On January 5th around 200 hardened adventure riders set off from Lima, Peru to tackle the ultimate test of man and machine that is the Dakar Rally. Now in its 34th edition, this year's Dakar was a gruelling fourteen stage, 5233 mile journey that took in some of the harshest terrain in South America. For the select few factory supported riders who benefit from the best parts and manned service trucks, the Dakar is all about the leader boards. Yet for the hundreds of privateers, like Brit based Aussie Simon Pavey it's a battle of attrition that regularly sees less than 50% reach the finish line...
Pavey is no stranger to the Dakar Rally having secured his seventh finishers medal this year, he's also one of the few riders to have competed in both the previous African based event and in its current Western hemisphere. His name has become synonymous with the Dakar and adventure riding in the UK, even starring in a successful TV show with Charlie Boorman 'Race to Dakar'. Equipped with the race proven Husqvarna TE449 RR machine, Pavey was boosted by technical support from Öhlins and FTR since he'd opted to run the latest RXF 48 forks, TTX44 shock and SD2.1 steering damper for his 2013 Dakar campaign.
We caught up with Simon shortly after his return from the Dakar...
How did this Dakar rate among your others?
"For me, this was probably the easiest and most straightforward Dakar I've ridden. Personally, I think the route and course were too fast and too easy, which you can see from the higher finishing rate. I have always performed best when the conditions have been the toughest and my strengths are more in persistence than outright riding speed.
Having said that, my preparation for the event was the best I've ever had and we have built the perfect privateer team, which meant my only job was to ride and navigate. The team took care of everything else from working on the bike to preparing food, my riding kit, the camp, fuel logistics, passports at the borders and the million other things that a privateer normally struggles with at the Dakar.
The bike itself was fantastic, it was small, light and easy to ride and most of all it was safe as we really did get the chassis right. I also consider the Öhlins suspension and the settings we ran were spot on. If you watched the Eurosport coverage there was footage of people hitting bumps and ending up kneeling on the handlebars, well I was there and went through the same section at the same speed with far less dramatic consequences. I really loved the Öhlins steering damper and we were able to adjust it on the fly when the conditions changed from dunes to rocks."
What were your feelings of the event itself?
"Even though I have made a few negative comments about the event being easy this year, it needs to be kept in context - there is currently no other event even remotely like it. The scale is just immense with 4000 people in the bivouac, 500 competitors and 14 days racing across 3 countries. It is so exciting to be involved in and I feel truly privileged to be able to compete in it.
Over the years, the organisers have made lots of changes to the professionalism and the way the race is run, even bringing staff in from MotoGP and other events. It is perhaps the most dangerous race in the world but these changes have helped reduce the unnecessary dangers."
Did your preparations go to plan?
"I think our plan was great and a big part of that plan was to create a small team that could work well and professionally for the amateur rider on a budget. I think we achieved that."
What were the most memorable moments?
"Unlike past Dakar's, I really didn't have any terrifying moments this year - no falling down wells for me this time! The great thing about this year was my memories, which were all about great vistas and awe inspiring terrain. We had some incredible descents out of the dunes, sometimes more than 2 km long, but without a doubt the ride to the marathon bivouac through a small mountain pass that only the bikes took was the best."
Is there a big gap between privateer and factory runners?
"In all honesty we are in a different event, although there are some very fast and competitive privateers these days. As the professionalism of the race moves on, the field is becoming ever more competitive. The rule change to 450cc has brought more manufacturers in which has meant more riders on good equipment. There was a stage this year where 10th to 52nd (me) was covered by 10 minutes. In the past gaps at the end of the race were measured in hours, this year after 50 hours of racing only minutes separated each position."
How did the Öhlins kit perform? Any particular considerations for this event over other rallies?
"The Öhlins suspension was amazing and I never once had a scary moment even when I misjudged some danger markers and hit things too fast, the suspension always coped. Most of all I loved the surety the Öhlins steering damper gave me, especially when it was really high speed."
Having completed seven Dakar events, does it remain as exciting?
"The race is so different and the course changes so much it always remains exciting and challenging. Despite having seven finishes, the start is always terrifying as just one small mistake can take you out on Day 1.
The best thing though is actually being there amongst the madness and the fans. The organisers are claiming something like 5 million people viewed the event in person during the 15 days. When you are mobbed on a country road by a horde of fans, it is like being in the Alps on the Tour de France!"
Do you miss the African event at all?
"Africa was special and I was very lucky to take part in that part of Dakar's history and to have the life experiences I had there. In Africa the navigation and the true feeling of being lost and alone on the planet was part of the race and will never be experienced by competitors in South America, but do I miss it? – No!".