Kurt Caselli, AMA National Hare and Hound Champion, gave us his insight into his Dakar Rally debut

Kurt Caselli made it to the finish line on his debut Dakar
© Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

It’s feels so good to be over the finish line because riding the Dakar has been a goal of mine for so long now. Right now I’m feeling good but I think things will really hit home when I get back to the States. Only then will it really sink in.

The experience of racing the Dakar was more awesome than I could ever have imagined. It’s such a big event and you go on real rollercoaster ride of emotions. The biggest thing I’m taking away from this is a real understanding of the dangers of this race. Everyday you get worried when you hear news about other guys in the race so to see all of my friends here at the finish line in one piece is a relief.

My team-mate Darryl Curtis was giving me tips all through the race and then he suffered a nasty crash on one of last stages. The fact he got back on his bike and rode out the last days of this race in such pain shows what a top guy he is. When I go back home and tell people that one of my team-mates rode over 1000km with torn ligaments they just won’t get it.

You need a really special mindset to be at this race because it’s just like nothing else there is. Even on the penultimate stage I had a problem with my bike and there was Darryl coming past and towing me back to the bivouac.

This race is so unpredictable but it seems quitting is the one thing that nobody wants to do. The riders in this race just take whatever circumstances come their way and get on with it. The mental strength involved is unreal.

Overall our KTM Factory Team scored an awesome result at this Dakar and that’s the ultimate icing on the cake. For me the priority was to get to the finish, now I’m here I’m already thinking about what I’ll do differently next time. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to come back and put into practice all the things I have picked up during this intense period of racing.

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Kurt Caselli collected his second stage win of the 2013 Dakar Rally on Stage Eleven
© Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

I was a great stage for the team today with the end result being that Cyril (Despres) was able to increase his lead at the top of the race. I was feeling good and I was able to catch up to the front early because the soft mud was creating an easy track to follow.

For the last part of the stage I got together with Cyril we were able to ride out the rest of track together. I wanted to try and find my own way so I pulled out in front a little bit. I wanted to test myself with the navigation I’ve been learning and prove to myself I could make it back okay. It was satisfying to pick up the waypoints and not get lost like I had before.

I’m here to learn and the best way to do that is to take the initiative and put myself out at the front of the race. Now tomorrow I’m going to open the road because of today’s stage win and that’s going to be another challenge. I’m happy to be in this position because I have not come here to just follow everybody else. If I did that I would leave this race not having really tested myself and that would be a disappointment.

Today is another stage win for the team and that’s always good. Things are looking better for us now then they were in the first week of the race. The start of the race was a little dodgy for us but things are starting to smooth out and we’re all feeling better.

It’s not just the navigation that is new for me at the Dakar. At this race you are on the bike so much because of the long liaison sections before and after each stage. At the Dakar you’re on the bike all day and your butt gets very sore. There’s nothing easy about the Dakar, in terms of mental fatigue I have done anything like this before.

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Kurt Caselli rides through the deserts of South America at the 2013 Dakar Rally
© Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

It has been an intense introduction to the Dakar that’s for sure and now it feels good to have arrived at the Rest Day. Physically I’m feeling in great shape but mentally I needed this day off. I’ve not been cramping up on stages or anything like that but mentally I’m burned out.

A really cool thing that happened in the first week of the Dakar was that I managed to win a stage. That helped me to think that I’m improving my understanding of the roadbook. To be honest it was a fairly straightforward stage that I won without much dust and nothing too technical so I was able to just ride.

That was Stage Seven and the start of the marathon stage so at the end of that day all us bikers stayed together without the mechanics for the night. I don’t think many people got much sleep that night, I know I didn’t. My team-mate Joan (Pedrero) was holding it wide open and snoring all night. He had a few guys getting pissed with him and flashing torches in his face to wake him up.

At the marathon stage bivouac the team took the decision to swap Cyril’s engine. Before we even sat down for dinner we had got together to pull the motors out of two bikes and swap them over. My Dad always told me that you can’t be a professional rider without knowing how the bike works.

