After multiple broken bones and two previous disappointments, Britain’s first ever winner of the Dakar Rally never imagined his high-speed dreams would be ended by something as sedate as a cow.
But Sam Sunderland, who took the title in the motorbike division of the iconic race earlier this month, recalls how a blundering bovine nearly undid his charge for the line just as he was ruminating over a momentous victory.
“When you are pushing at the front, you are pushing full throttle and you’ll have one or two hairy moments per day where you think ‘whoah, that was lucky’,” he tells City A.M.
“But the worst was one point when I came in a bit too hot to a section and a cow jumped out at me.”
Read more: First ever British winner of Dakar Rally
If that sounds unconventional, then so is the story of how the 27-year-old from Southampton clinched what he calls “the Olympics of off-road motorcycling”.
When a successful junior motocross career culminated in a year out through injury at 16, Sunderland left school and trained as a lift engineer.
But a chance visit to his aunt and uncle in Dubai revived his interest, as Sunderland’s eyes were opened to the popular motorcycling culture in the United Arab Emirates.
Give it a crack
Soon he was back in Dubai working in a motorbike shop by day and rediscovering his appetite for racing.
“It just happened that the first round of the world rally championships was the Abu Dubai challenge,” the Red Bull KTM rider recalls.
“It was close, only an hour away. The guys in the shop I was working said ‘do you want to race it?’
I didn’t know much about it or the Dakar at that time. I was a motocross guy. I wasn’t really super excited about it. It was more like ‘I’ll give it a crack and see how we go’.
Before he knew it, Sunderland was turning heads at races, beating previous Dakar stage winners.
That was 2011. Over the next six years he placed well in world championship races and secured two stage victories at Dakar. He hadn’t, however, ever managed to finish the event.
The Dakar – nowadays hosted in South America due to security threats in north-west Africa – is held in such high esteem because of the mental and physical demands it places on riders.
Set over 12 days, the 2017 edition ran from Paraguay to Argentina, covering up to 1,200 kilometres each day.
Before each stage even begins, competitors must ride to the start line, and these “liaisons” can be hundreds of kilometres themselves.
The only human contact riders have with during the whole day are during scheduled 15 minute fuel stops.
“People say ‘ah, you’ve got a bike that takes you’, but it’s one of the most physically demanding sports in the world,” Sunderland says.
“The bike is 150kg empty. Then you add in fuel and other things to carry.
“We went from 45C and humid as hell in Paraguay for 12-15 hours a day, then we went up to 4,000m altitude at 2C in Bolivia. Then back into Argentina at 45C again.”
Sunderland lost around 7kg over the 12 days as a result of his exertions. He and his competitors survived on six hours of sleep before 3am starts.
“It’s hard to focus for that length of time,” he says.
For 100 per cent of the time we are going over new terrain. And it’s all through deserts, stones, riverbeds, dunes. Animals on the track, cows running out. You are always trying to be focused and alert for these kind of things that spring up on you.
Sunderland admits the week or so since his triumph has been “a whirlwind”, but says he won’t rest on his laurels for long.
“We finished the last stage, then we did a 700km ride on the road which was seven hours. Then it was the podium ceremony, then straight out to dinner with the guys. Wake up, pack your bags, fly home,” he says.
Yesterday I went off into the desert on my own with the dog. It was nice to have a moment with myself and think about it. You start to feel what you have done and it’s a really cool feeling.
He concludes: “Now I’ve won Dakar it’s incredible and a dream come true. It’s human nature that I’m lining up for the next Dakar.”