After watching Baldy interview Joey Evans, a South African rider who suffered a horrific crash and was paralyzed from chest down only to make an incredible recovery and finish both Rally Dakar and the Africa Eco Race, I knew I just had to talk to him myself. Joey doesn’t just have an amazing story of overcoming trauma and racing in the world’s toughest rally; he’s also got some unique and inspiring insights on motorcycling, racing, and life in general. So without further ado, here’s the second part of Joey’s interview where we talk about strategy and focus – for the Dakar and for life.
-Rally Dakar sounds like an insurmountable task for most, let alone when you’ve just suffered a life-changing crash. How did you come up with your Dakar strategy against all odds?
When I was still in that hospital bed, it felt absolutely impossible. I wanted to race the Dakar so badly, and I would fantasize about this miraculous recovery story and see myself at the Dakar start line, but in reality, it felt impossible. I couldn’t even walk.
But then, I did start recovering, little by little. I started walking again. I got back on a bike. Then, I finished my first race after the accident. Then another one, and another…. And all of a sudden, I had a CV that would qualify me for the Dakar. So it wasn’t this one big, swooping moment, it was a series of small steps, a series of small victories, and eventually, I found myself finishing the Dakar.
It’s the same when it comes to planning and coming up with a strategy for anything. If you’re looking at this one huge thing, like racing Rally Dakar, the first reaction is, there’s just no way, it’s impossible. But when you chop it all up into smaller chunks, it suddenly appears…doable. And then once you start working towards it, and achieve more and more, before you know it, you’re halfway there. It’s the same as if someone was looking at you thinking, “wow, I want to be this person who travels around the world on a motorbike, but I can’t even ride” – looking at it this way, it would indeed seem impossible. But if they started learning to ride, got their license, practiced more and more, within a year or two years, the dream suddenly wouldn’t seem so unattainable. So you’ve got to start the process, you’ve got to get to work, and you can achieve it because then it’s no longer an impossible dream, it’s an actionable plan.
-Once the strategy is in motion, it’s time to prep. What does preparation for the Dakar look like?
In terms of preparation, it’s time in the saddle. If you rock up to the Dakar start line as a nineteen-year-old motocross racer, you’ll be heading home real soon with some bad injuries, that’s just inevitable. You need to experience enduro riding, smaller rally races, adventure riding, you need to be comfortable working on your own bike. To race the Dakar, you need a very varied experience. In terms of skills, you need it all – off road, motocross, enduro, but you also need experience of handling different situations. As an example, if you’ve never ridden off-road at night, riding through the night, alone, in South America, can easily freak you out. You need to have gone through a lot of things before – rain, mud, darkness, failed brakes, flats, falls, fatigue, all of these experiences just accumulate over time, and it helps you a lot during the Dakar. You also do need that attitude that you’ll push through no matter what the Dakar throws at you. You need to build the character for it, not just your physical skills. When you’re physically exhausted, you haven’t eaten, you’re hurting all over and then they suddenly say, “oh, there’s been a change in the roadbook, we’re adding 350km”, and it’s already 9pm – any weakness you have will come up in those circumstances.
You need to keep that in mind and budget for the fact that your limits will be constantly pushed and challenged to beyond what you think is even possible.
A rally race is all about the long game, the endurance, and the prep is absolutely crucial. You can eliminate about 80% of the potential problems before you even hit that start line. Some riders arrive there on the wrong bike, without proper mechanical knowledge, without navigational skills, without learning all the symbols in the roadbook, so they immediately have 50% less chance to finish the Dakar than someone who is well prepared.
-How do you stay so focused and stick to your game plan?
The big thing is to honestly decide what are you there for. What’s your Dakar goal? To win it? To be in the top 50? To simply finish it?
What is your goal? You will be pushed into an array of different strategies once you’re out there racing, so you need to be very clear about your goal before you even begin to think about your strategy. My Dakar goal was to finish it, I didn’t care if I came in dead last. I wasn’t there to prove anything or race anybody, I was there for a finisher’s medal. And if your goal is to finish, you’ll be riding differently, you’ll need to rein yourself in. For example, if you’re riding along and somebody flies past you, and you’re like, man, I can take on this guy, and you start chasing after them, well, you’ve just halved your chances of finishing, because now you’re riding very differently and your chances of crashing increase. Toby Price or Sam Sunderland are there to win, so they’ll be riding a certain way; if your goal is to finish, don’t try to be Sam Sunderland. You will get sucked up into the race and a million other things, so don’t lose the focus. Again, it’s a mental game, and you need to be very focused. You can’t give in to your emotions, for example, when fans crowd around you asking for photos and you’re enjoying that, but stroking your ego has just cost you thirty minutes of sleep time. You’re there for that finisher’s medal, not photos with the fans.
