Sam Sunderland: PH2 Meets

This year, 27-year-old Sam Sunderland became the first Brit to ever top a Dakar podium. Considering the event has been run for 38 years and the likes of Colin McRae have unsuccessfully given it a shot on four wheels, that is a massive achievement. What makes it even more impressive is that this was the first Dakar Sunderland had actually managed to finish, having put himself out in previous rallies through some horrific injuries as well as mechanical issues. So what does it take to win a Dakar? PH2 caught up with Sam to find out...

What's your riding background?
"I grew up racing motocross in the UK but moved to Dubai in 2009 where I got into rally and then Dakar. It's a strange route; most Dakar riders get there through enduro riding."

So why the switch?
"I was racing motocross in Dubai, Australia and America but it just kind of happened. I raced a desert series in Dubai, did pretty good, and from that I raced the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and that got me into rally and the Cross-Country Rally World Championship and finally Dakar."

What's the appeal compared to motocross?
"The freedom; you just ride where you want to and no one complains, which I love. You don't get that in the UK."

So was Dakar always on the horizon?
"No, not really. I didn't even really follow it when I was motocrossing, it just all fell into place and after competing with Marc Coma and all the top guys in the Desert Challenge it just sort of happened."

What is your Dakar record?
"Seven entered, three times I had an engine fault, once I crashed out and the first race I finished I won! I also didn't make the start twice - I broke my femur before one and both my wrists before another..."

Didn't you think about giving it up?
"No! In the end motorsport is a risk, that's the name of the game and I love racing bikes. I love a challenge and Dakar is a massive challenge."

How hard is the Dakar on two wheels?
"Really hard, I lost a stone and a half in 12 days... The longest day we had was about 800 miles, mainly off-road, and that was day eight. We were on the bikes for 12-15 hours a day and that day was 16-17 hours of hell. During the event we went from 48 degrees in Paraguay to two degrees in Bolivia at 4,000 metres up, then back to Argentina at 45 degrees for five days."

What's an average Dakar day like?
"You get up at 3am and try and force cold pasta down your neck for sustenance, which sucks. You leave the bivouac at 3:30-4am then you ride a road section for anything between 50 and 300km before the special stage, which can be 500-600km, then it's 200-300km on the road to the next bivouac. When you arrive you have to do your road book for about four hours and then it's time for food and bed. Generally you are in bed by 9 or 10pm if you are lucky. It's rough and you do 12 days straight with only one rest day."

How do you keep motivated to get up and do it again?
"It's the challenge. If you ask a marathon runner at kilometre 42 if they are having a good time they will say no. But afterwards it's such an amazing experience and the whole team is behind you. I've been through a lot of bad things and that really forced me onwards as I really wanted it."

You have had some terrible injuries, what have you done to yourself?
"So many. When I was 16 I broke both my ankles, my tibias and fibulas, knees and pelvis. I've done five collar bones, both scaphoids, I've had arm-pump operations, I've done my left foot, left arm, fingers, knuckles, femur last October and I have a right leg that is 2cm shorter than the left with a huge rod in it! I now walk around in circles..."

What was the toughest day this year?
"Quite a few as the organisers put us through a tough time; Marc Coma was in charge of the route and ensured we were in for a rough ride. My arms were destroyed when I finished and I still have marks on them as well as a thorn in one that needs to be cut out. Day 10 was a rough one. I was leading and it was a hot day and very hard to navigate, I got lost and stressed out and that was bad. When you get in a flap that's when accidents happen and the heat doesn't help - two top riders passed out that day due to the heat."

Did you have any close moments this year?
"Day 10! I made some navigation mistakes and didn't know where the other guys were, so I was stressed until I reached the refuel point. Luckily everyone got a bit lost."

What's the hardest part of Dakar? Riding? Navigating? The lack of sleep? Endurance?
"All of it together - sleep deprivation, temperature, long hours on the bike, altitude, everything. It's so hard to focus for so long and so easy to make a mistake and when you clip a stone at 120mph off-road it can go wrong very quickly. You think you are OK as you are used to blocking out the pain, but then you make a small mistake... Also, you are always riding on new terrain and we are riding flat-out - it's a race, not a sightseeing tour."

So how does it feel to be the first Brit to win Dakar?
"Very cool. When you are there you don't really think about it, but being back home you realise that everyone is really proud of what you have achieved. That's really cool and a great feeling."

Did you cry as you crossed the line?
"Yeah, I was a little bit emotional. I didn't realise just how much pressure was on my shoulders until I crossed the line and it all came out at once. And then I went to a mad party..."



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Comments (10) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Spannerski 14 Mar 2017

    Excellent article.
    Another Great Brit on a bike that slips passed the mainstream press.

    He deserves an honour in my book.

  • crofty1984 14 Mar 2017

    Sounds rough as fk. I'd say well done to him just for finishing!

  • SimmoJon 14 Mar 2017

    Kudos to PH for picking up this fantastic achievement which sadly never got the coverage it deserved.

  • mcbook 14 Mar 2017

    Just finishing the Dakar is an amazing achievement, never mind winning it!

    It's difficult to comprehend from the numbers alone but can you imagine waking up at 3am to ride 200km just to get to the start of the next stage?

    Then riding 500km at race-pace, over crazy terrain, while trying to figure out which direction you should be going...

    Finishing the stage and having another 200km to ride before you get to camp for the night... maybe it's not that severe every day but these guys are on another level. I have immense respect for them.

  • DoubleTime 14 Mar 2017

    Top man!

    It must take some amount of mental strength as well as the obvious physical to endure and finish that rally.

    I shared the win on facebook where I have a decent amount of Motorsport enthusiasts.

    Zero likes!?!?

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