Neom, Saudi Arabia – 12/01/2021

Today was a tough day for many of the riders.

The big news of course was that fellow Australian, Toby Price, crashed badly injuring his left arm and shoulder and was airlifted to hospital for x-rays and treatment.

Two other top riders are out as well.

Ross Branch is out after the engine in his Yamaha failed. And Luciano Benavides also crashed out and was taken to hospital by helicopter.

In amongst a drama filled day, the steady progress of the Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure continued.

Andrew Houlihan and Pablo Guillen launched into the special picking up over 20 places each by the first waypoint.

At one stage, Andrew was up to 38th after starting in 60th today.

Pablo maintained most of his gains and finished 43rd today. That is enough to move him up to 51st place.

Andrew Houlihan, who revealed yesterday that he has been racing with a broken scaphoid, lost some of his advantage but still finished well up on his starting position and is now 53rd overall.

He took it very slowly to nurse his injured wrist as best he could and make sure he got through today safely.

The rocks made it really hard going though, and he says it’s hard to hold on to the bike with his wrist in the state that it’s in.

Both riders said the stage was full of rocks and the dust was incredible!

They say the quads are the worst to deal with, they spit out heaps of dust and are very difficult to pass.

The navigation caught a lot of riders out today. At one stage 4 riders were way off track and headed for the Red Sea!

Andrew handled the challenging navigation fairly well, only getting lost once.

“Pablo and I got lost once, but so did many of the other riders and I think they got lost much worse than we did.”

He also had another close encounter with a truck. Cars and trucks are required to sound a warning signal  as they get close to passing other competitors, but many riders have complained that they are failing to do so.

“I was on a narrow track and this truck came through at about 100km/h”, he said, “and it didn’t give the warning signal”.

“I had nowhere to go, and the next thing this monster rounds me up only narrowly missing me!”

Andrew’s broken scaphoid is slowing him, but his tenacity and determination is pushing him through.

“I stopped a lot today to rest up today.”

“At the 2nd fuel stop the officials must have seen I had wrist issues. They quizzed me about it then wouldn’t let me leave for a while until they had given me water, some treatment and then they were happy for me to continue.”

“And then about 20 minutes down the track an offical car stopped me, they also gave me some water and asked again about my wrist!”

“So it’ll be an early night for me tonight, rest up and let’s see what the Dakar can throw up in Stage 10.”

With Price’s retirement from the rally Nacho Cornejo has emerged as the clear leader and the rider in the strongest position to take the overall win.

He has a commanding lead of 11 minutes 24 seconds over Kevin Benavides.

Daniel Sanders is now the best placed Australian in 6th overall, 9 minutes and 23 seconds behind 5th placed Joan Barreda and 38 minutes off the lead. Don’t rule him out yet, it would take a miracle for him to get a win but he’s looking good for a top 5 finish.

Australian Michael Burgess has moved into the top 30! He’s been consistent, staying out of trouble each day and quietly picking up places on every stage.

Competitors now leave Neom and head for AlUla through some breathtaking scenery.

Stage 10 has 241km of liaison and 342km of special.

Stage 9 of the 2021 Dakar Rally starts and ends in the outskirts of Neom, Saudi Arabia’s 500 billion dollar “city of the future”.

If the teams were expecting to see something resembling the spectacular imagery depicted in the flashy websites telling the story of Neom’s development ….. ah no! 

Instead the teams have been greeted, with – yes, you guessed it – sand, dust and high winds to whip it all into a frenzy, threatening to airlift their tents and marquees into the Red Sea.

And that means the riders will have to deal with more of the same today.

Today starts with a 109km liaison to the beginning of a 465km special. At the end of the special is probably the shortest liaison of the entire rally, a quick 6km trip back into the bivouac.

A large part of today will be played out on soil and rocky tracks, and only about 30% of the special is sand.

Like yesterday, the brief doesn’t mention dunes. So it’s probably a smart guess that there will actually be some.

Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) leaves the bivouac at 7:05:30 am for a start in the special at 9:05:30.

His Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure teammate Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will start the special at 09:10 am today, almost 5 minutes behind him.

They will actually get to travel along the seafront in the early part of the special, but there’ll be no time to sightseeing today.

At the front of the field you can expect some intense competition from Toby Price and Nacho Cornejo who come in to this stage separated by 1 minute and 6 seconds.

Cornejo extended his lead over Price yesterday but Toby was riding on a tyre held together with zip ties. He’ll have a fresh tyre today and will be keen to take the lead back.

And Ricky Brabec is fighting hard to get back in touch with the leaders. He’s sitting just outside the top 5 and has over 17 minutes to make up.

