Today featured the final part of the rally's first marathon section, and it included the first Mauritanian special test - a 229-mile fast, sandy jaunt. (If the bike could go at 250 [155 mph], we could go 250," said Isidre Esteve.) The stage headed almost straight south from the Moroccan coastal town of Tan-Tan, beginning at 12:30 a.m. Friday with riders leaving in the order they had finished yesterday's portion of the stage (cars and bikes mixed together). First up was a 219-mile nighttime transfer section consisting of pavement and gravel that brought riders through Morocco-occupied Occidental Sahara, an area disputed between Morocco, Mauritania and the local residents. At the transfer's end, riders were given time for breakfast and a short rest before they began another, seven-mile gravel transfer section to the Mauritanian border. There, they began the high-speed, flat-sand test (which included one refueling point for the bikes), which was followed by a 10-mile pavement transfer into Zouerat. The top riders began showing up at camp just before noon.
"Riding at night was something new, and something difficult," Carlo de Gavardo said. "I consider it a little dangerous because in the night there are animals, and people don't drive well. I went faster in the night. I imagine that the riders were stressed. I heard two saying that they fell asleep and went off the course, and I saw another one with a compound fracture of his tibia - in the transfer stage! It was also cold. I slept beside my motorcycle from 4:30 to 6:30 [at the breakfast stop]." The tibia fracture belonged to Pascal Vincent, who was airlifted to Smara, Morocco, and on to Agadir, Morocco.
Tonight's host village of Zouerat is the first overnight in Mauritania, and its endless, flat expanses make for an eerie landscape (the fine, drifting sand known as fesh-fesh works its way into everything). Mining of iron ore represents 40-percent of the country's revenue, and there is a local mine that is linked to Nouadhibou (300 miles west on the Atlantic coast) by the "blue train," which is over a mile long (the longest in the world) and travels at an average speed of just 30 miles per hour.
As expected, defending champ Fabrizio Meoni was fastest through the test on his KTM LC8 V-twin rocket. He went as fast as 116 mph as he passed the two riders ahead of him and finished the test over seven minutes faster than his next-closest competitor, enough to move him into the top position in the overall standings. Because of the speed and heat, there had been concern for the foam tire inserts melting, but Meoni's Michelin Bib Mousses made it through with no trouble.
"I knew that this was the only stage in the rally that could be favorable to the twin," Meoni said while cooling off under an awning afterward. "Therefore it was important to capitalize. In fact, I started today very concentrated on getting everything I could from my bike... I was very focused, so I didn't feel tired from the lack of sleep last night. I think I did well as possible. It will be hard because the terrain that's coming will be quite technical. The conditions today are different than what will come in the next days. It will be hard, but I'll try anyway to defend my number one."
Finishing second was pesky Chilean de Gavardo, who is third in the overall results, but who is closing on Joan Roma (third in today's test). In fact, de Gavardo is now only 21 seconds back from his Repsol KTM teammate, and he hopes the coming days will offer the opportunity to reel in not only Roma, but also Meoni.
"I've known since Europe that this would be the stage for the bigger bikes - especially for my friend, Fabrizio," de Gavardo said. "I'm very happy because he had a very nice day. He put seven minutes on us, and that proves that the bike is very strong - he's very fast also [laughs]. I didn't go at maximum, maximum speed. I went a little less, because I knew this was Fabrizio's day. Here, you have one day for you, one day for the others, but I tried [to make sure] that Nani [Roma] didn't get away."
Tomorrow will bring a 246-mile stage that is all a special test, and that brings the rally caravan to Atar, Mauritania, where there will be one rest day followed by a loop stage.
FRIDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 2 hours: 49 minutes: 51 seconds
2. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Italy - 2:56:56
3. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 2:57:51
4. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 2:57:52
5. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 2:59:24
6. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 3:00:34
7. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 3:01:28
8. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 3:03:05
9. Pg Lundmark (BMW) Sweden - 3:05:34
10. Jean Brucy (KTM) France - 3:06:27
MARATHON STAGE RESULTS (THURS. & FRI.)
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 6 hours: 27 minutes: 31 seconds
2. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 6:29:59
3. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 6:34:35
4. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 6:34:41
5. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 6:36:38
6. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 6:41:12
7. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 6:43:29
8. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 6:44:10
9. Pg Lundmark (BMW)Sweden - 7:07:03
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 7;11:48
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 11 hours: 37 minutes: 16 seconds
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 11:40:23
3. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 11:40:44
4. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 11:43:16
5. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 11:52:29
6. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 11:59:39
7. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 12:02:11
8. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 12:13:18
9. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 12:44:53
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 13:2:17
Mauritania is a far cry from Morocco in terms of civilization. Our camp today is once again at an airport, but this time it's unpaved, and the steady breeze had blown sand into every corner of my tent by the time I got it set up. It is also much warmer, as we are further inland and away from the ocean's humidity (conditions quite similar to the deserts of Southern California), and there is many a refrigerator-white belly on display (but soon to become lobster-pink). I've hacked the arms off my T-shirt, and have zipped the legs off my conversion pants.
There's a little bit of a sketchy feel here, as camo-wearing soldiers walk about brandishing bayonet-equipped machine guns, but the few U.N. soldiers who are here no doubt lend some stability. I am perhaps a little more nervous than some others, for a reason that prudence dictates I save for a future posting, but it seems that everything will be fine.
Here in the press tent, I have long ago come to know which of the annoying, cutesy cell-phone rings goes with which journalist: The Mission Impossible theme belongs to the German KTM correspondent; the steadily increasing, high-pitched whistle belongs to the Italian television coordinator; the taunting, neener-neener whine belongs to TSO's press-tent boss. The only one I like is the old-time telephone jangle of the French sports-daily reporter. I had hoped to escape all the racket, but incredibly, European cell phones are still working, even in the wilds of Mauritania. I suppose there's no escaping technology (unless I take my American mobile phone to the local So Cal moto tracks, where I can't get a signal to save my life).
I again got a good sleep last night, and I'm full to popping with food (at this morning's breakfast, we were given a huge sack lunch to bring with us, and yet there was a full catered lunch of pasta upon our arrival in Zourat).
Giancarlo and I talked last evening with Youma Tall, an aptly named African woman from Burkina Faso who is competing on a KTM LC4. Tall is the first black woman to take part in the race, and although she didn't make last night's camp until nearly midnight (this is her first race!), she didn't appear tired and seems determined to reach Dakar. The toughest problem she had was in day two's muddy special test in France, as she had never before ridden in wet conditions, but now she is confident that her slow-but-steady approach will carry her to the finish. I guess journalists are supposed to remain detached and emotionless, but I'm pulling for her.