One of the things I absolutely adore about writing on motorcycle racing (besides the armchair adrenalin rush one tends to get) is that it keeps you honest. There is no room for charade or pretentiousness. The other thing and perhaps the most important thing are its people.
Motorcyclists are anyway a bunch of stubborn, hard-nosed men and women, driven by this siren song that involves long roads and a beautiful, growly machine – I know, some of my best friends are riders. They are honest and they keep you honest too.
Racers? They are like that too, but driven by something so intangible I couldn’t explain it…understand it even. All I know is that this breed of riders… of racers know only how to follow their hearts.
Follow their hearts to the edge of the world – or in this case the toughest, most challenging rally in the world that traverses three countries across 9,000 kilometres through stunning yet unforgiving terrain. It’s also known as the Dakar Rally.
31-year-old C.S. Santosh is one of them. I caught up with him recently, after he had completed the Dakar and become the first Indian to participate in this historical rally. The excitement was dying down and the media was turning their scope toward the more “popular” sports.
So I asked him if there was ever a moment when he asked himself why he was doing this? It was an easy question asked of a racer who completed Dakar with a fractured toe, injured nose and shoulders. Santosh also finished 36th in a rally that started out with 167 motorcycle participants, with only 79 making it across the finish line.
The answer was pat, nonchalant and matter of fact even. “As a human being, we are drawn to challenges,” he said. “You don’t know why… Maybe it is because it is human nature, when you grow only in pursuit of challenges, through adversity. I never once thought this. I was hugely invested in Dakar. I bet on myself to make it to Dakar.”
It was a big bet. As is anything that is not cricket in India, the road to the 2015 Dakar Rally was perhaps tougher than the actual event. Not that the challenge ever deterred Santosh. He says he realized he wanted to do the Dakar when he first discovered cross-country rallying. He had seen the Dakar rally on televisions. “The images were spectacular, watching man and machine on some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth was amazing to see,” he says.
He knew Dakar would be a huge step, especially since he was, in his own words, “home-grown”, working his way through motocross and supercross. He did three rounds of the World Rally Cross-Country Championship and drew on that experience to gauge what it could be like, and trained according to that. It was perhaps the mental hurdle that was the biggest challenge. “The fact that I had to struggle to get that, compared to what it would take to make it there.”
It was no wonder then that by the time Santosh reached Buenos Aires to start the race, he was quite looking forward to the loneliness of the ride. “I spent the whole of last year running around, doing a lot of things athletes like me – who should be focusing my skill to ride the motorcycle – shouldn’t have to do. The rally was the most peaceful time, when I could be on the motorcycle and just ride. There were still money problems, but I decided to worry about it later,” he says.
Even thought navigating cross-country can be exhausting, Santosh was never lonely. “You can go without talking to anyone for 7-8 hours. If you are lucky you can talk to somebody maybe during refuelling,” he says. Not that it mattered at all. “While riding, you have to constantly assess if there are dangers ahead, you are trying to compete with the guys, with the terrain. You are trying to find your way. Your mind is constantly at work.”
The challenge though came with the realization that balance was the key. It was the hardest part – finding that balance between wanting to ride as fast as he could and familiarizing himself with an unknown terrain so that he could finish. “I crashed a few times, and I realized that I needed to suck it up and go slower, to try to finish. It is one of those things to balance where not to ride to your fullest potential and yet get the job done,” he says.
Santosh learned this lesson the hard way. It was in the early stages of the rally. He was riding behind a couple of other riders and decided to avoid the dust clouds and get ahead. “I was so busy trying to pass this guy that I was not reading the terrain. I went too fast and before I knew it, I was on the floor,” he remembers. The bike fell on his foot, breaking his toe. It was a low point because there were still many days to go. The rally wasn’t over, but Santosh wasn’t about to give in. “The doctors taped me up. I shoved my foot into the boot. There are guys who finish the Dakar with broken backs or more, so I thought to myself, ‘You just have to go and do it’.”
Then there was the time when Santosh tried to cross a river during the first marathon stage, and nearly getting swept off in the process. The riders were all headed to Bolivia and there were reports of thundershowers. Any chance of the rain waiting till the riders finish was just a pipe dream. “It was pissing down and it was cold. I am from down South and not used to the cold,” he remembers. Santosh had already crossed two streams now swift rivers courtesy the rain and was getting ready to cross the third. There was a small village on the other side, and the villagers had all come out, waiting and watching to see what the riders would do. Santosh saw one rider try crossing downstream. His bike stopped in the first 20 feet and was soon swallowed by the river. That was the end of his Dakar rally. “I didn’t like the rain. I didn’t want to get cold and the next we would have to start with the same clothes. So I was thinking all of that and decided to make the crossing,” he said. Santosh decided to try crossing upstream. The current was strong, the water was murky, but he kept going, hand on the throttle and half blind thanks to the constant water on his goggles. The bike sputtered and Santosh knew it was dying. He just about managed to make the crossing before he came to a halt.
“I gambled and it paid off,” he says. But the water had gone into his airbox and it took Santosh 40 minutes to clean it out. By then, the rains had subsided and the stream’s water levels had gone down. “I had lost a lot of the time I had made up,” he remembers.
Through it all, Santosh only got emotional once. “It was on day 9 in Chile. I was thinking about it all…about finishing. I was out riding, looking over the coast, thinking about what it would mean to make it to the finish. That is when I really got emotional,” he remembers. When he finally did cross the line, there were no emotions. “I had imagined this moment so many times, but when it finally happened, there were no emotions. I was really spent. Exhausted.”
Santosh returned home having finished in the 36th position and knowing that this was a rarity for first-timers. It was a point that was driven home as he crossed the stark salt flats in Bolivia. The water was getting into the bikes and burning the electricals. As Santosh rode, he saw motorcycles just stopping by the wayside. “My bike was also having problems. So, just to be able to get through that make it home… there is a lot of uncertainty, but you get through it; you overcome those challenges and make it back home…it signifies the true spirit of Dakar,” Santosh says.
It is perhaps just one of many reasons why Santosh embodies that very spirit of Dakar, ploughing through the challenges to live his dream. He will be back next year. There is no doubt about it. Because in the end, Dakar is not just a race. It’s the ultimate test of wills, a battle of strength, of pushing one to their limits, of competing with the elements, with one’s self.
And Santosh is no stranger to such battles. He has won them many times.
All images courtesy C.S. Santosh