You can follow the live timing here.

Neom, Saudi Arabia – 11/01/2021

The marathon stage is done and the riders have been re-united with their support teams in the Neom bivouac.

And for some, like Toby Price, that’s a huge relief. Toby rode the entire 8th stage on a rear tyre held together with gaffer tape and zip ties!

For Andrew Houlihan, arriving in the Neom bivouac a bit earlier than other days – about 3 pm – was a bit of a blessing.

Apart from being physically fatigued, Andrew has revealed that he’s been riding with a broken scaphoid since a fall on day 3!

He says the pain is intense and holding the bars is difficult, but he’s pushing on and taking one day at a time.

“I’m getting through each day now by strapping it and with the help of pain killers.”

At least being back with the support team allows him to get some care from Tess, the team physio, as well as from the medical personnel.

Despite the injury and fatigue, Andrew is maintaining his consistency in each stage and has picked up another 2 places in the overall standings. He now sits 58th.

He says the navigation in Stage 8 was tricky and there were no tracks to follow.

“The dirt doesn’t leave markings and the wind blows any tracks in the sand away quickly anyway.”

He also said he made one small navigational error but realised pretty quickly and turned around.

“I followed Pablo!”, he said with a smile on his face, “but I did a u-turn and got back on track quickly”.

That navigation error and a 20 minute penalty for missing a waypoint cost Pablo some time today, and he finished the stage in 66th place. However it was still good enough to move him up two more places in the overall standings to 57th overall.

Although the briefing for the stage indicated there would be no sand dunes, there was some small sections. At least they weren’t the usual 10 to 20 km stretches.

“And the bike has run well over the last 2 days, there’s been no issues with it at all”, reported Andrew.

After the rest day the support teams had headed directly from Ha’il to the Neom bivouac, which is situated about a kilometre from the shore of the Red Sea, and settled in for 3 nights.

Neom is a 500 billion dollar planned “city of the future”, and the images from bivouac suggest that maybe the city hasn’t spread that far yet.

Alistair Nicoll, who is travelling with the Coca-Cola Nomadas team, said they’re dealing with high winds and the crews are trying to stop tents and marquees from ending up in the Red Sea!

Riders are now back in their own “beds away from home” after spending the previous night sleeping on mattresses on the floor in a large gym in Sakaka.

Pablo said it was quite cold and the toilets were a long hike away in the middle of the night so it’s good to be back in the relative comfort and familiarity of the team quarters.

José Ignacio Cornejo took his first stage win of the year yesterday and extended his lead in the rally over Toby Price to 1 minute and 6 seconds.

Ricky Brabec’s third place has helped him in his desperate attempt to get back in touch with the leaders. He moved up 2 spots to 6th overall.

Sam Sunderland has held onto third place, Kevin Benavides has jumped up to 4th and Joan Barreda is now 5th.

Daniel Sanders, who is gradually climbing his way up the leaderboard and now sits eighth in the general standings, is starting to look like having an outside chance of a podium finish.

Fellow Australian, good friend and training partner of Andrew, Michael Burgess, continues to impress in his rookie year. He’s now 35th overall.

Stage 9 is loop, about 570km in total, returning to Neom. Riders can expect to have to deal with a fair amount of rocky trails.

Stage 8, the second half of the marathon stage, will take riders on a 709 kilometre journey from Sakaka to Neom where they will meet up again with their support teams.

The stage is broken up into an initial 226km liaison, 375km special and finally a 108km liaison into Neom.

There is a checkpoint 307km into the special, and fuel is available at the beginning of the special and then again 229km into it.

Around half of the special will be on rocky tracks with the rest sand, but today the riders will not have to deal with dunes.

While 85 bikes are expected to lineup for today’s stage, 11 of those are now on the “Dakar Experience”. These riders are continuing in the rally but are not considered in the overall standings.

Coca-Cola Nomadas Adventure rider Pablo Guillen (#35 – KTM 450RFR) will start the special at 08:56:30 today, with teammate Andrew Houlihan (#62 – KTM 450RFR) 2 minutes behind him.

After taking the stage win yesterday Ricky Brabec said that he thinks the best strategy in this year’s Dakar is not to open the stage, but that’s exactly what he will have to do today.

He will lead the bikes out today, hoping not to fall down the order as every other rider who has opened a  stage has done.

And watch out for Toby Price today. He is riding on a very badly damaged rear tyre held together with race tape and zip ties. If he can get through today’s stage that will be a miracle.

You can follow the live timing here.

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!!!!)