Chasing the Dakar Rally: Beginner Guide

Dakar Rally Touring

A rock hits me between the eyes, almost knocking my goggles off. I shake off the impact, but the nausea and my apocalyptic migraine are taking center stage. Everything is a blur. I feel like everything is happening in slow motion.

"I think I’m going to vomit. I can’t breathe. What am I doing here? What’s happening to me?" 

I see one of the 1000 horsepower, 7000-pound Red Bull rally trucks closing in on me. On this rough, sandy, gravel road my BMW 650 GS’s back end is all over the place. The engine is screaming. My head is pounding. If I go down I die. I think of my wife. I think of my son.

"What am I doing? What business do I have here? This is so stupid! How did I get here?"

For the moment, I am cursing the day I found my old friend Willie on Facebook, and that he dared me to come to South America to chase the Dakar 2010 rally across Argentina and Chile and back. Sure, I hadn’t been on a motorcycle since I was 11 years old, riding Peter Langston’s enduro bike in a Kansas cornfield, but since when had a minor detail such as that prevented me from doing something stupid?

The only thing more comical than me chasing the Dakar was the expression on my wife’s face when I told her my plan. "It’s how far?" she asked. Almost 6000 miles. "Since when do you know how to ride a motorcycle?" I don’t.

"What about your two bad knees, your scoliosis, and the two herniated disks that cause you so much pain you need a handful of painkillers if you stand for more than a hour?" I’ll be on a bike so I’ll be sitting. Returning to her latest copy of Vanity Fair, she says, "Sounds like fun. You should go."

Four months later I’m crashing the opening ceremony of Dakar 2010 when a police officer accidently mistakes Willie, me, and our chase vehicle for one of the rally teams. Before the trip, I only had time to get my license, but had never ridden on the street.

"No, no, no Willie! Don’t do it!" With a grin Willie slowly rolls into the ceremony. I’ve been on a bike for five minutes, and now I’m in front of 30,000 crazed fans. We are mobbed. Everyone is grabbing us shaking our hands, taking our pictures when a man hands me his baby.

I’ve got a baby in my right hand, and I’m signing an autograph with my left. I don’t remember this scenario on my MSF written test, but we eventually escape the madding crowd to begin our journey.

Camping every night next to the Dakar bivouacs, I find there is no better alarm clock than the high-pitched wail of 150 adventure bikes screaming across the desert. A city within itself, the Dakar rally is a rolling colony of motorsports gypsies; 380 teams of trucks, cars, ATVs, and motorcycles from around the world competing in 14 stages across Argentina and Chile.

There is an unspoken bond between those who ride, camaraderie void of social, cultural, political, or economic barriers. As you pass on the street or the highway, it’s a wave, a nod, or a knowing glance that you belong. You ride. You’re in.

The same is true of the Dakar competitors. The last day we rode 400 miles in 40 mph crosswinds. A competitor sees me struggling, and rides up to within 18 inches of me on his KTM 690. I have my elbows tucked to stay out of the wind, but he points to the wrist of his throttle hand, puts his elbows out, and points at me-elbows out to control the bike in the wind. I mirror him and nod. He nods back and gives me the thumbs up. In an instant he vanishes over the horizon.

The people of South America are amazing. Everywhere we go, we are embraced like nowhere I have ever traveled. Every refueling stop is an absolute circus. We try to tell them we are not competitors, but they don’t care. We have our pictures taken hundreds of times, sign dozens of autographs, and a man actually asks me about marrying his daughter!

Arriving late to the small Chilean fishing village of Carrizal Bajo, we meet up with the Frias family, who are also following the rally. They invite us to camp with them on the beach. We arrive at camp where they cook for us, share their food and drink, as well as their tall tales of the rally. We chase the rally together for the next three days.

Another night camping on the beach in Taltal, Chile we meet Alejandro and his family. I will always remember Taltal because, although it was a moonless night, the stars were so bright we didn’t need our flashlights.

Tulio, our cameraman, leaves with them and returns with fillets of dorado, a local saltwater fish caught that day. Treating us like long lost friends, Alejandro bastes the fillets in egg, beer, and cornmeal, and then deep fries the fish. To think here we are on a beach in Chile devouring the catch of the day and enjoying Cristal beer, when 24 hours ago I had collapsed due to the altitude. Oh, yeah, altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness was like having food poisoning, a migraine, asthma, and a panic attack-all at the same time. I was in deep trouble, but Willie had my back as always. He pulls us over, and asks how I feel. Of course, having seen me weaving all over the place, he already knows the answer-it is impossible for me to continue. Claudio and Tulio have already gone ahead in the chase vehicle, and we were to meet them at customs in Chile. Hours pass, and a man appears before official medical assistance arrives.

