U.S. motorcyclists finish Dakar Rally, the most grueling off-road race on Earth

Ricky Brabec in the 2016 Dakar Rally

American motorcyclist Ricky Brabec, one of five U.S. riders making their debut in the 2016 Dakar Rally, finished near the top of the pack at the end of the 14-day South American off-road race.

(Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

The world’s most grueling off-road race is finished for 2016, and four American motorcycle riders have completed it.

Honda racing team rider Ricky Brabec finished the 2016 Dakar Rally in ninth place -- an impressive success for a rookie who’d never tackled the 14-day rally before.

Also completing the race were privateer Ian Blythe, who finished in 26th, Alexander Smith, who raced to 37th, and Scott Bright, who finished in 53rd.

A fifth American rider, road racing veteran C.R. Gittere, was forced out of the punishing race by health problems.


The storied rally, which began as a Paris-to-Dakar, Senegal, race almost 40 years ago, is a brutal test of rider and rig. Only about half of the machines that began the race in Buenos Aires were able to complete the entire route, which totaled just under 6,000 miles.

This year’s route, which wound in and out of Argentina and Bolivia, included mountain stages at 15,000 feet elevation and near-freezing temperatures, followed by desert stages with temperatures over 110 degrees. One motorcycle stage had to be canceled when temperatures rose to 114 degrees, causing concern for the riders’ health.

The race is often fatal. Dozens of riders, drivers and spectators have been killed in the race’s history, including 26 competitors. This year’s rally saw no fatalities among racers, but a spectator was killed after he was struck crossing a road in front of a car.

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But many riders and drivers did not fulfill the dream of the Dakar -- in which simply completing the race is seen as a victory.

Of 136 motorcyclists who began the race, only 84 finished. Of 111 cars starting the race, only 87 crossed the finish line. Forty-five quads began; 24 finished. Trucks fared better, with 41 of the 55 that started getting to the end of the race.

The Los Angeles Times’ Charles Fleming takes a ride on a specialized — and very expensive — Dakar Rally motorcycle.

Australian Toby Price, in only his second Dakar effort, finished first among motorcycle racers. He was followed by Slovakian Stefan Svitko in second and Chilean Pablo Quintanilla in third.

Catalan rider Laia Sanz, the Dakar’s top woman racer, finished 15th.

The car division was won by the French driving team of Stephane Peterhansel and Jean Paul Cottret, piloting a diesel Peugeot. Veteran Peterhansel, known as “Monsieur Dakar” for his career six motorcycle and six car Dakar victories, was an early favorite, though overshadowed in the first stages by his fellow Peugeot driver Sebastian Loeb, who finished ninth.

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Peterhansel was joined on the podium by fellow veteran Nasser Al-Attiyah, a Qatari driver with multiple Dakar victories, who this year raced for Mini. In third position, driving a Toyota, was Giniel de Villiers, who won the race in 2009.


Among the quads, first and second place were claimed by Argentinian brothers Marcos and Alejandro Patronelli, riding Yamahas. Between them, the brothers have claimed first prize in five of the last six Dakars.

In the truck division, an Iveco machine driven by Dutch veteran Gerard de Rooy took the winning position.

No American car drivers finished in the top 10. Hopeful Robby Gordon, leading his team of custom Gordini off-road race cars, scored an 11th place finish in one stage, but was plagued by mechanical issues and did not end the race well.

The outspoken veteran had choice words for the French organizers of the rally, and for the victorious French motorcar company, saying race officials levied unfair time punishments on certain, unfavored drivers, and contending that the Peugeot cars had unfair advantages on the other vehicles. 

Gordon said he would rethink his Dakar strategy, and probably would not return for another try.

The American motorcycle riders expressed a different sentiment. Brabec described his Dakar experience as “awesome” and said he was determined to return for the 2017 race. Blythe, seeming surprised that he’d actually made it to the end of the rally, said, “I finished my first one!” and said he was eager for another try.

Even Gittere expressed determination to come back. The plucky North Carolinian was struck down by stomach troubles in stage 10 and had to be medically evacuated from the desert, said, “I trained for this for a year and a half. To have it go south, because of a bad stomach, that sucks. I want to try this again.”

By brand, the motorcycle section of the Dakar was another victory for KTM, which has claimed the top spot in the last 15 rallies in a row. Though Honda, Yamaha and Husqvarna all claimed top 10 slots, first and second place went to KTM.


Twitter: @misterfleming


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