Focus on what’s important. Don’t waste time; sleep is worth more than a selfie with Toby Price. Sometimes people ask me whether I enjoyed the Dakar, and I always say, no. Dakar is pure hell. You navigate, you ride, and you sleep, and that’s it. But once it’s over , you get to enjoy that finish for the rest of your life.
Lyndon Poskitt is pretty amazing at strategy; his whole thing is about being incredibly strict and disciplined. You finish a special, you get on your bike and hit that liaison, get that day done. Don’t stand around chatting to the other guys, don’t get caught up in the thrill, you need to be focused and get yourself over that finish line, and that’s all that matters.
You need to pace yourself, too. If you’re racing enduro, you’ll often see guys who just keep on going and going until they either come off or get stuck somewhere, and then they can barely breathe; they just sit there panting for a bit, get back on, and go again until they’re utterly exhausted again. That’s not the way to go. Focus on a spot, get there, then stop, shake your hands out, take a breather, and then find another spot.
During the AER, we had a tricky section where the sand was all soft and mangled by the cars and trucks, and our bikes were just sinking all the time, it was absolute carnage. And you’d see guys trying to get out, you could hear the engine wasn’t happy at all but the guy’s just angry, hot, exhausted, sweating and he’s just not thinking straight anymore. I didn’t want to get to that point, so I would pick a spot on the top of a dune, go for it, and then make myself stop, breathe, evaluate the next stretch, find another point I wanted to reach, and go again. And I made it, click by click, section by section; I was slow, but I finished the day, whereas eighteen riders had to leave the race in just that one section.
Take one dune at a time, do the bite-size strategy. I used that same strategy recovering from the accident. Back in that hospital, I couldn’t face the rest of my life being paralyzed. My legs had gone all skinny, I didn’t have bowel control anymore, I’d gone weak, I couldn’t do my job anymore, I was broke, and I was married with four kids. I just couldn’t face the enormity of it all. But I could face a two-hour physio session. And then lunch. And a whole day is gone, two days, couple of weeks, and then there’s a slight flicker in my toe. A year later, I’m walking. Another year later, I’m on a bike.
So this is a big part of the strategy – making yourself stop, rest, eat, think, put some sunscreen on, pace yourself. It’s about discipline, it just comes down to your game plan and how well you stick to it. If you don’t eat now, you’ll suffer at 4pm. If you don’t hydrate well now, you’ll be in a world of pain tomorrow. During a rally, you need to get yourself and your bike over that finish line. Both of those things require maintenance. And that is, again, experience: having done three, four, five-day races, I’m now doing a thirteen-day race, but I know exactly how much my butt will be hurting if I sit all the time, how much my knee braces are going to chafe, how much my goggles are going to rub, how bad my neck will hurt if I don’t put sunscreen on and burn it. So you need to take care of yourself and your bike, all the time, day in and day out until it’s done and until you’re over the finish line. You don’t go out of the race because you’re slow – unless you’re ridiculously slow, of course – you go out of the race because you crash, or because you destroy your bike, it’s that simple. So don’t overshoot corners from day one, and keep your bike in good shape. Sometimes, riders complain they had to withdraw because of a mechanical issue; but you see them coming in late and not changing their oil, not going over the bike, not working to maintain it – they just get back to the bivouac, eat, and go to sleep. And they do this for one day, then another, then another, and by day five, that bike breaks. Is it any wonder? If you want to come home with a noble excuse of why you didn’t finish a race, you can do that. But if you want to come home with a finisher’s medal, you need to stay disciplined when it comes to your body and your bike, otherwise you’ll pay the price. Set some rules for yourself, then stick to them.
During the Dakar, you cash in on your past experiences. As crazy as it sounds, I think I needed to break my back and go through the recovery and all these humbling experiences so I could cash in on all of that for my Dakar.
-We’ve been talking a lot about pain and suffering during this interview… What about the reward of having finished the Dakar? What was that like for you?
In my mind, finishing the Dakar was this massive mountain peak that I wanted to summit. I knew how gnarly, how tough, how dangerous and how crazy this rally was. Racing the Dakar was the thing that got me walking again, that got me into the gym at 5 am, it was everything to me. And when I finally got that finisher’s medal in Buenos Aires, it wasn’t about the medal itself – it’s just a piece of metal on a string – and it wasn’t about the crowds or the cheers. It was the total sum of all that I had to go through to get there, all the hours of riding alone out there in South America hacking away at the miles, all of it summed up in this one finisher’s medal.
For me, when I look back on this journey, my heart just swells, and that’s my reward. That’s also why I wrote the book, to just lay it all out there. That’s the story. And it was worth all of the pain, the suffering, the sacrifices – these memories are all you get in life, and I’m happy.