Stage 2: Ha’il to Al Qaisumah

“We’re in a desert and it seems to rain every night!”

It was another early start in the freezing cold, it had rained during the night and there was cloud cover all day. 

“It seemed like nothing but sand and dunes and more sand today”, said Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM). “We were lucky the dunes were still damp from last night’s rain when we got to them.”

The route for Stage 2 of the 2022 Dakar Rally was changed because of flooding in the Al Artawiya bivouac, and the competitors headed straight to Al Qaisumah instead. That meant the cancellation of today’s marathon stage.

The morning threw up a decent serving of very fast and deep sandy tracks, and after refuelling an endless stretch of big dunes – a total of 780 km and 340 km of it was sand and dunes.

Navigation was fairly easy as there were tracks to follow.

“I was having a great ride until about 140 km into the stage when I went down hard in the sand at a high speed”, Andrew told us. “My airbag vest deployed and saved me from any serious injury.”

The fall delayed him for around 30 minutes while he fitted a new cylinder to the vest and regained his composure. Another rider then helped get the bike out of the sand.

Despite the fall he managed to pick up a few places today and now sits 112th overall and 83rd in the Rally 2 group.

Nomadas Adventure Coca-Cola teammate Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450 Rally) had a good day and finished ahead of Andrew. He now sits 102nd overall.

It has been said that you can never make up time in the Dakar you can only lose it. You have to play it smart and wait for the rest of the field to come back to you. And if you’re consistent then you can almost guarantee the guys on front will eventually make a mistake and lose time.

And that’s exactly what happened to Daniel Sanders (#4 GasGas) today. After having dominated Stages 1A and 1B, a series of mistakes cost the Australian a massive amount of time and he finished the stage 38 minutes behind stage winner Joan Barreda Bort (#88 – Honda). He now sits 7th overall.

Fan favourite Danilo Petrucci (#90 – KTM) had the worst day you can imagine and is out of the rally. He had a mechanical failure on the KTM 115 km into the special and needed to be retrieved by the rally organisers.

And after all was sorted at the end of the stage, it was Sam Sunderland (#3 – GasGas) who came out on top. The GasGas rider now leads the rally from Adrien Van Beveren (#42 – Yamaha). 

Stage 3 is now a loop from Al Qaisumah and back, a 381 km liaison and 255 km special. The rain will have helped to pack the sand down, but the tracks will be less visible. It should be an interesting challenge!

Stage 1B: Ha’il to Ha’il

An early and cold start set the scene for a challenging day – out of bed at 4.30 am to a freezing cold and foggy morning. “It was still a bit wet as it rained all night”, says Andrew Houlihan.

The special stage of 333 km in the loop from Ha’il and back today threw some challenges to even the top riders. While Daniel Sanders (#4 GasGas) dominated the stage, Toby Price (#18 KTM) dropped to 22nd overall showing just how challenging it can be for even the best.

“Today was one of the hardest days I’ve ever done in the sand and dunes, there were a lot of very steep downhill dunes that were quite tricky.”

About 200 km into the special was an almost impossible pass over a small canyon, very steep with deep sand and massive boulders everywhere. There was carnage, with bikes scattered on every part of the track.

Andrew weaved his way up but about 2 metres from the top the bike flipped.

“I was able to push and throw the bike up the last rock ledge and watched it hit hard, fortunately there was no damage to the bike and only a little damage to my body”, Andrew told us later. “But from that point on I had some issues with pain and controlling the bike in the sand and dunes.”

But it was difficult navigation that was the biggest thing that threw the riders today. Many riders got lost and officials handed out plenty of time penalties, with some riders receiving up to a full hour added to their times.

Andrew was among a group of riders that spent close to an hour and a half trying to find the right track!

As a result, he has dropped a few places but still sits 98th in the Rally 2 group.

A refuelling stop today gave Toby Price (#18 KTM) a chance to drop in to see how Andrew and Nomadas Adventure Coca-Cola teammate Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450 Rally) were travelling. But was he really looking for hints on that difficult navigation? Or was it a can of Coke he needed?