I have grown up working on bikes so it was good to be able to help the team out with the repairs that needed doing. It made the night a little longer than it already was but we got Cyril’s bike working so he was able to ride Stage Eight and get to the Rest Day.

Stage Eight for me was tough because I had to open the road after winning the stage before. It just proved to me that I still have plenty to learn. I blew a corner that got me lost for a little while and pretty soon after that everybody was doing circles out in the desert. It was one of those days that didn’t go so well for me but it wasn’t great for anybody else either.

Now I’m taking the Rest Day to relax so I can be ready to get back into the race on the second week. My goal remains to just keep learning as much as I can and to get my bike over the finish line.

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Kurt Caselli rides on the 5th Stage of the 2013 Dakar Rally
© Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull Content Pool

The first two days I really had no idea what to expect but still managed to get through it okay. Now its starting to click a little bit better in terms of finding my way out on the stage. I’m still finding it tough and its taking me a while to read where I am.

For the guys around me in this KTM Factory Team its second nature for them and they can do these things a lot quicker than me. Yesterday and today I just took some time to stop and read everything to see where I was at before getting going again.

The bikes in this race are travelling pretty darn fast and at the same time you’re trying to read your notes. Its very easy to hit a rock and crash so safety wise I just want to look after myself and learn as much as I can. Its tough because I have to be patient with myself. I want to go faster and push but I need to hold myself back while I go through this learning process.

It gets better all the time and the next few days should be good. Its still early in the race but I would like to be getting better times but also I’m happy that I’m staying in the race. I’m just cruising and when I get this navigating under control I think I’ll start riding a bit harder.

The atmosphere between the riders is kind of relaxed on the stage because you’re not just racing each other but also racing together against the course and the conditions. It’s the not the same intense and close racing you get in motocross or even the desert races that I do in the States. At the Dakar if you pass the guy in front of you need to be sure that you know where you’re going.

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Dakar 2013 Kurt Caselli KTM factory team
© Marcelo Maragni/KTM Images

You hear so much about the Dakar, but you really have to come here and race to find out what it’s all about. The riding is actually the easy part; it’s the navigation and the roadbook that are going to be the tough things for me.

Today’s special stage was a perfect warm up to the race because it was really short and we started and finished in the same spot. There were a few tracks on the ground that I could follow so I could feel my way into the navigation.

I’m a little bit overwhelmed right now

This first stage was another big step along this learning curve that I’m on but I think that tomorrow’s special stage of over 300km is when the race really starts. I’m a little bit overwhelmed right now with all the different things I’m trying to take in but I’m going to go there and do my best.

When I started out with KTM, my goal from the very beginning was to race the Dakar. I’ve been with KTM for twelve years now, so I’ve been working my towards this chance for a long time. Part of this preparation has been riding for the Factory Team at the Baja 1000 and last year we finished the race second after winning the first round. So the Baja was kind of like a stepping-stone for me to get ready for the longer rallies.

Then two weeks before this Dakar I get a phone call saying that Marc Coma isn’t able to ride, which I was totally bummed about because he’s a good friend. I know how tough it must be for him to miss out on a big race like this. So I was bummed for Marc but at the same time it also created the opportunity for me to come along and race the Dakar for the first time.

It’s good to know the pressure is off

I immediately accepted the invitation of the KTM Factory Team and now, just a couple of weeks later, I’m here in the middle of the desert in Peru racing the Dakar. The whole team have been great with me, totally relaxed and just telling me to do my best to get over the finish line.

I’m completely unfamiliar with all the stuff that goes hand in hand with racing the Dakar so it’s good to know that the pressure is off. I’d never even seen a roadbook before I got here!

I’ve got Marc Coma and Cyril Despres helping me out and that is something special

I’ve come with an open mind to learn from the rest of the team about what it takes to race the Dakar. So far it’s been great and all I can do is take it day by day and keep learning. You really couldn’t put a price on the teachers I have around me. I’ve got Marc Coma and Cyril Despres helping me out and that is something special.

Up until now the longest race I’d done was six days and I remember halfway through that thinking ‘this sucks and I want to go home.' Then when you get home after the race you miss it immediately – I think all of these feelings will be tripled with the Dakar Rally.

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