Cake
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    • Towards the end of December last year, I was hanging out in Arequipa, Peru, finishing up some work and getting my Suzuki DR650 serviced. At this point, I’d been on the road for years, and as is the case with most things in life, the way I traveled has been slowly changing. More and more, I steered
      towards smaller, less used routes and off-road trails, stayed in nameless indigenous villages along the way, and seeked out experiences that weren’t just about motorcycling. But that December, something unexpected began happening to me in Arequipa. As I rode the busy city streets back and forth from the
      mechanics, I noticed people sticking their thumbs up at me from their cars and yelling, “Dakar?”.

      Dakar?..

      I’d heard about the legendary Paris-Dakar rally, of course, but I never followed it closely. I was never into racing, much less rallies; I had little interest in being fast on my bike, on or off the road.

      But the Arequipenos were already living in a Dakar mood, and, after a quick Google search, I realized why. This year, the Paris-Dakar was held exclusively in Peru. “100% Dakar, 100% Peru”, the official rally tagline ran.

      Should I try and chase the rally?, I thought as I watched people admire my loyal Lucy which resembled a rally bike to them somehow. I could just see a few stages, maybe, and experience what the rally is all about. Maybe I’d blog about it, too. I was already in Peru anyway, with no strict plans ahead.

      Decided, then.

      What happened next changed the way I looked at the Dakar completely. It blew my mind and left me longing for more; experiencing the Dakar, to me, was like living in a parallel universe for ten days and realizing, with absolute clarity, that humans were limitless.

      None of my preconceptions about the Dakar or rally competitors turned out to be true. None of my expectations proved to be right. And I will never look at the desert the same way.

      You can find most of my Dakar posts on ADV Rider, where I uploaded daily updates straight from the rally. Here, I’ll share more of the behind-the-scenes, the personal connections, and the insanity that was my Dakar.

    • I am so glad you did this. I absolutely love the flow of consciousness coming out of your writing, and as seen - many do. It's not just about the event, rather living it through someone else's perception that relays it so sensitively, that makes it so captivating.

    • Lima, Peru’s capital, is a beautiful city – but its traffic is notoriously crazy. As I swerved, weaved and elbowed my way into the city, I wasn’t sure what would happen next. I needed to find Magdalena Beach where the Dakar bivouac was already being built, but then?..


      In the two weeks before the Dakar, I’d reached out to Lithuanian racing teams: Team Pitlane with Benediktas Vanagas behind the wheel of their Toyota truck, Arunas Gelazninkas, a Lithuanian Dakar rookie motorcyclist, and Balys Bardauskas, a malle moto rider. I offered to help with whatever they might have needed – since I was already in Peru, I figured I could be useful somehow. All of the racers responded: some needed a hand with hotel and AirBnB reservations, some asked to figure out Peruvian SIM cards so they could have an internet connection. As I ran errands and reported back, all three teams offered to help me with bivouac access for a few stages. This was awesome news – official media accreditation from the ASO is over $3,500, which is easily my four-month budget on the road.


      But when I got to the Dakar bivouac in Lima, it was still being built, I didn’t have anybody’s phone number, and, unsure what to do, I stood in the parking lot melting in my riding suit from the humid, sticky heat and pawing at my GPS trying to locate my AirBnB for the night. Suddenly, a rally rider appeared and stopped right next to me.


      “Labas!”, -a cheerful face said. Hello. I couldn’t believe I was hearing Lithuanian in Lima – it was Balys Bardauskas who’d spotted me from the other side of the fence and came over to say hi.


      “Here’s your bivouac pass for today, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go along. Come join us for dinner later?”, - he said, and tore off on his KTM.

      I was tired and hot, but I couldn’t just ride away without seeing the bivouac first. Rolling up to the competitors entrance, I was greeted by two Spanish – speaking security guys.

      -Holla, caballero!, - one of them said. Hello, sir.

      -No soy caballero, - I said, removing my helmet.

      -Oh, um, apologies! Hi!, - the security guy suddenly went a little pink.


      After a friendly fist bump, I was motioned inside the gates.

    • I felt a little ridiculous riding around the bivouac with my heavily laden bike, wearing full riding suit in the stifling heat, but it seemed the Dakar people found the sight amusing as I got smiles and thumbs up bumbling around the camp.

      The bivouac looked like a little town with its own streets and quarters: trucks and cars at the back, then quads and side by sides, then, finally, bikes. Most pilots weren’t around yet; mechanics and support teams worked on the vehicles, staff wandered around with their walkie talkies, and the camp was still being set up.

      I headed straight for the malle moto camp to find Balys and thank him.

      The contrast between the team and privateer riders and the malle moto Spartans was stark. While most competitors had large tents and motorhomes and entire support teams looking after them 24/7, the Original by Motul class looked bare. All a malle moto rider gets is a mat and a toolbox.