“Hey mate, I’ll swap you that can of Coke for TWO of my Red Bulls”

Daniel Sanders (#4 GasGas) lead all the way today, and has opened up a 2 minute gap over second placed Pablo Quintanilla (#7 Honda). Matthias Walkner (#52 KTM) is a further 6 minutes 24 seconds behind in 3rd overall.

Andrew leaves the bivouac on Stage 2 at 5:59 am, so another very early start.

Flooding in the Al Artawiya bivouac has caused a major change to the route for Stage 2 and the planned marathon stage.

The route now consists of a 183km liaison, 338km special and then another 270km liaison straight to Al Qaisumah which was the planned destination for Stage 3. Maximum temperatures are expected to be around  16°C but there is a strong possibility of rain!

Stage 1A: Jeddah to Ha’il

Dakar 2022 has begun, with today’s Prologue – otherwise known as Stage 1A – taking riders to Ha’il.

The route consisted of a 595 km liaison and a 19km special early in the stage, with the starting order being set by race number – in reverse order. That put the lead riders out last, with last year’s winner Kevin Benavides the final rider to leave.

Benavides has switched to KTM this year, taking the seat left by the departure of Daniel Sanders who moved to GasGas after last year’s rally.

With statements to be made and the starting order for the next stage to be determined, the lead riders set a cracking pace. However there’s a twist – the first 15 finishers who get to choose, in reverse order, their own starting position for Stage 1B.

Daniel Sanders (GasGas) has set the fastest time with a 1 minute gap back to second placed Pablo Quintanilla (Honda) and third fastest  Ross Branch (Yamaha) a further 55 seconds behind. Toby Price (KTM) put in the 8th fastest time.

Andrew Houlihan (KTM 450 RFR) has had a conservative day, happy to be placed back in 115th.

“It’s a long way to that finish line and there’s no point in going hard this early.”

His Nomadas Adventure Coca-Cola teammates are close by, Pablo Guillen is sitting 112th and Antonio Guillen Rivera is a bit further back.

This year there’s actually a fourth rider under the Nomadas banner as well, Greek rider Vasileios Boudros. He’s tracking pretty close to the “three amigos” in times and all 4 will be reasonably close on the stage.

There was only 20km of dunes today, and unfortunately the 2nd dune caught Andrew out and he had a small spill. No damage though.

This is the first ride for Andrew on the KTM 450 RFR in a while, COVID-19 having caused the cancellation of many events on Andrew’s 2021 race calendar. But he’s settled back very quickly. 

At this stage of the rally the strategy is to go one day at a time and at a steady pace. As happened last year, the field is expected to diminish as the days unfold. Consistency is the key and finishing each day is the goal.

Stage 1B is a loop from Ha’il and back to Ha’il, 514 km in total with a 333 km special. Yes, there will be sand, but the briefing also warns of “fiendish navigation puzzles”. Weather in Ha’il is forecast to be dry, partly cloudy with a maximum temperature of 16°C.

The road to the 2022 Dakar Rally has certainly been eventful for Australian rider Andrew Houlihan.

COVID-19 caused the cancellation of many events on Andrew’s 2021 race calendar, and a crash on a training ride earlier in the year resulted in some serious injuries and destroyed Andrew’s KTM 890 Rally training bike – one of only 700 in the world.

Even the trip to Saudi Arabia had its moments, with travel plans constantly changing as flights were cancelled because of the COVID outbreak in Europe.

Andrew left Australia in mid December with his wife Katie and headed firstly to Spain to meet up with teammate Pablo Guillen. From there they headed to Greece to spend time with some of the people who supported them during Andrew’s recovery from an incident in the 2018 Hellas Rally. And then it was off to Switzerland to spend Christmas with the rest of the team before departing for Saudi Arabia.

Now settled into the bivouac in Jeddah, it’s time to focus on the mammoth event ahead.

He’s reacquainted himself with his KTM 450 Rally Factory Replica, and done his first shakedown ahead of Stage 1A of the 2022 Dakar Rally on Saturday (local time).

Stage 1A takes competitors from Jeddah to Hail and consists of a 595 km liaison and a 19 km special. This format is a little different to last year and replaces the Prologue we’re used to seeing.

