Sakaka, Saudi Arabia – 10/01/2021

After the rest day comes a marathon.

The riders headed out this morning in cold and damp conditions on their way to Sakaka, while the support teams packed up and started their 810km trip to Neom, a totally planned “city of the future” on the edge of the Red Sea.

For the riders, today’s stage involved a 472km special and 742km in total.

And as the first part of the marathon stage, they had to do everything today knowing they will have no assistance at the end it.

So taking care of the bike was more important today than ever. Any major incident today could rule them out of the rally.

The Nomadas team was up at 4 am getting things ready for Andrew and Pablo to head out before 6 am.

The KTM team were at it even earlier.

“They were camped near near us so we watched Toby set off at 4.45 am”, reported Alistair Nicoll.

It had rained during the night and it was still below 10° as the riders set out.

“It was freezing in the 250km morning liaison with some light rain and a lot of mist”, said Andrew at the end of the day.

“The start of the special was straight into a very difficult 40km sand and dune section and after CP1 it was fast and rocky. There were a lot of big rocks hidden in the deep sand.”

After making it through that section safely and to the second checkpoint, riders were faced with another 30 to 40km of dunes.

Andrew said “they were very nice until I misjudged a big dune and cartwheeled over the peak of one!”

He then spent the next 20 minutes getting sand out of the push button starter before he could get the bike going again.

“Other than that small mishap I made it to the end of what felt like a very dangerous stage.”

Andrew finished 62nd in today’s stage and that puts him in 60th overall.

Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo Guillen finished a few places ahead of Andrew today and is now 59th overall.

The goal is to get to that finish line, and with five more stages to go that means making sure they get to the end of every stage without damage to the bike or rider. And so far that’s working out quite well.

While the riders were battling with sand and rock, the support teams were travelling through heavy rain on their way to Neom.

“Soon after departure it poured rain and it was under 10°. We felt sorry for the riders.”, wrote Alistair in his account of today.

“The rain soon cleared and then we had a spectacular scenic drive with temperatures reaching 28°.”

“We hit the Red Sea coast around 3pm, then followed the coast road to Neom for about 80kms to the bivouac.”

The support teams had a very quiet night with no bikes to service. An early night, a bit more sleep, and then get ready for the guys to arrive tomorrow.

Things got interesting at the pointy end of the field today.

Toby Price, Ricky Brabec and Kevin Benavides spent most of the day trading places for first, second and third.

But towards the end of the stage both Price and Benavides started dropping time, leaving Brabec to take the stage win.

And hanging around 10 places down the field all day was José Ignacio Cornejo. After a surge at the end of the day he surprisingly took second in the stage and now leads overall from Toby Price by just one second.

Daniel Sanders has moved into the top 10 after a spectacular fifth place today.

And Michael Burgess is travelling consistently and is still in 38th position overall.

Stage 8 is a 334km liaison and 375km special, mostly rocky tracks with a bit of sand but no dunes.

And at the end of the day the riders will be once again back with their support teams in Neom.

After their well earned and much needed rest day, riders take on the first part of the marathon stage today.

A total of 284 km of liaison and a 453 km special ending in the bivouac at Sakaka, where they will have to do all the necessary maintenance on their bikes themselves. Let’s hope there’s not too much carnage, or there’ll be a very late night for some!

There’s an almost equal mix of surfaces between sand and soil today, but there’s a “fearsome sequence of sand mountains and 100 km of up-and -down racing almost without interruption”.

The first part of today’s stage comes to an end with a series of stony plateaus and a mix of winding and fast sections.

And it’s a cold 8° and raining this morning in Ha’il!

Only 78 bikes officially remain in the 2021 Dakar Rally, although another 10 will take to the start line to gain experience.

Sara Jugla and Alexandre Bispo, who were stranded in the sand dunes overnight on Stage 5, are 2 of those 10 who will continue today.

Stage 6 winner Joan Barreda will lead the field away today on the special at 7:45 am (local time), and all eyes will be on him to see if he can shake the curse that saw many stage winners drop down the standings the very next day.

Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure rider Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) will start the special at 8:55 am and his teammate Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will leave 3 and a half minutes earlier.

You can follow the live timing here.

Ha’il, Saudi Arabia – 09/01/2021

The first six days of the Dakar Rally have been gruelling, and today’s rest day has given the teams a much needed chance to drop the pressure and wind down just a little bit.

There was still plenty to do. Mechanics strip and service the bikes, riders assess their progress so far and strategise for the final week of the rally, and everyone hopes to get an extra couple of hours of sleep.

