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Dakar 2011: Smaller Bikes, but Still no American Victory

Biggest, baddest motorcycle race out there? Is it the Daytona 200? That’s just 200 miles of pavement. Well, how about the Baja 1000? Better, but still, what’s a mere 1000 miles? A Sunday ride compared to the grueling 5700 miles and two weeks of the Dakar rally. You can argue that it’s been dumbed down over the decades, but it’s still the highest level of off-road competition, with 186 riders from dozens of countries slugging it out in some of the toughest terrain on the planet. Since the race was moved from Africa in 2009, the competition has been fierce, if not as dangerous or difficult as it was when racers could suffer from bandits and death from exposure in the vast wilderness of the Sahara. 

The big change this year was a new rule limiting engines to 450cc. This knocked some of the competitors, used to big-bore motors, a little off their game, but not enough to seriously shake up the top ten. Spaniard Marc Coma took his third Dakar trophy, closely edging out three-time winner (and Team Red Bull KTM teammate) Cyril Despres of France. The new bikes are significantly lighter than the 650s and not much slower. “It is very comfortable to ride,” said Despres about his new  KTM 450 Rally, “and very reliable and only an idiot never changes his mind.” Those hoping for a new status quo were probably disappointed—KTM dominated the field, with  eight of the top ten overall finishers riding orange machinery, and this is the 10th consecutive Dakar event a KTM-mounted rider has won.

KTM’s factory efforts don’t keep American privateers at bay. Washingtonian Jonah Street was back for his fifth Dakar, helped in part when adventure-bike equipper Touratech USA raised $10,000 for his efforts selling T-shirts. Initially, Street did quite well on his Yamaha GYTR WR450, maintaining 7th place overall until the 7th stage and even winning the grueling 9th stage (matching his single stage victory in 2009), but a crash and mechanical problems in later stages set him back to a 13th-place overall standing. “Jonah had some bad luck, and some good luck,” race organizer and three-time Dakar rider Charlie Rauseo told me. “Winning a stage was nice, but the other problems kept him out of contention.” 

The other notable USA finisher was California native and three-time Baja winner Quinn Cody. The Honda-CRF450X-mounted rider didn’t have any dramatic finishes, instead consistently finishing in the top twenties and learning the ropes. By the end of the event, his standing was a solid 9th place, good enough to make him Top Rookie. He was pleased with his results, but has his sights higher when he returns next year. “To win the Dakar, just being a good rider isn’t enough.” 

“I’ve always thought that a team of well-prepared American riders could dominate the Dakar,” Rauseo went on to tell me. “We have riders who live in the desert, so how can we get beat in desert races by the French? All it will take is a bit more popularity for the sport, which will free up the sponsor money to let our top guys dedicate some time and effort to this. The pieces are all there. It would be nice to see us kick some butt in this race because it is really the toughest motorsports event in the world.”

21 Comments

  1. Aspro says:

    Two comments on this, and as I come to my 40th year of doing enduros, I think I can shed some light:
    The factory KTM 450’s were redlining at 11,000 rpm…no wonder they were wearing out. In the races of the past in which the Honda XR’s dominated, the redline was less than 7500rpm. This contributes to reliability.
    As for non Americans dominating, well, the pro’s like Coma do six FIM multi-country rallies each year. If the US AMA could mount a similar season of racing, the I’m sure a top US rider would emerge. Why don’t more Americans enter these FIM sanctioned events? Simple…$$$.
    The last Australian Safari that I completed was ten years ago. And that was on a 78 Maico 440 with a big tank. It was light as, and a dream with torque like a tractor. Never had to go over 5000rpm. I wish some 2 strokes would be seen in the Dakar, but the fuel consumption would work against them.
    If one reads Charlie Boormans book on the 2006 Dakar, he comments on bike weight and he says the 650’s are still too heavy in the sand. He relates a story in which an amateur on a box stock 70’s vintage Yamara XT500 came by him while he was struggling on a huge sandhill…helped him out and then quietly continued on, and with bugger-all support, completed the 06 Dakar. There are many untold stories of amateurs plodding away and their consistency gets them home.

  2. MarkT says:

    No Victory??? Maybe the Highball would do the trick?

