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How an Indian biker trained to conquer the brutal Dakar Rally

Indian motorcycle rally racer Harith Noah speaks to Lounge about training for and competing in the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia

Harith Noah at the Dakar Rally.
Harith Noah at the Dakar Rally.

There’s a peculiar habit that Harith Noah has while racing. At the end of each stage, the Indian motorcycle rally rider doesn’t bother to check the result or where he’s placed in the overall standings. Instead, he likes to simply catch some rest and focus on riding well the next day. 

It was no different at the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia last month. At the end of Stage 10 of this difficult race, Noah was taking a breather when he was approached by a television crew. It was only then that he realised that he had secured fifth spot: his best finish at the rally. “That was probably the biggest day of my racing career. It definitely gave me another perspective on what is possible,” Noah, 31, says.

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That stage turned things around for the Sherco TVS Rally Factory rider. It propelled him to second spot in the Rally 2 class and 12th position overall. With two stages to go, he knew the momentum was with him. And by the end of the 7,891km rally, Noah created history by taking top spot in his class and 11th position in the bike category—the best ever finish by an Indian rider. “At the Dakar, you simply look forward to seeing the finish line. That’s the goal every year and also the most difficult part of the race,” he says.

Noah would certainly know, after having competed at the Dakar on five occasions. Since his debut in 2020, on three of those editions, he had to end the rally prematurely. Last year was far worse. A crash during Stage 4 left him with a fracture to the fifth thoracic vertebrae of the spine. He spent over three months recovering at home in Shoranur in Kerala. Just two weeks after getting back on the bike, he broke his right wrist, which took another month to heal.

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“I did a race in Spain and realised that my wrist was not a hundred percent. Then we learned that there was a piece of bone floating around, which meant another surgery in the middle of last year. After that I felt much better, but I had to spend close to five months off the bike due to these injuries,” he says. A holiday in Brazil worked wonders for his state of mind. At the TransAnatolia in Turkey in September, he finished first in his category and fourth overall. 

“I raced without a lot of training because I was still recovering. But I recorded good times, which were not too far away from the bigger bikes. That was definitely good for my confidence,” he says. 

Noah made two trips to the Red Bull Athlete Performance Centre in the United States to work on his recovery alongside a team of physiotherapists, fitness trainers and nutritionists. Besides working on strength, he gained additional muscle mass to get the most out of his rally bike. 

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In October, the Rallye du Maroc in Morocco gave Noah a good feel of the terrain he would encounter during the Dakar. By the turn of the year, he felt satisfied with the work that he had put in  and was eager to get going once again.

“You can be prepared and train as much as you want, but the Dakar is never going to be easy. Things will always go wrong and you have to be ready to overcome difficult situations. That’s the challenge and what makes it a really special race,” he says. 

“With all the effort that you’ve made to get to the start line and the adrenaline rush that you experience, it’s important not to push too hard at the beginning. That’s all that I had in mind at the start. You can either land up riding too fast and mess up navigation, or focus on navigation and not ride fast enough,” Noah says.

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However, the challenges that he encountered during Stage 1 were quite different. It took a massive effort to finish the 541km distance after Noah experienced severe cramping and a splitting headache. “Every kilometre towards the end felt like a hundred. However, I was quite pleased to have made it to the end and focussed on hydration here on,” he says. 

Over the next four days, Noah eased into the race and geared up for the mammoth 835km during Stage 6. Spread across two days, it required riders to bivouac in the middle of the desert by evening, before setting out the next morning. The night was freezing and his damp riding gear left him with a cold that lasted until the end of the race. But he was now in 13th position overall and as the second week commenced, he got more comfortable with the idea of pushing harder.

A stellar Stage 10, where at one point he led eventual bike category winner, Ricky Brabec, sent his confidence soaring. Over the final two stages, he had his fair share of struggles, especially on rocky terrain, but he did enough to register India’s best performance at the Dakar by taking 11th spot among 179 registered riders in the bike category. 

“Finishing in the top-10 would have been different for sure, but I feel like I did my best. I just need to figure out how I can ride in the first week like I did during the second. The goal for me is to give my best everyday and finish the race. And if I do these two things right, I’ll be satisfied with the eventual result,” he says. 

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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