Firstpost Masterclass: Third-degree burns to high-speed spirituality, CS Santosh explains motorsports
What is off-road biking? What does a typical day at Dakar Rally look like? How to attain the perfect bike-body balance while riding at 150kmph? In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, CS Santosh, the first Indian to complete the Dakar Rally, discusses all about high-speed motorsports.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
Despite the awareness and acceptance in recent years, the motorsports scene in India is far from encouraging. It continues to be an expensive sport, and the dearth of sponsors and broadcasting means one has to be really resourceful and driven to pursue it. Add to it, the obvious element of risk involved, and we are looking at a select band of practitioners crazy enough to put their lives on the line in non-descript deserts for an adrenaline rush. CS Santosh not only belongs to that group, but happens to be its poster boy.
Having excelled in motocross and supercross events, he moved to off-road biking in 2012, and the transition changed his life. He became the first Indian to compete in, and successfully complete the famed Dakar Rally - a feat that he achieved in his very first attempt in 2015, despite a series of crashes. Two near-death experiences, about which he opens up in this interview, changed his perception of life, so much so that he has come to accept death as an inevitable part of life itself.
In this Firstpost Masterclass, Santosh reveals his thought processes that, for a speed junkie, are still as a quiet sea. He talks of finding a spiritual connection with the sport, developing a relationship with his machine, the thrill and throes of rallying, and of course, the technical aspects one needs to understand to make sense of this madcap sport.
How did your fascination with bikes begin? Can you tell us something about your childhood?
As a kid, I was very curious and always wanted to explore the world beyond my street. It all started with a bicycle. I still remember the sense of freedom I felt when I first went out of my neighborhood to see the big bad world. This sense of freedom and bewilderment, I realised, was the essence of adventure and I began to really experience it when I started riding a bike.
My dad bought me a TVS Suzuki Shaolin when I entered college. Back then, there was a thriving culture of drag racing and street racing in Bangalore. On my very first day on the bike, I went street racing and crashed. I pretty much scared myself and my family. That's when I realised that this is not the right way to race and that I needed a proper avenue to express myself. I promised my parents that I won't drive rash on the roads, and that I'll find a correct platform to follow my passion.
I found a few vacant lake beds in the city and started practicing there. I realised I could slide and drift my bike, and the thrill I got there ignited in me a passion to do bigger things. I started looking for competitions and took it up professionally.
What hooked you to off-road biking? Was it the thrill of speed, the knowledge that you could do anything with your bike, or something else?
It wasn't the speed, definitely, because I was never fascinated with drag racing. I knew if you spend good money on your bike in drag racing, you could have a really fast bike and you can win. I never had that kind of money to spend on my bike. Since I rode a lot on my bicycle, I had really good control over the motorcycle, and when I started riding on dirt, I retained that natural control. I knew the skill I had would really amount to something.
My very first race was a road race in Chennai. I actually paid Rs 500 to participate in one such race, because I thought I wanted to be a track racer. After all, I had grown up idolising Valentino Rossi. I won my first race but crashed out in the second on the same weekend, but I thought this is what I wanted to do. However, soon the Sriperimbedur track had to be closed down due to some litigation. It remained shut for three years, and that's when I decided to go off-road.
You moved from supercross and dirt-track racing to raids in 2012. Tell us how that move changed your motorsports career?
Yes, before 2012, I used to do a lot of supercross and dirt track racing, and my world expanded when I decided to participate in Raid de Himalaya. I had heard a lot about this raid, and I had thought of experiencing it once and then hanging up my boots because I would have experienced everything in India. However, the raid opened me to a whole new world and enriched my whole experience of racing. It gave me a different perspective. I met a number of interesting people.
The participants at Raid de Himalaya were not thorough professionals, unlike supercross. There were a number of adventure enthusiasts who had full-time jobs but just wanted to realise their little adventure goals. I invited a few of them at my father's farm and told them I could help them with their techniques. They really enjoyed my inputs and got better. I felt that a part of me will live through their craft. Spending time with these people helped me realise that my happiness lay in sharing my knowledge on off-road biking with ordinary people. That's when I set up the Big Rock Dirtpark in Kolar in 2013 which is now a private limited company. We have big ambitions of taking it across India.
