to trigger and open up on the computer; then it automatically clicks off and you’re ready for the next part. If you miss it — if you’ve gone bush or too far left or too far right because you’ve ended up a bit bamboozled in the dunes — that’s when things turn to shit and you just start doing big circles out in the middle of the desert trying to find your bloody waypoint. Its hard to get your head around and trust yourself at first but once you do a few of them it’s not a bad system; you just need to be accurate in how you ride. There’s no road, no car tracks — you literally just make your own road heading out into the unknown. I’ve had days where I start out on a heading and there might be 10 sets of wheel tracks. Then they start to dwindle and before you know it you’re down to two then none and you start to second-guess yourself. Then you’ll see five out in the distance to the left and another five out to the right and you get to the waypoint and everyone ends up in the same place. It’s an experience you’ll never get in Australia because we just don’t have dunes big enough.

Did you have any major issues during the race?

I really had quite a smooth run and the bike never really played up. I did have one major crash where I was riding next to another guy and we crested a dune and by luck it turned out he was on the good line and I was on the bad one. About halfway down was a kicker about two foot high that I couldn’t avoid and on these bikes there isn’t much you can do — there’s no popping a wheelie over it or anything like that. When I hit it bucked me off and I landed on my back and slid down the dune. When I stopped I was about 30 metres further down the dune than my bike and I also popped my CamelBak bladder in the crash. That was probably the worst part because then I had about another 150km to go without water, so that played a few games on me. I started to get a bit dizzy and a bit hazy by the end of the day but that’s the stuff you have to deal with in this race. To get through and be inside the top 30 every day, I would say I had a relatively easy run. If you have a bit of drama you get put back in the dust straightaway and it just gets harder and harder to get yourself out of it.

Do you have a single crazy Dakar story that you would like to share with us?

To me, some of the big dunes are pretty crazy. I never got to see them last year. One dune in particular was a 1.6km drop in altitude, which is pretty damn high, and once you crested the top there was no stopping. All you could do was drag the rear brake the whole way down; you could hardly touch the front brake because it would just tuck and dive. You were literally just skiing or surfing on the sand all the way to the bottom. I remember my ears popped twice on the way down — it was that much of a descent. You could see the bottom a couple of kilometres away and you were going there whether you liked it or not. That’s about it, really. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff going on but you don’t really see much; you hear about it back at the camp each day.

To finish off, are there plans to return for 2014?

I would love to go back, for sure. We took on some debt and did a lot of fund raising to get there this year, which I don’t regret at all. It’s a big call to go and do that again and to borrow money to do it. It would be nice to get some support but it’s difficult from Australia. Ideally, an outside industry sponsor or sponsors is what’s really required to help make it happen. I have a verbal agreement with the team to be able to ride the newer factory bike if I return but we haven’t discussed cost and logistics of that yet. To get back again on their top-level bike would be the ultimate goal and to return with them for a second year would be an advantage. It’s just a matter of seeing what I can come up with and what we can make happen over the next few months.

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