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CS Santosh, the first Indian to tackle the most frightening raid in the world, is back home, and he’s ready to narrate the story of a lifetime

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If you’re an Indian who aspires to be a figure in the world of motorsport, life can be a little terrifying. Even before you start worrying about how to go about things, or honing your bread-winning skills, you must look underneath your bed and face the monster that’s hiding under it: the monster named sponsorship. No matter how good you are, if you are hoping to have someone else fund your true calling, you are in for a rude shock.

Mention ‘motorsport’ and ‘good at what you do’ in the same breath, and CS Santosh springs to mind. For the uninitiated, let me introduce you to Bangalore boy Chunchunguppe Shivashankar Santosh, who has been on the off-road scene for a decade now, and over this period, won pretty much everything up for grabs in motocross and supercross in India.

Naturally, like every racer worth his gear, CS had set his eyes on the big league. In this case, it happened to be the mother of all rally raids: the Dakar. It is, quite simply, the toughest thing to attempt on two wheels. A journey spanning three countries – Argentina, Chile and Bolivia – involving 9,295km of tarmac, dirt roads, farmlands, sand dunes, rocks, rivers, riverbeds, and what have you over a period of 13 days. CS had shown his class all right, but the Dakar was something else entirely. He reckoned he was ready for it, so all he needed to do was look under his cot. There, he found the dreaded creature.

CS approached every big name associated with motorsport in our country, but was cold-shouldered by all of them. He needed

about Rs 1.3 crore for the 2014 cross-country rallies, and the Dakar. Without sponsors, it’d be a tough ask. Thankfully, unlike the borrow-it-spend-it-forget-it friends that you and I have, CS’s mates are a rather generous lot. Most of his funds came from his close mates, and his family chipped in as well. With the money bit sorted, and Red Bull offering to help him along the way, the stage was set.

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The plot

When he landed in Buenos Aires in January, the first thing he did was sample the KTM 450 Rally Replica that he’d be riding over the next two weeks. “We went to a farm, charted out a 10km-long loop. The bike felt good. A slight suspension tweak was all it needed. We had to ride to the start podium through 20 kilometres of city streets, with scores of people lining up alongside. They were all waving, honking, kids in cars were taking pictures. It was something I’d never experienced before. At the start podium, they called out my name, they saw the Indian flag, asked me about the country and how it felt to be the first Indian to be a part of the Dakar. I’d never viewed it that way, as only my family and friends knew about my journey. That put things into perspective for me.”

The next day was Day 1, a ride from Buenos Aires to Villa Carlos Paz, in Argentina. Frazzled nerves? “Not really. Experienced riders said it’d be quite easy, and it was. The route mostly involved T-junctions, riding through fields. However, in the first 10km itself, other participants just whizzed past me. They were gunning it from the word go. I wasn’t, and I plummeted through the order, finishing the day in 86th”.

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Day 2 was to be one of the toughest days of the Dakar this year, with a special stage spread out over 518km. “I didn’t know what difference a shorter or longer stage made. If it’s 518, let’s go for it, I thought. We started on winding mountain roads, where I found rhythm, and passed a lot of people. Just 10km before the desert stretch, there was an area marked ‘fesh-fesh’ (worn-down sand; can be as slippery as ice). It was my first encounter with the talcum powder-like substance, and that is where I had my first fall. All the confidence I’d gained over 430km, vanished. I slowed down, and all the guys I’d worked so hard to pass, overtook me one by one. I entered the desert extremely exhausted, just wanted to get through it somehow.”

CS completed Stage 2 in 49th place, which was quite an effort, considering Sam Sunderland, the top rider on Day 1, was disoriented and lost his way, and Polish rider (also a Dakar debutant) Michal Hernik died of hyperthermia. Death is not new to the Dakar, and no participant is a stranger to the threats the rally poses.

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He didn’t like Chile all that much. “I’d expected big things from it. But it was s***. The Atacama Desert isn’t pretty. I only enjoyed riding flat-out between the big hills, snaking through narrow paths between rockfaces, but the fesh-fesh was just everywhere.”

