Today’s action started early, very early. Riders climbed out of their tents at midnight in order to get lined up for a 1 a.m. start and another very long 500-mile day. The day would start out in the Moroccan rocks and rugged trails, across the Mauritanian border, through a minefield, across sand dunes and into the first camel grass sections.
Speeds for the most of the day were very high, for some that means wide open. As velocity rose, so to did the risk of setting off each vehicle’s 160km per hour (about 100 mph) alarm, and suffering penalties for it. Organizers have instituted strict speed limits and harsh three-strike punishments for violators. Should the bike-mounted sensor hit the 160 km limit more than twice, a racer could be eliminated from the rally.
Satellite communications were good today so we’ll let Chris Blais and Andy Grider share their side of the story as of Stage 6:
GRIDER: (pictured) “We ran for a distance of 150 to 200km at just under 160km per hour. Chris and I rode together and our warning blinkers were flashing the entire time. Above 150 and approaching 160 it really lets you know that you’re about to get pegged.”
BLAIS: “I really tried to keep my bike at around 148-150km, but it’s tough and with the pack Andy and I were riding with, that was tough. It was really fast today.”
Stage 6 started with a very long, cold 336km transfer section, which the American KTM riders completed with enough time to take a 1-hour nap before attacking the long 444 km special test.
GRIDER: “We arranged to have a tent at the start of the special so that Chris and I could catch some winks. About an hour was all.”
BLAIS: “With one tent it was pretty tight but it was good to get a little rest prior to such a long special test.”
If the high speeds, rocks and camel grass wasn’t enough to keep riders wide awake, a 5 a.m. jaunt through an active mine field did the trick.
GRIDER: “Chris and I rode side by side through that section - it was crazy. It was at the beginning of the special test and there were police vehicles on each side. We had a narrow corridor to ride through. The special was long, but I had a good clean ride and the only trouble I had was with my GPS. This year it only shows a pointer when you’re within 3km of each waypoint, but my arrow would not come on for some reason. So I followed my road book carefully to pick my way through.
“When I got to the refueling stop I discovered that another fuel connector had broken like in Stage 4. I only had 15 minutes to take on fuel and fix the connector so I got to work. Completed the repair with literally one minute to spare before the restart. Bad thing is that in order to fix it, I had to damage the fuel line, and I did not have a hose clamp. I tried to ride carefully for the rest of the stage, so I would finish without another breakdown.”
Speeds increased throughout the stage, even in the very technical sections of camel grass.
GRIDER: “The first 20-30km of the day were hard rocky roads, twisty. Then we were taped for 200km - at the speed limit the entire time. After the fuel stop we hit a couple of dune sections, which were no problem. I am very happy with my KTM, it’s set up perfectly for me and really goes well. The camel grass is a pain in the ass, though. Today it wasn't too big - the grass was there, not too many big bumps.”
The big news of the day was that current front-runner, Cyril Despres of the Galoises team, had crashed hard and was possibly out with a broken collarbone.
GRIDER: “I heard about Despres as soon as I got to the finish. The OLN TV guy told me he had crashed. But the medical staff here is awesome - and Cyril should have very good care. A crash like that however will take a big physical and mental chunk out of him. He and his team are here to win. But I respect him he’s a very tough guy to push on.
“I am trying not to make any mistakes - I am sleeping like a baby, and I feel a lot better than I thought I would be. Sleep usually catches up with you a few days afterwards. Fortunately the rest day is only two days away.
“The last two days - because of fuel problems - I passed 15 riders. Today I started 17th, physically came in ninth, passed eight riders. Tomorrow we start inverted - so I expect to pass many other riders.”
“We had incredible steaks last night - cooked to order. It was great! Tonight was also good - pasta with pork gravy.
