Saudi Baja 2023: Stage 1

3/2/2023 8:15pm, Saudi Arabia

Today was my “BAPTISM OF FIRE” for the Baja World Championship.

I was awake at 4am and quite nervous about today’s stage. 

After yesterday’s good run in the Prologue and last night’s start selection process, I was the 2nd bike out in Stage 1 today. I knew it would be a big challenge and I can now see why the top riders never want to open the stage as there were no tracks to follow.

We covered the 110km liaison to the start of today’s special stage in the dark and freezing cold. It was a mild 4 degrees but the windchill on the bike made it feel like 0. It was cold, but still not as cold as some of the stages in Africa when we would have to stop every 20km and warm up our fingers and hands with a cigarette lighter.

The first 10 bikes start at 2 minute intervals, and after that it’s 1 minute intervals. I was the 2nd bike off the start line at 8.42am behind #12 Ehad Al Hakeem from Lebanon.

We were immediately into the sand and dunes on off piste tracks with no markings, and could only follow CAP headings (compass headings) and distances.

I quickly caught up to Ehab and got out in front – the first time I have ever had the chance to open a stage and create the tracks. It’s very hard and you do lose a lot of time. The bikes behind you have a bit of pressure off and can follow your tracks, but they still have to keep an eye on the roadbook and navigation.

I pulled away from Ehab and was feeling very good validating my waypoints and setting a decent pace. My plan was to get as far ahead as possible before the faster guys started catching me. 

At KM 13.8 there was a slight change of direction and then another after a further 300m.

I was certain I had made this change and pushed on hard, but at KM 30 I stopped and the roadbook wasn’t making any sense. I couldn’t see any bikes behind me. And then I worked out I had fucked up bad.

I turned around and made my way back to KM 13 and realised what I had done. There were now many tracks going in a different direction. Ehab and a few others had made the same mistake too, but had only travelled a few kilometres before they doubled back.

I was pissed off as I had just lost 25-30 minutes so I pushed as hard as I could, I knew there was now many bikes in front of me.

I was riding as fast as I possibly could in the very soft and rough sand and dunes, and I finally caught back up to Ehab. But I had used all my energy up and had taken some very big risks, so I decided to settle in and ride the rest of the stage with him.

I’ve been training hard in Hattah and the Sunset Desert for this World Championship series, riding the hardest sand tracks I can find but nothing compares to the sand and dunes in the Arabian deserts. It is just relentless punishment in deep soft sand and dunes.

I can ride 600 km a day back in our sandy tracks and still feel quite okay, but after 250km of the Saudi Desert it’s a completely different story. 

After the refuelling point the sandy terrain and dunes got even harder. There were some huge dunes with near vertical drops on the other side. 

About 3km from the finish Ehab had a big crash in front of me on a deep sandy dune. Although his airbag vest deployed he was hurt. I stayed with him for 5 minutes as he got his breath back, and then he told me to keep going. Luckily he also made it to the finish not far behind me.

It was then only a short 60km liaison back to the bivouac. By then I was exhausted, and still pissed off with the early mistake I had made.

Today’s stage really caught me off guard as the navigation was way more difficult than what I have encountered at Dakar and the Africa Eco Race, and the terrain was brutal with no place to rest or relax.

I am hurting all over from the punishing sand and dunes that are deeper than you can imagine.

I ended up in 14th position overall today and 1st in the Vets class, with Barry Howe from the UK only 20 minutes behind me.

The guys in the Vets class are fast and have been great with their advice on the Baja rally’s. Most of them live in the UAE and know this sandy terrain very well.

Tomorrow I start at 7.09am with Barry Howe starting only 2 mins behind me. I will have to ride a smart stage tomorrow to keep my overall lead in the Vets class. It looks like it’s a full stage of dunes, sand and difficult navigation.

Hopefully I’ll get some sleep and not think about it until I wake up at 4am.