RISING What was the toughest day on a bike you’ve ever had in the Dakar?
SAM SUNDERLAND ‘This year the longest day was 1,250 kilometres. And then we got to the finish and there was this big flood on the route so we had to change the bivouac, and we got told we had to ride another 380 kilometres. I think I was on the bike for around 17, 18 hours that day. You set yourself up for finishing at a certain point after already being kind of exhausted, and then they tell you you're not quite done yet.’
RISING There are 12 stages to the race and it went through Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina – the fatigue must add up?
SS ‘When you go from 50ºC in the desert in Argentina to -2ºC at 4,000m in Bolivia, the changes on the body are just brutal. Long days build up, day after day, it’s like a bit of a snowball effect – it hits you pretty heavy to be honest.’
RISING Does the battle of physical endurance eventually turn into a mind game?
SS ‘Yes, you’re always going to arrive to that moment where you're just completely destroyed, completely empty, worn out; where you just feel like you've got nothing left and you've got no choice, but you have to kind of push on and get it done. Looking back at it you feel a sense of achievement, a sense of pride at what you've done and gotten through. I mean at the time of course you're wondering why the hell you're doing it and it's still horrible!’
‘We don't get to recce the course – it’s all new at 120-odd miles per hour’
RISING Those heli shots of you tearing across the desert look super-fast – what’s the racing speed?
SS ‘So the rally bike is about 180kph, you know, off-road – so it's fast. Around 120-odd miles per hour. The thing is, the whole time we’re riding it’s over new terrain, we’ve never passed the same place twice. It’s always new to us, you never know what's coming at you. We don't get to pre-run it, we don't get to recce the course, it’s all new; so you have to use your experience a bit and try and judge it pretty good. You have to stay really focused – it's not easy.’
RISING What's the most surprising thing you’ve come across doing 120mph?
SS ‘For me the worst is animals. Sometimes there’s cows on the route, horses, pigs, llamas; a bit scary because there's nothing you can do – all you can do is just hope you don’t hit one if they run out. You can’t think: “OK, I’ll ride this section slower because there might be a cow on the route,’ because you'd lose 20, 30 minutes. On day two of Dakar 2017 already I missed a cow and I didn't even get a chance to brake. It went from bush to bush from right to left across the track and by the time I’d seen it and thought about braking I’d already gone past. It was like, “Wow, that was lucky,” and you ride the next kilometres with a bit of fear in the back of your mind.’
RISING What are the three biggest attributes that a motocross rider needs in the race?
SS ‘To understand the navigation's always hard, coming from my motocross background, and to kind of tame yourself down a bit; to learn to sometimes slow down, to take a bit of extra time just to get through a section safe. You only learn the hard way by kind of getting lost or having a crash or all that kind of stuff. Then you kind of sit back and, “Oh, OK, perhaps that wasn't the best way.” People can tell you but in the end you normally learn the hard way, as with most things in life.’
RISING What’s been your toughest lesson, would you say?
SS ‘In 2016 I'd just won the Morocco rally in the last round of the world championships, beat all the guys I’d normally race in the Dakar, and then three days later I was training after the race and broke my femur, and had to sit at home and watch Dakar on telly. That was a tough pill to swallow, but at the same time you try to learn from them mistakes and hopefully they don't happen again – it's a motorsport at the end of the day and you’re always a bit at risk.’
RISING So how do you bounce back from that experience to actually go on and not only finish Dakar for the first time, but steal the win too?
SS ‘You can take it as motivational, or you can take it and sit and feel miserable and dwell on it. I used it as motivation to think, “right, I know I can beat the guys that are out there winning,” and wanting to prove it to myself. Because in the end it is for yourself; you don’t race for somebody else, you race for yourself. If someone gave you another €20,000, or however much money to drive faster, you’d say you wouldn’t; you're already racing to your limit.’
‘I’ve broken 25 bones and I’m 28 years old – ankles, wrists, arm, femur, both feet, collarbone four times’
RISING How do you stay mentally focused enough to be able to race when you get to that level of fatigue?
SS ‘You'll wake up, have a Red Bull in the morning and get to work, crack on with it. You feel it – it’s day after day, five hours’ sleep, you’ve been driving for 12, 13 hours and you’ve just got to manage it. There’s no special way to do it so you don't feel tired. You can't train for that, you just have to manage and really, really try and focus as best you can. If you make a mistake, at the speeds we go, and in the terrain that we're in – mountains, cliffs, rocks and everything else – you play with your life a little bit.’
RISING You’ve taken some tumbles in the past – what’s your tally of broken bones?
SS ‘I think I'm at 25 bones now. And I'm 28 years old so it’s a bit of a bad number! Ankles, wrists, arm, femur, both feet, collarbone four times.’
RISING What gets you through the recovery and back onto the bike, time after time?
SS ‘It sucks but at the same time I love racing and I get that buzz and that adrenaline and that's what I want to do; I want to race and I want to go fast and I want to try and win. If you went out there and rode just to say, ‘OK, I'm going to ride today so that there's absolutely no way I'm going to fall off,’ you'll be outside the top 30.’
RISING How does it feel to ride your bike across these amazing landscapes?
SS ‘I love that freedom of riding my bike through open deserts and you still get that crazy sense of adventure. It’s still a huge part of that in Dakar, it's like a mad, mad adventure.
This year in Dakar we were in Bolivia and we were on a mountain liaison, a link section between the stages, and we went up to 5,000-odd metres and you're coming over this terrain and it just looks like Mars. You’re looking into the distance and you can see snow all across the mountains, and just like a really eerie kind of strange feeling up there. Not much oxygen which probably adds to the effect I guess!’
‘You put value to something by working hard at it and that’s been my philosophy’
RISING There doesn’t seem to be much room for doubt at 120mph off-road – how important was self-belief to your win?
SS ‘This was the first time I finished. So to go there saying, “I'm going to win,” is a bit arrogant. I would never say that but I know in myself that I can ride fast and that I can beat the guys that I’d raced against in the world championship and other races, so in the back of my mind I always had that belief. I think you need that as a racer, you need to to believe that you can achieve it. It is a mental game; you're tired, you're fatigued and you're every kind of emotion you can imagine that comes into your mind so you definitely need a bit of self-belief.’
RISING If someone watching you was inspired to take up the sport, what top three tips would you have for them?
SS ‘A lot of it’s about preparation; the better you can be prepared, the more chance you have. You’ve got to put in the time and sometimes you've got to make sacrifices. It’s not an easy road. I started rallies about seven years ago and have had many injuries and setbacks. You've got to just keep trying and not give up. Anything that’s worth having, you have to work and put yourself out for it. You put value to something by working hard at it and that's been my philosophy.’
RISING Something else we’ve been wondering – what’s the best way to get up those massive sand dunes?
SS ‘There are a lot of different tricky places in the dunes for sure, you can come unstuck. You need to try and carry speed and just try and avoid braking too hard because you'll dig in and get stuck. Try to keep momentum up, but it’s not easy! The problem is, there’s a lot of drop-offs in the dunes and if you go too fast off one of them it can be a bad day.’
WHAT NEXT? If you’ve got five minutes you can get a flavour of the mental challenge and punishing terrain Sam Sunderland blasted through to win the 2017 Dakar Rally in this video.