While the riders are still digging the Chilean dirt from their nostrils, after concluding the marathon 8th stage of the toughest race on earth, we take a look at the highlights of the week’s racing in South America.
The young Brit, Sam Sunderland, set the pace in Stage 1 by completing the 175 km in a blistering 01:18:57. Sunderland, who signed for Red Bull KTM for the racing season, kept the pace despite having an experienced pack of riders breathing down his neck.
However, Sunderland’s luck ran dry in Stage 2 when he deviated from the route, lost two hours on the competition, ending his Dakar dream. The stage, which was the longest stage of the Dakar at 518 kilometres ensured that a large reshuffle in the general classification would take place. It was Honda’s day as Joan Barreda Bort and and Paulo Gonçalves finished first and second respectively. This allowed Barreda Bort to top the general classification. Meanwhile the 2014 Champion, KTM rider and fellow countryman, Marc Coma, remained seven places down and feeling deflated after a tyre puncture, 60 kilometres from the finish, slowed him down drastically. The taxing stage saw around a dozen entrants retire from the race.
Stage 3’s considerably shorter route of 220 kilometres from San Juan to Chilecito allowed the pressure to lift slightly. However, riders found the racing surfaces tricky as they battled through dry riverbeds and broken tracks. The stage was taken by Matthias Walkner, who put in a spectacular display to overtake the leaders early on in the day. Marc Coma occupied the second step of the podium while Barreda Bort finished third.
The Chilean parts of the rally always remain action packed as riders encounter several obstacles such as fesh-fesh (powdery sand) and enormous dunes. Stage 4 from Chilecito to Copiapó in Chile saw another shake-up in podium places as the Spanish duo of Barreda Bort and Coma came in to take 1st and 2nd respectively. Local boy Pablo Quintanilla fended of the rest of the foreigners to take 3rd spot. The big dunes proved to be challenging for all, as Barreda Bort explains: “We tackled dunes and navigation was difficult. Marc and I finished together. I’ve got a good strategy. We’re in control. The next few days will be extremely tough.”
Tougher it became. Stage 5’s most notable victim was none other than initial pacesetter, Sam Sunderland who fell and damaged ligaments in his shoulder that forced him out of the race. Despite Sunderland’s departure, the Red Bull KTM team had something to celebrate as Marc Coma took his first stage win at Dakar 2015 ahead of Barreda Bort. Once again Pablo Quintanilla strutted his stuff in front of the home fans to end 3rd. “It was a very tough stage. There was fesh-fesh all the time and in it you cannot see the stones and it is not comfortable to ride. You are always having to pay attention,” Coma said. The result, however, didn’t change much in the general classification, as the Hondas of Barreda Bort and Gonçalves occupied 1st and 3rd while Coma, waiting to pounce, remained in 2nd.
Stage 6 from Antofagasta to Iquique the saw the Hondas dominate once again as Helder Rodrigues claimed his first podium ahead of Australian Toby Price and teammate Paulo Gonçalves. The last stage before the rest day and start of the marathon stage saw the riders go balls to the wall to establish a top spot in the general classification.
The rivalry between Barreda Bort and Coma stepped out of the spotlight briefly as they ended 6th and 7th respectively. Coma lost his lead of the stage after he fell at the beginning of the stage. “At the beginning I had a small crash, nothing important. I’m lucky. But it meant that I did not feel comfortable at the beginning of the stage. Then the navigation was also a little bit tricky. I lost some time looking for a waypoint, but it was nothing dramatic. In the end I was opening all the day with Joan together, but this is the game. Now we have a rest day in front of us. It will be perfect for the bike and for my body too, to rest a little bit, and then of course to prepare for the marathon stage because we know how tough it will be, with the altitude, with no mechanics and no spare parts, so it’s something that we have to take care about,” he said.
The spirit of the Dakar was displayed beautifully in the 7th stage from Iquique to Uyuni. The first part of the marathon stage saw general leader Joan Barreda Bort falling and snapping his handlebar in half. This meant he had to ride the final 120 kilometres of the 321 kilometre stage with one hand on the throttle and holding the other piece to use the clutch. Despite this setback he finished in 10th, only six minutes behind his rival, Coma.
Barreda Bort also managed to retain his lead at the top of the general classifications. An unexpected thunderstorm saw several riders struggle to finish the stage. Stage winner Paulo Gonçalves said the conditions, along with the high altitude, made riding very difficult. “It started raining halfway through the stage, and it got very slippery and dangerous. With about fifty kilometres to go, I got a horrible headache, but I got here with the motorcycle safe and sound.”
Due to it being a marathon stage, riders had no access to their pit crews and were forced to repair any damage themselves.
The second part of the marathon stage and stage 8 once again showed that the Dakar remains a cruel mistress. Riding across the pancake-flat salt pans of Uyuni, extreme conditions lay ahead for the riders, that included cold spells and high altitude. Race leader Barreda Bort exchanged handlebars with a fellow Honda rider, Damain Guiral, to compete in the stage.
But luck was not on his side as he ended in 80th position after experiencing technical difficulties. He ended four hours behind stage winner Pablo Quintanilla and needed to be towed at times. Honda teammate Helder Rodrigues suffered a similar fate to that of Barreda Bort, having lost a vast amount of time after a breakdown. Female rider and Catalonia native, Laia Sanz Pla-Giribert, brought her Honda home in 5th position, a career best in one of the Dakar’s most grueling stages. “Today was a really hard day. At the beginning some riders didn’t want to start because it was dangerous and cold, but in the end for me it was a good stage. I was third until the dunes but then Toby and Quintanilla passed me very fast. Anyway, I’m very happy with this fifth position,” she said.
Stage 8 brought about a massive shakeup in the general standings as several riders retired. Amongst others, Yamaha’s top rider, Alessandro Botturi, and South African Riaan van Niekerk had to throw in the towel after the saltpans took their toll.
Marc Coma now leads the general standings after finishing the taxing marathon stage in 9th place. “It was a very extreme day. It was too difficult on the salt lake, there was the altitude, the cold, everything mixed in. It’s just like that. It’s just another day. The important thing is the last day and where we are. It was not an easy day for us, so we will see,” he said.
The riders now have five stages left in which they can contest to be crowned Dakar champions. Keep an eye out for Bikeroutes’ daily update on Facebook www.facebook.com/bikeroutescoza or visit dakar.com and click on “live feed”.
Report by Simon Sonnekus