Defending Dakar Rally champ Fabrizio Meoni said yesterday that Friday would be the "real day," and he was right. With just two days remaining in this year's rendition of the famous event, Spaniard Joan Roma - the only rider remaining with a real shot at dethroning the Italian - saw his chances for victory disappear once again, this time when he took a wrong turn into a box canyon, crashed and perhaps panicked. Suffering from signs of hyperventilation, hypothermia and headaches, the Repsol Telefonica KTM rider was taken in hand by the medical-assistance crew, and is out of the race. The 2002 Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally is now Meoni's to lose.
"The road from here to Dakar is a little more open," said Meoni (pictured here at left, with Richard Sainct) in Italian, "But today I learned again that the Dakar Rally isn't over until the Pink Lake [site of the final day's stage]. Today, with not long remaining, I had built a big advantage on the others, but I lost the course and had to make it in to the finish off-road, which was very difficult. I'm sorry for the others, especially for Roma, but this is racing. Today I had a lot of difficulties. If he had perhaps remained calmer, he might have been able to win by a huge margin. This is Dakar, and it always reserves surprises."
The rally is almost completed, but the organizers reserved a two-day Marathon stage for today and tomorrow. Today's portion was a 293-mile, all-special-test stretch from Tichit west and south to Kiffa in southern Mauritania, not far from the border with Mali. It was laid out through large sand dunes, and nearly everyone had troubles navigating it. The first 25 miles or so were easily followed (they were also used in the test of two days ago), but the proper trail then branched off to one side. Most of the top racers continued on the wrong way, with only Meoni choosing correctly (shortly after, Gauloises KTM's Sainct also rejoined the proper route).
"The other riders kept on the stage of two days ago," said Frenchman Sainct, a two-time winner of the event. "They didn't follow the road book. They made a mistake because they went directly to checkpoint one, and there was a secret checkpoint just before it."
Among those to miss the checkpoint were Chilean Carlo de Gavardo and Italian Giovani Sala. De Gavardo was the first one into the following known checkpoint, but he picked up a two-hour penalty that knocked him way down in the results.
"Last night I was in my tent because I had a lot of pain in my tibia and also in my finger," de Gavardo said. "I didn't go to the briefing, and that was a very big mistake because [in the meeting], they said there would be a secret checkpoint. It's my fault - I'm worse every day."
Part of the problem for those who got lost came from the fact that it was raining - rare any time here, but especially during the current dry season. This made for relatively dust-free conditions, so those who made mistakes couldn't just look for the dust of someone on the proper trail. The fluke rain changed some Spanish team tactics yesterday from savvy to foolhardy: Meoni claims that Repsol Telefonica KTM's Roma had slowed at the end of yesterday's stage to allow teammate Isidre Esteve to finish just a few seconds in front of him on the test. This allowed Roma to start one position further back today, so had he been able to catch Meoni, he'd have made up four minutes - enough to take over the overall lead. But without the dust, the Spaniard had to ride like crazy to try and catch his rival, and he may well have panicked when he realized that he had taken the wrong way and was having - for the third year in a row! - a possible Dakar Rally victory slip from his grasp in the final days.
South African Alfie Cox had gone down the same canyon, but by keeping a cool head, he was able to make it to the secret checkpoint.
"I made the same mistake as Roma," Cox said. "I had four tracks in front of me, and that was perfect, as four bikes started in front of me today, and these tracks went and went and went. Then there were three tracks, then two, then one. I looked up and saw a big canyon wall on one side, and a kilometer-high dune. Just 10 kilometers from the hidden checkpoint, the road came to an end in the canyon. Today was the longest day on the fuel, so you couldn't even make a turn and go back anywhere, or you're not going to make fuel - you'll be in trouble. Eric Bernard was with me, and I said, 'I'm going to take a chance. If I can get up this dune, I'm almost sure [I'll find the check].' I took that dune. One head-over-heels and I broke the trip [odometer]. Then the trip wasn't working. Isidre [Esteve] came up from the wrong direction, and we started looking around - now we're shooting ourselves on the fuel. Luckily, it worked out. Roma just panicked. Your anxiety just gets you, and you can't help but panic."
Cox had been told by a friend the day previous, "When two dogs are fighting, the third one takes the bone.'' Indeed, the Gauloises KTM rider's careful handling of the situation was priceless, as it earned him an unofficial move up in the overall standings (as this is technically the middle of a Marathon stage, officials aren't providing overall standings, but a little math-work indicates that Roma's exit puts Cox in second, though over three-quarters of an hour behind Meoni). Had de Gavardo made the secret checkpoint, he may well have passed Cox and taken second himself, but his mistake proved costly.
"I knew he didn't make the check, but we had to wait 15 minutes at the refuel," Cox said. "He never showed up, so when he got there, he knew we were at least 15 minutes ahead. He must have taken off like a robber's dog. Second overall is a dream, although we're not there yet. Roma's a good rider, but at the end of the day, that's racing."
Also of note from today's stage, which favored brains over brawn, was the top-10 placing of woman racer Andrea Mayer.
