Though less than 250 miles in length, today's stage (nearly all of it special test) did some damage to some of the competitors. Among the affected were Alfie Cox, who crashed spectacularly at the 66-mile point and damaged his bike, though he managed to resume racing without losing too much time. Less lucky was Eric Aubijoux, who dislocated his shoulder in a crash. He set off his distress beacon and was taken to Zouerat by helicopter. Jean Brucy went down at mile 135, hit his head, and had his breathing restricted as his helmet strap was squeezing his throat. Fortunately, a helicopter landed and helped him out enough that he was able to re-join the race. Marc Coma's engine quit at 120, and Jun Mitsuhashi's did likewise at mile 78. And black female racer Youma Tall, about whom we spoke in yesterday's posting, crashed at mile 91, broke her knee and was transported to Zouerat.
"It spat me off in some rocks," Cox said. "I bent the exhaust up, and it lost some power, but I was lucky."
Of those who stayed upright, Finn Kari Tiainen was the fastest, perhaps atoning somewhat for his broken spokes and destroyed tire insert of two days ago. In posting his first stage-win of the rally, the Deutsch Post KTM rider was over three minutes faster than Spaniard Jordi Arcarons, who in turn led countryman Isidre Esteve. Italian Giovani Sala was fifth on his KTM twin, with Frenchman Richard Sainct and Chilean Carlo de Gavardo next. Overall leader and defending champ Fabrizio Meoni was eighth.
"The classification signifies nothing," Meoni said. "All the riders are competitive. The race is open. It is a great spectacle. We are all KTM and against each other. We are all friends. For sure, I want to win, but if it was Nani or Richard, I would be happy."
"There was a lot of dust," Roma said. "I passed the first dunes, difficult, with care, and then I got stuck in the last one, two kilometers from the refueling. The dunes were very soft, and I think that a lot of competitors will be stuck there this evening. I am happy to be here in Atar on the bike. Last year I came here via helicopter."
The stage went south from Zouerat (near the border of Western Sahara) to Atar (a traditional Dakar Rally overnight stop, first used in 1987), all in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Much of the special included roadless sand dunes (including the Erg de El Beyyed), making good navigational skills paramount, and it also included camel grass, stones, gravel and vegetation. The test ended with a long, straight, fast dirt road, although Meoni and de Gavardo both finished the special test on a slightly twisty dirt road off to one side.
Meoni retained his position at the top of the leaderboard, though de Gavardo (who passed Telefonica Repsol KTM teammate Roma for second) ate into his lead considerably, and currently sits under two minutes in arrears of the leader. Riders will now get a day off in Atar, which was founded by a tribe in the 17th century, and soon became a necessary stop for all traveling caravans (helping it to grow and develop more in the 19th century). The twisting streets of the old town house artisans' shops, and the blacksmith square is the center for craftswork in the area.
SATURDAY SPECIAL-TEST SCORES
1. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 4 hours: 14 minutes: 54 seconds
2. Jordi Arecarons (KTM) Spain - 4:18:01
3. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 4:19:43
4. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 4:22:33
5. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 4:22:38
6. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 4:23:09
7. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 4:23:39
8. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 4:24:44
9. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 4:29:47
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 4:40:13
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 16 hours: 02 minutes: 00 seconds
2. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 16:03:53
3. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 16:04:02
4. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 16:10:30
5. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 16:13:03
6. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 16:19:22
7. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 16:24:49
8. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 16:35:51
9. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 16:59:47
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 17:42:30
While Morocco is fairly advanced compared to most African countries (the young girls are dressed like westerners, though their mothers continue to wear the traditional vails), that's certainly not the case here in Mauritinia. Last evening, Walter took Giancarlo and me to their hotel in Zouerat for a shower, and the poverty was overwhelming. The streets were non-existent, and trash was everywhere. This is an Islamic country, and as we made our way into the half-completed hotel, we walked by groups of men praying on their knees in the dirt to Mecca. Today's host-village of Atar, where we'll also spend tomorrow and the next day (there's a rest day tomorrow and a loop stage on Monday) is even poorer. I walked about five miles from the airport to the end of the special test to shoot some photos, and the conditions in the village are deplorable. Houses are made of mud, doors are rigged from rolled-out metal from the sides of gas barrels, and goat pens are patched together from old mattress springs. Within in minutes after leaving the airport, I was followed by a long parade of shoeless black children, and all were very cheery despite their destitution (I suppose they know nothing else). For a few Acerbis stickers and a couple of bucks, one young boy (he claimed to be 14, but I'd guess closer to 10) named Mohammed showed me a shortcut back to the airport. It cut about a half-mile off the walk, but cut through a barrio that made Tijuana look rich.
Today's plane ride took place at fairly low altitude, giving us a good look at the terrain below. Part of it was a seemingly endless stretch of sand dunes, and if one were to wake from a nap and glance out the window, he'd think he was looking down on clouds. South of the dunes was a vast stretch of harder, windblown terrain; the slightest protrusion in the flat expanse had a number of small sandhills on its downwind side.
The Atar camp site has us once again setting up our tents on tarmac, a welcome development after last night's sand camp (I shook a cup-full of dirt out of my dome tent this morning). Tonight should be even more posh, as Walter and the other Acerbis boys have hooked up Giancarlo and me with a room at nearby Hotel Salima. I'm grateful, to say the least. It was only yesterday that I took a shower, but the weather has warmed up considerably (I got a tip-off when they handed out larger water bottles at breakfast this morning), and my hike to the test-finish and back in the intense sun has got me smelling quite ripe.