One day after reaching his 39th birthday, Gauloises KTM rider Alfie Cox celebrated by posting the fastest time in Monday's loop special test, which saw riders depart from the Mauritanian city of Atar just before 8:00 this morning, navigate a 250-mile ring (with a 227-mile special test) without the benefit of GPS, and arrive back at the same place around 1:00 in the afternoon.
Following yesterday's day off, competitors were comparatively rested for the loop stage that began with a 20-mile transfer section on pavement, heading southwest out of Atar. Then the racers turned off the street to attack the clockwise-loop special test, which started with existing rocky dirt roads, then negotiated sand dunes, gravel, rocks and camel grass (hard tufts of grass placed irregularly in the sand). After that, it was another three-mile pavement transfer back into town. The varied special, which is totally new for the rally, required lots of navigation, a chore made more difficult by the prohibition of GPS use today. This is a new feature for the rally, and there will be another no-GPS stage before it's all said and done.
Cox had no trouble adapting, completing the test in just over four hours - a slim six seconds faster than runner-up Fabrizio Meoni, who was suffering from food poisoning. This moved the South African up one spot in the overall standings to fourth place. Meoni still leads overall on his twin-cylinder LC8 KTM, and in fact picked up over a minute on second place (formerly occupied by Carlo de Gavardo, now held down by Joan Roma). As for de Gavardo, the Chilean had a somewhat off day, finishing three minutes, 45 seconds off of Cox's pace in fourth place.
"Every rally is more experience," Cox said. "I've only ridden like four rallies. Meoni has ridden like eight or nine. I'm getting better every year."
As a reward for the stage win, KTM will present Cox with a new mini KTM, the perfect gift for his son Bradley, who will celebrate his fourth birthday in one month (in France, Cox had already arranged a complete set of Acerbis riding gear for his son).
Seeing his hopes of playing the spoiler go up in smoke was Pg Lundmark, whose BMW had been the only non-KTM in the top 10. Unfortunately, the Swede's bike gave up the ghost at the 32-mile point of today's test, the victim of a motor problem. Also rolling to a stop was Italian Ennio Cucurachi, whose KTM quit on him 42 miles in.
Despite yesterday's off-day, there were a couple of riders who were perhaps less rejuvenated than the others. Gerard Barbezant, who for some reason is entered on a KTM 125 two-stroke, had broken his chain in the sand on Saturday, and after getting replacement links from the sweep crew, he spent Saturday night by himself on the course. Then he awoke yesterday and rode the remaining 115 miles into Atar.
"Today, I felt like the cyclists on the Tour de France on their rest day," the Frenchman said. "I carried out a little training."
While Barbezant will continue on, Ayikoe Messan is less fortunate. The black rider from the African country of Togo had become stuck in the sand with an electrical problem on Saturday not far out of Zouerat. He waited with the bike, and when he saw the lights of the sweep truck approaching, he left his bike to intercept the truck. Unfortunately, his bike (along with his passport and money) was stolen during that time, and Messan was the picture of hard luck when he showed up at the Atar camp yesterday in the truck, still dressed in his dusty gear.
MONDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 4 hours: 8 minutes: 10 seconds
2. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 4:08:16
3. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 4:09:35
4. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 4:11:55
5. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 4:13:27
6. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 4:15:00
7. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 4:18:11
8. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 4:18:56
9. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 4:19:59
10. Vicente Escuder (KTM) Spain - 4:21:19
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 20 hours: 10 minutes: 16 minutes
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 20:13:37
3. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 20:15:48
4. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 20:21:13
5. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 20:25:30
6. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 20:38:16
7. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 20:38:18
8. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 20:54:02
9. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 21:19:46
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 22:19:15
After posting yesterday's story, I capitalized on the day off by taking on another off-road outing in the Acerbis Landcruiser with Giacomo and Sergio. This time the dirt road, which was also part of today's special test, required much slower going, as it was extremely rough and rocky. We went as far as Terjit, a beautiful oasis hidden at the head of a sheer-walled box canyon. Water bubbled out of the ground, and date palms shaded the moist sand, where tents and mattresses were set up for tourists who wanted to relax for the evening. It was quiet, clean and peaceful, and I wouldn't have minded one bit abandoning our humble hotel and spending the night there in the desert.
From there, we continued on toward another village called Oujeft, but before getting there, we turned off the road and, using the GPS as a guide, made our way down another canyon to the paved road back to Atar. The terrain was not unlike many areas of Nevada, with reddish soil, rocks galore and large mesas all around. A couple of portions resembled trials sections, but the majority was soft sand that made for a smooth ride.
Giacomo dropped me off at camp, and after a dinner in the dusty bivouac, Giancarlo, Franz and I took a taxi back to the hotel. My night's rest was interrupted by several visits to the separate bathroom, as I've developed stomach problems - probably from something I ate. While I waited for my headache, achy muscles, slight fever and lack of appetite to pass, I took the morning slow and easy, working on my stories in the press room, waiting for news to be posted on the bulletin board and making the occasional emergency trip to a bush in the desert (as a French journalist said the other day when her frilly underwear spilled out of her bag onto the tarmac, "There is no shame in the Dakar Rally"). I had hoped to make it out to see and shoot today's special test, and in fact Giacomo invited me to do so in the Acerbis Landcruiser, but I thought it better to lay low for a while. Thank goodness I don't have to ride a motorcycle, as did fellow food-poisoning-sufferer Fabrizio Meoni. Hopefully, this will all be behind me by this evening.