A typical day in the Dakar might start at 4 am, often earlier. This past week we’ve seen days where the lead riders have left the bivouac as early as 4:15 am. The teams have been up for a couple of hours before that.

While the riders are racing for 10 hours or more, the teams hurriedly pack everything up into the support vehicles and drive to the next bivouac to have everything set up before the riders get there.

And then just when you want to stop and rest at night, there’s the servicing to be done on the bikes and the preparation for the next day.

It takes a big team effort to make it all run smoothly, and it’s physically and mentally demanding for everyone involved.

Alistair Nicoll, who is on the support team for Andrew Houlihan in Saudi Arabia, is one of the first awake each day and last to get to bed at night.

His company – LINKFire – is one of Andrew’s major supporters and he was fortunate to be able to get through COVID restrictions and be at the 2021 Dakar Rally.

Alistair is our eyes and ears in Saudi Arabia and the one who brings us much of the information we get to publish, but also plays an active role in the team.

He helps with the bikes, setup and pack down and anything else that needs attention. Alistair is normally driving one of the support vehicles well, often with Tess (trainer and physio) and Santiago the team’s in-house film guy – who Alistair has nicknamed “Spielberg” –  and is responsible for bringing us some of the stunning imagery we see.

And then there’s Hernan (team owner/manager/strategist/logistics) and Jakob the Swiss KTM mechanic. Between the two of them they ensure the bikes are prepped and ready to go every day for Andrew and his teammate Pablo Guillen.

Those guys never stop. Alistair reports that “Jakob and Hernan have been working on the bikes all day today. Bikes were near stripped to the frame. New clutch, chain, sprockets, tyres, mousses, suspension service and general oil and filters. Plus anything else that was not in tip top condition, including new decals.”

Andrew and Pablo had a relatively relaxing day today sorting their gear and resting their bodies. Each day is physically demanding on the body, rattling and shaking every bone and every organ.

They have a well structured plan to maintain the level of strength and endurance needed to make it through this event, and today’s rest day is an important part of that plan.

The guys also had a chance today to wander around the bivouac and talk with other competitors in including the Australian KTM factory riders Toby Price and Daniel Sanders.

And the media were keen to catch up with many of the riders on their rest day too! Watch out for an upcoming interview Andrew has done with Red Bull TV!

Tomorrow morning the brief reprieve will end, and everyone will be back to “full throttle” for the next part of the rally.

Stage 7 is the first part of the marathon stage and there will be no mechanical assistance for the riders overnight. So it’s very important to conserve the bikes so they need minimal attention at the end of the day.

Pablo and Andrew go into the second half of the rally in 60th and 61st place respectively in the overall standings.

The weather forecast is for a cool start to the day at around 9° and for rain between 4 am and 9am. Those conditions may just work in Andrew’s favour.

Ha’il, Saudi Arabia – 08/01/2021

“To finish first, first you must finish.”

It’s an old saying that’s been thrown around motorsport, and many other sports, for years. And it is so true of the Dakar rally.

This event is known as the toughest motorsport event in the world, and for good reason.

As promised by the organisers, Stage 6 was yet another tough day for the competitors.

And our rookie riders at the Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure team – #35 Pablo Guillen and #62 Andrew Houlihan – are staying focused on the goal of completing the rally in one piece. That, in itself, is a tough gig.

Andrew feels it’s a good thing they cut 100km off today’s special or many riders would not of made it.

The special was full of dunes again, and big ones. And they were relentless.

Andrew stopped at one point on top of a big dune for a breather and to take in the 360° view.

“All I could see was dunes as far as the eye could see. How the hell am I gonna get out of here?”

He had a couple of minor crashes today, one just 10 minutes into the special when he came over a dune too slow and the front wheel sank.

“Over the bars I went”, he said retelling the story. “The fall was hard enough to set off my air vest, which I felt was going to choke me.”

He lost about 30 minutes while he took his gear off, deflated the vest, and replaced the cartridge. But it also gave him a bit of recovery time.

“And then after CP2 I was jumping over a dune, landed awkwardly and was thrown off the bike.”

After that he decided to dial it down a bit and just get through the stage.

“I’m not here for a podium finish!”

Andrew rode large sections alone today which he preferred because he could just set his own pace.

“Navigation was not a problem and the bike ran well,” he told the team.

And after the gruelling time on the bike today, he’s happy with where he’s currently placed in the field.

After starting 55th this morning and losing about 20 places after his first incident, he regained some positions and his final placing for the day was 67th.