  3. Brian says:

    We need to get the AMA involved so they can change the rules in order to make the Harley Sportster competitive…

  4. Bob says:

    I’ve been following the Dakar for years. Last year, when the KTM 690s had to run with intake restrictors there was much moaning and groaning. On the other hand, as good as the KTM 690 single is, it took a very large and strong rider like Coma or Despres to fully exploit its potential in the dirt. Nice to see that Despres now has the party line down and loves his 450. Sadly, only KTM makes a single cylinder motorcycle engine with all the modern (expensive) bits and pieces and machining techniques. The street version, which only displaces 654 cc. offers up an honest 65 hp. Compare that to Honda’s street legal 650 single, which generates 34 hp. Finally, you can get really excellent video of the event, for free at: http://www.sbs.com.au/dakar/

  5. E-Ticket says:

    The change to 450cc bike for the pro/elite class (amateurs could still do larger bikes) was due to two reasons: 1) To break the stranglehold the KTM had on the race due to their being only manufacturer still making a serious big-bore rally bike, and 2) To level the playing field and encourage more manufacturers to field serious teams. And that part seems to be working.

    And yes, the 450cc engines may wear about a bit faster than the big-bore bikes. Why? Ummm… something about being *pinned* for 150-300 miles special tests may have something to do with that. Not to mention the 300-500 km liasons … just to get to the start of the special (race) stage! The distances in the Dakar are just staggering.

    As for Coma and Despres, their nickname in this year’s Dakar has been … the “Aliens.” As in, they are riding so much faster than anyone else – they must be from another planet. But that also speaks volumes about the huge Red Bull/KTM team effort behind them.

    While Jonah was rocking until his electrical issue that cost him over an hour, the BIG story of this Dakar has been Quinn Cody! Despite his Baja and desert racing prowess, he was essentially using the first week of the Dakar to learn how to use roadbook and GPS while racing. For him to get 9th overall … on his first Dakar is just amazing.

    I just wish I could win Powerball. There would definitely be a “Team USA” for Jonah, Quinn, and myself … floundering around in the back. But until then – Go Jonah, Go Quinn! Woo! What a great race! Cheers! E-Ticket

  6. Gabe says:

    One thing I left out of the story is that Street and Cody are privateers. Street raised the money himself and did the event on a bare-bones budget. The KTM guys had deep pockets behind them. It’s like dismissing a privateer who “only” finishes 9th in MotoGP.

  7. John Dudley says:

    I think that a major problem with the Dakar is caused by allowing each competitor to use up to three engines. This makes it very difficult for privateers to compete because of the cost factor. If I had my way I would limit each team to one engine only plus a limited number of spare parts. This would not only limit costs, it encourage manufacturers to make reliability of key factor in their rally engine designs.

    This cost factor makes it especially difficult for North American riders to compete because of the lack of available sponsorship money. European and South American competitors don’t suffer similar problems because they are virtually awash in sponsorship money because of the wild enthusiasm of fans in their home countries. This results in widespread coverage by the mainstream media there and resulting oodles of ad money available to subsidize these riders.

    This results in a sort of vicious circle for US riders. American riders don’t do well because of a lack of money. In turn, the poor performance of the American riders results in their getting even less media coverage and sponsorship money the following year which in turn guarantees that the next year’s results will be the similarly or even more lackluster.

    The present day 450cc bikes used in the Dakar are generally derived from motocross and enduro models where weight and performance are prime concerns while durability isn’t. The present day 450cc models IMO are far less reliable than the previous models that they replaced. Just compare the maintenance required and the reliability of any of the present day 450cc or 250cc models compared with their recent desert racing predecessors such as, for instance, the XR Hondas. They are worlds apart.

    I know that if I was competing in the middle of nowhere on a shoestring (and without the Dakar’s helicopter support) reliability would be an overriding concern. Maybe all those mechanical breakdowns in this year’s Dakar might encourage manufacturers to rethink their strategies and produce models that true, rugged, practical rally bikes that we can all enjoy rather than bastardized, very temperamental machines that are now being offered to racers.

    Admittedly, these new machines would undoubtedly be a bit slower. Considering that the present day 450cc bikes are already capable of over 110+ mph this might be a blessing in disguise and prolong the period before the allowable engine size limit on these bikes is again decreased. This decrease is virtually inevitable because of the increasing number of accidents which will again increase once the 450s get markedly faster as we all know they will. Once the 450s are capable of 120mph I predict the days of the 450s will also be numbered, just as were those of their larger displacement recent predecessors.

    • Steve says:

      It’s certainly an irony that the richest country doesn’t have a full team in the toughest rally.

      If that happens then I’m sure we’d see some US riders at least be in contention and that would make the race even more exciting.

      What’s a sad indictment in your train of thought is that the US will only support US successes. I really hope that isn’t true.

      I agree they should try to balance reliability, power and weight for more reliability and allow only one spare engine. They need a spare engine because some stages finish very late and the next starts very early. There’s not enough time to strip and rebuild an engine, so it seems entirely reasonable to have a spare. However, having 2 spare engines does seem excessive.