CS suffered a major setback on Day 6. “I had a quad in front of me, and since it kicks up so much dust, I tried to pass it. I hadn’t read the road book carefully, made a mistake and crashed. The bike landed on my left foot. I felt some pain, but thought it’d be okay. As I rode on, it got worse.” As he discovered, his left toe had suffered a hairline crack. Normally, that’s enough to put a man out of action for at least a month. But the Dakar doesn’t allow for such luxuries. So, a few injections, medication and a rest day later, CS was off once again.

He’s a strapping, hardy, young-ish man, but the first marathon round - riding without his support team, out in the wild all on his own - pushed him to his very limits.

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“The final 70km were the most painful. I was so spent by the end of the stage that I had to be carried off the bike.”   You’d imagine that a drained CS would barely be in his senses, let alone be thinking about something. You’d be wrong. “All the time, I was just thinking to myself, s***, the gear is all dirty.”

The way out of Bolivia was where CS broke into the top 40, but not without a little help from some supernatural force.

“We started our ride across 100km of salt flats. 10km into the stage, participants started stopping one by one. I looked at my dash. The lights were going crazy. I knew that the electronics were fried. Somehow, my KTM kept going. I’ve always believed that I was destined to finish the Dakar. This was the biggest sign. The top guys were stopping, but there seemed to be some divine intervention in my case.”

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He very nearly ran out of good fortune, and at almost the wrong time. “As I neared the end of the stage, I hit some standing water, and the motorcycle died. Tried everything, but it just wouldn’t start.”

When all seemed lost, he borrowed jumper cables from fellow KTM rider Jordi Viladoms as a last-ditch attempt at reviving his 450. “I didn’t know what else I could do, so I tried jump-starting it, and miraculously, it started. I rode through the rest of it, and almost felt like I’d finished the Dakar when I saw the descent (to the finish line). The team celebrated like I’d won the stage. It was the turning point.”

Making it to the last day of the Dakar is a mixed bag: it’s an achievement, yes, but the last day is also when quite a few suffer failures and don’t see the finish line. But CS couldn’t be bothered with such inane thoughts. “I thought, “Screw that. I am going for it. No point being cautious. If something has to go wrong, it will.”

Guess what? It almost did.

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Minutes away from Technopolis, in Buenos Aires, where the finish podium was set up, CS fell one last time. “I tried to pick up the bike and couldn’t. My boots had no grip in the slush, I was picking it up and slipping, falling along with the bike. Did that seven times, and my heart rate was through the roof. I was thinking, “Dude, it’s the last day, you’re just 20km away, but you might not make the finish. It was then that I thought about all the effort I’d invested in getting here, all the training I went through, all the naysayers that I had to silence. That spurred me on, I heaved with all the strength I could muster and picked it up.”

168 riders had started on January 4. 79 made it to the finish on January 17, as did CS, in 36th place. He wasn’t too happy. Not because of his final ranking, but because he didn’t look dapper on the podium. “I was caked in mud. It wasn’t how I’d envisioned it.”

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The day after
The morning that followed was about letting the enormity of the whole thing sink in. Not. “I was hung-over. Could’ve done 10 more days of the Dakar, that’s how energised I felt at the end of it.”

Of all the beautiful sights he encountered on the way, CS only clicked one picture with his phone: that of a charming young woman at a fuel stop. “The women there are the most beautiful I’ve seen. The Dakar requires us to keep going at full steam, and then you have these beautiful women at the fuel stops. It’s almost cruel.”

Over the next couple of months, you will see various sections of the Indian media wax eloquent about the only Indian to have conquered the Dakar. And, for good reason. Few men dream of the enigma that is the Dakar, few find the gall to take it up, and fewer still manage to complete it and still look like they’ve just come out of the library after an hour-long reading session. As for CS himself, things come full circle. He’ll resume training, after which he will be off to the cross-country rallying championship once again, with the aim of participating in the Dakar next year as well. If he manages to secure the amount he needs, he will, in all probability, get that top-20 finish he’s seeking on his next trip to South America. He’s a bit bullish, and that, I feel, is exactly what’ll take him to Buenos Aires in 2016.  

(Words: Amaan Ahmed, Photos: Shantanu Das)

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