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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.

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.