This guest post was kindly contributed by Ned Suesse.
Although it is “only” a sporting event, one of the things I love about the Dakar rally is that it forces me to think about the big questions- risk and reward, challenge and meaning, determination and sacrifice. Always there is death, but also, an ultimate expression of life.
With the factory stars of the sport, one assumes that at least part of their motivation is financial, but even after finishing 9th last year, Skyler Howes is paying his own way. Why would he spend every penny he has, and some he doesn’t, to risk his life? I can’t answer that question for him, but I can tell you what I believe. The purpose of life is to dream and dare, and doing so carries risk and even greater reward. That is what Dakar is about, distilled into a 2 week odyssey of highs and lows.
What follows is an interview with Skyler that touches on his history, stories from the two Dakars he has competed in already, and how he is looking forward to this year’s event starting on January 3.
Let’s start at the beginning- What was your first motorcycle? What are your first memories of riding? How about your first race?
Well, the VERY beginning… When I was 2 ½, as soon as I could ride a bicycle without training wheels, my dad put me on a 1974 XR75. I couldn’t touch the pegs, or the brakes, and couldn’t work a clutch. So my dad would start me out, step off the back and I would ride around and when I wanted to stop I would ride by and yell at him and he would run next to me to grab the clutch and brakes. I have faint memories of riding around the desert behind the house singing the Paul Bunion theme song. Then, that next Christmas I remember waking up to a brand (new to me) LEM 50 that had green plastics. My dad has been a Kawi guy so I wanted to have a bike just like his. I learned to ride that and work the brakes for myself, which is a great skill to have.
I grew up trail riding, honestly I can’t remember if my first race was the local “Rhino Rally” desert race or just a local MX race, either way, things started off slow and we never took racing seriously. Early on, I learned my lesson that racing was there to be fun. I got my taste of winning when I was about 5 years old. When I didn’t win a few races I came in throwing a fit and my dad put the bike in the back of the truck and told me we were going home to sell it, That set me straight. Didn’t matter what place I got, all that mattered was racing fair and having fun.
Let’s fast forward a few years and talk about some of the people who made a difference to you. Chris Blais and Kurt Caselli- how did they influence you and what did they mean to you?
Chris Blais is the guy who gave me a chance. I was just a punk kid on a clapped YZ250 two stroke with tires that I dug out of the dumpster at the local shop (yes, really!) and duct tape numbers, but I was the #1 two stroke rider, winning the 250 class and finishing consistently inside the top 10, even getting a 5th overall once. Chris brought me on his team, put me on a properly built KTM 300XC and gave me the tools and advice to improve. With his help, I was able to get on the overall podium at National Hare and Hound races. Blais Racing did so much to help me get to the position I am in today, they have opened so many doors for me, I will be forever grateful.
Chris was always telling his insane stories from the true African Paris-Dakar and it got me fired up, but I never really thought it would be possible for me. However, his association with KTM meant I got to meet Kurt Caselli. And, like the punk kid I was, I managed to rip holeshots at a National Hare and Hound on a 2 stroke and battle with Kurt. It was short lived, I would usually get tired and/or crash and he would go on to win. But every race, he would sit me down and talk to me about what I could do better.
After I broke my back, Kurt spent time with me and my conversations with him are burned in my memory forever. Kurt taught me a lot and not a day goes by that I don’t apply what he taught me to how I live. When Kurt started racing rallies, I realized that I could get there- rallies aren’t just stories from others or something I would see on TV. I know Kurt, and I have raced against him, and know he’s doing it. This is something that’s actually possible! When he passed it was even more motivation to go over and try to keep his spirit and keep USA on the map in rallies.
Talk about your first Dakar- stories to share? What lessons did you learn?
My first Dakar in 2019 in Peru was a gnarly experience. I arrived with the flu, I had never used the ERTF system and was completely lost with it. My navigation skills were not great and I had this mentality that if I finished outside the top ten that I would never be able to go back. That ate me up mentally, I was weak from the flu, and I was over my head with inexperience.
On day 3, a kid on a scooter turned in front of me on a liaison and in order to avoid hitting him, I crashed which resulted in a separated shoulder. I was able to pop it back in and continue to race. In fact, I was lucky enough to get a top 10 stage finish one day, riding with that injured shoulder. That day I was only 2 minutes off of winning the stage, and to top it off, my roadbook tape failed and unraveled my roadbook! I had no navigation so I followed Sam Sunderland to the finish that day. It was an amazing experience. The high was short lived, the next day I went down in the dunes and the shoulder came back out and refused to go back in, so on day 6 my Peru Dakar was over.
