Simon behind the scenes at DAKAR. Words & Photos: Sarah Tesla & Richard Rae
On our recent adventure to Argentina we were extremely fortunate to catch up with the Dakar Rally Raid and get an up close and personal look at life at a bivouac. We linked up with the traveling circus at Stage 12 in Rosario at the Hipódromo parque de la Independencia . It was the 16th of January and competitors had only one day left before reaching the finish in Buenos Aires.
Dusty, weather worn and exhausted, the Dakar crew tirelessly setup after traveling all night in anticipation of the afternoons race arrivals. We really didn’t know what to expect. It was organized chaos with the saving grace for us being a tent setup by the country of Argentina to host VIP spectators and press. Drinks, wifi and shade were an oasis in an otherwise barren race track.
The real excitement came late in the day when the bivouac began to spring to life as riders arrived. Fans who had come earlier in the day to line the roadway began to cheer and it wasn’t long before crews were in full throttle attending to their teams. It was like a ballet.. of carnage; everyone moved in a well rehearsed dance, while the riders littered the camp finding moments of quiet or a medic to tend to their hurts.
We had kept our eyes on how Simon Pavey and his son Llewelyn Pavey (Llel) were doing, the first father and son to race together in the Dakar. Simon is a bit of a adv figurehead for us, after being featured in the documentary Race to Dakar with Charley Boorman in 2006 we became instant fans of this race ethos, as well as the work he does running Off Road Skills in England. We didn’t get a chance to meet Simon in person during the Dakar, but we did catch up with him on Skype after he returned to England for an interview. After a day at the bivouac, our conversation with Simon really brought the whole experience together for us.
Here are a few excerpts from our interview with Simon on what it was like for him a Llel to race together.
LNF: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me, I know that your life has probably been total madness over the past few months, especially recently around the race.
SP: Ya my life is always like that, and I’d say it’s been like that the past 45 years. (laughing)
LNF: How are you feeling and recovering after the race?
SP: Yeah, I’m alright to be honest. Just really tired actually. Yeah, it’s taken a lot longer to recover from this one then the last one I did.
LNF: I spoke with a photographer in Rosario who said he’d been doing a lot of shots of you both (Llel) during the race, and that the night before you’d both arrived at the previous bivouac at 4am after a crazy long day, and then had to get up and do it all over again with little sleep...
SP: There were plenty of people having those problems, that night was crazy.. a crazy one! We were also pretty late to Rosario, I think we got there like 11pm. That special was one of the days since the salt lake that we didn’t actually have any problems, we finished the special in pretty good time, but it was a really nice afternoon and we only had that liaison to do and our assistance crew were at the end of the special, so we all found some steak house on the side of the road and had a great dinner and ice cream and all that, and it was totally worth getting late to the bivouac for.
LNF: That’s amazing, that’s actually really funny because we spoke with a few support trucks that had arrived quite early like around 4:30pm, and Chile was one of the first trucks to get in and they’d said they had just spent 14hrs driving from the previous bivouac. So we were thinking, “my God, that’s an 800km day at least”?
SP: Yeah, it was 900km the assistance had to do, but because we were still having so many problems with the salt, especially on Llels bike, and on the way to the special in the morning Llels bike had played up again, so we actually said to our assistance to not go the bivouac. Like normally every day it’s better that they go to the bivouac, but we said come to the end of the special just in case. So yeah, we all kind ended up there (steakhouse). It was fantastic, it was so good. Even though we knew it was going to make us a bit later to the bivouac, it was really, really good steak. (laughing)
LNF: You’ve done Dakar 10 years now? What is it about that race that has had you hooked for so long?
