There's a reason they call it the toughest motor race on the planet: More people reach the summit of Mount Everest each year than finish the annual Dakar rally.
This year, there were 362 entries at the start on New Year's Day, but barely half made it across the finish line on Sunday. There were six Canadian efforts in 2010 - more than anyone can ever recall but only one Canadian would finish the rally. They each faced their own challenges, but agree on one thing. The hardest of the 17 days came on Stage Three.
The day from Hell
It was the toughest day, in the toughest race. After two days of relatively easy dirt tracks, the racers had to confront the desert of Fiambala, Argentina. Seventy-seven would drop out on this day alone. Scorching temperatures, towering dunes, talcum sand and poor quality fuel conspired to destroy their bodies, spirits and machines. "After Hell, there is Fiambala," one competitor said afterward.
On paper, it was the shortest special stage of the rally at 182 kilometres; on the clock, it was the longest. The pro motorcycle riders did it in about six hours. The last amateur to finish in regulation time spent 16 hours on the bike, and others took even more time, only to be disqualified for taking too long or missing too many checkpoints. Several vehicles had trouble with the fuel from the last service station before the start of the special stage, which boiled away in the tanks due to the altitude and heat, causing engines to sputter and die.
One rider, Christina Meier from Germany, abandoned her stalled bike and borrowed a spectator's horse to reach her mechanic, get some advice, gallop back to the machine and get it going again to finish the day, and eventually the rally.
Despite carrying three or more litres, most had to rely on water from spectators and passing car competitors - and even that wasn't enough to keep several from needing intravenous re-hydration as temperatures were recorded as high at 59C.
What little power the bad fuel provided the engines was zapped by the mountainous dunes of powder fine sand, draining racers' energy to dig out and pick up fallen machines. And with every fall, came the risk of a race-ending injury. So many were stricken on the day, that every available helicopter was commandeered for medical evacuation, and doctors were sent out on to the course to advise the most weakened racers to give up or risk death.
Over before it began
The bolts on the belt-drive system of Lawrence Hacking's custom pickup truck sheared off en route to the first special stage, and he and co-driver Christian Girouard, 38, couldn't get it repaired in time to make the start, forcing their disqualification from the race before it really began.
Hacking, 55 and a long-time enduro motorcycle rider and race organizer from Georgetown Ont., was the first Canadian to finish the Dakar on a bike in 2001, and he still hopes to be the first to finish in a car - but next year. "Sure, it's a disappointment, but this is a long-term plan," he says. "We'll continue on."
The unluckiest man
Donald Hatton had recovered from the injuries that nearly killed him in the 2009 Dakar. His hand had mended from the break he'd suffered on his first training ride back on a bike. He'd recuperated from a bout of H1N1 in October, and managed to rescue his bike from the parking compound on the start day this year when the one next to it went up in flames. After forgetting his time card before the start of the first special stage, he rode 180 extra kilometres to retrieve it and convinced race organizers to let him start nonetheless.
He persevered through the second stage with food poisoning that had him vomiting in his helmet and soiling his riding suit. But, in the end, the Duncan, B.C., motorbike shop owner couldn't overcome the poor fuel on Stage 3 that left his KTM 690 Rally with too little power to traverse the deep sand and steep dunes. Severely dehydrated and utterly dejected, the 51-year-old left the race course after just 37 kilometres, made his way to the bivouac, and was disqualified for missing too many checkpoints. "I was really suffering."
Rick Hatswell knows how to push through to the finish, having completed marathons and Iron Man triathlons, but the sand and heat on Stage 3 had him stymied. "I've never ridden on such soft ground," said the 34-year-old from Vancouver, who helps run the family's chain of collision-repair centres. "Every time I'd go about 10 feet, it felt, the bike would fall over or I'd get stuck."
More than six hours in, making little progress in the dunes and still less than halfway to the finish, a highway visible in the distance was just too tempting. He pulled his KTM 525XC-W off the course and onto the road, goggles hiding the tears. "I just thought, I don't want to be coming in at midnight or be that guy stuck out in the desert with no water, and dying out in the desert."
Pumped to finish
It was too late for Dirk Kessler to avoid the rock as he came around the soft sandy corner in the dry riverbed. It caught the 44-year-old's foot and twisted his leg back violently. He managed to stay on his KTM 690E, but when the adrenalin wore off, the knee gave out and the pain set in. With help from some of the local spectators, he duct-taped his hand pump to his leg as splint and pressed on to the first checkpoint 40 kilometres away.
There, a decision had to be made. With pain killers from the medical staff, he tried a few times to press on, but it hurt too much. "I'm no stranger to pain," says Kessler, a San Francisco software developer originally from Vancouver, "but there was just no way to do another 80 kilometres."
The long haul
Andrew Scott, 43, couldn't be reached for this article, but every time another competitor saw him on Stage 3, he seemed on the verge of giving up, they said. "He looked all dazed," recalled one rider, who met him 74 kilometres and more than six hours after the start. "He said 'I'm screwed but I'm going to keep going.' "
Some time around three or four in the morning he pulled into the bivouac, exhausted after more than 20 hours on his Honda CRF450X. But he'd either taken too long, missed too many checkpoints, or become to fatigued to continue, and was out.
The other Canadians had careers, wives and children to return to whether they finished the Dakar or not. For Montrealer Patrick Trahan, there is only the Dakar. A chance encounter at age 15 with a Dakar competitor had sparked a life-long dream. Twelve years ago, he left a job in IT to pursue it.
He showed up at his first rally in 1998 - a smaller one - with only a few hours of riding experience and a bike better suited to pizza delivery than desert racing, but somehow he finished. In 2000, he entered his first Dakar with scarcely more experience and didn't get far. When he wanted to try again in 2001, his wife gave him an ultimatum. He chose the Dakar, and after another early exit, was divorced and bankrupt. Two more Dakar attempts ended before the start line due to lack of funds. Even this year, he didn't have the last few thousand dollars he needed to get to Argentina until December, when the Honda dealers in Ontario pitched in.
All this was in the back of his mind at the 87th kilometre, less than half-way through the Third Stage, when the 42-year-old was stuck with one leg pinned under his fallen bike in the deep sand of a dry riverbed. He used the last of his energy to dig himself out, but worried his Dakar was over. "I was throwing up, and I couldn't stand I was so dizzy" from dehydration in the extreme heat, he said.
But local spectators revived him with food and cola and water. They brought some gas for his drained bike, and, after a 45-minute rest, he pressed on through the last 95 kilometres of sand, finishing the day in a little over nine hours.
There were other challenges right up to the finish. With a pinched fuel line on the final of the 14 stages, he ran out of gas five times and had to wave down a tanker truck for a final fill-up, but made it to the finish podium in 55th position overall, becoming the sixth Canadian to ever finish the Dakar and completing his 27-year journey.
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