As a side note, the flukish rain even affected those who weren't lost: "For me, it's the first time I've seen these conditions around here," Sainct said. "It was nice at first, but the tires were not good. In mud, it was no problem, but on hard-pack [clay], it was very difficult."
Racers will now take a mandatory eight-hour break before continuing on to Dakar, Senegal, departing the camp at 10:00 this evening on a 270-mile transfer stage to Boutilimit. From there, it will be a 102-mile special test to the Senegalese border, then a 245-mile transfer to Dakar. On Sunday, racers do a 41-mile special test around the Pink Lake.
Bike maintenance tonight will be minimal, as no assistance vehicles are allowed here in Kiffa. (By the way, this city - the last Mauritanian stop of this rally - was first utilized back in 1983, but was last utilized in 1997.)
FRIDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 6 hours: 22 minutes: 22 seconds
2. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 6:25:07
3. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 6:51:52
4. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 7:02:35
5. Pierre Quinonero (KTM) France - 7:03:15
6. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 7:04:26
7. Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) Norway - 7:06:31
8. Andrea Mayer (KTM) Germany - 7:46:09
9. Rodrigo Amaral (KTM) Portugal - 7:46:24
10. Bernardo Villar (KTM) Portugal - 7:46:50
We're in the last bivouac of the rally, and it's soaking wet. It only sprinkled last evening in Tichit, but here in Kiffa, it rained steadily all night and continued to do so throughout much of the day. It makes for a long-overdue beautiful camp, completely free of wind and dust (though I'm carrying a complete dune in my ears). After two solid days of wind-blown sand, I'm thoroughly enjoying the moist, sweet-smelling desert. I stashed my tent and bag in a corner of the press tent for much of the day, then - when the rain had stopped - chose a perfect, sandy spot and set up my final campsite of the '02 Dakar Rally. My last shower was about five days ago in Atar, but the good thing is that I've reached a point where I can no longer get dirtier; now, the only thing getting dirty is the layer of dirt that's already on me.
I suppose, truth be told, I really wouldn't have it any other way. I am living a true Dakar, and if things had continued in the clean, easy manner in which they started, I'd feel as though I had been robbed of something. Who knows if I'll ever get the opportunity to do this again, and I'd hate to think that the Dakar Rally I experienced was some sort of an asterisk. After all, when things turn ugly here, one quickly settles into a mode of stubborn acceptance, and there is always - always - someone who has got it worse. Obviously, the competitors are fatigued and aching, while my physical activity has been quite limited, but even among the press contingent, there are people who have it much harder than I. In addtion to the many who were struck quite hard by the stomach sickness that has cursed this rally, there are those with impossible deadlines and word counts. My audience's primary location in America means I effectively enjoy an eight-hour cushion for completing my modest postings. The ones who really have a chore are the writers for European dailies. One Belgian guy writes for an evening paper whose deadline is about 1:00 p.m. - usually well before the day's racing has even been completed. Then there is the French girl who writes for Le Parisenne, and she spits out stories like sunflower seeds (while also producing cigarette butts like spent machine-gun shells). Making matters worse for these daily writers is the fact that many of them don't normally cover motorcycle racing, which means they've got to learn and adapt on the fly. Also, most of them are rather clean-cut and conservative, and their camping gear is sometimes appallingly inadequate (a few learned to build their tents at the rally's first bivouac). Despite all this, they work like animals and don't complain at all. They're just a small part of the complicated machinery that is the Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, but they've earned my respect, at least.
Tonight looks to be a sweet one, but last evening had a fever-dream, surreal quality that was straight out of a Salvador Dali painting. Wind (carrying billions of sand grains and the occasional rain drop) whipped my tent even harder than the night before; one mechanic tested his handiwork by bouncing his bike's motor off the rev-limiter for repeated, 10-second, midnight blasts; the airplane boss gave a Spanish driver a late-night chewing-out for parking his race car too close to our plane; car drivers drove in random loops on the lake bed that housed our camp; lights flashed; tent-neighbors hurled - and yet I, as I unexpectedly have for most of the rally, slept restfully. And of course, just as we boarded the plane this morning, the wind stopped and the dust died down, and we were able to confirm that Tichit is indeed a beautiful place, if only we had been able to see it.
As tonight is our final bivouac, I'm going to take a moment to acknowledge the fine job being performed by my tent. In the rally, our tents are the only personal shelter we have, and I've come to appreciate mine. In the interest of minimizing baggage, I chose one smaller than many of the others', with barely enough room inside for me and my small gear bag. This lets it catch less wind, however, and it has only overturned (partially) once. It has also successfully kept my sleeping bag and other belongings almost completely dry. I am looking forward to tomorrow night's real shower and hotel bed, but in a way, I will miss my reliable little tent.
And finally, I must shoulder the unpleasant chore of mentioning a fairly large mistake that I made early in my postings, but about which I have only today become aware. Contrary to what I have written in these spaces, there was an American motorcycle entrant in the Dakar Rally this year. His name is James Fiorillo, he was entered on a KTM, and I am told he dropped out during the first African stage. My apologies, Mr. Fiorillo, and good luck on a more successful future attempt on Dakar.