Price, Sanders, Houlihan and Burgess ready to conquer 2021 Dakar

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Grab your favourite beverage and a comfy chair for this year’s instalment of the Dakar starting on Sunday, January 3 in Saudi Arabia, 11 stages and 7,646 kilometres. Former Dakar Winner Toby Price (3) is the most experienced Aussie, in six attempts, the Queenslander has five top-three finishes. In 2021, Price is joined by three rookies, Victorians Daniel Sanders (21) and Michael Burgess (80) and New South Welshman Andrew Houlihan (62).

Toby Price (3)

“THE LEVEL OF COMPETITION IS GOING TO BE EVEN GREATER”

Being consistent is clearly a gauge of excellence, but for Toby Price winning is the only thing matters. In six participations, the Australian has five top-three finishes. Every time he has made it to the end he has marched on to the podium. And while his third place in Saudi Arabia was yet again proof of his toughness, it was clearly not what the two-time winner of the rally had in mind. In 2015, this young Aussie with the build of a rugby flanker arrived on the rally-raid scene like a UFO. Toby Price was a house-hold name down under, but an unknown on the global scale of the Dakar. It didn’t take long for him to integrate the subtleties of navigation without ever cracking to ride on for an impressive third-place finish. A year later, and as a member of the factory KTM team, Price became the first Australian to win the Dakar, and this in just his second participation. He was the pre-event favourite in 2017, but crashed on stage four and broke his leg. It took him nearly a year to recover and his third place in 2018 at Cordoba was quite an accomplishment. His second triumph upon arrival in Lima was even more so, as he soldiered on with a bruised wrist. The years of suffering now seem behind him and at 33 years-of-age, he is once again a serious contender. Victory would see him join Richard Sainct as a three-time winner (1999, 2000 and 2003) and surpass Hubert Auriol, Gaston Rahier and Fabrizio Meoni. After a go on four wheels, notably on the Baja 1000 with Nasser Al Attiyah last year, Price is laser-focused on his KTM. Quarantined for months in Australia due to pandemic, it was in Europe, notably on the Andalusia Rally where he finished fourth and in Dubai where he has prepared for the Dakar like a lion in a cage.

“2020 was obviously a quiet season. It began with the Dakar and another podium finish even though it wasn’t the result I had hoped for, and then nothing. Every time I have finished the rally, I’ve been on the podium, which is a pretty strong performance, especially after two tough weeks. I knew nothing was going to happen in the first months of the year. I stayed calm and didn’t really do anything. It was a gradual re-start with a lot of mountain biking and weight training. Since then we have only been able to train and test in Europe and Dubai for the past 5 months. What I have missed most is my family, friends, and my parents. 6 or 7 years had passed since the last time I experienced this. It was quite difficult to adjust, to stay fit and remain motivated. I’m looking forward to the rally. We are training for the rally. This long break has allowed everyone to recharge their batteries and allow their bodies time to recover. A lot of guys are going to show up in great shape. The level of competition is going to be even greater. It’s pretty exciting and I can’t wait for it to start. The first Dakar in Saudi Arabia was totally new for everyone. We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know what the route would be like. We now know that it is fast over very wide stretches. We’ll see what’s in store for us this year. I don’t like to predict what will happen. My goal is to attack with the hope of another podium finish, but we are all going there to try to win. And the ultimate goal is to be on the top step of the podium holding the big trophy.”

Daniel Sanders (21)

“A LOT TO LEARN ON THE DAKAR”

Seeing Daniel Sanders on the start line of the Dakar as part of the Red Bull KTM factory team, one will rapidly make a comparison with Toby Price. Both are Australian, both have an impressive mullet and both are extremely talented and fast. For the moment, the comparison stops there. Indeed when Price took on his first Dakar (that he finished third) he was 28 and had far more experience in off-road rallies and navigation, Sanders will only be starting his second real rally at the age of 26. An enduro specialist, outright ISDE winner and Australian off-road champion in 2019, he showed all the talent he had during the recent Andalucia Rally that he finished in 11th spot, conquering the final stage. He however humbly knows that the Dakar is a different beast. Far from the Australian lockdown, the Melbourne native spent several months in Spain and Dubai to get familiar with his new discipline, making the best of the precious tips of team manager Jordi Viladoms and his KTM partners. “Chucky” who likes spending his spare time on the family farm, working in the apple orchard, beekeeping and also building motocross tracks for fun, will take the Dakar as a learning experience, hoping he can just finish it. He does, however, have the rookie trophy in the back of his mind and knows that a finish in the Top 10 would already be quite a performance.

“I started riding at the age of 8 on the family farm. My father used to race enduro and that’s the discipline I started with as well as desert racing. I was never a real Dakar fan although I followed what the Aussies would do there. I first met Toby Price in 2011 when we were riding enduro races together. I always thought about going on the rally path but it came quicker than I expected. It was a safe option to start something new. KTM were looking for a development rider and contacted me back in April and then came the Andalucia Rally. On day one there, I had no idea what was happening. I was learning everyday from my mistakes. The navigation was rather easy in Andalucia and that’s why we went to Dubai to learn more in the desert and the dunes. My ambitions for the Dakar? I have no idea. First I want to finish it. A top 10 would be cool and maybe a stage win, I also hope to do well in the rookie class. I won’t be a water-boy however. If I win, I have the freedom to continue, but of course, in the final days, I’d be happy to help out a guy in a better position. Of course, it would be cool to be like Price but I have no pressure. I’m not as good or experienced as Toby was when he first did the Dakar. I have a lot to learn on the Dakar.”

