A man with a plan, Mark Davidson...

Ed: Hi Mark… been taking it easy on your day off?

MD: I’ve had two days off, what are you talking about? (laughs…)

Ed: It’s nice to see you’re still over there and living it up in spite of being out of the race, and I like the picture of you holding up the Panadeine Forte! How are you feeling with all your battered bits and pieces?

MD: I’m actually pretty happy. I did my best. I was 101st in the field and doing better than I thought I would. But I never, ever thought that I’d suffer so much with altitude sickness. It just wrecked me completely. It took me nine hours to ride the 500km transport, and two hours of that was way up the top. I could only ride at about 50 kph and I needed three stops for oxygen, one of those being in the hospital. I passed out twice and vomited in my helmet… it really knocked me around.

It took me so long to get over the mountains that I was late for the start of the special stage. I was due to start at 12.37 pm, but in reality I didn’t get there until 4.15 pm. By that stage all the bikes and all the cars had left. The bloke at the control point wasn’t going to let me start because he said I was the last bike… but then another bike did turn up. We argued about it, and he spent some time on the radio with someone else speaking french – I didn’t understand what they discussed. At the end of it he came over and said, “very well, you may start in 20 minutes, five minutes before the trucks”. I told him I didn’t want to wait and his response was essentially that I had that one option, or I was finished for the Dakar.

Faced with no other choice I started five minutes before the big Red Bull monster trucks and the all others. It was a fairly windy day. I lasted 120km, and cleared off the track when they pushed the sentinel button to tell me they were going to pass – except not all of them used it. I moved off the track for one truck thinking I was up-wind, but I’d picked the wrong side. The truck passed and I was swallowed in a cloud of dust. Before I could stop I hit a rock and that was it. I went over the handlebars in third gear and wrecked all the navigation gear.

I managed to get up but I hurt and had no strength. I had a fair idea what I had done, but managed to ride the rest of the stage and entered the bivouac at about 8.00 pm. I went straight to the medical tent and an x-ray confirmed that I had broken ribs. Glenn asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I wanted to battle on. I went off to tidy myself up and then he came over to me with the bike and tipped it on its side. He wanted me to pick it up, but I told him I didn’t think I could because I struggled earlier in the day and the pain was worse now. Glenn said, “well you’re going to need to do that five or six times tomorrow and every day for the next ten days… what do you think?”. We arrived at the inevitable conclusion…

Mark's damaged bike being loaded back into the mothership.

I guess the thing that most disappoints me is that I had no idea that the altitude was going to be such a problem. There really wasn’t anything in the disclosure material for Dakar covering how serious it was. It effected many, many people and I think the older you are, the worse it is.

Ed: It’s a cruel irony to have your Dakar effectively ended by a transport stage rather than running out of puff in the desert.

MD: Oh, look… I made mistakes, sure. Yes, I crashed in the stage, but I did also finish the stage. Would I have crashed otherwise if I was the 101st bike in? Probably I would have been fine, but that’s the event mate! There are all sorts of obstacles that you never think about. Would it have been something else a day later? I can’t say!

Ed: When we spoke just before you left Australia, you said you thought you were as prepared as one could be. Is there anything you would have done differently?

MD: Two things. I knew that we’d be well over 4,000m altitude, but I didn’t appreciate that we’d be there or above for 200km, for two or three hours. I’d never experienced 4,800m before, so I should have considered that more. Subsequently, I asked one of the medicos what other people do. I was surprised to learn that many riders bring their own oxygen – like the small tanks that elderly people carry. I was surprised, but I now know it’s essential. Am I disappointed? Sure… But I remember that I was running middle of the field for five days and I am very happy about that. I gave it my best shot, you know?

Ed: I was pleased to see that in the early stages you were improving on your start position, not just plodding along.

MD: I was happy with my performance. I’d like to be out there still plodding along, but I’m here.

Ed: You’re staying on with the guys for the duration of the event?

MD: Well, there are only Jake and myself left and he’s the only “runner”. I’m staying on to be Jacob’s “dog’s body”. One of the things that outsiders definitely won’t appreciate here is that the bivouac is so big that it’s hard to find things. You need someone at the front gate to show you where the camp is – it’s different every day and you can easily spent 20 minutes looking for it. Then you need to get your GPS code. Then you need your road book. Then you need to get your start time. Those things aren’t available until 10.00 or 11.00 at night when you want to be in bed if you’re racing. It can take two hours to get these sorted at night when you should be asleep. So I’m going to hang out and try to make things as easy for him as I can.

Ed: So are you considering it homework for next year?

MD: Every day is still a learning experience even though I’m not riding. I’m taking the time to talk to other riders, other mechanics and I am picking up as much as I can. I am sucking the brains out of the GPS guys. It’s an event you really need to learn the ropes for. Jacob is running around 34th in the field (he was on the day) and could easily run in the top ten save for his series of problems. Whether or not they are all his fault is irrelevant, because with more experience many would not have happened.

Ed: That’s the picture I get from everyone in the team. The other thing that everyone has noticed is just how generous the whole Dakar caravan of competitors seem to be with their time.

MD: I was expecting people to have that attitude because I had experienced it before. It’s not the case here at all. There’s no “closed book”, and if they can help you they will. I’m sure that if you were here by yourself, you’d not go without help. We’ve found out some interesting things though. I think that guy making me start just five minutes in front of the trucks is almost criminal. Have you seen those things? I kid you not, they are passing at 180 kph. The are just horrible things to be near and not even Jake could get away from them. It was an irresponsible, bloody-minded, spiteful decision. I guess I made him look silly in front of his colleagues when, having told me I was the last bike, the other one turned up! In Safari we have transport stages that are pretty relaxed. Here, you can’t muck around. You have to break every speed limit and nearly every road rule in the book. Only then would you maybe have ten minutes up your sleeve at the beginning of the special. Jake found that out the hard way when he stopped for fuel and a whizz and with one little wrong turn he got there 20 minutes late. That sort of thing can end a race. I picked up 15 speeding infringements on the first day because I didn’t understand the speed zones. They threw the rule book at me, but I’ve learned that other guys know what they can get away with. That comes with time and experience.

Ed: Sounds like fun, and even with all of that I can tell you’re still smiling.

MD: I’m having the time of my life! It’s an absolute ball! I’m not the dunce, so don’t think that at all. I signed up for Dakar, and I’m going to finish Dakar. Not as a rider, but I’ll finish as a rider’s assistant. I’ve got no regrets. The only drawback is these broken ribs. The bones are completely smashed and I can feel them grinding together.

Ed: No coughing, no sneezing and laughing isn’t much chop.

MD: I can tell you going to the toilet isn’t much fun!

Mark was given the round up by Glenn at this stage. It was 1.00 am and they had to be up around 4.30 am. Time really is short over there and I think everyone is grateful for Mark’s dedication to his new-found role. Everyone expected Day 7 to be big…