My biggest lesson learned there was to keep my mentality in check. In a race this long, many things can and will go wrong. If you allow it in your head you will burn yourself out mentally. I believe if I just relax, ride my own ride, and accept my results I will enjoy my time so much more. I have to remember my dad’s old lesson, just keep having fun.
Let’s talk about last year- you had an accident before the race. Tell us about that?
In early September I was racing the Serres rally in Greece for training, and hit a big rain rut that was hidden around a corner. I went down and broke my C6 vertebrae. I was told the injury was stable, but after I flew home, I got a second opinion and I had no choice but to do surgery. The doctor installed a plate and 6 screws to fuse my C5, C6, and C7 vertebrae together. Obviously, spine injuries are scary and recovery cannot be rushed- I had 15 weeks before Dakar and needed 12 of them to get the spine stable again. I did the best I could with three weeks of training and one week of riding before I hopped on a plane and flew to Saudi Arabia.
If anything, it made my mentality better for the race, because I knew my fitness was down, so I took pressure off myself. I told myself to ride clean and finish every mile, every day. I couldn’t push, I told myself that whatever result came, I would be happy with it. Obviously when the helmet goes on, I want to win, but when adversity strikes, having a level head kept me thinking clearly and not rushing anything.
What was it like racing in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia was amazing. Garrett Poucher made it possible to return to Dakar which I am so grateful for. The terrain in Saudi Arabia is super similar to my home in Saint George, UT so I felt very comfortable. Some things are different though- one stage, I was racing inside a pack of camels going down a wash with an Italian racer next to me. A camel almost took him out, but at the last minute, the camel swerved in front of me and tucked a front leg. I watched a camel go “over the bars” doing about 30mph- it was insane. At one point, I was up to 7th overall, but the issues I had with my bike pushed me back to 9th. At the end of the day, that’s pretty darn good.
Talk about the lead pace. You managed a top 10 overall finish with only one top 10 stage finish, so consistency matters. What did you learn from running with the pro pack?
These guys are going really fast, and honestly, you need to surround yourself with fast riders to keep the pace. If you fall outside of the top 20, it is really hard to climb back into the top 10. Getting stuck in the dust and around slower riders can hurt your results. This last year in Saudi, top speed mattered a lot, and I was at a 20mph disadvantage on the flats, which hurt my results. (Note: In 2020, Skyler rode a stock customer KTM bike, which is at least 30 kph down on the factory bikes).
My best days were the technical navigation and sandwash, rocky stages. I feel comfortable riding at the front of the pack, the speed is within my capability, it’s all about minimizing the mistakes. With that said, any mechanical or navigation problems can take you out of it immediately. My goal is to ride every mile, every day. If I can do that, the result will come. Pushing it beyond my level any moment could end my race.
I know you had several bike issues in 2020. From the outside, it sounded like they resulted from over-riding a stock bike. What was the story with the swingarm pivot?
My swing arm pivot bolt broke twice and that made for some super long days. What we learned was there was too much tolerance between the swing arm, motor, and frame. So when you torqued the pivot bolt, it put a ton of tension on it. My suspension was 100% stock, and way too soft (note: Skyler is a big boy, and he’s fast- both factors mean he needs stiffer suspension). So after a week of riding, and sending it off big dunes resulting in some hard bottoming, the bolt sheared off at the end. I rode it in, we switched it out, but riding it without an end ruined the frame and created more problems, so I only made it 1 ½ stages before the 2nd swingarm bolt broke, this time shearing both sides off, breaking the motor mounts in the process. That caused a big crash.
KTM came to my aid and got me a new swing arm, pivot bolt, shims, motor mounts and every other part that broke, getting my bike race ready to finish the last stage. I could have been frustrated, but instead, I embraced that I was racing my dirt bike through Saudi Arabia and just kept trucking the best I could.
Let’s look into at the race ahead. You have a new team, a new bike, and a new race. What are you doing differently? What is your mindset about the race before it starts?
I joined forces with the BAS Dakar KTM racing team this year. They are the satellite KTM factory team. I chose them because, even though I’m proud of it, I don’t want to return and get another 9th, I want to do better. (note: despite finishing in the top 10, Skyler is paying for support in 2021).
BAS has the parts and expertise to build me a bike nearly as good as the factory models. They will build suspension for my weight and size, and have a team of mechanics ready to keep my bike ready to go. I am confident that being able to ride my normal race pace can improve my finish over last year.
I want to go in with the same mindset, after all, I am paying my own way. I don’t have a factory sponsorship covering everything so I need to just ride every mile, every day, as best as I can. With the right team and bike and preparation behind me I believe I can improve from 9th. I have been working so hard at fundraising that my training and fitness still isn’t 100% but I am in much better shape than I was last year.
