"You know why Meoni wins so often?" Giovani Sala asked about the defending champion after completing today's grueling special test. "Because he's strong. So today I said, "'I'm going to be strong too."
That he was as the Italian factory KTM twin-cylinder teammate of the overall leader, completed the 279-mile loop-stage (all of which was special test) nearly four minutes quicker than runner-up Meoni, moving up one spot to seventh in the overall standings. Making the stage victory all the more satisfying for the likeable Sala, who is not generally known as a good navigator, was the fact that it came on a non-GPS stage (only the unit's compass could be utilized).
The riders had plenty to say this afternoon about ?? Zaniroli, but not much of it can be recorded here. The test he designed for today was brutal, with two long sections of sand with camel grass (hard tufts of grass that kick bikes out of control, and that must be ridden around).
"That was the toughest stage ever in Dakar," said South African Alfie Cox, winner of yesterday's stage, fifth-place finisher today, and third-place sitter in the overall standings. "I mean it was kilometers and kilometers of camel grass, on the pegs with your back paining the whole time. I did some hand-stands, some flick-flacks, I landed beside the bike a few times. You'll see blokes crying tonight like little babies. I've had enough!"
Cox wasn't alone, as many a bike was bent and tweaked by the time it completed the test, which started and finished in the Mauritanian city of Tichit. It was the second loop stage of the rally, and it was laid out like a sailing race, with check points replacing the buoys. It took place to the north of the bivouac, in a counter-clockwise circle, and after 50 "known" miles, the rest of its 279 miles were totally new. The emphasis was on navigating skills, as the special took place almost completely off-road in sand dunes. Interestingly, the test took place in the midst of a fairly serious wind storm, but while this made life miserable for those in camp (assistance vehicles stayed put in Tichit today), the riders appreciated the wind's blowing the dust off to the side of the trail.
The Italian dominance of today's test means that Meoni has increased his overall lead to just over three minutes - putting him two minutes better than where he was this morning. This is good news for fans of Meoni and the KTM twin, as there remains just one two-day Marathon stage and a very short loop stage to be completed. Spaniard Joan Roma, of the Repsol Telefonica KTM team, still has a realistic chance of getting his first win, but it will be anything but easy.
"As we're getting used to, every day is more difficult than the previous," Meoni said. "There was a lot of trail that was difficult, like trials, and you always had to watch the compass on your GPS. It was really dangerous because you couldn't always see where to put the wheels. I crashed after 50 kilometers, and the bike landed on my back. It wouldn't have been anything if the bike hadn't landed on me. I restarted with the bike a little bent up. Overall, today was very tiring, but I did what I had to. I gained two more minutes, and tomorrow will be the real day. We'll see if I can still stay ahead. It will be very, very tough."
Three days remain, but as Meoni indicated, tomorrow should decide the race: Saturday's portion of the Marathon stage is relatively short, and Sunday's loop around the Pink Lake is little more than a formality. Meoni has the taste of blood in his mouth and fire in his eyes, and it's becoming increasingly clear that he won't relinquish his crown without a fight.
THURSDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 6 hours: 10 minutes: 06 seconds
2. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 6:13:51
3. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 6:14:18
4. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 6:15:54
5. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 6:18:06
6. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 6:32:22
7. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 6:32:36
8. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 6:47:38
9. Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) Norway - 7:08:35
10. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 7:09:01
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 39 hours: 52 minutes: 59 seconds
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 39:36:02
3. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 39:49:18
4. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 40:19:11
5. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 40:44:52
6. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 40:48:24
7. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 40:48:46
8. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 40:52:57
9. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 44:01:57
10. Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) Norway - 45:02:32
I'm writing this while sitting on top of a winch (quit snickering; I didn't say wench). The bivouac has been hammered off and on (mainly on) for nearly 24 hours by a nasty windstorm, and after one EZ-Up was flipped and converted into a giant aluminum spider, TSO officials decided to take down the press tent and move the journalists into a cargo plane. I went with Giacomo this morning in the Acerbis Landcruiser to shoot action photos, and by the time I got back, all of the table spots had been taken. Hence the winch and my lap-top computer's living up to its name. It beats standing out in the wind, however, and apart from my sore, winch-indented butt, the spot is actually quite nice (with the wind rocking it back and forth, its look and feel are not unlike those of a ship).
The rest of the camp and bivouac is also in minimalist mode, so much of the usual pageantry that accompanies the Dakar Rally is temporarily missing. Mechanics spent much of the day closed up in cars or tents, only coming out for a quick wind-blown lunch and - when their riders arrived - to straighten up the wadded bikes.
Last night was another one from the Twilight Zone. The wind whipped my tent non-stop and pelted it with sand, and as if that weren't enough, it even began to rain. Not a nice, ground-moistening shower, mind you, but a miserable, mess-making sprinkle that just made things more miserable. Speaking of miserable, my tent-neighbor (whoever he was) was apparently - make that obviously - extremely sick, and his hourly vomiting made for an interesting soundtrack to the evening. I am largely recovered, but many more people have now been stricken - most even harder than I was hit. My new friend Jordi - a journalist from a Spanish daily - had to spend last night in the medical tent with an I.V. drip, and he was flown out of camp today on a plane with injured Finn Kari Tiainen.
Actually, today had a Twilight Zone feel to it as well, and not only due to the weather. When press releases were posted, they dealt more often with yesterday's stage than with today's, as many riders and drivers spent the night on the course, and were trickling in all morning long. In fact, organizers have declared that as long as competitors make it in from yesterday's stage before 6:00 p.m., they will be allowed to start tomorrow's stage with a huge penalty - despite never having completed today's loop.
That's it for now. I'm going to give up this winch and see if I can find a nice, soft wench on whom to sit.