His name is Jim Hyde, and he runs RawHyde Adventures, an adventure riding training facility in Castaic, California. He is leading a two-week tour along with Pampa Adventures out of Buenos Aires. Jim sees my condition is bad, at best. Willie explains the dilemma with my bike and our chase vehicle. Jim doesn’t hesitate. He arranges for my bike to be put on Pampa’s trailer, and I will ride 80 miles on the back of his BMW R 1200 GS Adventure to safety.

For the next 2 1/2 hours I ride on the back while Jim navigates through speeding Dakar competitors, the flying rocks, dust, and the crater-infested road. All I can think about is how amazing it is to be doing such a selfless act, and how I owe it to him not to throw up all over his BMW Rallye 2 Pro jacket.

The ride is tough, even for Jim-at 6′ 4" I am not the easiest person to transport. When we arrive at customs, I thank him, and we exchange information, agreeing someday to meet again and laugh over this harrowing day. However, this had not been my first experience with danger on the trip.

I am a big fan of the Discovery Channel series Storm Chasers. The day we left Buenos Aires, I had a chance meeting with Reed Timmer, one of its meteorologists. We talked a bit about my trip, only to find out that he was storm chasing across the Argentine Pampas; he warned me about severe weather in the next few days.

Reed was right. Day three starts out with severe thunderstorms and, when I see those green-tinted clouds in the distance, I know there will be trouble. For the next two hours, we are hammered with rain and strong gusts; hailstones start to skip off my helmet and jacket.

To make matters worse, we have taken the wrong road and have to backtrack. After a brief meeting, the team decides to take a shortcut-75 miles of off-road riding in a major thunderstorm-to get back on course. What part of "I’ve never been on a motorcycle before" do they not understand? Like a good soldier I press on, and it turns out to be a beautiful mistake.

Northwest of Córdoba, Argentina we ride through the Valley of Jesus Maria. It is South America meets Scotland. Rolling lush green valleys, serpentine switchback passes, and ancient hand-laid rock walls show us the way.

Climbing into the mountains, the storm clouds come to earth as we ride through the fog and mist. Straight out of a Hemingway novel, we pass farmers in the road gathering their flock who have escaped during the storm. They give us the thumbs up, and call out "buena suerte," meaning "good luck." We return the favor.

My weekend of off-road training with AdMo Tours out of Wrightwood, Calif. is paying off, until I hit a stretch of deep mud and water crossing the trail. I panic, and make the rookie mistakes of grabbing the front brake, losing the back end, and doing a 540 over the handlebars.

Although I suffer only a bruised ego, the GS fares much worse-bent handlebars, bent fork, smashed windscreen, broken turn signals, the works. Adding insult to injury, Willie captures the ballet in beautiful 1080p from his high-def helmet cam, which he repeatedly shows to anyone who will watch.

Dejected, I limp 250 miles into La Rioja, wondering if the trip is over when Claudio proclaims, "I can fix it." You can’t fix this, Spicoli. We arrive at camp and this guy pulls out a ball of clay and some duct tape. He and Willie bend back the forks, fix the handlebars, tape the windshield back together, switch out the tires to knobbies, and, get this, change out the transmission. What kind of lunatic carries an extra transmission in his back pocket? From that day forward he was no longer Claudio-we called him MacGyver.

An adventure photographer by trade, my trip isn’t all fun and games. Contracted by Axo Sport, I am covering the Italian company’s Argentinean riders, Marcos and Alejandro Patronelli, during the rally. I have been able to get great images of their teams during the race, but strike gold on our last day when we catch Marcos on the way into Buenos Aires.

Not unlike the Tour de France on the last stage for the winner (barring disaster), it is basically a victory lap. Marcos and Alejandro are going to finish #1 and #2 in the Dakar, and the Argentine faithful are out to welcome them home.

Willie and I bully our way at 80 mph through two dozen cars and motorcycles-sometimes riding five-wide on a two-lane winding road-all trying to catch Marcos. Finally, we are riding within feet of him. The three of us are in Axo gear, so the crowd thinks we are part of his entourage.

We are mobbed once again by the thousands that have come to catch a glimpse of their countryman. The three of us are greeted like heros as we ride for 50 miles through small towns and villages. Feeling a little guilty, we pull over to leave Marcos to his victory, and to contemplate an amazing end to our amazing journey.

When I think of the highs and lows on my journey, I realize there were no lows. Even in the most challenging moments, I was able to learn something about my fellow man and myself. I learned lessons that I will teach to my son about overcoming obstacles, no matter how great. I think of the many days and nights on the road, a hemisphere away, in the company of friends old and new.

The Dakar 2010 rally was just an excuse to explore, and the allure of the road is calling again. Suddenly, I’m missing South America, missing the team, missing the road, and the unknown adventures waiting to be discovered.