CS Santosh: Year 2020 blocked my escape routes, made me more humane
India's ace off-road racer CS Santosh writes on his reflections from 2020, his preparations for Dakar 2021, and how he changed as a person.
This year has flown by really quick; faster than I expected, actually. In the beginning, when the lockdown was announced, it was really slow. I was at Bigrock Dirtpark near Bengaluru, which is a farm where I usually train on my bikes. Things were really slow there.
Later, I managed to get out of the country and travel to Spain to see if I can start my training, spend time with my team, and do some testing. None of the things went to plan in 2020. Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong because of the COVID situation. We didn't get enough races at all; just one race in Spain is all we got the whole year.
I didn't have access to the gym either because everyone, including me, was so worried about contracting the infection. So you can say that I was not able to do anything that I usually like doing. But, things began to look up towards the tail end of the year. I was able to train a little bit on the bike, though not as much as I would have liked. I got to spend some time with the team, basically, trying to make the most of the situation.
I am in Europe for close to six months now; I have been to Portugal, Italy, Germany, and for the past two and a half months, I have been training in Spain. I am based in a coastal town 30 minutes from Barcelona, and for the past two months, I have been able to train pretty much the way I wanted to. Currently, as I am tuning up for Dakar Rally 2021, I ride three days a week on a motocross track or on an endura track, followed by one day of riding on my rally bike which is the roadbook. Essentially, it is to get used to the navigation.
So, an average of four days of riding a week is how my schedule looks like currently. I complement this with some indoor cycling. Fortunately, I have a stationary bike in my room, so I just hop on to it and cycle. I also do some beach running.
The year started on a fine note for me. Dakar 2020 was the most fun I have ever had in a rally. I enjoyed all the stages and enjoyed the challenges of rallying in Saudi Arabia. In the years before, I struggled in Dakar because I didn't have the right mindset and I found myself suffering, but this year was different. I'd like to enjoy the challenges of Dakar this time too. I know that if I am able to enjoy my time on the bike, I'll get a good result. Last year, I finished top five in Africa and had very good speeds in all my races leading up to Dakar 2020. I had a real chance of finishing in top-20 in Dakar, but unfortunately, we lost Paulo Gonçalves.
Losing Paulo was a big, big blow. There were a lot of mixed emotions when the team got together. He helped me a lot with my navigation training in Morocco, and there was a personal bond we shared even though I had known him only for a year. He was an extremely warm guy, a very experienced rider, and a leader in our team. All of us learned a lot from him. I remember every member of the team was very emotional at that time, but thankfully, we have managed to pick ourselves. A lot of things have changed since Paulo's passing, but the team has remained intact. We have a new bike for Dakar 2021, and we want to do well for Paulo.
A top-20 finish will be nice to achieve in Dakar 2021, but more importantly, I would like to have a good time on my bike. I think all riders will try to bring their 'A' game to the rally since everybody has barely got a chance to race and everyone is raring to go. There have been some regulation changes in Dakar this time. Earlier, there was no limit on the number of times we could change our rear tyres, but this time, we can't change our rear tyres more than six times. This means riders will have to conserve their tyres, which will surely play a part in the way we race.
Also, the roadbook will be given to us 10 minutes before the stage, which means you have no idea where you are going. You follow every note; you live by every note in the truest sense. Usually, the roadbook is given a night before the race so riders can go through the notes and get an idea about the terrain. With this change in regulation, riders will have absolutely no idea of where they are heading, which makes things a little interesting.
If not for the pandemic, I would have raced in Merzouga Rally (Morocco) in March, the Desert Storm in India, then over a month testing the new bike in Morocco, and maybe a race in Abu Dhabi. So, overall, we would have done at least four or five races besides spending an awful lot of time testing in the desert had this been a normal year. Unfortunately, none of that could materialise, but you have to accept it and move on.
Looking back at 2020 from a personal standpoint, I think I became more humane. Guys like me are always out, chasing adventure. That's a perfect escape from the daily rigours of life. You can jump on a bike and forget the world. This year was completely different because I got to spend a lot of time at home and build some relationships, feel more humane. But, at the same time, the absence of an escape route, the inability to not do something that I have been doing since I was 17 or 18 showed me a different part of being human. I grew a lot as a person - not as an athlete or as a professional, but as a human being. I also picked up chess this year as a hobby.
Year 2021, to me, looks promising on the professional front. I am looking forward to some exciting projects with Hero and Red Bull, besides doing my best in Dakar while remembering Paolo on the way. I am excited for 2021, and I wish everyone a happy new year.
(CS Santosh is India's leading off-road racer and the first Indian to compete in, and complete the Dakar Rally. He spoke to Shantanu Srivastava.)
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