Though it was little more than a formality, today's 43-mile stage (including 19 special-test miles) was an important element in the 2002 Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, as it provided the opportunity to officially, ceremonially finish the race.
After embarking at 8:30 a.m. on a 24-mile transfer section north up the beach out Dakar's Hotel le Meridien, the competitors took the subsequent few-hour wait for the special-test start as an opportunity to hang out on the beach (photo). To kill time, the riders chatted, laughed and snapped photos of one another. The rally's final special test - the traditional 19-mile loop around Lac Rose - started on the deep sand that abuts the Atlantic, and the top 10 riders bombed up the beach together after being waved off at 12:30. After a few miles of dodging waves, they took a hard right and bobbed through some dunes before arriving at the Pink Lake, so named for the color it is given by the algae. Competitors raced around the lake on harder dirt roads to the finish, where a podium was set up for TSO director Hubert Auriol to congratulate each finisher. Many locals spent their Sunday at the test, and there was a good turnout along the beach and around the podium.
Meoni was only 10th through the test, but as he said before the day, "I'm just going to take a tourism drive." Lined with shouting spectators in many spots, the test tempted riders to take imprudent chances. Meoni refused the bait and completed the rally with a score nearly 48 minutes better than that of runner-up Alfie Cox, whose Gauloises KTM cohort Richard Sainct completed the top three.
It was an international finish to the Dakar Rally, with five countries represented in the top five, and seven in the top 10.
After the initial ceremony on the podium at test's finish, the competitors entered their bikes in the parc ferme, and the race was officially over. All that remains is this evening's awards ceremony, to be held in the gardens of the Meridien.
SUNDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 17 minutes: 45 seconds
2. Manuel Marques (KTM) Portugal - 17:46
3. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 17:56
4. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 17:57
5. Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) Norway - 18:14
6. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 18:17
7. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 18:19
8. Eric Verhoef (KTM) Netherlands - 18:30
9. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 18:35
10. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 19:09
FINAL OVERALL RESULTS
1. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 48 hours: 00 minutes: 59 seconds
2. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 48:48:51
3. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 49:21:24
4. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 50:53:54
5. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 50:55:53
6. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 52:03:46
7. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 52:48:16
8. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 53:15:31
9. Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) Norway - 54:12:21
10. Manuel Marques (KTM) Portugal - 56:16:37
Not much to report on my end, I'm afraid. Last evening Giancarlo and I attended a KTM dinner in the Hotel le Meridien, then hitched a ride with the Acerbis trio back to our hotel. Today we awoke and drove out to the special test, where we even did a lap ourselves on the sandy, Le Touquet-like course. After that, we waited at the finish podium for the riders' arrival, and I banged out a couple film rolls of the celebration. Alfie Cox, who has now made the top five in all five of the Dakars he contested, was the most animated; although he got doused when broke the cork off his champagne bottle and couldn't open it, he got revenge by doing a Shane Watts-esque burnout on the wooden podium. He also waved a South African flag, hunted down his wife in the crowd and kissed her, and - after the sun warmed his champagne to the point where the cork popped off of its own accord - sprayed down anyone and everyone in the near vicinity.
After that, we took the long, hair-raising drive back to the hotel (traffic here is like in Mexico), where I'm typing as I await the start of KTM press conference, and later the award ceremony. Tomorrow morning will be TSO's press conference.
I'm still trying to get used to a few things here in Dakar - sleeping in a real bed, for example. It seems strange not to be cleaning myself with Baby-Wipes and hand-disinfectant, and not to have to make sure that all my clean clothes are closed in sand-proof Zip-Lock bags. And in the mornings, I automatically shake my shoes out in case of squatting scorpions. At the same time, the heart of the rally seems a long, long time ago - almost like a hallucination or a figment of my imagination. I can tell already that my re-entry back into normal life in the States will involve a bit of culture shock.
By the way, at last night's KTM dinner we learned that this is team boss Heinz Kinigadner's first time to make it to Dakar in anything other than an airplane. Seven times he tried on a motorcycle, only to crash out of the race, and he even had one failed attempt in an assistance vehicle. This year, KTM lost two assistance vehicles during the race, so mechanics were stuffed into the remaining cars, but most (including the great Kini) ultimately made it through one way or another.