Motocross or Supercross racing is entirely different from raiding. What were the challenges that you encountered when you switched formats?
You're right. Supercross is a race where the organisers build a course in a stadium or an enclosed area with man-made obstacles and jumps. These include table-tops, jumps, hoops...basically different formations. Such a race typically involves 15-20 laps against about 20 competitors. The dirt track is again a similar format where they make a track in a stadium but with no jumps. So you try to go around the corners as fast as you can and we race maybe for 15 laps against 20 people. Those are the kinds of racing I have been doing until 2012. These formats require intense concentration for 20-30 minutes and your heart rate gets really high.
From that, I went to raiding that lasts five days. In Supercross and Dirt Track, you are allowed to walk the tracks. They give you a few practice laps a day before, so you can get some idea of the track and strategise accordingly.
In Raid de Himalaya, we have no idea of the routes. They give you a GPS tracker and you have to follow it. I had never done this kind of navigation before. Imagine a piece of dirt road for the first time and then trying to go as fast as you can. The element of risk is higher in raids and cross-country rallies because there are so many unknown variables involved.
Overall, we do about 1200 kilometres in a raid, and every day we cover about 200 kilometres. Also, each day there are competition specials, but before that, we have something called liaison. This is basically leaving the hotel and arriving at the point where the race is supposed to start. On some days, we need to start at 4:30 in the morning, and you come back in the afternoon. This is something I had never done before, and this format just blew my senses.
Let's talk about your protective gear and racing suit. What thought goes into selecting them?
The fact that I am racing cross country racing and we ride pretty much into the unknown, we need to wear enough protection to save us on bad days. I use a Shoei helmet, which is among the best in the world. We use an open-face helmet, as is the norm in off-road helmets. It doesn't have a visor, but we wear a pair of googles.
Then, I use a neck brace that doesn't allow exaggerated movement of the neck. This doesn't mean that it is 100 percent safe, but it is a precautionary measure. Not everybody wears it though. Then, I wear a body armour. It is like a turtle shell made of plastic, but it is breathable. It has a honeycomb structure, and it is vented. It is like a jacket that protects my chest, back, arms, and elbows. It needs to be as light as possible and also as sturdy as it can get. You can have really robust armours, but they end up limiting our mobility, so that's of little use to us.
To protect my knees, I wear knee braces. They help us give some stability to the knee. The motorcycle is quite heavy, and sometimes when you lose traction and put your foot down, you don't want your knee to hyper-extend.
Further down, come the riding boots. These are the most consistent protection you'll find among motorcyclists. Our riding boots are quite heavy; they weigh close to 10 kgs. They provide the feet with a lot of rigidity. We move quite a lot on the bike and the legs also touch the ground a lot. So, we are looking to limit the mobility of the ankle when it brushes over pebbles and rocks.
As a racer, you need to keep yourself updated with technological advances and innovations. Over the years, my knowledge of what works for me has evolved. How I approach a morning start or an afternoon stage depends to a great extent on what I am wearing and what I am thinking, and what all things I am carrying in my jacket to help me. All these things matter a lot because it is not a 20-30-minute race. Weather conditions drastically change, and that may affect performance. You need special logistics to survive a two-week rally such as Dakar.
On top of everything, we wear our jackets and pants. The jacket is made up of breathable material. We cannot afford to wear leather because we do not hit really high speeds at which ventilation becomes possible. We do not ride at very high speeds and we are on the bike for many, many hours. All of this makes it imperative for us to wear breathable material. Since it is an endurance sport, we sometimes encounter temperatures over 40 degrees as well as under zero degrees. We cannot wear something specifically to keep us warm because more important for us is to avoid over-heating.
We begin our liaison, or the road section, early morning and it is usually really cold. We can only take with us what we can carry. So, if I took a jacket to keep me warm, I'll have to throw it away before the start of the race because we can only carry what we will wear during the race.
We also carry a camelback built inside the jacket, so we can carry three litres of water inside our jackets. A tube runs from this camelback to our front so we can sip water from it whenever we want to. Then, the jackets we wear have a number of pockets that are used to carry food, satellite phones and some tools. After fully stocking up, our jackets weight close to 15-20 kgs.