Andrew Houlihan (62)

“IT’S THE ULTIMATE RALLY AND NOT MANY HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO GO”

Saying that a Dakar biker has incomparable mental strength and is slightly crazy is a pleonasm. Two years ago, Andrew Houlihan, an experienced rider from New South Wales suffered a terrible crash during the Hellas Rally in Greece. An accident that sent him to hospital for a month, battling for his life, and later forced him to have several surgeries on his knees, but that crash was actually what pushed him to go for the Dakar. After experiencing events like the Morocco Rally or the Africa Eco Race last year, it was time for the “ultimate rally”. Part of the Nomadas Adventure team, he’ll have at his side Mexican Pablo Guillen, a man who became a friend and almost a part of his family back when Andrew was fighting to survive after his crash in Greece.

“I’ve been riding for the last twenty years. As I kid I rode bikes until age 15 and then stopped. It was when I met my wife that we decided to buy dirt bikes and I have since then been competing in motocross and rallies. My first real racing experience came at the Hellas Rally in 2018. On day 7 I suffered a big crash colliding with another rider. I had to spend a month in a Greek hospital fighting to survive. But despite that, the passion is still there. That accident just made me more determined to do the Dakar that was always in the back of my mind. After the Africa Eco Race, we decided (with his wife) to go for it. She’s an integral part of the project although she won’t be able to come to Saudi Arabia. Maybe one day we’ll compete together in a SSV. The Dakar is the ultimate rally. Not many have the opportunity to go. My body is full of titanium but it’s ok after surgery and I’ve done enough of navigation to be OK with that. The only ambition is to finish. I have no expectations for the first year because I intend to do it again in 2022. This one is a learning experience.”

Michael Burgess (80)

“SACRIFICE EVERYTHING JUST TO GET TO THE LINE”

Michael Burgess likes a good old challenge and when he sets his mind on something, he gives all he has. A keen enduro rider and desert racer back home in Australia, he fell in love with off-road rallies after testing himself out with a road-book. His path to the Dakar hasn’t been an easy one though. Firstly because he broke his neck while racing and it took him time to recover thanks to the fantastic support of his wife and three children. The recent pandemic that hit the world also made his preparation far more complicated. Due to come to Europe and compete in Morocco to prepare for the Dakar, his plans were naturally cancelled. He still sent an application to compete in the world’s biggest rally and received good news six weeks later. The caravan park owner from Victoria will just be hoping to finish the rally and make his 8-year old bike fanatic son proud. Despite being extremely competitive he knows he doesn’t have what it takes to aim at a Top 20 and just hopes to work his way through every situation.

“I’m a bit of a late bloomer in the world of off-road rallies. I used to ride enduro and did desert racing and five years ago my friend Matthew Fish (former Dakar rider) told me to try some “road-book stuff”. I loved it. The adventure evolved from there. From a kid riding bikes in the bush with my mates to the Dakar. My family background in terms of sports is more around football. Of course, I followed the Dakar and guys like Andy Caldecott but I never took to it until I competed. Off-road rallies bring in new elements: how to use your brain, concentrate not only on the throttle, work out the right path and of course the camaraderie. It’s very demanding for your mind and I love pushing myself to the extremes. The goal is first to finish and sacrifice everything just to get to the line. I know I can work my way through every situation despite my lack of road-book experience. I’m more worried about staying in one piece”.

  • 02 January 2021: Prologue, Liaison 118km, Special 11km, Jeddah.
  • 03 January 2021: Stage 1, Liaison 345km, Special 277km. Jeddah to Bisha.
  • 04 January 2021: Stage 2, Liaison 228km, Special 457km. Bisha to Wadi Ad-Dawasir.
  • 05 January 2021: Stage 3, Liaison 227km, Special 403km. Wadi Ad-Dawasir to Wadi Ad-Dawasir.
  • 06 January 2021: Stage 4, Liaison 476km, Special 337km. Wadi Ad-Dawasir to Riyadh.
  • 07 January 2021: Stage 5, Liaison 205km, Special 456km. Riyadh to Al Qaisumah.
  • 08 January 2021: Stage 6, Liaison 170km, Special 448km. Al Qaisumah to Ha’il.
  • 09 January 2021: Rest.
  • 10 January 2021: Stage 7, Liaison 267km, Special 471km. Ha’il to Sakaka.
  • 11 January 2021: Stage 8, Liaison 334km, Special 375km. Sakaka to Neom.
  • 12 January 2021: Stage 9, Liaison 109km, Special 465km. Neom to Neom.
  • 13 January 2021: Stage 10, Liaison 241km, Special 342km. Neom to Al-‘Ula.
  • 14 January 2021: Stage 11, Liaison 46km, Special 511km. Al-‘Ula to Yanbu.
  • 15 January 2021: Stage 12, Liaison 227km, Special 225km. Yanbu to Jeddah.