#35 Pablo Guillen (Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure, KTM 450RFR)

Teammate Pablo Guillen started from 71st but consistently worked his way back through the field and was placed 57th by the end of the stage.

Pablo and Andrew are now 60th and 61st in the overall standings.

At the head of the field Toby Price has taken the overall lead again after his 7th place today.

Fellow KTM factory team rider Daniel Sanders secured his second stage podium of the rally coming in 3rd today. He’s now 12th overall.

Despite being hit with 29 minutes in penalties today, Michael Burgess still holds onto his 38th position in the general rankings.

And there was some good news regarding Ashish Raorane today. Ashish, who rode with the team in the Africa ECO Race this time last year, was taken to hospital yesterday after a crash. He visited the team today after spending the night in hospital under observation for concussion, but is all well.

With the rest day tomorrow the Nomadas team are a bit more relaxed tonight. The first six days have been tough, and everyone’s looking forward to a little bit of downtime.

That’s everyone except for mechanic Jakob who will be busy replacing the clutch, chain, sprockets and doing the usual service and tyre change on the team bikes.

Stage 7 is the marathon stage, so there will be no support team and no service at the end of the day for the riders.

Riders front up for another tough day today on the way to Ha’il. At least when they get there they’ll have a rest day.

Yesterday’s gruelling stage took around 15 riders out of the event, leaving only 79 of the original 101 still officially competing.

Today’s stage has a 265km liaison, 347km special and then the final run into Ha’il is just 76km.

The special stage has been shortened from the original route and now only has three checkpoints – CP3 has been bypassed.

There are refuelling stops at the start of the special stage and at CP2, 202km into the special.

The road is expected to be smooth and sandy but with plenty of dunes.

Some interesting points in the stage briefing say that riders will have to face them “forwards AND backwards” and that “even the toughest riders will end up with their arms like jelly.”

Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) leaves at 6:36 am and begins the special at 10:41 am.

Fellow Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure rider Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will leave at 6:40:30 am and begin his run on the special at 10:45:30 am.

You can follow the live timing here.

And for Dakar followers in Australia, remember that the SBS daily highlights program is on at 5:30 pm, and even earlier on SBS On Demand. So followers in other countries please check your local TV guides for information.

Al Qaisumah, Saudi Arabia – 07/01/2021

Andrew’s first words on his arrival in the bivouac were “I’m f…..”.

“That was a gruelling long stage today.”

He’d been on the bike for over 13 hours, he was cold and maybe a little delirious. It took a few moments for him to gather himself together. 

After a huge bowl of pasta and a Coca-Cola he came good and realised what he had achieved today.

Stage 5 was pitched as probably the hardest of the 2021 Dakar Rally.

Andrew had started today 70th, he’d been maintaining a consistent and steady pace over the first four stages and was in a good place for his rookie year.

But today was different.

Straight out of the gate he made some different decisions to many of the other riders. And there was a light shower of rain at the beginning of the special that helped as well.

So many of the lead riders got lost early, but Andrew worked a different plan.

“About 40ks in I came over a dune to see about 50 bikes and quads buzzing around in all directions lost”, he said.

“I stopped to size things up and decided none of these guys have got it right, so I’m not following them.”

His instinct told him just to head in the general direction of the cap heading, and he eventually saw two quads roaring around a corner flat out.

He thought, “If these guys are going that quick, and it was in the general direction of the cap, they might be onto it!”.

So he followed them along a gully, and this eventually lead to the correct track.

That decision helped Andrew make a massive jump up through the field early on today. By the first waypoint at the 43km mark he was 37th and only 16 minutes off the pace of the leading rider. By 74km into the special he was up to 29th.

Eventually the other riders clawed back some time, but what Andrew had done was enough to give him his best finish yet in the rally – 57th on the day and now 63rd overall.

Andrew also said the dunes today were huge, and just when you thought they were over there was more to come.

“It was relentless”, he said in the team debrief, “I think there’ll be quite a few riders that won’t get through the stage tonight”.

Later on in the stage Andrew saw his mate Michael Burgess ahead of him so he chased him down. But once Michael got a glimpse of Andrew behind him he turned up the pace across the rocks.

“I’m not taking that much risk”, Andrew thought, “so I backed off and let him go”.

Michael finished today in 39th position and is now 38th overall – a solid position given it’s also his first year in the Dakar.

Andrew’s Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo Guillen had a less than perfect day, losing a lot of time early in the special. He was down 58 minutes on the leaders at the first waypoint and eventually came in 72nd today.