And then it gets serious!

During 12 gruelling stages riders will cover over 12,000km – 4,240 km of which are specials – through some of the toughest terrain in the world. And the promise this year – sand, sand and even more sand!!!

Competing in the Dakar Rally requires immense physical and mental fitness, high levels of strategic thinking and planning, and an ability to read roadbooks and navigate far better than most people could ever imagine. Oh yes – you obviously need to be able to ride fast for long periods and have an understanding of motorcycle dynamics that mere mortals will never have.

This is Andrew Houlihan’s (#62 – KTM 450 Rally Factory Replica) second Dakar and he is once again riding with long term teammate Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450 Rally) from Mexico. This year their Nomadas Adventure Coca-Cola Racing Team has expanded to include another Mexican – Antonio Vicente Guillen Rivera (#111 – KTM 500 EXC-F). Are Pablo and Antonio related? You bet! 🙂

Andrew Houlihan #62, Antonio Gullen #111, and Pablo Guillen #35

Greek rider Vasileios Boudros (#147 – Husqvarna 450 Rally) is also riding under the Nomadas Adventure banner. 

Andrew goes into the 2022 Dakar Rally grateful for the backing from his many loyal sponsors and supporters – Speedcafe.com; Motorcycle Life; Alistair NicollLink Fire Australia; Milton WalshShaun Walsh Earthmoving; Coca-Cola; Brian Bayley; Ian McKinley; Kriega Australia; Aurora Rally Equipment; Daniel Verbaan; Performance+ Nutrition & Training; Fuel Torque; Adventure Gear Online; Buzz’s Bikes & Bits; Fist Handwear; Whitefang Hurley; Dakar Games; Cameron Jones; Firetail Robotics; Scott Britnell – Go Ride It; Goldentyre Australia; MOTO KIT; Future-Sport Motorcycles; Rapid Bike Australia; and Rally Spec.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – 15/01/2021

“I wanted something difficult and Dakar delivered”, says Andrew Houlihan.

After over 8,000 km of dealing with sand, rocks, stones, more sand – and let’s throw in some massive dunes – and so much dust he could barely see at times, Andrew Houlihan has finished the 2021 Dakar Rally.

For Andrew, that also marks the achievement of a massive goal that’s been years in the making.

And during the 12 days of racing, there was something else that Andrew had to deal with – he had fractured the scaphoid in his right wrist in a fall on day 3!

For the rest of the rally he rode with his wrist heavily strapped and in intense pain.

“It then became a mental and physical challenge every single day”, he says.

Despite that, he steadily worked his way up through the field to finish the rally in 50th place.

He said the final stage was probably the best day and riding conditions.

He travelled much of the short 202km special with his Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammate, Pablo Guillen, crossing the finish line together. Pablo finished in 48th overall.

The only issue during today’s final stage was that his airbag vest was set off by a heavy landing as Andrew jumped an erosion hole. He needed to stop for nearly 20 minutes to replace the air canister.

For both riders, simply completing the gruelling rally is an achievement, especially on their first attempt. Many didn’t.

“I ended up in 50th place which I’m very happy with, and rolling up on that finisher’s podium was something I’ll never forget. It’s an amazing feeling.”

“To my teammate Pablo – thank you! And congratulations on your 48th place.”

Alistair Nicoll (left) with Andrew Houlihan and the Coca-Cola Nomadas KTM 450 RFR.

The rally was won by Kevin Benavides ahead of his Monster Energy Honda teammate Ricky Brabec.

Benavides becomes the first South American to win in the bike category, and the Honda 1-2 is the first since 1987.

The two KTMs of Sam Sunderland and Daniel Sanders filled 3rd and 4th places.

Apart from Brabec, Sunderland was realistically the only other rider in a position to challenge Benavides for the win. But his hopes faded as he searched for a waypoint in the dunes for just over 10 minutes early in the special.

Sanders, who was only recruited by the KTM factory outfit late last year, finished the best of the Australians.

He came into the Dakar as a rookie but with extensive off road racing experience. The question was whether his relatively raw navigation skills were enough to get him through the complex process of navigating through the Dakar. He proved they were!

