Today's 311-mile stage is one of the toughest of the rally, and its 290-mile special test is one of the longest of this 2002 edition. A 20-mile transfer took the competitors out of the Mauritanian town of Atar, and they began the special near the same spot as yesterday's test start. The early portion of the stage took place in a magnificent setting, through a canyon near a plateau that is flanked by a sea of sand. The next section of the stage included navigating difficulties and many dune crossings-off-road going with few landmarks to utilize. The last portion of this fuel-consuming special were on winding, fast dirt roads up to the outskirts of Tidjikja, into which racers headed via a one-mile transfer.
Judging by the events of the past few days, the best way to win a stage is to crash in the one before. Alfie Cox won yesterday's loop-test after crashing in the previous stage, and today, Carlo de Gavardo assuaged the disappointment of yesterday's crash-induced fourth-place finish, by posting the fastest time through the grueling special. He completed it in just over six and a half hours, despite the fact that he had three low-speed falls today. Spaniard Joan Roma was second almost two minutes back, and Fabrizio Meoni retained the overall lead on his twin-cylinder KTM by placing third. Gauloises KTM teammates Richard Sainct and Cox rounded out the top five. (By the way, there's a bit of friction between Sainct and Isidre Esteve, as the former complained last night that the latter had entered a checkpoint at the wrong point, resulting in a one-minute penalty for Esteve.)
"It was a tough stage, and a little dangerous," said de Gavardo, whose tweaked shoulder wasn't much of a hindrance today. "We were going very fast."
"The others with the small engines are very tired and stayed behind and used less physical strength than me today," Meoni said. "The terrain does not favor my bike. The stage was very physical. Tomorrow I will leave the start behind the two leaders from today, and I will catch them."
"It was really a hard day," Roma said. "I rode at the front, together with Meoni. We found a good track in a village, but we were a little deceived. After that, de Gavardo was able to catch us. I'm happy, as it's the first time I've arrived in Tidjikja. For me, it's difficult to ride in the sandy stages, as I'm not an expert. I'm satisfied to be among the leaders. Along with Fabrizio and Carlo, I think we will fight for the victory."
"It was a hard day today because of the heat," Sainct said. "The amateurs will have a tough day. There's no way to make up time. There's no navigation, as we just have to follow the tracks left by the organization as they opened the course. The top bikes and riders are similar, so it's impossible to ride faster than the other leaders."
One might think that the Dakar Rally contenders would be spread out at this point, but the top three are currently within two minutes of one another, partly the result of their decision to ride together much of the time. In fact, Meoni was upset that officials decided to start the top riders two minutes apart today, since it meant that whenever anyone caught him, it meant they had gained not just one minute, but two. Roma continues to follow Meoni in the overall points standings, but he closed the gap from over three minutes to a minute and 26 seconds. De Gavardo is third.
The hard stage took its toll on the bikes, with Kari Tiainen once again being cursed by a disintegrating Bib Mousse and Giovanni Sala hitting a rock at 25 miles in, crashing and damaging his side-panel tanks. Patrice Chevallier and Alessandro Balsotti both rolled to a stop at the 30-mile mark, the latter with a clutch problem that he attempted to repair on the course. Also suffering mechanical problems, just before the first checkpoint, was cool-named Frenchman Francois Flick, on a BMW; Martinez Ramos and Bernard Montaz both suffered mechanical problems as well, and Olivier Rouze broke his gearbox at the 17-mile mark.
The first time the rally visited Tidjikja was in 1987. The city, founded in the 17th century, is divided into two parts (the modern administrative sector in the south and the old, traditional area in the north), and it boasts a huge palm grove. The historic architecture of the old neighborhood's homes is the most distinguishing characteristic of the city, though its three mosques are also noteworthy. The market square is filled with leather workers, jewelers, and sellers of dates and vegetables.
TUESDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 6 hours: 33 minutes: 17 seconds
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 6:35:12
3. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 6:37:07
4. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 6:39:20
5. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 6:40:08
6. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 6:40:08
7. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 6:44:08
8. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 6:55:43
9. Vicente Escuder (KTM) Spain - 6:58:07
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 6:59:19
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 26 hours: 47 minutes: 23 seconds
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Finland - 26:48:49
3. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 26:49:05
4. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 27:00:33
5. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 27:09:38
6. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 27:16:56
7. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 27:19:26
8. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 27:49:45
9. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 28:24:58
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 29:18:34
After posting yesterday's story, I found a private spot in the shade of a wall on the asphalt runway and lay down for an afternoon nap. Although I secured some medicine from the medical tent, my food poisoning has completely robbed me of energy, and I have not eaten anything for about 48 hours. At least my fever and headache were gone when I awoke this morning, and I expect that my appetite will return by this evening (I also slept under the plane for a few hours today). For now, I'm just staying hydrated with lots of water, along with the occasional Coca-Cola energy blast. At any rate, I'm not alone, as many of the people following the rally are suffering from the same malady.
That was my first visit to the medical tent, and I was impressed. It's an inflatable shelter that's cool inside, and it contains all sorts of impressive-looking medical equipment. The doctor had me lay down on a cot while he gave me a thorough check-up; I believe riders are in good hands should they have the misfortune to get injured.
I hate being a complainer, but I was not disappointed to depart from Atar, after three days in a dusty camp and a ghastly hotel. I must say that Tidjikja isn't much better, as we're camped in the dirt, the flies, the wind, and the blazing heat, and there's absolutely nothing around; they tell me that tomorrow's stop in Tichit is one of the rally's nicest. I'm looking forward to a nice camp and a healthy stomach.
This morning, they switched the press to a different plane. It's a little smaller than the previous one, and they had a hard time fitting in all the luggage. In the end, they piled the extra stuff in front of two emergency exits and in unoccupied seats, a move that I'm sure wouldn't fly (literally) with the FAA. The flight assistant must have tallied the passengers about 10 times, perhaps hoping that she had over-counted, and I was further unsettled by the fact that here at Tidjikja's airport, there are plane pieces and a graveyard from a crash of a local flight eight years ago. We made it here without a hitch, however, and the flight crew says they'll do a better job with the luggage tomorrow.
The rally has settled into a groove, and the huge contingent that follows it has found a variety of ways to entertain itself during the downtime. Some play cards; others read (I'm working on a book of Ernest Hemingway's short stories, and with a little dramatizing on my malody, I can identify with the protagonist of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," who suffers from gangrene in Africa); one technician has strung up a hammock from the tail of a plane; and a few journalists play computer games on their lap-tops. My favorite thus far, however, is the pastime employed by TSO's master of lights and sound; today, as we were waiting in the Tidjikja press tent for the riders to arrive, he pulled out an electric guitar, hooked it up to an amp and began to play. So good was he that until his first song was almost completed (before I had seen him), I thought someone had put on Santana CD. He played for about a half-hour, and many people left their work for a few minutes to sit down and enjoy the show. It was a welcome break and an incredible concert in the middle of the African desert.