Sunday's 577-mile stage passed south out of Narbonne, France, into Spain, and headed all the way into Madrid, in the country's center. It was nearly all freeway going, but the motorcycle racers loaded their bikes on the trucks after the day's only special test - just 16 miles after the start in Chateau-Lastours. (The autos and trucks had to drive all the way to Madrid.) The test itself was a 22-mile affair laid out in a vineyard, in dry, hard-pack, dusty conditions reminiscent of Southern California.
The fastest rider in the test was Frenchman Richard Sainct, a two-time winner of the Dakar Rally. Second was Sainct's countryman Cyril Despres, four seconds off the pace. Spaniard Joan Roma finished third on the day, another second back. KTM singles took the top five places, with Italian Giovani Sala being the top twin rider on the new LC8 KTM in sixth. Suzuki-mounted Marc Coma, from Spain, was the top non-KTM rider in ninth.
Roma's and Despres' strong, consistent finishes in the tests so far moved them into a tie for the top position overall. Finn Kari Tianen is third ahead of Sainct.
After crossing over the French/Spanish border near the Atlantic Ocean, the course headed south along the coast, through the northern Spanish wine region that it first visited in 1994 (it has passed through there three other times since) - an area where many of the teams spend time practicing and training.
As for the finishing point, this is the first time that the Dakar Rally has visited Madrid, and the occasion is a fairly big deal for race and city officials (the city's name is included in the rally's official title, Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar). A modern city with a modern communications network and infrastructure, Madrid is home to 2.5 million inhabitants, many of whom are excited to have the rally visiting their city. Madrid hopes to host the 2012 Olympic games.
Though the rally has not yet left European soil, it has already been struck by tragedy. At the exit of Saturday's long, wet freeway section, a vehicle from the organization collided with a private vehicle that was reportedly on the wrong side of the road. The race officials were okay, but the driver of the other vehicle was killed. In addition, a driver of one of the KTM support vehicles suffered a roll-over near the same spot, though he was okay other that cuts and bruises.
1. Richard Sainct (KTM) France: 26 min., 6 sec.
2. Cyril Despres (KTM) France: 26 min., 10 sec.
3. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain: 26 min., 11 sec.
4. Kari Tianen (KTM) Finland: 26 min., 42 sec.
5. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain: 27 min., 5 sec.
6. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy: 27 min., 16 sec.
7. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa: 27 min., 21 sec.
8. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy: 27 min., 25 sec.
9. Marc Coma (Suz) Spain: 27 min., 26 sec.
10. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile: 27 min., 35 sec.
1. (TIE) Joan Roma (KTM) Spain: 32 min., 38 sec.
Cyril Despres (KTM) France: 32 min., 38 sec.
3. Kari Tianen (KTM) Finland: 32 min., 59 sec.
4. Richard Sainct (KTM) France: 33 min., 5 sec.
5. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain: 33 min., 59 sec.
6. Pierre Quininero (KTM) France: 34 min., 9 sec.
7. Giovanni Sala (KTM) Italy: 34 min., 22 sec.
8. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa: 34 min., 35 sec.
9. (TIE) Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy: 34 min., 38 sec.
Marc Comer (Suz) Spain: 34 min., 38 sec.
I'm just a journalist, but after last night's long, lively dinner with my Italian entourage and some executives from Acerbis' Spanish importer, I got a chance to feel like a full-fledged rallyist when we turned the 15-mile drive to back to our hotel into a race. The freeway was deserted at that early-morning hour, so Acerbis' Walter Fortichiari was able to drive at over 105 miles per hour in our mini van. Unfortunately, F.O.A. (Friend of Acerbis) Sergio Chionni was even faster in the official Toyota Land Cruiser Acerbis support vehicle, and we lost despite Walter's impressive drafting technique.
The hotel receptionist, as revenge for our group's having rubbed her the wrong way the night before (Italians can be quite animated), didn't give us our wake-up call this morning, so we were a bit rushed as we made our way to the special test. However, the influence of "Zio" ("uncle," in Italian, the nickname for Franco Acerbis) earned us a detour by the traffic jam and a straight shot up to a prime parking spot.
After the test, Franco departed for Italy in the mini van, taking with him Yukihito Ota, a personable 15-year-old Japanese motocrosser who is currently working at Acerbis. In fact, most of the once-huge Acerbis contingent has now gone, leaving just the aforementioned Acerbis Toyota diesel as a means of transporting me on the all-day drive from the special test to Madrid. My companions for the drive were Walter (a technician for Acerbis who worked last year as Johnny Campbell's mechanic for the rally), Sergio, and Giacamo Vismara (the only Italian to ever win the Dakar Rally in a car, and a 19-time veteran of the event). Suffice it to say I was in good hands.
Forgive me for harping on this so often, but the coolness of this race and its entrants notwithstanding, what I have been most struck by so far is the passion of the regular people who follow it. For today's simple special test, there was a traffic jam and crowd worthy of an AMA National Motocross, and everyone on hand was turned out in typical Euro-style. Sure, there's a certain practicality to the typical American spectator's T-shirt and shorts, but it's pretty neat to see a crowd with men in leather pants, women in fur-lined coats, floppy velvet hats and platform boots, children in colorful sweaters and scarves, and dogs on leashes - especially when the families bring along a folding plastic table and a picnic basket for the day's outing.
And those darned spectators that watch from the freeways were even more impressive today. The Acerbis support vehicle in which I rode passed today's stage is semi-race-prepped (interior roll bar, GPS, larger wheels, extra fuel tank, etc.), and it has a full-body Acerbis graphic-treatment and number plates. When the spectators on the overpasses and in the pullouts see it coming, they're not too cool to show their enthusiasm, and they wave and smile and take photos, especially if you flash your lights and/or wave. At the traffic signals in Madrid at day's end, people on the sidewalks would run into the street to have their photo taken next to the Land Cruiser. It's enough to make one feel like a hero if he's not careful.
Now we're in a hotel in downtown Madrid, and the city is beautiful, with mammoth plazas, towering monuments and historic architecture. Being a huge Hemingway fan, I've long wanted to visit the country that he wrote in and about so often, and I'm not disappointed (to help set the mood, I brought along a book of his short stories, but I haven't had time to read it since arriving in Arras). After crossing the border, we skirted the ocean-side city of Barcelona in the Catalunya region before turning west and inland, after which we passed the Gas Gas factory, the Montesa/Honda plant, and even Don Quixote's La Mancha zone. For much of the drive, the snow-capped Pyrenees could be seen. I'm also happy to be able to communicate better, though the Spanish here sounds completely different than that which I learned in Mexico. The only unsettling thing on today's trip was learning of the practice in southern France of posting black body-silhouettes (with a red slash through the head) by the road where fatal accidents have occurred.
Italians being Italians, the first order of business upon our arrival was to find a good restaurant and enjoy a decent meal, and as I prepare to hit the sack now, it's close to 2:00 a.m. on Monday morning. I'd complain about my lack of sleep, except when we got back from our meal, the KTM mechanics were just checking in to our hotel, and they still hadn't eaten.
At any rate, things will be entirely different tomorrow: We're entering Africa (which means yet another change of language and money, and that we'll be sleeping in tents instead of hotels), and I'll be traveling on the press plane. Which reminds me, I'm not sure how much luck I'll have posting these updates once out of Europe, so don't be surprised if they're not too regular. I've had enough troubles already, and after this I'll likely be depending upon bumming someone's satellite phone.