After a successful first run in the Dakar Rally, the Nomadas team now packs up and heads home.

Andrew’s final words today …

“I haven’t been on social media throughout the race and have just seen all the messages. Thanks to everyone for your support, I’m blown away by how many people were following my progress.”

“A huge thanks to Alistair Nicoll for coming to Saudi Arabia with me and being there for me through the race. Alistair also compiled the daily report that was published by Motorcycle Life and SpeedCafe.”

“Thanks to my rally family, Pablo Guillen, Hernan Samaniego, Tess Escribano, Ashish Raorane, our mechanic Jakob and Santiago our photographer.”

“Just like previous events I have kept an in depth daily diary of everything that occurred, I will share this over the next few weeks.”

Here it is – the run to the finish!

After just on 2 weeks the riders are heading back to where it all started in Jeddah on the 2nd January, and to the glory that goes with completing a Dakar Rally.

In an interview earlier this week, Ricky Brabec from the Monster Energy Honda team said that “just finishing the Dakar is a win in his mind”.

And that’s because it’s so damn gruelling – the toughest motorsport event in the world!

For the final run to the finish there’s a 105km liaison to the start of a 202km special. That’s followed by a final 142km liaison into the Jeddah bivouac.

It may not be the easiest of stages, but it will be the sweetest.

There’s sand to deal with, chains of dunes, dirt and gravel tracks.

Kevin Benavides (#47 Monster Energy Honda) and Sam Sunderland (#5 Red Bull KTM) are expected to battle it out for the win and honour for their respective brands.

Ricky Brabec has an outside chance but if he maintains his position today he’ll at least get a podium.

Daniel Sanders is the dark horse. Starting with a deficit of 33 minutes on the leader, he’s not likely to take an overall win but based on his performance yesterday could take today’s stage. And if something goes wrong up front he’ll be there to grab a podium in his first Dakar.

Fellow Aussie Andrew Houlihan, who has been riding with a broken scaphoid in his right wrist since day 3, starts today in 51st place overall in his first Dakar. Just to finish today is a massive triumph for the Albury based rider.

His teammate at the Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure team, Pablo Guillen, starts 49th and he’s also looking forward to his first finish.

And the other Australian left in the rally, Michael Burgess, looks certain to secure a top 30 place today. He’s also a rookie.

The lead riders will leave the bivouac early – 5.25am – and begin the special at 7.30am Saudi time. 

Andrew Houlihan will begin the special at 8:42am and Pablo a minute later.

An early start and an early finish – and enough time to celebrate their triumphs tonight.

You can follow the live timing here.

Yanbu, Saudi Arabia – 14/01/2021

“One more day!”

It’s apparently part of the mental chat many of the riders, including Andrew Houlihan, use to get them through each day in the gruelling Dakar Rally.

But today it’s real. There’s one more stage before the riders reach that finish line in Jeddah – back where it all started 12 days ago.

Stage 11 was one of the hardest stages yet because of its length, rocks and soft sand.

Andrew Houlihan, who has been riding with a broken scaphoid in his right wrist since day 3, said “the dunes weren’t so bad today”. That gave him some reprieve – but not much – from the intense pain he has endured each day.

Andrew spent a large part of the day riding with his Coca-Cola Nomadas teammate Pablo Guillen and Asish Raorane, who rode with the team in the Africa ECO race in January last year.

Ashish was competing in the Original by Motul class without any team assistance until a crash in Stage 5 sidelined him.

After a trip to hospital to get checked out, he has continued in the Dakar Experience classification which allowed him to resume the rally. He is included in each day’s results, but is no longer considered in the general standings.

The 3 riders did ok together, although a navigational error cost them about 20 minutes.

For Andrew, today was a pretty clean run with no crashes.

But he said he is amazed Pablo and Ashish came through without any serious injuries because both of them had heavy falls.

“Pablo was going down a dune and it had a shear drop of couple of metres at the bottom and over the bars he went! I thought, ‘oh, this is bad’”.

“Ashish was roaring along the flat sand and hit a hidden rock and cartwheeled it.”

