By Taylah Eastwell
When the time came for Daniel Sanders to pick his subjects at the end of Year 10, he told his teachers at Upper Yarra Secondary College he wanted to be a professional motorbike rider.
With no dirt-bike racing classes on offer, they told him he best consider a back-up.
But Sanders was determined – and that determination is what saw the Three Bridge’s local place fourth overall and number one in the ‘Rookie’ category in his first attempt at “the world’s toughest and biggest race”, the 2021 Dakar Rally.
The Dakar is a 12-day off-road endurance event through the sand dunes and rocky terrain of Saudi Arabia. Competitors complete one stage each day, navigating their way with just a roadbook on their handlebars while riding at speed for over 450kms each day.
The Star Mail caught up with Daniel’s mum, Pauline, to see how he was tracking during the race.
“His aim was to win number one ‘Rookie’ and get in the top 10,” she said.
“There are no arrows or markers out on the course, you have to navigate by a roadbook and it just scrolls through turning points. So they not only have to go fast, but have to navigate and go in the right direction as well,” Mrs Sanders explained.
“He sounds so refreshed. He says it is his favourite race he has ever done and he has raced in Europe, America and home in Australia. He says he is getting more comfortable and faster and navigating is easier every day,” she said.
Daniel raced for the Red Bull KTM Factory Team alongside world champion and fellow Australian, Toby Price, as well as Matthias Walkner and Sam Sunderland.
“This time last year I never would have thought Daniel would have been doing it, he was wanting to do it later on. But because his off-road career stopped with Covid, there was no racing in Australia, KTM approached him looking for a new junior,” Mrs Sanders said.
“He wasn’t doing his other racing so he thought he may as well give it a try and there was no pressure, if he liked it he liked it, but he loves it unfortunately,” she laughed.
Mrs Sanders said her son has been overseas since September, having only thrown his leg over a rally bike and learnt to read a rally road book four months ago. Sanders competed in a 4-day Andalucia Rally event in October in order to qualify for the Dakar.
Sanders positioned third in the Dakar prologue event, which saw him begin out near the front of the pack for stage one of the rally on January 3.
Having missed a navigation note in the roadbook, Sanders lost some time in the first day after receiving a time penalty for speeding in reduced zones. He quickly made that time up in stage two, sitting in the top three for the most part of the race and placing ninth overall – with an average speed of 120km/ph.
By stage three, Sanders finished eighth overall. He took well to the terrain in stage four, bringing the bike home into second place for the day after 850km of racing.
By stage six, Sanders pushed hard to make up some time in the sand – finishing third overall and only missing out on first place by 52 seconds.
A small crash on day seven after 400km’s of racing left Sanders in need of a few stitches after a decent cut to the mouth.
“It looks like he’s been in a fight with Mike Tyson, he’s got a black eye and a swollen lip but looks a bit better after a few stitches,” his mum said.
“It’s just a cut lip and a couple stitches, you can get that in football. He’s been very lucky compared to some of the other riders,” she said.
When asked how she copes knowing her son is riding at high-speed in one of the world’s most dangerous races, Mrs Sanders said she likes to remain positive.
“I’ve always been very confident with Daniel’s racing. A lot of friends say ‘how do you cope’, but I know he has got great control. I don’t think you could cope very well if you didn’t think positive,” she said.
With stages seven and eight being marathon stages, mechanics were not available, with Sanders facing the challenge of keeping up his top ten position while nursing his bike in order to bring it home safely to the mechanics ahead of stage nine.
In an Instagram post, Sanders said he came across injured team mate Toby Price 150km into the ninth race, after an accident that cut Price’s Dakar dreams short.
“As I stopped the chopper was just landing, I quickly checked on him then tried to charge on. It was hard to get back into the groove after seeing the big guy down injured and also for me after just having a crash that could have finished my race earlier,” he said.
According to Sanders, he was also in a “decent crash” in stage nine after losing traction in the rocks.
“I lost all my water in my hydration and broke the tip of the gear lever,” the post read.
After a solid race in stage 10, Sanders jumped from eighth overall into sixth place, slotting happily into fourth position at the end of stage 11 and maintaining that position throughout the last day of racing to place fourth overall for the rally.
“I’ve dedicated the last five months for this race and I’m ecstatic with the result and couldn’t be happier,” Sanders wrote on Instagram.