You have raced in various formats, such as the supercross, motocross, and rallying. How do bikes change with formats and what kind of bike do you use?
The motorcycle that we use for supercross and motocross is an off-road bike. They come in two cubic capacities - 250 cc and 450 cc. These bikes weigh close to 100 kgs, which is not heavy at all. A 450 cc bike engine puts out 67-70 horsepower, which is very powerful.
The rally bike uses the 450 cc engine of an off-road bike, but the frame and exteriors are made as per the rally conditions. These bikes need to accommodate close to 30 litres of fuel. In the dirt bike, everything is kept to minimum because the races last only 20-30 minutes, so the fuel is very limited. The bike is slim and slender, and everything is kept to a minimum.
We aspire for the same approach in rally bikes, but that is not possible because we need to carry 30 litres of fuel. Then, we also carry a navigation tower that allows us to navigate in the desert. This tower itself is quite massive and robust. It has quite a few moving parts, and it sits right in front of the bike. The bike, in its full capacity, weighs 170 kgs. The weight plays a very big role. When we race in the desert, there is a lot of movement because you are constantly hitting holes and rocks. The fuel then moves inside the bike and causes the bike to move a lot, which is not ideal for a driver. We try to keep it as slim as we can, but that's pretty much what we can do with rally bikes.
I have been racing with Hero since 2017, and currently, I ride a Hero 450 RR in cross-country rallies such as Dakar. Every year, they come up with new iterations to stay in touch with the competition and improve performance.
What about watches? Given the turbulence of the terrain and fluctuating climates, do you wear custom-made watches as well?
Yes, that's right. Watches have very fine pieces of equipment and very intricate mechanisms that keep it running. If you are subjected to extreme temperatures and stresses, your watch can give way. So yes, the Favre-Leuba wristwatch that I wear is designed to withstand these forces. After all, you are racing against the clock.
You have raced in various formats. What are the technical adjustments you make when you move from motocross/supercross to cross country rallying?
Supercross and dirt track racing build a good foundation. It helped me understand the technique on a motorcycle, and from that when you move to a cross country rally such as Dakar, you try to go as fast as possible. The corner speed is not so important; it is how much you can hold on to the throttle without letting it off; that's pretty much the game in Dakar.
Like I said, in Dakar, we don't have any idea of the route. We use a map, which is basically a road book, not a digital map. It is a rudimentary compass with an odometer and a scroll of paper carrying instructions. We correspond instructions on the paper with the odometer manually, racing at 140-150 kmph. We are reading caution with this, we are figuring out navigation through all this...so it is a completely different sport.
Racing in the motocross, supercross, and dirt track has made my fundamentals quite strong. It is like maths; once you have good fundamentals, you can look at careers involving the subject. Personally, I use my knowledge of the motocross in rallying, but it is mostly risk assessment to understand how far you can go in certain parts of the desert, to be able to read the terrain, to understand how to navigate the dunes, to assess risks, to understand how your body and mind are feeling. You need to have a high state of awareness and you need to know the decisions you are making.
In supercross and dirt, I don't have to think or make calculations in mind. I just get on the motorcycle and let my instincts and skills take over. We cannot do that in cross country rallying. We have to switch between riding with instinct - which is going as fast as you can - to navigating. We need to understand which river bed to take, how many degrees left or right can you go on a dune to find my next waypoint..all of these calculations are done while we are trying to race. So, it is a very very unique sport.
You had a terrible accident in Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in 2013, your first international rally. Can you take me through that day once again, if possible? Did the day start normally for you or did you get any inkling of what was in store?
I think if you are really aware and pay attention to all the setbacks you have had in life, you will notice that there's not really one moment when someone suddenly pulls the carpet from underneath you. There are small hints that life always gives you that tell you that something may not be right. I had those moments three days before the Desert Challenge in Abu Dhabi in 2013.
I was really struggling, I was not prepared, I was basically doing all the things that I shouldn't be doing when I went there. I was ill-prepared for the race, and I ended up setting myself on fire and almost lost my life. So, to answer your question, no I don't think that the accident happened suddenly. There were many unfortunate incidents that were strung together and finally ended up with me in flames. It was my first international rally, I had no sponsorship or support.