By the end of the stage they were all spent, and rested up before tackling the 130kms of liaison to the bivouac.

Alistair Nichol, Founder & Managing Director of LINKFire and one of Andrew’s sponsors, is with the team in Saudi Arabia.

He described the scene as the guys reached the bivouac in darkness at about 7.40pm.

“It looked like a scene from a western cowboy movie when the posse rides into town. They all jumped off their steeds, all chuffed with themselves they had made it through in one piece.”

Dealing with the pain in his wrist has been tough, but Andrew is determined to make it to the finish line and achieve that massive goal of completing the Dakar Rally.

“Many of us, me included, are now even having trouble just getting on and off the bikes because of body fatigue. One of the team has to help me to get all my heavy gear off”, Andrew said.

The riders have been lucky with the weather so far, today was another mild day with the temperatures in the mid 20’s. While the riders had to deal with an hour long dust storm, at least they avoided the rain.

Pablo Guillen, Asish Raorane and Andrew Houlihan at the end of Stage 11, Dakar Rally 2021.

After the support teams arrived in the Yanbu bivouac it poured rain, turning the area into mud. Apparently there’s only one small leak in the team’s transporter – and it’s right over Alistair’s bed. A wet night for you buddy!

Andrew finished 54th in the stage today and goes into the final day in 51st overall. A good clean run tomorrow or the retirement of a rider ahead of him could push him into a top 50 finish.

Pablo picked up a 20 minute penalty today for missing a waypoint. That dropped him to 56th on the day but he still holds on to 49th overall. 

There was more drama and disappointment for the leading riders today.

Going into the stage, Honda factory rider Kevin Benavides had a clear margin of over ten minutes on the leading KTM of Sam Sunderland.

Ricky Brabec, who had fought back from being over 17 minutes behind in Stage 8, was just 51 seconds behind Benavides. 

And Joan Barreda, although 15 minutes behind Benavides, had won the stage the day before and was at least there as a show of force for Honda.

But things turned a little less than ideal for Honda with Brabec dropping 12 minutes over the stage and Barreda running out of fuel after missing the refuel point.

Barreda is now out of the rally.

Sam Sunderland pushed hard and took over 5 minutes out of Benavides’ lead, setting up a showdown between the Honda and KTM factory riders.

Michael Burgess, Andrew’s training buddy, is now 28th overall and the only other Australian now in the event, Daniel Sanders, is 4th overall in his first ever Dakar.

Sanders, who was picked up by the KTM factory team late last year, is over 33 minutes off the leaders but was only 8 minutes behind the stage winner yesterday so he could rattle a few people on the final day.

And if something goes wrong at the head of the field he could just pick up a podium!

There’s now just 247km of liaison and 202km of special between the riders and the glory of the finish line!

Organisers have shortened Stage 11 by about 50km due to recent bad weather in the area.

There’s a very short 2km liaison to the start of the special today. The special is 464km long with a fairly even mix of sand and dirt tracks, and just a small amount – about 5% – of rocky sections.

That will please Andrew Houlihan who is battling on with a broken scaphoid in his right wrist.

There are some big dune sections today in what organisers describe as “an ocean of sand stretching for almost 100km”.

The Coca-Cola Nomadas team get a bit of a later start today.

Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) leaves the bivouac at 8:13 am for an 8:43 am start on the special.  Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will be just 3 minutes behind him.

There are 69 bikes left in the official standings now.

At the front of the field are the 3 Monster Energy Hondas of Ricky Brabec, Joan Barreda and Kevin Benavides.

It’s up to Skyler Howes, Matthias Walkner – who has recovered from losing over 2 hours with a clutch and gearbox issue on Stage 2 – and Australian Daniel Sanders now to take up the challenge of winning the title back for KTM. 

You can follow the live timing here.

AlUla, Saudi Arabia – 13/01/2021

“Another day, another stage completed.”

That’s how Andrew Houlihan is looking at it as he pushes through incredible pain from a broken scaphoid in his right wrist.

“More bloody stones and rocks today. Really took its toll on the wrist!” he said at the end of Stage 10.