SP: It’s actually my 10th one, but it’s been 17 or 18 years I think? The first one was 1998. When I was growing up racing and stuff, it was the most famous event and the biggest kind of event really. And once you see it’s just such a different scale to any other race event in the world, it’s just so massive 4000 people on bivouac and the craziness of all the cars and trucks and the support teams. It’s a little bit amazing to be a privateer, to be a person (guy or girl) who can show up and ride next to the factory stars and it’s pretty amazing to become friends with those people just because you’re in the same event, when you’re not in their level. Ya it’s pretty cool. Dakar because of the scale of it, is a little mad and a little bit chaotic riding all through the day and all through the night. As much you don’t want to be doing that at the time, there is no other event in the world where you can do that?
LNF: You’ve remained relatively unscathed after this many years of doing the event, where obviously people have died, or had extremely serious injuries and had to be airlifted and this kind of thing. What’s your secret? How have you been able to keep yourself in relatively good condition from year after year?
SP: Just as well that I haven’t got the video on, or you’d see the big hump wouldn’t ya! (laughing) (Note: Our Skype video was not on, so I couldn’t see Simon’s postrace condition) I think a couple of things really, I think it is a dangerous race there is no doubt about it. I’m always riding for a finish so I’m kind of always riding a bit too reserved maybe. And ya I dunno, I think I’ve just sort of found a good line between riding fast enough to not get into too much trouble, and not riding so fast that I’m taking big risks. But having said that there were times this year, where you just felt like you were on the limit of what you can do. Everyone is, and I think that’s the point of that event. There are definitely times when you think, I don’t know if I can get through this. You say unscathed, but both Llel and I had a couple of really close calls this year. On the second day when it was really hot, it was in the 50s, there was a lot of us that pushed ourselves as close as you can get, without pushing yourself and ending up like unfortunately our Polish friend who died the next day. I don’t think anyone really knows the circumstances, but the end of day 2 I was throwing up in the hospital and spent a couple hours on a drip. I didn’t eat all night, so I went out the next day pretty depleted, but I had actually been rehydrated.
LNF: It must really be an extraordinary place where you are mentally, because physically things are going wrong and you’re exhausted and dehydrated. Truly you must have to psyche yourself up for it. And think, this is what it is and that you’re going to push through. Where do you pull that out of?
SP: Yeah, I don’t know really. I honestly don’t know even after all these years. But for some reason I seem to be able to do that. And Llel was talking about it afterwards, that it’s almost opposite to what you think. In some ways it’s almost easier to keep going than it is to quit. When you quit things get really difficult. Honestly the medical support on that rally is so fantastic. Anytime we had a problem, the doctors were really, really good.
LNF: Was there any anxiety for you, or your family about taking your son on this race?
SP: No one said anything beforehand, but ya my wife she obviously has been super, super involved in everything we’ve done right since the beginning of racing and traveling and the business, she’s been instrumental to every part of it. She said to me afterwards that was the first time she’d ever been a bit nervous and a bit worried was having us both out there in the event. It was definitely kind of hard on her, and she’s never ever said that before. But yeah, everyone was really good and didn’t say anything before hand.
LNF: Seeing that you’ve been part of the evolution of Dakar since you said 1998? And seen the race evolve and change, and seeing it move from Africa to South America, are you feeling confident that you will continue competing into the future, and are there any other parts of the world that you’d like to see the race move too or evolve?
SP: Um, that’s always too soon a question to ask a week after Dakar (laughing).. are you doing it again? Um yeah, the race has changed dramatically and most of the things they’ve improved and changed are for good reasons. The professionalism, the organization and the safety is fantastic now and the terrain they’ve got to work with in South America, they’ve got so many possibilities there. There is money for them there, so I can’t see them moving it anywhere else for some time, because it’s very much a business now. From my point of view, what has always driven me to go to big rallies is going to different places as well. When it was in Africa I had sort of said that was it, enough’s enough, but when it moved to South America that’s what reignited it for me. There has been been some other great rallies in other parts of the world and I’m definitely inspired to try do more of those if the opportunity is there. There was one that only ran once in 2008, the year that Dakar didn’t run, the Transorientale rally from St. Petersburg to Beijing, that was one of the best event I’ve ever done a fantastic experience. If there is an opportunity to go race somewhere else I’d be well up for that.