I landed there with financial help from my friends and family. A friend of mine stayed in Dubai and he helped me with whatever he could. Motorsports is an expensive sport, and I didn't really have a great bike. Many things were going on and off, and all of that culminated in that horrible accident.
In a number of your past interviews, you have explained all the horror of that accident in great detail. It is fascinating to see how much you remember those moments despite being in an obvious state of shock and panic. How is that possible?
I remember this dialogue from a movie that goes, 'You truly feel alive between life and death.' Those are the moments that people like me live for. When I am on a motorcycle, I don't know what the next moment will bring. I just get on the bike and take off. When I was on fire and it was a matter of life and death, and I remember everything very vividly because when you are racing, you feel almost invincible.
Human beings live in a circle of life and death, and death is an integral part of your time on Earth. You have to embrace it. I never considered death in all of my years racing. Abu Dhabi 2013 was the first time that I was confronted with the possibility of dying. So, when you have something so profound staring right down on you, something in you changes, and you tend to remember all those incidents in detail.
I remember all the processes I went through. I remember my mind telling me that nothing is going to happen to me. Then, in one moment in time, I realised that I had no power, that I was at the mercy of God, or life, or universe, whatever you wish to call this entity. That's when I realised how fragile we are, and I am thankful that I was able to walk away from that moment.
You have said that your first instinct was to save your bike even when you were in flames. How do you explain that?
I knew the efforts that people around me had put in to send me to that race, and everything was riding on my performance. There is not a very bright future for someone like me in India. You race, you become a national champion, and you go home with pretty much nothing. You have to start from scratch pretty much all the time. The racers or riders that came before me got nothing out of the sport. Winning championships doesn't set you for life. They didn't get any recognition at all. So, I was aware of where I was coming from, and everything was literally riding on my bike.
When I saw my bike on fire, it was as if all my dreams were melting away right in front of me. That's why I tried to save it...for me, it was symbolic. I wanted to keep that hope alive.
When did it hit you that you must stop thinking about the bike and look to save yourself?
I used to watch Bear Grylls on the Discovery channel and was quite amazed at how he would put himself in various scenarios and come out alive. In my mind, I always thought that if I am in a life-threatening situation, I will be able to do what it takes to save myself. I was mentally prepared to land in a bad situation at some point and then find my way out of it. When I was on fire, I realised that the moment is here. I remember I was quite composed when I was on fire. I tried doing all those things that I knew I should be doing to save myself, but when everything failed and there seemed no hope, instincts took over.
I remember the smell of my burning flesh. The pain was incredible, and I could feel it rising to my neck. I could hear the skin crackling. I remember the flames coming up to my face and nose. There was so much heat on one side of my face that I thought it had melted away. I remembered Two-Face from Batman; I thought I would not look pretty anymore...imagine! I was lying in flames in the middle of a desert and thinking it is not going to look pretty in the mirror.
It lasted just about 10 seconds but it's unbelievable how much you can remember. I then rolled myself in the sand and doused the fire before help arrived. Later, doctors told me that I almost burnt some of the critical arteries that pass through the neck, and I was extremely lucky that they were not damaged.
You then underwent grafting but the scars are still there. Athletes are used to physical injuries, but this one nearly took your life. How do you look back at your recovery phase?
I felt really lucky to be alive. Honestly speaking, never once did I feel like giving up the sport. I was disappointed that all the efforts were put to waste. The first thought I had while recovering was of all those people who had helped me. I thought I would never get a chance to do this again. More than the pain and scars, it was this sense of disappointment that troubled me. I knew I would eventually recover, but I wasn't sure if I will ever get another opportunity to race in the desert. Not knowing what will happen after my recovery, not knowing if I will have any people left to support me, not knowing if there will be anyone to fund my dreams was a very fragile space to be in.
So what you are saying is that despite this accident that nearly took your life, you never really felt that this sport can kill you?
Oddly enough, I never felt that way, not even after returning to rallying after this accident. But then in 2017 when I was racing the Desert Storm in Rajasthan, I had a really bad crash that pretty much takes the icing on the cake. I hit the barbed wire in the desert, and when I hit that, it collapsed a disc in my spine in the neck region. I would call it one of the scariest crashes of my life.