But Andrew is now 52nd overall after another steady run today.

He rode with his Coca-Cola Nomadas teammate Pablo Guillen for most of the day and did most of the navigation.

“I really enjoyed it and when I needed a break I’d swap with him for a bit”, Andrew said.

In the pre-stage briefing riders were told that navigation could be confusing because they would be crossing over tracks from yesterday’s stage. Andrew agreed, “yes it was at times”.

They also said there’d be no dunes. They were right there too, but there was “shit loads of sand!”

His wrist is giving him almost constant pain but he feels it held up ok today, at least it was no worse than yesterday, but it was still hard with all the rocks and camel grass. He found himself looking for flat spots that would be easier on the wrist, but said they were hard to find.

At some times, Pablo, Andrew and 2 other competitors were riding 4 abreast looking for the best way through the rocky sections.

The scenery through Stage 10 was spectacular. Winding tracks through beautiful canyons and undulating sandy sections.

And the weather has been kind this year as well. Last year the area was covered in snow but the Neom area has been experiencing 25-30° days and mild nights.

No incidents today, no offs and no near misses like yesterday’s, and no issues with the KTM 450RFR itself. In that way a near perfect run.

The only small technical issue Andrew experienced today was with the ETRF, part of the tracking and navigation systems on the bike.

Andrew said it went rogue at times and would beep for no apparent reason.

”It made it hard to tell whether someone was signalling me or it was alerting me to cautions.”

A 45th place in the stage today has moved Andrew up another place in the overall standings to 52nd.

For Pablo, the number 50 is significant today – 50th in stage and now 50th overall.

The pair are tracking very well in their first ever Dakar.

Getting there was an achievement in itself. Apart from the obvious, and huge, amount of preparation for an event of this nature, this year the COVID pandemic threw the world and the rally plans into chaos.

So getting to the start line is, in itself, a win.

And if the Coca-Cola Nomadas team can continue with the smart and steady riding they are doing, getting to the finish line in Jeddah in just 2 days time is looking very achievable.

One waypoint, one stage, one day at a time!

With only 3 Australians left in the event, Daniel Sanders has taken over the title of “the best placed Aussie”.

He’s still in 6th place and given the events of the past 2 days that saw many of the leading riders retire, he’s looking like a top 5 finish might be on the cards.

Michael Burgess, friend and training partner of Andrew, is in 29th now. He has been constant and staying out of trouble each day.

In his video report a couple of days ago he said “there were no pubs to drop into out there, devastated about that”.

And he’s still looking for that elusive pub in the desert! But maybe there’ll be one in Jeddah in a couple of days.

Nacho Cornejo exited the rally yesterday after a crash at the 252km mark. He managed to get back on the bike and finish the stage but has been ruled out of the rally after a medical.

That leaves Kevin Benavides, Ricky Brabec, Sam Sunderland and Joan Barreda in the top 4 spots, all separated by just 15 minutes and 40 seconds.

Stage 11 has been shortened by about 50km because of poor weather in the area and riders will experience an “ocean of sand” on they way to the next overnight stop in Yanbu.

What can the riders expect as they go into Stage 10 of the 2021 Dakar Rally?

The riders have started making their way back towards the finish line in Jeddah and today will travel south-east to AlUla.

The stage is made up of an 83km liaison, a 342km special and finally a 159km final liaison into the bivouac at AlUla.

There are 3 checkpoints in the special and fuel stops at 82km – the start of the special – and then 234km into the special.

The terrain will alternate between narrow winding gravel tracks and undulating sandy sections.

Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure rider Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will start the special at 09:06:30 am today. Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) will leave on the special 5 minutes later.

Both riders have been consistently making up places in the overall standings each day and at this stage are looking good for a top 50 finish in their first Dakar.

With the loss of Toby Price yesterday the leading Australian is now Price’s Red Bull KTM teammate Daniel Sanders. He starts today from 9th place.

Michael Burgess, who has been steadily and quietly working his way up through the field, starts from 28th.

Nacho Cornejo took the overall lead yesterday and holds an 11 minute 24 second advantage over second placed Kevin Benavides.

You can follow the live timing here.