Ned’s note: Now for my perspective as someone that ADV helped get to Dakar way back in 2012. This isn’t something you do for fun. This isn’t a vacation. When you let the clutch out at the start of the first stage, you are scared that you might never come back, but you feel compelled to try anyway, because the question is more important than anything else. Dakar is an ultimate challenge, an ultimate adventure, and Skyler is going whether we help or not.
Together, we can take some of the burden off Skyler’s back, and show him that we believe in his vision. I am as skeptical as anyone of people who ask for money, but Skyler isn’t asking, I am, so blame me. I know where he is and I want him to succeed. I donated before the gofundme was set up, but now that is the easiest way to assist.
Click here to donate.
Dakar made some rule changes for 2021. They are controversial, most of the racers I have spoken with like some and detest others. What are your thoughts?
I agree- some are good, some are bad. Giving out the roadbooks at the beginning of the stage is good- it will keep everyone on a level playing field when it comes to navigation. In the past, the factory teams had mapmen that gave them more and better information than the rest of us had. I’m also looking forward to tighter, slower courses, with more difficult navigation. I’m glad you can’t switch tires out on a stage, and I’m glad that there are no water boys (note: Water boys is what factory support riders were called, they would participate just to be able to provide assistance on course if something went wrong).
As for the tire rule, I think it is terrible. I understand what they are trying to do but I think they are making the race more dangerous. The idea that we will slow down to save our tires is ridiculous, what will happen is that we’ll ride just as fast on worn out tires, and possibly on the rim. That isn’t safer.
Another rule I don’t like is that we are not allowed to work on our bike during refueling and neutralized sections. I was as frustrated as anyone seeing factory bikes get a full service where the rest of us didn’t get any help, but at the same time, I came into a couple of gas checks with parts barely hanging on and I was able to fix my bike there.
Let’s switch away from Dakar. Talk to me about your experiences in our desert racing series- Best in the Desert and SCORE:
BITD is my favorite kind of racing. Fast, flowy dirt roads, trails and washes, with long distances and high speeds. I have been fortunate enough to grab a handful of Overall Pro wins. However, there is one win that stands out over every other result. 2019 Vegas To Reno, 1st Overall motorcycle, riding solo. Only the 2nd person in history to do it straight through, following the legend Quinn Cody.
SCORE is a different story. Don’t get me wrong, I love racing through Baja. However, the amount of pre running by truck teams has destroyed the courses. Now, to have a chance of finishing well, you need to dedicate weeks to pre run the sections and find the smoothest lines. If you ride the main race line the entire race, you’re going to lose, and probably get hurt in the process. On a bike the course is so torn up from all the trophy truck pre runners that it is a battle to just get through the course. I’ve never won a SCORE race, but I’ve had some good results down there, a handful of podiums, even an overall championship podium coming in 3rd. Like everyone, I would love to win the 1000, but Dakar is my main focus.
What advice do you have for someone who is interested in racing rallies?
Take the advice from the people who have been there. Patience is key- you need more of it than you have ever thought possible. A hot head can ruin your race- if you rush things thinking you’re losing time, you will make more mistakes. Think clearly and just work as fast as you can. Ride as many roadbooks as you can find for practice, from every different person. It will teach you so many different ways to read and navigate. Do your best preparation, race smart and fair, and embrace your result, because you can’t fake it in rally.
What percentage of Dakar is hard work and what percentage is luck?
I would say Dakar is 80% work and 20% luck, before you get to the starting line. As a privateer the work finding the funding and getting the budget together is exhausting. When the race starts, I feel like a huge weight is lifted off my shoulders because all I have to do is ride. On the other hand, riding 500 miles a day brings luck back into the equation- however well you prepare, however patient you are, the dice will get rolled a lot of times over 12 stages.
Who do you want to thank?
Garrett Poucher got me started with this whole rally thing, I could not be here without his help. Bart van der Velden at BAS KTM is working night and day to get me dialed in for this year’s race. I’ve sold everything I own to make this happen, but even now, people have been coming forward to help by donating, buying T-shirts, coming to my raffle and trail ride, or even just message me their support. It is amazing and helps me believe in what I can do. Thank you to everyone!
About the author:
Ned Suesse is a rally tragic, who counts the rest of the year down in days until Dakar. He competed in the race back in 2012 with help from advrider inmates and his midpack finish gives him perspective on how amazing the athletes up front are. When he isn’t dreaming about rally, he runs DoubletakeMirror.com in Salida CO.