What happened was there was just one single barbed wire running in the desert and I didn't see it. It caught my helmet somehow and pulled me off my bike. The force was so much that my disc collapsed.
I lay on the ground motionless. I just couldn't move my limbs or my body below my neck. I thought I'll be paralysed for life. I would call it scarier than being in flames. As I lay there motionless, I said to myself, 'God, not like this.' We all envision dying in a heroic battle of sorts, but just lying down like that was not acceptable to me.
After about two minutes, I started to feel some sensation in my body, but I was just not able to co-ordinate my movements. After some time, a racer saw me lying there and stopped. He picked me up and held me as I tried to regain my balance. Then, another rider stopped by and both of them helped me stabilise. Then, I asked them to continue with their race and within a few minutes of thinking that I'll be paralysed, I started thinking that I will lose this race. I got on my bike and continued. I had to choose between quitting and continuing, and I chose the latter.
I raced in extreme pain for the next three days because there were not enough medical facilities to address my condition. I had a temperature every single day. I would finish the stage, go back to the hotel room, and lie down and try to forget about the pain. I felt extreme pain in my legs and it was such that I couldn't move or lift hands. I had nerve pain, which means I felt electricity going through my hands all the time while my body shivered.
The medical facilities at the race, I think it was Bikaner, were not great, and the medical staff concluded that it was nothing serious and might have pinched a nerve or something.
When I went for a scan after the race, I was really scared to see how far the disc had come out and how lucky I was. The doctors had to completely remove that disc and fuse my spine.
How do you drive fear away in such an extreme sport?
The first step is to acknowledge that all of us experience fear, and the experience of experiencing fear doesn' make one fearful. The thing about fear is that you don't know what to do with it and what to replace that emotion with. I recognise fear. I can't say I am not afraid, but I tend to rationalise with it. It is the approach that has worked for me.
You have been going to Dakar for a few years now. When did you feel that you're ready for a challenge like Dakar?
I don't think I was ever ready. It felt that it came onto me. I never wanted to sign up for it. I did a raid where I beat an Austrian cross-country rallying champion who used to do Dakar. He suggested I participate (in Dakar Rally). This was in 2012. Then, I thought of doing an international rally before trying Dakar, so I went to the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in 2013 where I set myself on fire. Next year, I went to Abu Dhabi again with the goal of completing the rally. I did that and also completed the Qatar Rally, and then, all of a sudden I was eligible for Dakar.
A friend of mine sent my application without informing me. Not only did Dakar accept my application, they also waived off 18,000 euros of entry fees. Right there was my first sponsorship from Dakar itself. By extending that offer, they pretty much set the ball in motion because I couldn't go back. I still needed 1,00,000 euros to be able to compete in Dakar, which was a struggle that I look back with a lot of fondness. I had no clue where the money would come from, and the position that I have in Indian motorsports today has a lot to do with my struggles in those years.
I pretty much knocked on everybody's doors for money, and everyone turned me down. Red Bull were kind enough to support me though. Things changed dramatically for good when I returned after completing the rally, but my first Dakar was almost wholly funded by my friends and family.
How was the experience at your first Dakar? Was it a reality check of sorts?
Yes, most certainly. I had a number of crashes there. I was blindsided. There is not enough literature on Dakar for you to prepare. In developed countries, there is so much participation that you can actually call fellow riders and get first-hand information. There are also other races that you can participate in to get a taste of Dakar. There's nothing like that in India. For me to go there and experience everything first-hand right there was incredible. The scale of the event was something I had never seen or heard about. There were close to three million spectators, and for me to see people standing in remote villages in Argentina to watch people like me race was something that I had never experienced before.
Race-wise, I had quite a few crashes. In the first two or three days, I ended up breaking my nose and it has still not sat back properly. My crooked nose is a result of that crash. Then, I broke my big toe on the fifth or sixth day of the race. When I broke this toe, I thought that it would be very difficult to complete the rally. I was crashing every day, really struggling and suffering. It was an ordeal, perhaps the toughest and most gruelling two weeks I had ever put myself in.
What is a typical day in Dakar like? Can you take me through a full 24-hour rallying cycle?
Okay, so Dakar is a cross-country rally that, in South America, traverses through Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. The rally has no loops, which means we don't return to the point we begin at. We keep going forward, which means the conditions keeps changing. We race on a new terrain each day.