      Anyway, I loved the coverage of this race and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

  8. Steve says:

    450cc is plenty, weight is a disadvantage and top speed isn’t the deciding factor. Unless you’re an insecure male.

    • Old town hick says:

      “Unless you’re an insecure male”. Yup, that must be it.

      God, the maturity levels we enjoy on this blog! Steve, you might want to read and actually understand the meaning of the post.

      • Steve says:

        Dude, your post was ‘bigger is butcher”, “smaller is whimpy’.

        BTW, there are 2 Steves posting here ! But I’ve got to agree with the other Steve – anyone who thinks a bigger engine is more macho does seem to have a ‘machismo-isssue’.

        Has MotoGP gone whimpy too ?

        • Old town hick says:

          One last try.

          Please read carefully: “They can keep the 450s in the equation. Depending on the course, these machines probably have an edge. Including the bigger machines in the mix would make it all more fun to watch”.

          And here’s a news flash: Moto GP is going back to the bigger motors.

  9. Old town hick says:

    Why did they wimpify the Dakar by limiting engine size to 450cc? That’s what almost all other enduro competitions look like. The 800-1000cc twins of the past are what made this event so interesting and imposing (a race version of the new Triumph 800 triple would be so cool to watch in this competition).

    With the “Adventure Bike” segment the only one growing in an otherwise dreadful/declining motorcycle sales market, it is a crying shame that the Dakar Rally has chosen to ignore a potentially rich fan base. Just doesn’t make sense.

    • Steve says:

      Haha….you must be joking right ? I’d love to see someone trying to cope with soft steep dunes on an 800cc triple !

      The Dakar doesn’t exist to sell bikes. If it did you can bet the Gs1200 would be in the event. I’d love to see a rider lifting that one out of the sand too.

      “Adventure” bikes aren’t about real challenges – for the majority, they’re about touring, commuting and the odd bit of green-laneing – maybe. And for some that’s an adventure, and for the marketing guys, adventure sells ! I doubt any Dakar rider would consider a 200 mile road trip between hotels a challenge. That’s a holiday right ?

      If you think a tuned 450 is a whimpy bike, you obviously haven’t ridden one. Try one – they’re an absolute blast !

      • Old town hick says:

        I know 450s are not “whimpy”-I ride a buddy’s now and then a have a great time on it. My point was that the Dakar has now excluded an entire class of vehicles that for a couple of decades made the event a lot more interesting. Numerous riders coped with the sand dunes of Africa just fine on the big bikes, and have won the entire motorcycle division 8 or 10 times.

        Like it or not, events like the Dakar Rally are as much about selling a product as they are about competitve racing. Without a fan base for sponsors to appeal to, the event could not exist. They can keep the 450s in the equation. Depending on the course, these machines probably have an edge. Including the bigger machines in the mix would make it all more fun to watch.

  10. Vrooom says:

    Jonah had serious mechanical issues on 2 days that really prevented him from cracking the top 10. If I recall his stage win wasn’t on quite as gruelling a day as the previous 2, it was on the day with the motocross style start (or XC) and the special was only 150 miles or so if I recall correctly (set met straight if I’m wrong here). If Jonah can get a large enough support team and the right hardware I’d imagine he’d be on the podium, but Coma and Despres are going to have to retire to pry them out of first and second. Despres would have won without that 10 minute penalty. Lot’s of other talented folks too, Lopez will be around for awhile. Cody looked great for a Rookie, how about a Cody/Street team with a water carrier to support them, I’ll volunteer. Not sure the Atacama is any easier than the Sahara, but less vast.

    • Dean says:

      WOW! Those are some great shots of the cycles, cars, competitors, even the race coverage helicopters get in a couple shots!

      Really nice shots!

  11. Michael Cyprus says:

    KTM has changed 3 engines on both bikes until the end of the race. Both riders faced mechanical problems with Cyril having more than Coma. So I don’t thing they are that reliable.

  12. Steve says:

    Rauseo went on to tell me. “We have riders who live in the desert, so how can we get beat in desert races by the French?”

    Did he forget the other nationalities that also finished ahead of Quinn and Jonah ?

    From watching the daily coverage, I’d say it’s because they rode faster, didn’t break down as much, or get lost as much, and could fix their own bikes better, among other things.

    The Dakar is a unique challenge and it takes a very special combination of skills and personality, not to mention the team support, to win.

    It would surely benefit everyone if there was more US involvement, but to be surprised an American didn’t win is either naive or excessively patriotic. You might as well ask why America has never won the soccer World Cup, if indeed it will ever happen.

  13. brinskee says:

    I doubt I have the requisite skills to finish the ride in any respectable time, but I would love to do this race. And I agree, we need more Americans in the race.