    • Since the malle riders were the only ones around, going over their bikes and doing some final checks, I started chatting to them. Most were surprised to see me there on my own bike, but everyone was friendly and ready to share the excitement.

      "I don't expect to place high or to win the class, all I want is to finish the Dakar. That's my goal. I'm not a fast rider, but I just keep on going, and I hope it will get me through. I don't think I'd be going any faster even if I had a support team", - Edwin Straver, a Dutch rider, told me.

      I hurried to say hi to Sara Garcia - one of only two women in the malle moto class. Anastasiya Nifontova, the other malle moto female, was away.

      Sara was full of energy and positivity, saying she couldn't quite believe she really was racing in the Dakar just yet.

      "It just feels so incredible to be here, you know? The road to Dakar has been so long... and now I'm here!!", - she smiled as she signed my tank.

      She was hoping to finish the Dakar malle moto class together with her boyfriend, Javier Vega. "We'll support each other through this", - Sara told me.

    • Although I really needed to go and dump all my luggage and gear somewhere, I just couldn't peel myself off the malle moto camp. I kept pestering riders about their expectations, asking what's in their toolboxes, and was just utterly fascinated how cool they were. Not in a snobby, Do You Know Who I Am kind of way, but on the contrary, they all seemed like the warmest, friendliest people imaginable.

      I was also stunned how many of them had regular day jobs. Somehow, I thought all the Dakar riders would be these super professional motorcycle racers who would have nothing in common with a lowly ADV civilian like me. Or, they would be these very wealthy people who could afford the most expensive sandbox game in the world...but here, at the malle moto camp, they were mechanics, teachers, fitness trainers.

      Just ordinary people with an extraordinary dream.

    • So you had a worthy experience that challenged what you were expecting!? I couldn't have expected anything better, what you describe as profound surprise that change how we see the facts and people of this event, it is real life learning, forgetting any hardships due to fascination of being captivated and passionate, living in the moment. I'm all ears so to speak, looking forward to read and see what comes next. By the way, pictures are excellent quality too!

    • After hanging out at the Malle Moto camp for a little while, I left to find my AirBnB for the night. Rolling out through the gates, I felt a little antsy – would they let me back in with the bike? Or was this a one-off? I didn‘t dare ask, as if it would have broken some magic spell. Either way, I‘d wing it. I figured.


      My place was just a couple of miles away from the bivoauc, situated in the quiet residential area of Miraflores, one of Lima‘s most beautiful and modern districts. Miraflores feels a little like LA‘s Santa Monica and Venice Beach mixed into one, with a pinch of Mexico‘s Playa del Carmen, a touch of Spanish or Portuguese colonial old towns, and distinctly Peruvian hustle and bustle.


      Quickly, I lugged all my gear and panniers to the apartment, jumped in the shower, and changed into a t shirt and jeans. The humidity and heat were unbearable now, but I knew I couldn‘t miss a minute of the bivuoac life: I had no idea whether I‘d have the access pass for the next day, or the next, whether I would be able to talk to riders, whether I would be able to keep up, so I wanted to make the most of it for as long as I could.


      The bivouac had changed in my absence. Police and security officers at the competitors‘ gate had to make a little corridor for me to pass – local Pervians had come out to see the Dakar pilots, and the bivouac was now besieged with curious fans.


      Una foto! Una foto!, - the Peruvians yelled, trying to snap an image of me or a quick selfie with me. „I‘m not a competitor, I‘m just chasing the rally“, - I tried explaining, but it didn‘t matter. Una foto!


      Once inside the bivouac, feeling a little like an undeserving impostor, but, secretly, also a little like a rockstar all at the same time, I slowly made my way towards the car camp. I was hoping to say hi to Benediktas Vanagas, a Lithuanian car driver who has made Dakar famous back home by relentlessly competing each year despite all the odds – minuscule budget, bare bones of support – and this year, he was hoping to finally place among the top ten. It was Vanagas who told me he‘d help me with the bivouac passes whenever I needed them, so I wanted to ride over and say thanks.


      Vanagas‘ team was already there, working on his Toyota Hilux, but the pilot and the navigator weren‘t around yet. I rode back and forth from the car camp at the back to Malle Moto in the front – the bivouac was a long, rectangle-shaped camp with cars and trucks parked on the far southern side, quads, UTV‘s, and motorcycles in the middle and finally, the Malle moto camp at the northern end, right next to the fence separating the bivouac from the public access area known as the Feria Dakar where the podium was.On the Western side, the bivouac ended at the sea, and all the other three sides were fenced off.


