Cyril Despres: Dakar Secrets

Cyril Despres iReport

By the time I had actually got to the start line of my first Dakar in 2000 I was already exhausted! I was working full time as a mechanic in a bike shop in Paris and preparing my XR400 in my spare time.

As a rally bike it definitely wasn’t ready to race and took many evenings to build. When I wasn’t burning the midnight oil I was trying to find time to do some sport and raise money to pay for my big adventure by selling bottles of wine.

Much to my surprise my Dakar went considerably better than expected and as a result BMW offered me a factory ride for 2001. The money was about the same as what I was getting paid at the shop but I wasn’t worried – at least I wouldn’t have to run around like a headless chicken getting everything ready – or so I thought.

True I didn’t have to build bikes or sell wine but other activities came along to take their place and getting to the start line still felt like a rush. 12 years later there is still a lot to pr epare but, perhaps for the first time, I think this time I might have finally cracked it.

The secret is to start early. In reality the next Dakar starts the day after the last one finishes, but for me things get really serious on the first of September. It marks the end of the holiday season, everybody is back in their offices and I can get to work.

One of the most time consuming aspects of my preparation is physical training. You can’t be in top physical condition the whole year, but by religiously sticking to the program I devise with my Argentinian trainer here in Andorra, I can gradually build up the intensity to hit my peak somewhere around the time you are tucking into your Christmas lunch.

A lot of time is spent in the gym but I also swim and cycle, both on a static bike and on the road. In total I dedicate about 20 hours a week to exercise. I also make regular visits to a sports clinic in Perpignan, Pre-sport, where I am followed by a physiotherapist and a doctor. In addition, once a year I spend a week at Red Bull’s training centre in Austria.

It is super hi-tech, like something out of a James Bond film and, as you would expect, they really know what they are doing. Although I am now 37, according to the doctors at Red Bull, I am actually fitter now than I was two years ago. When you spend as m uch time training as I do that is the sort of result that makes you very, very happy!

I am lucky that I have had the same sponsors for a long time. For example, I don’t know many riders who has been with KTM for over 10 years! It is something that is extremely important to me. I have built up close relations with all the people I deal with and that brings me stability and peace of mind. It also means that I don’t have to go looking for new sponsors – something that is both very time consuming, and, I suspect in our current economic climate, pretty frustrating.

That doesn’t mean however that my sponsors don’t take up any time. The Dakar puts me in the spotlight for only a short period each year and so it is entirely understandable that they require my presence throughout the year so as to get a return on their investment. That could mean anything from doing an extreme enduro in Columbia for Red Bull to attending a sales conference for a ‘non-sporting’ sponsor. I know a lot of riders bitch and moan about fulfilling their obligations but for me it is a rarely a hardship.

For a start I like all the people I deal with – otherwise it would be virtually impossible for me to deal with them – and often I learn things and come into contact with people I would have never have had the chance to meet if I hadn’t become a professional rider. Its funny – they are often in awe of me because I have won 3 Dakars and I am often in awe of them because they have studied so much or achieved so much in their professional lives. Happily, the end result is a lot of mutual respect.

One of the things I don’t spend much time doing is riding a motorcycle. Some riders spend hours every week training on their bikes but it is something I have never felt the need for. It also has the big advantage of meaning that when I do actually get on a bike I really enjoy myself. The other day the whole KTM rally team met up in the South of France, at Fontjoncouse, to do some final testing and the last day you could barely get me off the bike I was having so much fun.

The last two years I ran a large part of my own team thanks to Red Bull, using KTM factory material. It was a great challenge and resulted in a Dakar win in 2010, but boy did it take up a lot of time.

This year KTM will once again run the team and it is most definitely one of the reasons why getting ready has been much less of a stressful. It is like after two years of doing everything yourself all you have to do is turn up with your suitcase. Obviously that’s a gross exaggeration but I’m sure you get the idea. That fact, plus all the years of experience I now have preparing for the Dakar means I should arrive in Mar Del Plata feeling pretty relaxed.

And then the real work will begin!

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One of the few moto journalists based on the East Coast, Ron Lieback joined the motorcycle industry as a freelancer in 2007 and is currently Editor at Large at Ultimate Motorcycling. He is also the author of 365 to Vision: Modern Writer's Guide (How to Produce More Quality Writing in Less Time).