Dakar Fever has struck north west Argentina. Everyone has caught it, including me. I’ve been following the race for three days, yet it already feels like three weeks. And there is more to come. From a spectator’s perspective, it is an event like no other.
In every sport, the relationship between the spectator and the event – and thus the spectator’s experience of that event – is different. Watching a game of rugby from the back of the stands on a cold December afternoon, cup of tea or beer in hand, is a very different experience from playing in the match itself. People often comment on the Tour de France, observing that one aspect of the race that makes it unique is that the spectators are in close proximity to the riders, often close enough to reach out and touch them. They can see the gradient of the climb, hear the spinning of the wheels, observe the expressions on the faces of the cyclists – they can ‘feel’ the race much more than other spectators can ‘feel’ the sport they are watching. Well, following The Dakar on a moto takes this to a whole new level.
Much of The Dakar route – the sections where they are not racing – is on open roads. You can ride the route, often alongside the racers themselves. Yesterday morning I was on the road at 5am, riding the first 150km amongst a stream of motorbikes who had set off from the bivouac at one minute intervals. As dawn broke, I pulled into a service station to refuel, sandwiched in a queue between forty-odd high performance rally bikes. On a moto, therefore, you are not just watching the rally – you are in amongst it.
This is just the start of it. These transit sections of the rally pass through villages and towns. To the locals, this is a huge event – something most of them have never seen the likes of before. They are captivated by it and they line the route in droves. Families establish camp in front of their house with umbrellas and sunshades erected and often with the barbecue set up. Kids sit atop walls and other vantage points all day. Farmers stop work and settle into the shade of a roadside tree. And those in cars hang out of the windows and sound their horns. But here’s the twist – their knowledge of the race does not match their enthusiasm. To them, anyone on a moto is a racer, a Dakar hero. So as I ride through these villages full of exuberant crowds, they applaud me, wave at me and cheer me. If I stop, I am stuck for five minutes every time as they line up for photos with me. Service stations are chaos. Witnessing their unbridled enthusiasm and joy is touching. But being applauded at every turn, especially when a real Dakar racer is just behind you, feels a little awkward. The word ‘charlatan’ springs to mind, but there is nothing you can do about it.
I guess to them, one off-road bike looks like another, so you can excuse the locals’ confusion. However, it is not so excusable when the cops who control the route do it. Yesterday I rode fast along one of these link sections, thinking I was falling behind the race when in fact there were only a handful of riders ahead of me. As I neared the checkpoint where the bikes would refuel before starting the next race section, I was waved off the road by a policeman and into the refuelling zone. This has happened a few times since but I am now wise to it, and have to explain the the policeman that the lack of a number on my bike, and the three large bags on the back, indicate that I am not a racer.
I have managed to watch some of the racing, from four of the official spectator zones. They are meant to be strictly controlled with the race section cordoned off from spectators. But this is Argentina. At the first site I visited the police were in relaxed mood and some of us managed to evade them, positioning ourselves in the dry river bed which constituted the route. I was literally three metres from some of the riders as they passed at impressive speeds. It is only when you get up close that you can appreciate the speeds these riders ride at, and their bike-handling skills.
There are a lot of motorcyclists following the race. I’ve met Argentinians who have driven 1000km on their little 250s to watch it, groups of wealthy Americans on hired BMWs being escorted round the course with a support truck in tow, and everyone in between. We are a sub-group of the Dakar caravan. I have teamed up with two Brazilian riders and we have decided to strike out this morning from Salta to Bolivia and get ahead of the racers whilst they are enjoying a rest day. Thus far we have been able to follow the race, transiting from one spectator zone to another, mostly on good asphalt roads. In Bolivia, we’ll be on dirt roads an will have to drive hard to keep up with the race. But we are seeing it as our own personal rally. Like I said, we are all suffering from Dakar Fever.