In 1977, during a race between Abidjan and Nice, one of the competitors got lost in the middle of the desert. Although it didn’t help him towards the final standings, the unfortunate incident was to generate arguably the hardest race on the planet. The man was Thierry Sabine and, after much pleading and negotiating, 1979 saw the first Paris-Dakar rally.
Soon to become a hit, the rally’s original idea was to allow amateurs to compete with professionals on pretty much an even ground, with navigation and mechanical knowledge being at least of as much importance as driving skills or engine power. The first motorcycle to arrive to Dakar in that year was the Yamaha ridden by Cyril Neveu, who went to win the race a further four times in subsequent editions. The gruelling two and a half weeks of competition left a field of 90 starting bikes reduced to 34 by the time the race finished.
The race becomes famous under the name Paris-Dakar, marking the start and finish of all editions until 1994. From there onwards, the race had its first stage relocated to multiple cities (Barcelona, Lisbon, Granada or Agadez), but the final destination remained untouched until 2008, when the race did not happen on the grounds of security concerns. The following year saw the race permanently moved to South America, with the stages held mainly over Argentina and Chile. There have been calls for the return of the motorcycles to Africa, but only time will tell.
The bikes used are adapted 450 cc, with just under 200 Kg (about 450 Lb), modified for the extreme conditions of the Dakar. Austrian KTM has been the dominant manufacturer, with riders in the top positions for the past 20 years.
The nature of the race, with daily stages of up to 900 Km (about 550 Miles) in rugged terrain, often alternating between mud, dunes, rocks and dirt, all of it off-road, challenges even the most experienced riders. Navigation is a major issue, as there are a number of checkpoints that have to be found (literally) during the course of the stage. There is also a curfew for the arrival at the day’s destination, plus a severe chance of mechanical problems or accidents. Every year many riders are not able to finish the race, with injuries being a common cause.