But despite losing so much time, he actually picked up three places overall. Such is the craziness of this up and down event.

On a sadder note, Andrew’s Indian riding buddy Ashish Raorane (#82 KTM 450RR) who raced with the Nomadas team in the 2020 Africa ECO Race, crashed late in the stage and was taken to hospital.

He was racing in the Original by Motul category this year where competitors do their own support and servicing without the backing of a team.

Ashish was one of many riders who didn’t make it to the finish of stage five.

Of the 101 riders who started this this year’s rally, only 79 are still officially competing. Today’s stage put 15 riders out of the event.

The two other Australians in the rally, KTM factory riders Toby Price and Daniel Sanders, put in a solid performances and both improved overall.

Price started 22nd, finished 3rd and he is now back up to 3rd outright.

Sanders was one of the riders who got lost early, dropping from his starting position of 2nd to 23rd by the first waypoint. 

He fought his way back up to 15th and that was enough to move him up one place in the general standings to 13th.

After doing so well in today’s tough stage, Andrew is feeling upbeat about the rest of the rally.

“It was a great day, no offs, no penalties and no bike issues”, he said with a smile on his face (after that food and Coca-Cola!!!!)

A total of 93 bikes will start Stage 5 of the 2021 Dakar rally today.

The stage consists of a short 72km liaison, 456km special with five checkpoints and a 268km liaison to wrap up the day and get the riders into the bivouac at Al Qaisumah.

The first refuelling point is after 193km at CP3, it’s a further 209km to the next fuel stop at CP5 and the third refuelling stop is just 126km later at the end of the special.

The riders briefing suggests that today could be the toughest stage of the rally with a mixture of sand, dunes, soil and rock to deal with. There are some tough dunes in the middle of the stage and a number of rocky sections that will lower the average speed.

The briefing also suggested that competitors will need to be patient, and that “competitors who fail to control their nerves are in for a bad day”.

Exactly what that means … well I guess we’ll find out.

The Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammates will be starting further apart today.

Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will leave the bivouac at 6:39 am and start the special at 8:14 am.

Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) will head out at 6:48 am for an 8:23 am start at the special.

You can follow the live timing here.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – 06/01/2021

Stage 4 was the longest stage of the rally with a 266km liaison, 337km special and a further 253km liaison into Riyadh – a total of around 850km.

Although it was the longest stage in the rally, it probably wasn’t the toughest on the competitors. There was less sand, less big dunes but plenty of fast winding tracks.

Andrew and his Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo Guillen started just 30 seconds apart today and tracked together for most of the early parts of the day.

While plenty of the top riders are bouncing up and down in the placings each day, Andrew and Pablo are maintaining a consistent pace.

Their goal is to ensure they finish in their rookie year at the Dakar Rally.

Andrew had a really good day until about 40km before the end of the special, when the mousse in his rear tyre blew.

The tyre mousse is a ring of flexible foam (no, not a fluffy chocolate dessert) that is placed inside a tyre before it is fitted on the rim.

In the event of an air leak and loss of pressure, the mousse expands to fill the void, giving a pressure almost equal to that of a properly inflated tyre.

He managed to limp into the final checkpoint to finish the day in 70th position, but that was enough to bump him up 2 places in the overall standings to 67th.

Pablo finished the stage in 58th which also moved him up 2 places overall to 65th.

With the timed section completed successfully, Andrew headed into the final liaison into Riyadh knowing that the rear tyre was at risk.

It finally shredded itself, and now with a fully deflated rear tyre the bike was becoming much more difficult to keep straight.

Andrew made it safely into the bivouac at around 7:15 pm, after dealing with the chaotic traffic of Riyadh and having a close call with a truck.

“It was a very fast day with about 30kms of big steep dunes”, Andrew says. “I had a really good run until the tyre issue which cost me a lot of time.”

“I also had a rider crash right in front of me! He didn’t notice the triple caution, hit a hole and went flying.”

Michael Burgess also reported coming across a crashed rider today.

He said in Facebook post that he had chatted to the rider at a refuelling stop.

“He came over and said ‘be safe’, we punched fist and off he went.”

“Then 10km in I came around the corner to a scene no one wants to see.”

Fortunately both riders were okay.

Burgess finished today in 34th place, and now holds down 38th overall.

Toby Price led the field of 96 riders out today and at the second timing point still had the lead.

But a navigation error soon after that cost him just over five minutes and dropped him 20 places.

