Sam Sunderland made history by becoming the first Briton to win the Dakar Rally with his 2017 triumph for Red Bull KTM in the bike class. In one of the most gruelling and unforgiving disciplines, he gives his insight on how to reach the top.

Sunderland might be of the lesser-known British sporting leaders but he has excelled in one of the toughest and scariest arenas across the globe – the world-renowned Dakar Rally.

The Red Bull KTM rider’s victory in 2017 was the first time a Brit had ever reached the top step of the rostrum in any class – Scot Andrew Cowan had previously gone closest with second place in his Mitsubishi Pajero in 1985 – four years before Sunderland was even born.

Sunderland was awarded the prestigious Segrave Trophy by the Royal Automobile Club for his Dakar Rally triumph, an award named after Sir Henry Segrave who was the first person to hold both water and land speed records simultaneously, and is given to those with outstanding demonstration by land, air or water with extreme courage and skill. In Sunderland, he has it by the bucket load.

But what are the building blocks to a Dakar Rally winner from a nation which has no deserts or terrain similar to that faced on the torturous routes covering thousands of kilometres across alien surroundings which require 3AM starts and racing for up to 12 hours a day?

Sunderland reveals how he went from playing on bikes around a dairy farm to winning the toughest rally in the world.

On his passion for bikes and racing…

“I started with motocross and growing up on a dairy farm it was really good. I was always crashing my mountain bike as any kid does but I enjoyed all kinds of bikes. The first time I rode I’m certain I remember crashing as you don’t know really what is going on and you give it too much throttle or whatever. I just love racing, if I was on a lawn moaner I’d want to race it, it is this passion I have for racing.

“This is my passion and I’m grateful to have the support team around me which allows me to make this my profession, but even if I was working in a butchery I would still race bikes at the weekend. I love it, this started out as my passion and it is what I love to do.”

From motocross in Britain to the dunes of Dubai…

“You are quite limited for open desert or any terrain in the UK so while I was in the UK I only rode motocross and circuit racing. That’s how I started and I still love motocross and I still do in the desert. When I moved to Dubai I started riding more in the desert and that freedom took over as in Dubai you can go wherever you want on your bike. There is your bike and thousands of dunes, off you go, no controls and complete freedom. I love that.

“As a kid I always looked up to the motocross champions, the Ricky Carmichaels, the Stefan Everts. I always had those guys as the superstars but when I started to understand about rally Stephane Peterhansel was always somebody, winning so many in bikes and cars. He’s competed in more Dakars than I am old. It is crazy.

“I left school and did a lift engineering apprenticeship cleaning out horrible, dirty lift pits. I did that for three or four years and once I passed my lift engineering apprenticeship I moved out to Dubai and was working in the KTM showroom selling bikes and riding and racing at the weekend.

“My auntie and uncle lived there but I went there to ride and to work in the shop. I went all in as I thought it was my chance. I woke up every day and trained so hard and working.

“I think you need opportunities in life but you also need to be ready for them when they come. If I went to Dubai and had fun, drinking beers with my buddies at the weekend and riding bikes when I wanted, the opportunity I had was in the first round of the world championship in Abu Dhabi. If I was just over there relaxing and enjoying life and raced Abu Dhabi not fit and not prepared then maybe I wouldn’t have been able to go on to do what I did.

“When the opportunity came to race in Abu Dhabi I was in the shape of my life and ended up doing really well which is what started leading to other things.”

Sacrificing big things for that one shot…

“I think the first time I chose to leave my country, my parents and my job it was the most difficult thing. That first time I remember I had just finished my lift engineer apprenticeship in 2009, on the cusp of the credit crunch, and everybody told me I wouldn’t get a job if I came back and I was crazy to leave. Everybody around me said no and I did it anyway. I chose to follow my passion… my passion was not lifts.”

Some skills can’t be taught…

“In the Dakar fatigue is such a huge thing to try to control and aiming to stay focused. The longest stage we had in 2017 was 1,250km in one day. If you average 100kmph that is more than 12 hours racing so keeping focused and concentrated for that amount of time is so difficult.

“You do what you can, take a Red Bull or some sweets or an energy bar, whatever you can to manage but there is no way you can overcome it. You have to be so mentally strong to keep focused and avoid mistakes. That’s so hard to train.

“Everybody trains, cycles, and are top professional athletes training every day of the week. There is a lot of work behind it but when everybody is doing the same with training and on similar bikes in terms of performance levels after that it comes down to really small details that you have as a person. You can’t train them and everybody excels at different things.”

The secrets of how spearfishing can help you train for Dakar…

“To free dive you have to control your reaction. Your reaction normally is to breathe but when you free dive you must calm yourself and stop the urge to breathe. I can stay down two or three minutes when I was spear fishing a lot in Dubai. It is another huge passion of mine because when I grew up I loved lake fishing and catching whatever you can, you are happy, I loved it. I also enjoyed hunting on my Grandad’s farm in Ringwood.

“Spearfishing was the blend of the two. The psychological side of it in spear fishing is huge as you have to be able to resist the urge to breathe, be calm and not be excited.

“The freedom I get racing my bike means you get into this zone and everything is happening in slow motion as you are so focused and not thinking about anything else. Not who said what to you, what you had for breakfast or what problems you have. I have that when I’m on the bike and when I’m spearfishing.”

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Crashing is still scary…

“Crashing at the Dakar in 2018, it was pretty bad in the moment as I ended up losing the feeling in my legs for a little bit which was scary. I’m lucky as I’m not alone as I have a great team behind me from Red Bull with a fitness and rehab centre in Austria which helps massively. I was able to get back on the bike pretty soon after Dakar and start working again.

“It comes with the territory and any of the top guys can say they’ve had one. It is normal in motorsport and motorcycle racing. In the end I only lost feeling from my legs for a couple of hours but that was enough to put me out of the race as I needed the feeling!

“It was horrible and I have a few friends who are paralysed and all kinds of thoughts start rushing through your head.

“Luckily, after a few hours of treatment the feeling came back. It was because I squashed two discs and it was pinching on my spinal cord. That is why I lost feeling. It was disappointing having won Dakar in 2017 and the 2018 event started off super good as I won stage one and stage three and had a six-minute lead and it happened, I didn’t even crash, I just hit a sharp pocket in the desert and I didn’t see it at all. I was sand-blind and I missed the hole so had a big compression.”

You are only as good as your last race…

“Certainly in the weeks and months after there was a lot of attention but the one thing I’ve noticed is that in motorsport you never really arrive and you are only as good as your last race.

“You can’t say once you’ve won the Dakar now you’ll put your feet up. The expectations rise a lot after winning the Dakar. It was cool for two or three weeks and then it was Abu Dhabi for the first round of the world championships and it was a case of I had won Dakar so I had better win Abu Dhabi. I won Abu Dhabi and then it was Qatar so then it was I had won Dakar and Abu Dhabi so I had better win in Qatar.

“It’s human nature as you only want more. It’s like getting your first car which might be a Peugeot 106 but at the time that car is so good, you put a big speaker in the back, but now you look back at that car and it is nothing to you. So the expectations continue to go on and you never. Look at Lewis Hamilton, how many titles has he won and he is going for more.

“You can’t relax until maybe the time you retire as you have to keep fighting. I’m lucky that it is a job and I have a great team behind me but the pressure is always on from my side as I am angry if I don’t win or perform well.”

 

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