“Right now I am looking at my bike. It’s very good and my mechanic Matt Herbert is doing all the work on it. He and I got together in Tunisia, but this is the first time we have worked together as a team. Originally I met him at Scot Harden’s Nevada Rally Experience in 2004. Matt and I get along, we listen to the same types of music. He’s doing a great job keeping me going especially after days like yesterday when Chris and I really beat these things up. Our wheels were hammered and we had some pretty good ‘smiles’ in our rims. You couldn't quite see the bib mouse tubes but you could see all the tire beads on the rims. Couldn’t believe how much those bike were bouncing when we came in!
“Tonight I visited the privateer bivouac (pictured) and I feel very spoiled. We have several sets of gear, tires, parts, physical therapists, everything. Those guys? Wow.
“I'm running a new prototype sand goggle, the Oakley Crowbar goggle with thicker foam. These aren’t on the market, so I’m not sure what they’ll call it. I just call it the sand goggle. I will also be using Troy Lee Cold Weather Gloves in the morning along with my KINI gear and Gaerne boots.
Andy also added that Jonah Street is incredible: “[Street’s] 20th overall, and I am amazed at how he and his 525 KTM are hanging in there. He’s really good.”
BLAIS: (pictured) “Wow, those last two days - I can hardly remember yesterday because today was so freakin’ long! I had a really good time today though - it was fun and very fast. We averaged over 100km per hour today. We had 80km of high-speed camel grass and ran some sections at 100km through this stuff. It was crazy.
“We were in a pack of four riders - I led for a while, but I didn’t want to hold anybody up, so I let Andy take the lead and let him hit the big stuff first. Man, he was airing his bike out big time! We all rode together: Andy, De Azevedo and Katrinak. It was a good ride.
“[Despres] was trying to make his move today, and it didn't work out for him. They say he crashed in the camel grass and that doesn't surprise me.
“What an early-ass day, up at midnight - riding before 2 a.m. then ultra high-speed can't afford any brain fades.
“The speedo cap [speed alarm] on Chris' bike - wasn't working - so the alarm was intermittent - that's why Andy caught me toward the beginning. He just held it wide open for 150-200km. I tried to keep it down below 148km. At over 160km the alarm goes off and today a couple of guys had 161km, 162km. I need to avoid that.
“Yesterday, we destroyed a complete set of wheels. It was really rocky and I noticed that my front brake caliper had come loose, but the safety wire kept it in place. Everything’s getting beat up, but we keep going strong.
“The section at the border was lit with burning oil cans, so at about 5 a.m., Andy and I rode through this section together. Prior to the start of this section a guy named Georgio was there with a tent that Andy and I shared for an hour and a half. It was tight, but it was good to get more sleep.
“I am still feeling good but guys will start dropping out tomorrow - the pace up front is very, very fast. Only physical problem is my lower back - the bike’s big and heavy, and it jerks me around in the whoops and camel grass. Doc Edwards has had to work on my back a little but I’m okay.
“I got new Scott goggles with light-sensitive lens - clear in the dark and blue when things light up. They’re really good for me, because I hate the stress of swapping lenses - I want everything to be good and not have to do a bunch of prep every day.
“Joe Barker talked me into wearing a wool ski boot sock. I am so happy! - I use Dr Scholls liners and my feet have been very good. I don't have to smell them in my tent anymore.
“Matt Spencer’s wrenching my bike again - he is the lead mechanic. He has been with me since last Dakar, and I have had no mechanical problems since I hooked up with him. These conditions are harsh - Andy went through the skid plate yesterday - through and through - and into the pipe. But our KTMs are very tough and they just keep going. Even when I am convinced that my bike is okay, Matt still spends 4-5 hours on the bike to assure that there are no problems. It's cool to see everybody working at night in the bivouac.
“As for tires, we have two different rear compounds depending on how long the stages are and what type of terrain we’re in. The trucks have all the wheels we’ll use here with us. The back of the truck has three racks of wheels. It’s amazing. Lots of the privateers don't do anything to their bikes - they are just too tired when they arrive, and they rely on the fact that they might make it to the end without too much maintenance. Those guys have it pretty rough but a finish is like a win for them. We’ve got other objectives we’re here to race.
“Thanks to all of my sponsors, my family and especially my wife Patty for all the support.