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Barreda during Dakar Rally

Dakar Rally 2020: Traveling With The Bivouac

Jan 242020

Imagine 20 football fields, one after another. Replace perfectly manicured turf with tons of sand. Now divide the image in two. On one side, there are 45 support trucks to haul catering, medical supplies, race control, satellite antennas, TV production, and more from one bivouac to the next. Decorate the other side with a rainbow of tents and flags, plus bright artificial lighting for working at night. Add a soundtrack of generators and the inviting scent of barbecue wafting from campfires spread here and there. This colorful caravan followed the 2020 Dakar Rally in support of the 553 competitors and 351 vehicles—134 cars and side by sides, 47 trucks, and 170 motorcycles and quads—that contested the 12-stage event.

2020 Dakar Rally By The Numbers
2,500: People, the caravan of the Rally including competitors, teams, organization, and media
300: People to set up and tear down bivouac
250: Tons transported daily
90: Caterers to feed 2,500 people
72: Hours to set up bivouac
60: Facilities for race direction, competitor support, medical and media centers, TV editing bays, catering, showers/toilets, and prayer room
48: Hours to dismantle bivouac
45: Trucks for transporting bivouac
15: Bivouac footprint in hectares (37 acres)
10: Helicopters (four for medical, six for the TV production and race supervision)
4: Trucks carrying generators to power rally
1: Boat that transported supplies and vehicles from Marseille to Jeddah

In total, the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) moved 80 cars, 50 trucks, 10 helicopters, 15 buses, and eight aircraft for two weeks across 7,000 kilometers. In addition, the teams transported their own support trucks, pickups, and campers. As for the racers themselves, the bivouac presented its own challenges.

“It takes one year of preparation to race the Dakar professionally,” Monster Energy Honda Team rider Ricky Brabec said. “It goes from training every day—in the gym or with the road book at least three times a week—to the final preparation of all the gear. For a two-week rally, we bring two helmets, two pairs of boots, 12 pairs of goggles with 24 sets of lenses, 12 pairs of socks, 12 boxers, four pairs of pants, 12 jerseys, three jackets, 15 pairs of gloves, and 12 undershirts. All of it is crammed in three bags weighing a total of 32 kilograms.”


Joan Barreda, Brabec’s teammate, rattled off similar numbers, albeit with one important difference. “Wherever I travel in the world,” he said, “I always bring some jamón serrano with me. But this year, we had to bring more layers of clothing because of the freezing mornings.” Barreda had to leave the tasty Spanish ham at home. “So,” he laughed, “I brought some bars of Nutella.”


Interestingly, the gear didn’t double with the number of the wheels. “I brought one helmet and two of everything else,” said Monster Energy Can-Am driver Gerard Farrés. “Half of the bag was full of food, as I’m allergic to gluten.”


Farrés enjoyed a long, successful motorcycle career highlighted by a third place in the 2017 Dakar Rally before finishing second last year in his first attempt at the side-by-side category. “The car is less physically demanding than riding a bike,” he said, “but it’s more intense on a psychological level. The car is less forgiving if you make mistakes. On the other side, it is much safer; you feel more protected.


“Compared to South America, Saudi Arabia was much colder. And it got dark earlier, around 6:00 pm. The side by sides are much slower than the bikes—top speed is limited to 130 km/h—so, on a special stage, you need to calculate around three hours more compared to the bikes. We used to tackle the last part of the timed section when it was already dark and quite scary; you don’t want to spend the night in the desert. In the cockpit with my navigator Armand Monleón, we increased concentration to avoid navigation mistakes and save the vehicle as much as possible.”

Does a professional rider have a better life than an amateur in the bivouac? “Factory riders have more comfort in the bivouac because we can sleep in campers, cook our own food, have a massage every day, and have a whole team behind us, but the level of pressure is a lot higher,”


Ricky Brabec replied. “Amateur riders have much more fun. When I started, I remember I had more time to play and less work. Being an amateur is more fun, while racing as a pro becomes a job, though we try to keep the fun.”


“When I started rally raids,” Joan Barreda recalled, “we were racing in Africa. I was sleeping in a tent; all the competitors were doing the same. It was good fun. We enjoyed it and could rest as well. Now, things are different. When we join the bivouac at the end of a stage, we can have a hot shower in our camper, we can cook what we like, we can rest more, and we can have one-hour massage from the physio who travels with the Honda squad.


“Stages are physically demanding. We ride from six to 10 or 11 hours per day, but the main difference is the fact that, with all the services and facilities we have as factory riders, we have more time to rest and can recover better. In the past, for example, it took three hours to prepare the road book. Now, with experience, we take a maximum of one hour to revise the road book. In addition, on six stages, we received the road book in the morning 20 minutes before the stage, so we had even more time to rest the previous day.”

“Days were endless when I was racing in Africa or Argentina. Sometimes we spent 21 hours on the bike. We had all kind of issues with our bikes, and you had to be very creative to fix the problems or save the situation until the bivouac. Many times, I had to ride only on the wheel; you kept pushing but very slowly. We used to sleep three to four hours per night. It was hard, but it built character.


“I have never done a Dakar in Malle Moto—the category with no assistance—but I was a ‘water boy’ for Marc Coma and Francisco ‘Chaleco’ López. This is worse than being in Malle Moto. Your role is to support the top guys of your team. This means that if something happens to them, you have to give them your wheel or the support they need so they can continue the race. Once they left, I had to wait for hours for the assistance truck to fix my bike. The truck could arrive at 10 p.m. at kilometer 200 of the special stage and I still had 250 kilometers more to ride, plus the liaison. It was incredible. I used to arrive at the bivouac in the middle of the night.”


Was that frustrating? “No,” Farrés said. “The victory of my team was my victory. It was the same this year: We lost many hours in the early stages because of an issue with an axle, so in the second half of the rally, we were racing in support of our teammate, Casey Currie, who was fighting for the win. This is normal; it takes a team to win.”

Like in the army, discipline plays an important role in the success of an athlete. On the Dakar, the Honda riders woke up every day an hour and a half before the first bike was scheduled to leave the bivouac, roughly 3:30 to 4:00 a.m. But there were occasions when the first rider took the start at 4:15 a.m., like on Stage 1 from Jeddah to Al Wajh, which meant the alarm clock rang at 2:45 a.m.


“Wake up, breakfast, and gear,” Ricky Brabec described his routine. “Johnny Campbell cooked for me. Sometimes we had eggs, rice, and oatmeal, sometimes eggs and pasta and oatmeal. It was a proper meal.” Joan Barreda had eggs, cereal, and coffee with milk, while many, like Farrés, had spaghetti or macaroni with tuna.

The bivouac was like a mirage. Once there, the riders could enjoy a hot meal, an hour with a physio, some time to prepare the road book, then have dinner. Pro riders and drivers tried to go to bed between 20:00 and 22:00 p.m.


Every day was the same, for 12 grueling days, with one day in between called the “rest” day, during which competitors, teams, and media parked their vehicles, washed their clothes, and recharged their batteries.