We start the day really early, sometimes we need to get on the bike at 4:30 am, so we get up at about 3 or 3:30 am, get ready and have a full breakfast. Eating that early again is not easy, but you have to force yourself because you know that you won't get anything to eat till the afternoon. Then, we take about 45 minutes to dress and stock up on the bars and gels that we carry. We make sure that the camelback is full, then we take the roadbook and keep it on the bike. All of this takes 45-60 minutes.
Then, we get on the bike and ride for 200-300 kilometres on the tarmac to reach the point where the race would begin. This stretch of riding is called liaisoning. It is dark and usually very cold at that hour. Sometimes, the temperatures can drop to zero degrees, and you have to ride in the wind.
The actual stage begins at the daybreak. When the first ray of the sun hits the desert, that's when the first bike starts. The stage, on an average, is a 300-kilometre stretch in the desert. We ride against the clock, and the terrain is obviously unpredictable. It can be sandy, rocky, stony, or a mixture of all. So we finish the stage and then there is another liaison which could be of 100-200 kilometres. On average, we ride 700-800 kilometres a day in Dakar.
Once we reach our hotels, we debrief the team, speak to our technicians if the bike needs to be looked at, fulfill our sponsor commitments. By the time we change, have our recovery drink and sit for lunch, it is usually 3 pm. We chat with the team and relax for some time, and then at 7:30 pm, we go for the next day's briefing. Here, we are told about the upcoming stage and what should we expect. Then we go for dinner, prepare our jackets, ration all the food and gels we wish to take with us in the morning, and by 9:30-10 pm, we hit the bed.
The entire cycle is very demanding. Physically, it is a brutal rally. By the time we hit the bed, our back and limbs are gone, and we have to be up by 3-3:30 the next day. However, we train for such rallies and personally, I quite enjoy the challenges. As compared to my first Dakar which was quite a suffering, my most recent one was quite good. I was definitely competitive, I had become very strong and my perception of suffering had changed.
You have had your share of near-death experiences. You lost your teammate Paulo Goncalves in Dakar Rally this year. Do experiences like these make you look at life a bit differently?
I think you can't help but get a bit spiritual in a sport like this. We have to accept that death is not strange. It is not a phenomenon that is separate from life. Life and death are entwined in a circle. As humans, we always feel that it is not going to happen to us. I have had some bad crashes where I had thought about death, but to see Paulo go was completely different. It feels he showed us how vulnerable we are. We keep thinking that such things will never happen to us or to people we know, but his death showed that death is real.
Having said that, it doesn't change what sport means to us. I don't think it will change the way I approach Dakar. All of us get only one shot at life, and no matter how hard you try, you will end up in a grave at some point. Some of us get to choose how we go, and that's the best way to look at it. For me, my motorcycle is the window to the limitless possibilities of the world. I have come to appreciate life through my bike.
It is natural for the human mind to wander and get into some thoughts when you ride for that long? What do you think when you are out there, riding alone?
Actually, this year, I had very little thoughts, but in my past rallies, I have had quite a few. I would find myself wondering what is happening at home, who all people I will meet when I get back, and so on. Sometimes, you think of things that make little sense. I remember thinking of the food I would be having that night, or sitting on a beach or something. We also get a number of negative thoughts such as I don't want to crash today, will I be okay at the end of the day, I don't want to make a mistake with my navigation, am I going the right way and so on.
These are the thoughts that one needs to correct if one wants to perform well. This year, I had very few thoughts outside the best possible scenarios. We don't know what is coming ahead, but whatever comes, we should be confident in our skills to deal with it. In a sense, we just pray for the best outcomes, and you ought to believe in this thought process. You have to believe that in that very moment of calling, you are destined to do what you are doing. You must have a sense of purpose. I re-emphasise that purpose in my head all the time, and it helped me perform much better this year.
Are you able to stay in this zone throughout your ride or do you switch off and switch on during the course of the race?
I have experienced this state of flow at various parts in a day. I don't think it is possible to be in that zone for two weeks. That is why we have our good and bad days in Dakar, and the guys who win or do well in Dakar are able to make the correct decisions on both the good and bad days. That is what really separates them. As an athlete, I am aware of this state of flow or zone that you talk about, but sometimes the decisions we make need not be instinctive, but logical. That's where navigation skills come in.
