The mood at the Arequipa bivouac yesterday had shifted. Half of the Dakar rally is now over; riders are feeling stronger and more focused. They’re also exhausted, many pushing on despite injuries and fractured bones. The game is palpably changing.

Rookies and vets alike, riders were busy working on their motorcycles all day long, either on their own or with their mechanical teams. The bivouac was swarming with press teams, tourists, and visitors, and riders had to show up for interviews and live broadcasts, autographs and Q&A’s, and pose for photos. I wondered how they manage it all – most were all smiles, jokes, and thumbs up when reporters and bivouac visitors asked for their time. More astonishingly, whenever I asked how they were, they all said, “and how are you? How are you doing? How are you holding up?”, – and actually waited for an answer. Maybe it’s the adrenaline high that gives them extra energy. Or perhaps, for them, seeing all the fans and supporters is bit of a morale boost. Maybe it’s both. I’m grateful that they’re so generous with their time.

At the same time, the tension mounts: as the finish line approaches, there is more and more pressure to get to that podium in Lima.

Wandering through the bivouac chatting to riders and support teams, I felt that the theme of the day was: hopeful. Hoping the bike will hold. Hoping the body and the mind will hold.

“It’s the mind that’s the most important, really. It’s the mind that can end the Dakar for you”, – Balys Bardauskas, a malle moto rider, said to me.

One third of the malle moto riders are now out. Sitting around the bivouac, some of them seemed to have lost all purpose. “My wife just flew in and I guess we’ll go see the Nazca lines and other sights… But frankly, I didn’t come to Peru as a tourist. I came here to race, and now that my engine blew, it’s over. I don’t know what to do now… I have to process it all. Will I compete in the Dakar next year? I don’t know. Everything is kind of up in the air”, – one of the riders who had to withdraw during stage 4 told me.

“I’m… really sad. Just sad, you know? On the other hand, I can now help Javier a lot. So that’s a good thing”, – Sara Garcia whose boyfriend Javier Vega is still competing said to me.

“It sucks seeing friends experience injuries or bike trouble and withdraw. A good friend of mine had to stop because he had a bad fall and his shoulder is done. It’s really tough to see them like that. At the same time, it’s a reminder that this is the Dakar. Anything can happen at any point. You may be doing great, making great time, feeling good – and you still may not show up at the start line the next morning”, – Arunas Gelazninkas, a Dakar rookie, said yesterday.

Despite the mounting pressure and the ever more difficult stages, riders are pushing on – and some are gaining edge. Edwin Straver looked great today working on his bike in the malle moto camp. “I don’t go for speed, but I’m very fit and I just keep pushing on. I actually feel great, although today’s stage was very tough. We had some seriously high, treacherous dunes. But I just keep on going”, Edwin said.

This morning, I got up before 4am to ride alongside the motorcycles and quads to the start line in Tanaka. As the riders poured out of the Camana bivouac, they seemed in good spirits – me and other ADV riders chasing the rally still got waves and thumbs up, even though the ride was long and for most of the morning, foggy and cold.

At the bivouac today, as riders were coming in, the mood changed again. It feels that it’s all about preservation now. Looking after your bike best you can, looking after yourself, holding it all together for yet another early (5AM) start in the morning.

I’m feeling more and more scattered. The lack of sleep and the crazy distances are taking a toll. I realize it’s small and ridiculous compared to what the riders are going through, but tonight, instead of staying at the bivouac till late, I’m going to finish early and get a few solid hours of sleep so I could ride to the start line again and cheer them on.

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Four more brutal stages. Four more days of the hell and heaven that is the Dakar.

 

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