Motorcycle rally rider Gareth Jones has completed the incredibly difficult and challenging Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, racing vast distances during the first two weeks of January.
“That’s one off the bucket list,” said Jones. “It’s surreal, really.
“Since I’ve done it, I’ve just felt like I was floating. As much as you think you are ready, anything can happen. There's relief and joy, and sadness it is over.”
Jones said the course is monumental and a rider can be out on day one of the race. A reigning champion was 50 kilometres in on the first day and his race was done.
“There’s so many factors beyond your control,” added Jones.
He said the first week was tough because all the races were 400-plus kilometre stages and involved big liaisons, where he had to ride to the race site.
“I think one day we did 950 kilometres,” said Jones. “I was up at 3 am and there was a big liaison, plus a big stage.”
Stage five was probably the most challenging for Jones. On stage two, he had a fall where he bruised his arm and hip. A few days later it started to bother him.
“On day five I started to get this pain in my arm about halfway through the day,” said Jones. “As the day went on, it became chronic in my left arm. Any bend in my wrist was agony and I just couldn’t control the bike. I didn’t have any finesse with the clutch control.
“I ended up dropping the bike, having silly crashes.”
By this time it was 4 pm and the sun was starting to go down, and because of his arm, he was struggling with the bike, thinking the pain was too much.
“I got into a really bad psychological spin, so I had to sort of plod along, over these dunes, and all of these climbs and drops,” said Jones. “I battled through and got to the end, dropping the bike at the finish line because I couldn’t hold it up anymore.”
He said he still had 150 kilometres to get back to the bivouac (temporary camp) where he was staying, and during that time, he was saying to himself “this might be it.” He told himself it was okay to fail.
When he arrived at the bivouac, he went to see the physiotherapists and they took an ultrasound of his arm. He said there was a hematoma between the muscles, which was causing the pain, but no other issues. He had some physio work done and felt better afterward.
“The next day was a great day,” said Jones. “There were no crashes and it was a good pace. I felt good. From that moment on, it got better every day. I got stronger every day, felt psychologically better, and my riding got better. Day five was my low point.”
Jones had done extensive preparatory work for the race, having competed in another long-distance rally in Morocco prior to Dakar. He said he was pretty well prepared for the Dakar venture.
“I didn’t struggle with energy levels,” said Jones. “Tiredness in the first week was a factor, but then after the halfway point, it got easier because the stages were shorter.
“It was a playground. It was beautiful. You really appreciate where you are and take that in.”
Racing the Dakar is challenging because riders do not have GPS to guide them over the vast expanses of desert and other challenging terrain they face. Racers are provided what is called a roadbook, which is a roll of printed material with what appear to be hieroglyphics on them. Jones said for the most part, he was able to navigate without issue, although he did miss a waypoint on day 10, which resulted in a time penalty for him.
“The navigation was good and the roadbooks were good,” said Jones. “As you get close to the waypoints, they will open an arrow on your onboard computer, but you have to be within a certain distance for it to open.”
In terms of his bike, Jones rode with a team called HT Rally, Raid Husqvarna Racing, and he said he had no complaints about the equipment or the servicing.
“They were a great bunch,” said Jones. “They were the same bunch I rode in Morocco with. The bike’s clutch needed to be replaced a couple of days from the end, but I’m not surprised, with the abuse the bike took.
“I didn’t have any big crashes. I put a few scratches on it from some low-speed drops on rocks.”
Jones said the team had a couple of really good riders. One of his teammates won the Rally Two class Jones was riding in, having taken a number of stages in the race.
Another of Jones’ teammates “had an eventful rally” and was t-boned on a dune by a car. Jones said luckily, the rider was hit on the back of the bike, so he did not sustain direct physical damage from the vehicle, but was knocked unconscious for a few minutes.
“In true Dakar spirit, he refused to be taken out of the rally on a helicopter,” said Jones. “He kept going. He showed some true grit.”
Jones’ main objective was to finish the Dakar, and to beat the many challenges presented to the riders over the 14 days they were on the course. He was met at the finish line by some friends, including a cinematographer from Vancouver who brought his cameras and did some filming. There was also a Canadian from Calgary who was working in Saudi Arabia and came out with his daughter when they discovered a Canadian was in the Dakar race.
“They came and met me with a Canadian flag, so there was a welcome party at the finish, and that was lovely to have a little entourage,” said Jones.
The distance covered in the rally was huge. Jones said when he flew out for the rally, he had a flight between Vancouver and Frankfurt, Germany. The distance of that flight is a little bit shy of the 8,500 kilometres that Jones rode in the Dakar Rally. His rally time was 69 hours, one minute and 44 seconds.
“I’m glad I stuck with it and faced up to the challenges,” said Jones. “The biggest thing was to keep the belief in myself. This is certainly the toughest thing I’ve done.”
Jones said he would now like to run the Africa Eco Race, which covers a lot of the territory of the original Paris-Dakar race, which morphed into the Dakar Rally just finished.