Simon Pavey is well known in the BMW Motorrad world. As Chief Instructor of BMW UK’s Off-Road Skills training academy, the 43-year-old Australian has taught hundreds of GS owners how to ride the dirt — including Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in preparation for their Long Way Round voyage. It’s the Dakar Rally that excites Pavey most though, and this year saw him return to South America to take on the desert, the mountains and the dunes in this grueling 6,000 mile (10,000 km) adventure. There would be no factory support and no team of mechanics for Simon, he was on his own and would have to rely on his ability, skill, experience and luck to stand a chance of making it to the finish. This is his story.
While the television coverage of the Dakar focused on the factory riders, spare a thought for the privateers. Many of them have sold possessions, begged and borrowed just to be there; they have been training for months to build up the strength and fitness needed to hustle a heavy motorcycle fully loaded with fuel and water across the kind of terrain specifically chosen to ensure that only the strongest will survive.
When they complete a stage, these guys have no team waiting for them, ready to strip their bikes down while they take a shower, have a massage and bed down for the night. For the privateers, it’s a quick meal and then straight to work on their rally bikes, hoping that they can be finished in time to grab a few hours of sleep before it’s time for action again. This is how it goes, day after day, for the two week’s of this mammoth test of man and machine. If you’re good enough, and lucky enough, you might just make it through to the finish.
Simon’s eighth Dakar Rally had more than its share of drama. As early as Stage 2 he ran out of gas because the fuel wasn’t filtering into the main tank from the auxiliary tanks. It was an easy fix, but any early delay inevitably piles on the pressure, which probably contributed to his first crash — later that same day, when trying to make up time.
“Just after the refuel there was a basic 90-degree corner and I washed the front end out. It was a shame because I had clear track in front but ended ‘eating the dust’ of following bikes and a quad while I was on the floor, which wasn’t so pleasant.”
No one wants to go out of the rally early, so Simon was determined to ride sensibly, so that he could read every note on his road book. Battling through slower riders is hard enough when you’ve already lost time, but dealing with the effects of altitude was a whole new experience for many newcomers to the South American Dakar. On Stage 5, around 300 mils (500 km) of mountain roads into Chile awaited the riders, with 90 minutes of the journey taking place at over 15,000 feet (4,500 m). This makes you uncontrollably tired, your eyes start to close and there is nothing you can do about it, which must be pretty scary when you’re racing at 75 mph (120km/h) on narrow mountain roads.
Having had problems with his sub-frame on the previous stage and losing over two hours trying to fix it, Simon he was keen to make up for lost time but when you’re starting near the back, there are always a lot of riders to pass and a lot of dust to sit in. Add to that 60 miles (100 km) of ‘fesh fesh’ sand, with dust that hangs in the air, baked hard ruts, hidden by high grass and it was easy to see why people were having huge crashes left, right and centre. Not Simon though, he continued to work his way up the leader board, scoring his best result of the rally (47th) on the dangerous and difficult Stage 7.
This particular Stage was expected to be tough, with the organizers giving competitors until 6 p.m. the next evening to complete the stage. By this time, 30 motorcycle competitors were either out of the race or still on the stage, many having missed way points, got lost or victims of big crashes.
“It was the first stage where I was physically destroyed at the end of the day,” said Simon. “The riding was super physical and the rocks were so bad it vibrated and snapped the bolts holding my navigation gear. Experience helped me hugely, because right from way point two people were going the wrong way. There were a bunch of tracks but they weren’t from the rally. I saw a lot of people just riding off in strange directions on tracks that were definitely not right. Fortunately that gave me a chance at ‘clean air’ and I ended up riding the whole day alone.”
This performance moved Simon up to third in the Marathon class, just 20 minutes behind the class leader.
Stage eight was one of the longest in this year’s Dakar. Racers were faced with another 5 a.m. start and a 300 mile (500km) special that took Simon over eight-and-a-half hours to finish. At the second refuel of the day, he discovered that his sub-frame had cracked again, due to a bolt sheering and putting extra strain on it. It was lucky he noticed this, and it only cost him about 35 minutes to strap it up.
On Stage 9 though, disaster struck for Simon and just staying in the race became the main priority. In a dramatic and disastrous turn of events, his race almost ended as his engine stopped working. Somehow he managed to get hold of his spare engine, changed it out and although it cost him almost six hours in race time, he managed to finish the day and stay on course for his 6th Dakar finish. When he arrived back at the bivouac about eight hours behind the stage winner, he had to prepare his motorcycle for the 400 miles (700km) Liaison that would see competitors crossing back over the border into Argentina before an extra 100 mile (180km) special stage awaited them.
