The risks that riders undertake during the Dakar Rally hit home last year, when CS Santosh, who in 2015 became the first Indian to compete at the most arduous rally raid, crashed on Stage 4 and had to be resuscitated by his fellow riders. He was airlifted to a hospital in Riyadh and put into medically induced coma for almost 10 days as he had suffered a head trauma. Though Santosh has recovered physically—there are still gaps in his memory—the accident shone a light on just how much the event asks of the participating athletes.
Since its inception in 1979, 31 competitors have been lost to fatal accidents during the Dakar Rally. Of these, 23 were bikers. But the thrills the rally promises is too hard to resist for motorsport athletes, who, year after year, line up for this extreme adventure. On 1 January, 2022, 430 vehicles will start the Dakar 2022 and compete over a distance of more than 8,000 kilometers in 14 days.
“I think everyone knows the risks going in,” says Harith Noah, who will be the only Indian competing at the Dakar next year. Noah had finished 20th at the 2021 Dakar, making him the first from the country to make the top-20. But it wasn’t without spills. “Santosh’s crash was on Stage 4. I also crashed on the same stage, in the same place, same rock,” says the 28-year-old. I got to know about Santosh’s crash right after the stage. It was definitely a little shocking for me, because at that time it was more uncertain about how bad it was. I did think about it for the next couple of days. I tried that it didn’t affect my riding but it was at the back of my head. At the end of the day, everyone knows what can happen. But yeah, you try not to think about it when you’re riding.”
Noah’s first brush with Dakar had come when he was five years old. His father, Mohammad Rafi KV, would bring back video tapes of the famed Paris-Dakar rally and the young Noah remembers watching them over and over again. “At that time I didn’t really know what it was all about,” says Noah, who hails from Shoranur in Kerala. “I mainly used to watch rally cars then. I just remember being fascinated with the speed and the dust.” His fascination for motorsport was kept on the backburner till his father gifted him a motorcycle for his 16th birthday. Even then, cross-country rallying wasn’t Noah’s first foray. “I used to do Super Cross,” says the Scott Sports athlete. “It was only when Santosh made his Dakar debut that I started paying attention to it again.”
His cross-country rally debut didn’t quite go according to plan. While competing in the Rallye de Moroc in 2018, Noah suffered a crash and “tore my ACL and damaged by meniscus.” Rather than being deterred by the experience, he spent months in rehab and tried to get back on the bike as soon as possible. “I did the first rally and I kind of liked it,” he recalls. “Then I did the first Dakar and I fell completely in love with it. Obviously riding the bike through the desert for two weeks, as fast as you can, is just a great feeling, one that you can’t express in words. At the Dakar, you push your boundaries, in all possible ways. I feel like during or after the Dakar, you appreciate the small things you have in life, like a soft bed or good sleep, because during the race everything is so bad!”
There are no creature comforts awaiting the rallyists after a hard day’s work; they live in a biouvac. Noah, who entered as a privateer last year, shares a van with his teammate and has a tiny closet space in which to cram all his belongings and race essentials for the two-week period. The iconic rally, which is the apex event for motorsport enthusiasts, has changed settings a few times. It originally used to start in Paris and cross the Sahara Desert before finishing in the Senegalese capital. Then it migrated to South America and, shifting again, has been held in the Saudi Arabian desert since 2020. This time around, the Rally begins in Jeddah and loops around the country to Riyadh, before returning to the shores of Red Sea, promising ‘all sorts of sandy terrain.’ Navigating more than 200 kilometers every day for 14 days is challenging in itself, but the vast expanses of sand has a way of making it even worse.
“Nowadays we get the roadbook only 20 minutes before the start of the stage,” says Noah, who is more comfortable on hard-packed ground. “This is going to be my third Dakar,” he adds, “Navigation was definitely more difficult in the second year than the first. I expect the same this year. During the Dakar, you will make mistakes, navigation mistakes. Everyone does that. It’s how fast you recover from them and how much it affects you afterwards is important. What I try to work on this year is get back fast after doing a mistake, like not think about that mistake for the next 50 kilometers.”
Noah has been working with a mental coach for the past two years to make sure he stays focused on the process. The Dakar is as much about discipline as it is about daredevilry. A rally of this magnitude can’t be tackled all at once. “One thing is to stay in the moment, take it kilometer by kilometer,” he says. “Also just try to stay calm, because when you get in a crash or a tip over or get lost you have to really take a deep breath and try to really focus because when you are stressed you tend to do more mistakes, which is not good.” For his part, Noah tries to keep the external pressures to the minimum. He doesn’t follow the leaderboard throughout the rally. “That is why I was quite surprised to know that I finished 20th this year,” he says.
Such is the nature of the beast that almost as soon as the 2021 Dakar ended, Noah had to start preparing for the 2022 version all over again. The rally is ever so tougher physically for the riders—not only do they get bounced around a lot more, but have to use their body weight and strength to maneuver the bike. “Strength is important,” he says, “But endurance more so.” Noah is currently spending hours on a road bike in France, building his strength and stamina, to get ready for another grueling stint at the Rally. He believes he is also better prepared to take on the sand, having spent some time in the desert in Morocco.
“Towards the end, what we as a team (the Sherco Factory team under the sponsorship of TVS Racing) do is try and do more race specific training, like more roadbooks, we also lengthen the training because the stages are very long. We try to simulate the race,” he explains. But no amount of training can quite replicate the rally. “At the Dakar, anything can happen,” he says. While Noah would want to do better and finish higher than this year’s 20th standing on the leaderboard, the Indian rider says the main objective remains crossing the finish line.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.