It is also about developing a feeling. You should feel you belong to the desert. When you start feeling that, your performances improve. You will realise that you are able to read the dunes, you are able to take the right amount of risk, you are able to navigate well...that's what happens in a zone. But, it is impossible to sustain it for two weeks straight.
Look, this is a very unpredictable sport. If you look at a sport such as tennis, you can visualise your backhand or a forehand, or the amount of spin your opponent would impart, or where he or she will drop the ball and so on. Because of the sheer number of uncertainties that this sport has, it demands a totally different mindset. These uncertainties raise a number of questions in your head, and it is important to silence them and believe in yourself. Once you do that, you enter the right frame of mind to race.
Fair to say that the bike becomes an extension of your body and you need to build a rapport with the machine?
Indeed, the bike is an extension of your body. When we are training and testing on the motorcycle and improving the set-up, it just feels that the bike does what you want it to do. When you hit a hole or a rock, you can predict how the bike will react. It is important to have a good relationship with a bike. Probably the best relationship I have ever had in my life has been with my motorcycle because I understand it is something that can make or break me.
Building rapport with the machine essentially means being comfortable in it. When a machine is being manufactured and you read the specifications on a piece of paper, pretty much every bike reads the same. But, inherently, every machine is different. No matter how consistent you are with the build of the machine, they are always different. They always flex in a different way, they behave in a different way, they turn in a different way...basically, they feel different in your hands. Every rider experiences this. That's the kind of relationship between a man and a machine.
We talk about Artificial Intelligence and automation, but I think it all started in the stone age when man made his first axe as a tool. Motorcycle, for me, is a tool of expression, and in its own unique way, it is a living entity. We develop a bond with the machine; there is a lot of emotion involved, it is not a machine that we just use and forget.
It is normal for you to be airborne during a race, depending on the kind of jumps you are executing. How do you balance when the bike is up in the air, and are you looking at a particular landing spot?
When you hit jumps, you pretty much know how far you will go and the trajectory you'll take. You kind of visualise where the bike is going to land.
These are skills that you learn racing supercross, which requires you to jump a lot. I have honed my skills to understand where the centre of gravity of the motorcycle lies. There are moments in time when the bike is in the air, and it is weightless. That is the point we are looking for because at this moment, things happen effortlessly. You can turn and move the bike in any direction you want to.
It doesn't come easy though. It takes years of practice to understand what happens when you hit a jump because the jump phases are not always consistent. The jumps differ, the dirt differs, and the various angles of a jumping phase play a crucial role in the trajectory of the bike. I learned all this while racing supercross.
Let's talk about balancing the body when you are racing. What exactly are riders looking to achieve when they move on their seats? Also, how do you use your body to absorb shocks?
It is difficult to explain, really. You obviously have to keep your body on top of the bike, but weight itself is the most dynamic aspect for us.
The motorcycle is always in motion, and the rider is always animated. You need to move continuously to balance the bike and generate traction. Your movements, whether forward, back or sideways, become more and more intricate and complex when you go fast.
The trajectory of the bike and how it is going to move depends on how the weight is moved on the motorcycle. That's the reason we stand on the bike and move a lot. The idea is to find a sweet spot on the bike where you are getting the bike to go in the direction you want to go. You need to change your body movements depending on the terrain. For rocks, you stand more loosely on the bike to allow movement of the bike; on the sand, you ride more at the back; when you go high-speed, you ride at the back; in mud, you again have to be loose. So, different terrains demand different approaches. It's the same with bicycles, to give you a vague example; when you move uphill, you move in front whereas when you go downhill, you move your weight back.
Since we don't have four wheels, or traction control, or a computer to assist us, all the dynamic aspects such as finding traction, keeping the bike balanced and so are happening because the rider is moving on the bike. It is very difficult to explain, and it takes years of training to understand what weight does to a motorcycle.
The body definitely acts as a shock absorber, more so, when we stand and ride. You can sit if you want, but you'll end up hurting your back. The shock travels straight to the spine and will compress it if you are sitting. So, we stand most of the time to minimise the impact. Of course, we can't hold that position for too long, so we stand when it is absolutely necessary and sit when it is not. Everything is about being energy efficient on the bike and being able to do what we need to.