Simon had no choice but to take things easy to preserve his new engine on the challenging and long Stage 10 that saw riders re-crossing the Andes in freezing temperatures as the race headed back towards Buenos Aires. Over 300 miles (500km) of road-work was done before the special stage started, at temperatures of 37˚F (3˚C), before dropping down into the desert to over 100˚F (40˚C). Heat was a major problem for competitors and with soft sand putting a lot of strain on the 450cc engines, Simon was determined not to overdo things.
With only three days to go, this turned out to be a good decision. After all, the previous four days for Simon had been anything but simple. After re-breaking his sub-frame and suffering engine failure, a potentially serious crash would remind him why this is the world’s most difficult race. Simon described what had happened during that period:
“When my engine gave in, I managed to get a lift from a local 4×4 driver, which was lucky. I was able to change the engine in the desert but when I got in that night the whole bike was a bit of a mess — I wasn’t done until midnight. The next day it was hard riding at 4,500 meters [14,000 ft] on just four hours sleep. By now my focus was just about finishing the rally. I was riding gently to just to make sure then engine didn’t overheat in the sand, but then I had one of the biggest crashes of my career…
“I don’t really know what happened, I had a huge high-side and it’s a miracle that I didn’t break anything. I couldn’t move for half an hour, I just lay on the ground. Eventually I got some painkillers in me and managed to sit up. I was really close to pulling my balise (this would mean the end of the rally for him) but the spectators were awesome. They kept feeding me water and nursing me.”
Somehow, Simon found the strength to get back on his smashed up BMW G450X. However, just a few minutes later there was a tight corner and he didn’t have the strength to hold on. He crashed at slow speed, but noticed he was covered in oil. This turned out to be a blessing, as the original crash had detached the oil line to the cooler and he hadn’t even noticed. Some spectators showed him to a nearby town where he bought some oil. The final 25 miles (40km) he rode in first gear, as he was in too much pain to go any faster. When he finally got to the liaison it was dark and, having smashed his lights up in the crash, it took him ages to fix. When he finally made it back to the bivouac at around midnight, he was forced to see the medics for some treatment, then he had to start working on repairing his bike for the next stage, which was due to start at 5am. It was after 2am when he crawled into his sleeping bag…
Stage 12 consisted of 370 miles (600km) of rocks and ‘fesh fesh’. In so much pain and starting right at the back, Simon was crying out every time he hit a bump. Unable to even pull the clutch in he limped through on what was one of his hardest Dakar days ever, driven on by the fact that only one more ‘real’ stage lay ahead of him.
Despite being battered and bruised, Simon scored a decent result on the penultimate stage. Even thought he was still feeling the effects of his big crash, he struggled through yet another long and arduous stage to claim a good result (66th). The severely sprained wrist and various other bruises that meant he couldn’t pull the clutch in, didn’t stop him as he pushed on through deep sand woops and mud to finish the final difficult stage of the rally.
The last stage of the 2011 Dakar was still long though, with over 500 miles (800km) of riding before arriving at Buenos Aires. After days of bad luck and hardship, the Dakar was still determined to make a simple stage a lot harder for Simon. With fuelling once again being a problem for many riders on the Dakar, the problem struck again during the last special, leaving him only able to crawl through the stage at 40 mph (60km/h). Despite all the tribulations there was a good surprise to the end of the race as he unexpectedly claimed 3rd in the Malles Moto class and 70th overall, as well as his 6th Finishers’ Medal.
Without a doubt, the 2011 Dakar was one of Simon’s most difficult after the dramatic second week with his sub-frame collapse, engine blow-up and an enormous crash that saw him lucky to not end up in the ambulance. However, as anyone who has ever attempted this brutal event on their own will tell you, as soon as you cross the finish, all the pain seems to evaporate, the exhaustion and elation set in and all you can think about is a good night’s sleep. When you wake up though, you always see things differently, which is probably why Pavey has always come back for more. For the moment though, he’s enjoying his latest victory, having battled and won against the stony trails, water crossings, mud, dunes and rocks of South America, and survived to tell the tale.
“In a strange way I have been lucky in my bad luck,” he said. “This has been a really hard Dakar and the biggest problem for me became the lack of sleep. With all the drama I was only getting three or four hours a night for the last week, which took its toll. Despite everything that happened to me, this Dakar was one of the most fun. The riding was awesome – some of the best I have ever done – and I really like the direction the race has taken, because the technical riding suits me. It has been an awesome race and I am so glad to finish again. I would like to say a massive thank you to all my sponsors and those who supported me. There is no way it would have been possible without them.”
For information on Simon and the 2011 Dakar, check out his webiste at www.simonpavey.com.