Breaking with the tradition built up over the Dakar Rally's 24-year-history, the event featured a nighttime start, with the motorcycles leaving Arras at 8:00 p.m. and heading south this evening. This is the first time ever that the Dakar Rally has started from Arras, in the north of France (near the Belgian border). The competitors left the parc ferme, situated in the grand palace in the town's center, and departed from the starting podium on the Place des Heros, with the top-placing riders in last year's rally going last. After that, the entire 288-mile nighttime section was a transfer (no special tests), which explains why there are still no standings. As the competitors rode through the rainy, chilly night, they skirted Paris (the traditional starting point for the rally) and continued south to Chateauroux, where the finishing podium was set up at the Belle-Isle Site. The first riders start arriving at around 3:00 on Saturday morning, and they'll grab a few hours' sleep before beginning the next stage in the morning.
Prior to the nighttime departure, the competitors slept in and then headed to the Arras theater for the riders' briefing (pictured here). After that, they suited up and entered the parc ferme in the central plaza, from which they were allowed to leave one at a time, only to make their way to a huge podium where they were introduced to huge crowd. Then they hit the freeway for a few cold hours in the saddle.
Tomorrow will bring the rally's first special test, but it's a relatively short one.
My Friday got started with a convoluted search for a bank (I could have used a GPS), where they refused to change my Italian lire for French francs - probably because they're switching to the euro on a few days. After that, it was time for another Franco Acerbis meal, this one a crowded affair in a characteristic restaurant in Arras' center. Then we all followed the crowd to the theater for the riders' briefing, which was unfortunately given entirely in French. Nonetheless, I learned that the biggest news was that during these early pavement stages, officials will periodically check to make sure the entered competitor is on the bike, so as to avoid having mechanics take their riders' places during transfers (something that has happened in past Dakar Rallies). Dakar legend and TSO head Hubert Auriol was the one giving the presentation, and the riders were in the good seats, while support personnel and press people were up in the balcony.
Afterward, we ran into Jorge de Gavardo, a diminutive, friendly man who is the father of Chilean Carlo de Gavardo. The younger de Gavardo placed third in last year's rally, but back when he was a privateer in his first attempt, his father followed much of the race in a taxi. Needless to say, the money-saving move drew a lot of attention from the other riders, who were supported then by big trucks and helicopters. Now, of course, de Gavardo is a big-time factory KTM rider.
With a couple of hours to fill before the start, there was nothing to do but eat yet again, so we hit a pizzeria and stuffed ourselves before heading to the packed center to see the riders off. The ceremony featured its typical French flair, with booming music and a yelling announcer (the same guy who worked the Bercy Supercross and the French MX des Nations last year). About the only excitement came when French rider Jean Brucy failed to get his bike started after the podium presentation, but he flagged down fellow KTM rider Joan Roma to get the bike started with jumper cables (I'm not kidding!). Also, it was fun watching the arrival of Johnny Hallyday - a French music star - in the parc ferme. Halliday, who is racing a Nissan in the rally this year, must be pretty big here, as he had a police escort and a horde of body guards.
After that, we piled in the mini van and headed south on the freeway out of Arras. The city is just down the street from Roubaix, and as French rider Frederic Moncassin noted, the technically easy, but cold, miserable stage to Chateauroux was reminiscent of the famously brutal Paris-Roubaix bicycle race. As we drove along in the warmth of the mini van, we passed wet, shivering riders along the way. We dropped off Italian journalist Piero Manini at an airport in Paris, then continued south to our hotel in Chateauroux. At each toll booth, French fans waited patiently for their heroes to pass by, even at 3:00 in the morning in the rain - these people are passionate! When Franco stopped for gas, who should be next to us in the station topping off his race Nissan but Stephane Peterhansel, a five-time winner of the motorcycle division.
Now, at 4:00 a.m., it's time for bed and a few hours' rest prior to tomorrow's (actually, I guess that's today's) next stage. Bonsoir!