Tim Sturtridge introduces the bikers who will be hoping to come away from Dakar 2012 with more than just an amazing experience...
The primary aim of any biker lining up in Mar del Plata for the start of Dakar 2012 will be to arrive safely at the finish line in Lima. However, there will also be a handful of competitors looking to cook up something a little special. This is the sort of riding they'll have to match to fulfil dreams of winning:
Here are a few of the riders who will be hoping to make history on the path to Peru…
#1 Marc Coma (Spain) & #2 Cyril Despres (France)
Just as football supporters turn weak at the knees at the prospect of Real Madrid against Barcelona, the battle between Cyril Despres and Marc Coma (pictured left) is Dakar 2012’s El Clásico. The KTM riders had their first taste of Dakar success in Africa and have continued their winning ways in South America. Both have been crowned Dakar champion three times and between them they've won the last six editions. Neither biker has won back-to-back, usually because the other guy is so determined to wrestle back his title. Marc is the reigning champion so the formbook suggests it’s Cyril’s time to win, but this is the Dakar and making predictions is a fool’s game. The sparks have flown between them in previous races but Dakar 2012 sees the rivals putting their differences aside and coming to Argentina as friends. How long this lasts is anyone's guess.
#3 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal)
The main threat to Coma and Despres’ domination is Portugal’s Helder Rodrigues. Since breaking into the top ten as a rookie back in 2006, Helder has brought home his Yamaha in the top five at the last four Dakars. This consistency was rewarded with a podium finish last year before Helder went onto be crowned the 2011 FIM Cross Country Rally World Champion. The year finished with Helder winning a public vote to be named Portugal’s Sportsman of the Year. Cristiano who? Unlike the other bikers at the top of the leaderboard, Helder doesn't fill the bivouac with a huge entourage. Instead he sticks with the same few guys who were there at the beginning of his Dakar adventure.
#4 Chaleco Lopez (Chile)
If Helder’s podium finish was a sign of great things to come in 2011 then the opposite was true for Chaleco Lopez. On the final stage of last year’s Dakar a mechanical failure stole away Chaleco’s second consecutive Dakar podium finish. Things got worse for Chaleco when he suffered a massive crash during the Rally of Tunisia later in the year. Chaleco fought for his life in hospitals in Tunisia, Italy and Chile. But a week after his final hospital appointment Chaleco raced the Pharaons Rally. The Enduro community was amazed at the Chilean’s ability to get back on his bike and Chaleco joked to Coma and Rodrigues that he needed to race again or things would be too easy for them. Chaleco admits he is not yet 100 per cent recovered but he couldn't bear to miss out on racing his Aprilia in front of the Chilean crowds.
#45 Laia Sanz (Spain)
When James Brown sang It’s a Man’s World it’s unlikely he was referring to a 9,000km race between Argentina and Peru. However, members of the fairer sex remain thin on the ground at the Dakar Rally. Among those looking to trash the male domination of the Dakar is Laia Sanz. The leader of the Princess Pack hails from Catalonia, not far from reigning champion Marc Coma. Laia has been beating the boys since taking part in 80cc races as a pre-teen. Now she's in her mid-20s and has already won multiple World and European Women’s Enduro Championships. Last year, Laia impressed during her Dakar debut, finishing 39th overall and lifting the Women’s Trophy. Can Laia do any better on her Gas Gas EC 450 motorbike this time around?
#79 Edouard Boulanger (France)
Chaleco Lopez was not the only Aprilia biker who caused a storm at the 2011 Pharaons Rally. Thirty-two-year-old Edouard Boulanger won the first Dakar Challenge in Egypt and collected his prize of free entry into this year’s desert classic. Like any French amateur rider Edouard has been intrigued by the unique demands of the Paris-Dakar ever since he was a child. Now he has his chance to experience the Dakar for himself. Even though this is Edouard’s Dakar debut he has roadbook experience after years of amateur riding and has never lost the body strength that won him the World Rowing Championships as a youngster. The best performance by a rookie at Dakar 2011 was Cody Quinn’s ninth-place finish.
#139 Gilles Gard (France)
The Dakar remains the ultimate challenge for Enduro bikers but Gilles Gard is confident he has already tackled the worst that life can throw at a person. The Enduro enthusiast was forced to quit biking in 2001 when he was diagnosed with cancer. Gilles battled hard against the illness but was brought back to square one when he developed leukaemia four years later. He asked for an exercise bike to be put in his hospital room while he received treatment. Gilles is racing Dakar 2012 to spread awareness of cancer in sport and also raise money for the hospitals that helped him