With just three real days remaining the 2002 Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally (the final day's short test is largely a formality), Italian Fabrizio Meoni continues to lead the overall standings, though his advantage has been trimmed to just a single minute by Spaniard Joan Roma. Meanwhile, posting a convincing victory in today's 334-mile stage (which included a 322-mile special test), was South African Alfie Cox, who climbed one spot to fourth in the overall positions.
It was one of the rally's most beautiful routes, comprising a little of everything: rocky dirt roads, grass, navigation sections, etc. The magnificent (but difficult) special test was rather long, and it began after an 11-mile transfer out of Tidjikja, Mauritania. The early going skirted the mountains heading south, then the route turned east and headed over the Nega pass into a sandy desert area into the town of Tichit (pictured here), where the caravan will spend two evenings (there's a loop stage out of here tomorrow).
Roma was in fine form, passing Meoni early on and building a substantial advantage. He then experienced odometer troubles, however, and Meoni's big KTM LC8 twin had the advantage on a couple of flat, straight sections, allowing him to gain back the overall lead. Cox, however, was perfect, winning his second stage of this year's Dakar Rally.
"I started 10 minutes behind this morning, and you don't know how to pace yourself," Cox said. "Up until the refuel [point], it was fast, but for the last 185 kilometers, I really pushed. I caught and passed Carlo, but never caught Fabrizio or Roma. I wanted to get back into contention. The last section was really tricky."
Roma held on for second, just 40 second in arrears of Cox, and Meoni was third. Jordi Arcarons was fourth, and Italian Giovani Sala completed the top five despite problems with his road book.
Slipping from third to fourth overall was Chilean Carlo de Gavardo, who is now nearly a half-hour off of Meoni's pace and all but out of the hunt for the win. The Repsol KTM rider was slowed by sickness and a sore shoulder that he damaged in a crash two days ago, but his main problem was getting lost for about 20 minutes; he was well off the pace in today's test, finishing sixth.
Finn Kari Tiainen's single-cylinder KTM finally got him back for all the abuse he had been heaping on it, spitting him off today after the second checkpoint. The Deutsch Pose rider - one of very few people who can make an LC4 look small - had suffered Bib Mousse problems throughout much of the rally, and yesterday he also had trouble with his oil pump. In his crash today, he broke his left forearm and collarbone and was trapped - unconscious - under his motorcycle for several minutes.
"Next time I don't have a chance to win the race, I will quit," Tiainen said. "For the last few days, I have been losing my concentration, and I had an accident...The bike [landed] on me, and Eric Bernard activated the balaise [emergency beacon]."
Realistically, there are now only two riders with a chance to win the rally - Meoni and Roma, who are separated by exactly one minute. Tomorrow will bring a loop stage that starts and finishes here in Tichit, and the next two days will feature a Marathon stage into Dakar. On Sunday, a short loop test will take place.
Tragically, this Dakar Rally was marred by a death Tuesday evening, when a Challenge Toyota assistance vehicle overturned on a pavement section nine miles north of Aleg, reportedly due to a blown tire. According to reports, some of the occupants were thrown from the car, and Daniel Vergnes was killed. The other occupants are being treated at the hospital in Noaukchott. Benoit Agoyer has a broken cheek bone but no neurological complications, and he was scheduled to undergo a scan today. Shoena Dorson-King suffered a deep cut to the scalp, as well as shock and bruising. Christophe Van Riet was in stable enough condition last night that emergency surgery was eliminated. He bruising of the lung area, and was scheduled to undergo scans of the torso, head and abdomen today. All will be transported by plane to either Dakar or Paris as soon as possible.
Tichit was first included in the rally way back in 1985, and is situated in southeastern Mauritania. An ancient city, it probably dates back to the 12th century, and it was an important stopover point for caravans traveling in northern Africa. Though it looks like a forgotten city, it boasts beautiful, ancient architecture (some homes made from white and green stone, set in geometric patterns).
WEDNESDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 6 hours: 30 minutes: 39 seconds
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 6:31:19
3. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 6:31:45
4. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 6:47:36
5. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 6:48:55
6. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 6:57:44
7. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 7:03:25
8. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 7:14:40
9. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 7:34:22
10. Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) Norway - 7:39:58
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 33 hours: 19 minutes: 08 minutes
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 33:20:08
3. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 33:31:12
4. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 33:46:49
5. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 33:57:14
6. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 34:20:21
7. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 34:34:06
8. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 34:38:40
9. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 36:52:56
10. Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) Norway - 37:53:57
I was hoping for a spring, oasis-like setting here in Tichit, but as is befitting last night's rally death, a sad mood has been created by an ever-present, gloomy haze (made worse by the wind-born dust) that hangs over the area. Still, the place certainly beats Tidjikja, where the flies bothered me more than the heat or the dust. We're butted up against a huge field of dunes, so when the wind whips as tenaciously as it did today, the fine sand works its way into everything. The currents also flip over tents and EZ-Ups that aren't sufficiently anchored.
Also spooky was my wake-up call this morning - an amplified Islamic prayer being chanted from nearby Tidjikja. It was a bit early, but I couldn't sleep any longer, so I rolled up my tent, packed my bag, shot a few photos of the stage's start, and boarded the plane. The situation was much improved over yesterday, as the Danish flight crew had moved the seats closer together to allow better securing of the luggage. This is the main concern, since the crew says the plane can carry quite a load, and they put more emphasis on achieving a proper balance.
I'm fairly upbeat despite the eerie surroundings, as I was able to eat a bit of pasta last night. Then I choked down a little bread this morning, and I've continued nibbling when I can, the gurglings and strainings of my stomach fighting the good fight now somewhat less audible. All in all, I feel more or less human except for the low energy that should be expected after two days without food. It appears that I've got this sickness (the officials now claim it's a virus that has nothing to do with either food or Africa) behind me, and I suppose it was to be expected. As Giacomo Vismar says, "It's the tax that one must pay on his first trip to Africa."
Today's test finished about a mile from the bivouac, so I grabbed some water and my backpack and made the hike to get some action shots. The light was horrible and inconsistent, but the background of the dunes, palms and plateaus was exotic enough that I think I squeezed off a few good ones. (Sorry these posted images aren't usually much to look at, but I concentrate on getting the good images with my film camera, and utilize my pea-shooter digi-cam as somewhat of an afterthought.) The way to really get good stuff is to hitch a ride in a helicopter, as did Giancarlo today (the dog!) with TSO head Hubert Auriol, but as I'm just a Dakar rookie, it's only normal that I haven't yet earned that perk (Giancarlo is a Dakar veteran, and a great journalist to boot).
We're in some pretty desolate territory, with no paved roads at all accessing the village, yet somehow there's a substantial local population that manages to eek out enough subsistence in this seemingly barren land to carry on. Obviously, the people are poor - dirt poor - and one wants desperately to help however one may. As I walked to the test, I was joined by a group of small black children, calling out "Cadeau? Cadeau?" (the French word for gift). Many hand out old clothes or leftovers from lunch, but it's never certain that it's going where you would assume. This morning, a journalist gave a pass holder to a small boy, who proudly wore it around his neck for about five minutes - at which point a local man walked up to the boy and made him hand it over. There's no arguing that the race is impressive, and my enthusiasm for it has only increased upon experiencing it firsthand, but the lavish expense it incurs sometimes seems preposterous in the face of such poverty.