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Meet the man aiming to bring Britain more Dakar glory
Sam Sunderland is looking to replicate his Dakar 2017 win. We speak to him
“That’s something that I really like about it, that freedom to just go where you want in the desert. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do that now.”
We’re speaking to Sam Sunderland just before he flies out to start Dakar 2021, the rally raid we now find ourselves several days into. Sunderland, who hails from Poole, won the Dakar on his Red Bull KTM in 2017, making him the only British racer to ever do so.
“With quarantine and lockdown, bike sales went up like 60 per cent, and everyone sold out of bicycles and motorcycles. Everyone just wanted to get out and go explore a bit. Hopefully we’ll have a few more followers through the race this year, it’ll be something good to stick on while they’re stuck at home.
“I’ve got quite a busy head, thinking about this and worrying about that, but when you’re on the bike and you’ve got your helmet and goggles on – and it’s just you, the bike and the desert, in that little zone of ticking off the boxes with everything flowing – it’s a really nice feeling, for sure.”
It’s a feeling Sunderland much prefers to the more prescriptive style of racing on circuit. “I’ve ridden some race bikes on the track and enjoyed it. But I also felt like it was quite more about being accurate – riding motocross off road, you can be quite creative with your lines and ride the outside, whereas on the road bike on track you’re quite confined by the racing line and being accurate with your braking points and the apex. I didn’t enjoy that as much as I enjoy the dirt.”
But what about managing the road book, something much trickier for Dakar’s solo riders than its four-wheeled competitors, who comprise a driver and co-driver?
“Everybody in the world can ride faster than they can navigate, so you’re trying to get this balance right of riding fast but still navigating accurately,” says Sunderland. “It also changes depending on your start position. If you’re first, you’ve got a clean canvas to ride your way through. But then 99 per cent of the racers will follow your lines. Where you start on the day changes how you navigate.
“When you’re out in front and you’re just opening a line through the dunes - just hoping that the waypoint opens - it’s quite a cool experience.”
Clearly very proficient on two wheels, and with a passion for cars in his private life, would Sunderland ever consider competing for Dakar glory on four wheels?
“I like cars a lot and I’d like to transition into racing them a bit more over the next few years. I’m always keen to go go-karting with the boys, and I’ve competed in a six-hour endurance race in a Peugeot.
“I’ve been in the car a few times with Stéphane Peterhansel and Nasser Al-Attiyah and it’s impressive what they can do in the desert, especially in the stones, which they can go through like it’s nothing. That’s a bit dangerous for us. I think their dangers are different things. We have to watch out for rocks and square edge, whereas they have to watch out for big G outs and undulations, which aren’t as scary for us.”
Find out more about Sam Sunderland on his Red Bull athlete profile page