Although he lost more time relative to the leaders during the rest of the stage, he maintained his place and finished today in 21st position, dropping him to 8th overall.

Daniel Sanders continues to show why KTM recruited him late last year. Another steady run today had him across the line in 2nd place, just six minutes and nine seconds behind stage winner Joan Barreda. He’s now 14th overall.

Stage 5 is reportedly a tough one – a total of 795km with a 456km special – and a mixture of sand, dunes, soil and rock.

Organisers are saying that tough dunes in the middle of the stage and numerous rocks will bring down the average speed, and that “competitors who fail to control their nerves are in for a bad day”.

We’ll bring you a stage preview later in the day.

Today’s stage begins with a 266km liaison to the start of the special. The special is 337km long with three checkpoints, and is followed by a further 253km liaison to tonight’s bivouac in Riyadh.

This is the longest stage of the rally, and the riders will cover around 850 km.

There are fuel stops at the beginning of the special, the first checkpoint 125km in and at the end of the special. That means the riders will have to travel the final 212km of the special without refuelling.

The special stage is unlikely to push competitors to their limit, in fact rally organisers have said that riders should enjoy the fast winding tracks.

There will be less sand and big dunes today, but the high winds of the last few days could make some of the tracks hard to identify.

In the bike category, 96 riders are expected to start today.

Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) will leave on the first liaison at 6:38:30 am and and the special at 10:33:30 am.

Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will leave just 30 seconds behind him, so it is quite likely they will spend time riding together again today.

You can follow the live timing here.

Wadi Ad-Dawasir, Saudi Arabia – 05/01/2021

Stage 3 of the 2021 Dakar Rally was a 530km loop – 112km liaison, 403km special stage and another 115km liaison – starting and finishing at Wadi Ad-Dawasir.

About 90% of the stage was sand, and the dunes on today’s stage were much larger than the riders experienced yesterday.

Andrew said the dunes were much more enjoyable to ride and negotiate – until you got stuck!

He found himself bogged in the sand on one of the early dunes after a spray of sand from the rider in front of him caused him to lose momentum.

Getting the bike out turned into a real workout with Andrew having to pull the bike 20m down the sand one wheel at a time.

He said it tired him and it took a little while to recover, but teammate Pablo Guillen was waiting at the top of the dune to make sure he got through okay.

The two Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammates were able to ride together for some time today, arriving at the end of the special together.

Their times initially placed them 68th and 69th, but both riders had missed a waypoint along the way.

“I spent 15 minutes returning and trying to find it, but had to give up so I’ll get another penalty”, Andrew conceded at the end of the stage.

“Thinking about it later I probably would have been better to just to continue and take the penalty than waste the 15 minutes as well, but you don’t know that at the time.”

Both riders scored a 20 minute penalty pushing them a few places down the stage results. Andrew finished 72nd in the stage, Pablo 73rd.

Whilst adding to their consolidated times, the penalties actually had very little – if any – affect on their overall placings.

Pablo is now 67th outright, and Andrew 69th.

One of the changes for the 2021 Dakar is that the road book is only handed to the teams 15 minutes before the stage begins instead of the night before.

This is limiting the amount of time riders have to analyse the route before starting and making the navigation far more challenging. It’s one of the ways the organisers are trying to even the playing field out for all competitors.

And it seems to be creating chaos for the lead riders.

For two days in a row now the lead riders have found “opening the road” very challenging, and consequently they are dropping down the order the very day after they’ve made it to the top of the leaderboard.

Joan Barreda, Ricky Brabec and Ross Branch, who were the top three at the end of the second stage, all lost significant amounts of time yesterday. That allowed Toby Price to work his way through the field and claim another stage win.

Daniel Sanders is the best placed of the other Australians in the event. The KTM factory rider is currently sitting 16th overall.

And Michael Burgess has finished Stage 3 with another consistent result that’s moved him up to 42nd.

Michael operates Destination Dakar Roadbook Adventures a rally navigation training and tour company in Bendigo.

Prior to leaving Australia for Saudi Arabia, Andrew and Michael had been working on roadbook training together and clearly it’s working.

Something else that’s working very well are the team’s KTM 450RFR bikes.

Nomadas Adventure team owner and manager, Hernan Samaniego, along with Jakob – the team’s young Swiss KTM mechanic – are doing a fine job in preparing and maintaining the race bikes. Once again today neither rider had any mechanical issues.

Stage 4 will entail 850km of riding with a 337km special. Andrew starts at 6:39 am local time with Pablo one minute later.