      All around the chainlink fence, Peruvians flocked to catch a glimpse of the competitors and take photos. Una foto! became a mantra outside the fence; some of the most patient fans waited for hours to see their heroes. And when the Dakar competitors weren‘t around, ADV riders who‘ve come here to chase the rally, including me, were fair enough game. During the first few days in Lima, I saw ten to fifteen or more large adventure bikes parked near the entrances daily. Most often, they sported Colombian, Chilean, Mexican and Argentinean plates, but there were also Americans, Germans, South Africans, and Irish riders around.

    • After riding around the camp a few times, I stopped at a small green tent providing shade for two Kawasaki motorcycles and two men working on one of the bikes. It turned out to be the camp of Chilean rider Patricio „Pato“ Cabrera who was doing some final checks on his bike alongside his mechanic.

      „Hey, how‘s it going?“, - I stopped at the green tent. „Would you sign my tank?“.


      Pato smiled and nodded, so I parked Lucy near his bike and watched him sign #44 – his Dakar bib number – on the tank. We chatted a little about bikes, roadbooks, and navigation – Pato and his mechanic were working on the bike‘s navigation tower – and I asked them whose motorcycle was parked near them.

      „It‘s a Colombian rider, it‘s his first Dakar, so I‘m helping him a little“, - Pato explained. For him, this was his eighth rally, and he knew exactly what he was getting into.


      „But your first Dakar, that‘s always the most exciting – and the most terrifying. So I‘m just supporting the rookie a little“, - Pato told me.

    • During those first days in Lima and later during the rally, I‘ve seen this a lot – Dakar veterans taking newbies and rookies under their wing, sharing tips, advice, tools, encouragement and pats on the back. It was amazing to see how the bivouac, especially at the Malle Moto camp, instantly became a place of unquestionable camaraderie.


      „It‘s weird in a way, I mean, we‘re here to compete. But this rally is like no other. You kind of have to know when to race and when to share everything you‘ve got. We‘re the best of friends in the bivouac, and then we race each other in the dunes. Although even out there in the desert, if something happens to you, everyone‘s got your back“, - Balys later told me.

      I spent a couple of hours riding and walking around the bivouac, chatting to riders, mechanics, security guys, police officers, food truck chefs, support teams, journalists, photographers, fans – I was fascinated by everything and everyone. Most riders couldn‘t wait to get started; „I came here to race, not to deal with paperwork“, - Nathan Rafferty, a US privateer, told me as the registration and scrutineering process dragged on and on. Mechanics, on the other hand, were happy to have that little extra time to check and double-check everything, and inspect the vehicles after test rides.

    • „Once the rally begins, sleep is canceled, so we‘re just making sure we‘ve done as much as possible now“, - one of the truck mechanics told me.


      Peruvian police officers guarding the bivouac inside and out seemed thrilled to be there. „This is a very proud moment for us, because the Dakar is in Peru only this year. That makes it special. The whole world now watches Peru! Imagine!“, - and older police officer told me before asking to take a photo of himself next to Lucy. „A souvenir“, - he chuckled as I helped him climb aboard and took a photo of him, gripping Lucy‘s handlebars and grinning like the Cheshire cat.


      One of the food trucks selling chicken sandwiches, soft drinks and fries, was manned by two Venezuelan chefs. „Peru has been good to us. And it‘s so cool to be working right at the Dakar bivouac!“, - one of them told me. The Venezuelan refugee crisis made over 3 million Venezuelans leave their homes and migrate to the neighboring countries, fleeing the chaos and violence in Venezuela. But while other countries – Colombia, Brasil and Ecuador – were starting to tighten their immigration policies, Peru kept the doors open, and many Venezuelans fled to Lima to start a new life.

    • Journalists and photographers were mostly out in the dunes, documenting the rally stars – Stephane Peterhansel, Sebastian Loeb, Toby Price, Matthias Walkner, Adrien van Beveren and others – test their rally machines in the sand. I‘d meet them at the key points: the podium, the viewpoints in the dunes, the finish lines – but mostly, very few of them had the time or the energy to hang out at the bivouac. Their bosses – the big TV broadcasters, publishers, RedBull TV producers, all the big names – wanted the cool hero shots, the slow mo frames of rally superstars cresting a dune, sand spraying from under their tires, the stunning helicopter images, the clever angles and the interviews with the elite pilots. Nobody had time for anything else.


      Except for me. I‘d promised I would help Balys‘ team with whatever they needed, and I‘d promised ADV Rider that I would create content, but other than that, I was free to come and go whenever and wherever I pleased. Besides, this being my first Dakar ever, I was curious and excited about everything – every bivouac move, every new rider unpacking at the camp, every kind word, every explanation about bikes or cars or navigation, everything was so new and fascinaing and inspiring to me, so I just hung out, talking, exploring, making notes, recording interviews and snapping photos, and for those first two days in Lima, I was living in pure bliss.

    • Thanks for adding more updates! The above picture speaks about the complexity and critical importance of navigation tools on these machines - which to me appears in deep contrast with all other very spartan accoutrements on them.