When we do jumps, we compress and absorb the impact with our legs. When we have to hit something, we embrace using our back and shoulders to pull the motorcycle. When we jump something and it is a hard impact, we clench and we hold the bike. All of this takes a lot of strength.
Why is it important to keep your elbows up and foot out, especially at the bends?
The elbows need to be up because if you keep them collapsed, you won't be able to engage the big muscles, such as the back and the chest. When you have your elbows up and out, it gives you leverage over the motorcycle. The leg comes out to counter some weight. The bikes that we ride are quite tall and the centre of gravity is higher than a road bike, so we try and put some weight on the front wheel by having the leg out in front. Also, the weight allows the bike to turn. In case the front wheel washes or loses traction, you can dab your leg and keep the bike up to avoid crashing.
When you stand and ride, you look to maintain a certain 'L' shape with the body. Why do you do that?
We do that because it is the position of strength. It is a position that the body gets into when you do a deadlift. The bikes are quite heavy and you need to be really strong to maneuver them. What this position does is that it helps engage big muscles and generate more power. The load is borne by the back and legs, which helps us control the bike. That's the reason we look to get in that L-shaped forward deadlift position.
How does your approach and body balance change during ascent and descent?
Weight transfer is the most important thing during climbing up or down. You need to move your weight at the back when descending because you do not want to make your front wheel wash. When you are going down a hill, you try to make yourself as small as possible. By going back, you are adding weight at the back wheel and it sort of frees the front wheel.
When you are climbing, you need to move your weight at the front because if you lean back, you would generate so much traction that you would make a wheelie and would loop.
Then, there's the factor of inertia, particularly on sharp bends. How do you use your body to counter that?
You have to use your whole body to counter inertia. Nothing happens independently. You are like a ballet dancer on a motorcycle. You pretty much have to be a good dancer to be able to ride a motorcycle well. There are a lot of small, intricate movements that happen on a bike, and the emphasis is on your entire body to generate change in direction, or to generate traction, or to go in a certain direction.
With time, your body and mind develop an understanding of these things. It is like watching a movie. No matter how interesting a movie is, after watching it for some time, you pretty much get an idea how the plot will play out. You develop that understanding in every sport. After a while, you know that there are certain variables that you get to play with, and there are certain expectations in that script. So, with time and experience, those things do not surprise you as much.
Not many people always realise that motorcycle racing is physically a very demanding sport. How does your body feel at the end of a race, and how is your training schedule like?
You're right. Riding for two weeks in the sun and the desert without proper food is not easy. The body goes through a lot. We end up losing a lot of fluids each day, and by the end of two weeks, we lose some weight too. It is normal in all endurance sports, and motorbiking is no different.
I train as any other athlete would train. I spend a few days of the week on road cycle. I do close to 80-90 kilometres on a road bike every time I am out. I lift weights in the gym and do a lot of high-intensity cross-training. I do a fair bit of running too; I run close to 10 kilometres when I am peaking for a rally like Dakar. I spend many, many days and weeks in the desert, riding in dunes and trying to get better. I spend 7000-8000 kilometres of training on a rally bike, so it is a very demanding and expansive training regime. All of this helps me build endurance which is at the core of this sport.
In terms of diet, I consume good amounts of protein for training, but usually, not too worried about carbs intake. We need to have a little bit of fat to survive 14 days of rallying. The body uses that little extra fat to see us through on the days we do not get enough or quality nutrition, so we do not have extremely lean bodies. We eat well and eat clean; no junk foods and simple sugars.
On race days, we have a lot of carbs and proteins, but the idea is to have a balanced diet and not get too hung up with one particular nutrient. Hydration is another important part of our diet. We finish the three-litre camelback during the stage, after that, we have a fair bit of water.
Weight-wise, again, I am not too conscious. I am a naturally lean person so I try to stay on the heavier side a bit.
Anything you want to tell the youngsters?
You must find something that allows you to express yourself. Do not be focussed on the end result or what you may achieve. Enjoy the process that your goals require. If I can do it, so can you.
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