Winning the Dakar: Marc Coma on Motorcycling 3,100 Miles Across South America
Photograph by Marcelo Maragni, Red Bull Content Pool
We usually don’t pay much attention to motor races, but the Dakar is not just any race. Originally known as the Dakar Rally and tracing a wilderness path from Paris to Senegal, it has long been known as one of the grandest, and most dangerous motor races on Earth. Despite its name, it now takes place in South America, where it moved in 2009 due to terrorism threats. This year’s route took racers in cars, trucks, dune buggies, and motorcycles through Argentinian grasslands, Andean mountain passes, and the driest place on the planet, the Atacama. No one is as exposed to the elements as much as the motorcyclists—the category that has historically incurred the most fatalities—but it’s all in a day’s work for this year’s winner, Marc Coma. Coma is a 34-year-old Spaniard from the town of Aviá, near Barcelona. This year marks his third Dakar win. Adventure tracked him down after the race to see what it’s like riding over 3,102 miles (5,000 kilometers) of wilderness on nothing but a bike and prayer.—Tetsuhiko Endo
Adventure: Being a professional motorcyclist is a childhood dream of many—like being a fireman or a rock star. Have you always wanted to do this?
Marc Coma: My relationship with bikes started almost from birth. It's all about passion. I’m very lucky to be able to do what I love the most in this life. I’ve ridden bikes since I was so young, and as the years passed I just got more and more involved. The progression was so natural. I always have fun when I start the engine, it’s as simple as that.
Rally racing seems like a completely different beast to other types of motorcycle racing. Can you tell us a little bit about your training?
Different styles of racing differ in many aspects including riding position and feelings. In rally racing, you have to follow a program that helps you to face the events in a good form—physically and mentally. It's a hard discipline and the most important thing is going into the races with a strong mind.
How does the Dakar compare to other long rally races?
The Dakar is one of the most cerebral races in the world and the difficulty of the environment you race through makes it difficult to compare with other competitions.
In 1981, Michel Merel said: "The piste is like the ocean; it is wrong not to fear it." As for me, the piste makes me scared; you don't mess around with it. You can't be an artist.
What’s your opinion of the Dakar’s route?
It’s really difficult. The TV cannot show the difficulty of the race. Imagine yourself in the middle of nowhere, going to a point you’ve never been to and don’t know its exact location—all at full speed over a surface that hides all its secrets until you hit them! Consistency has to be one of your main goals.
What was the most difficult stage this year?
Each day is an unique adventure. This year was one of the most difficult races I’ve competed in. You’ve got to understand that in one day you experience riding a bike over 4,500 meters above the sea. Then, one hour later, you are on the same bike but just 1,000 meters above the sea! Physically speaking, that kind of change in climate and terrain makes it incredibly tough to keep going. Technically, you can imagine…
It seems like training your mind to deal with stress is a large part of the preparation for the race. Can you talk about how you mentally prepare yourself?
That’s a good point! Sincerely…half of your Dakar lies on your head. If you know where you are going, you will succeed. Which, now that I mention it, is a general rule in all of life. So the Dakar is a bit like life in that sense.
What role does fear play for you when you race?
If you’re afraid, you had better stay at home.
Is it true that you sleep in tents during the race? How does that affect your performance?
It’s part of the game. When you are used to it, now matter how uncomfortable it is, you just keep going.
How do you spend your rest days during the race?
I spend them working with my team. The day off is the best day to work as much as you can. After all, we are not talking about a vacation, we are talking about Dakar.
What’s your racing diet like?
You got to get lots of hydration and a complete diet. One of the main goals which helps you to win a Dakar is how you face it physically speaking. If you are physically strong enough, you could face it easier than anyone else.
What motivates you to keep competing after all these years?
My passion for the bikes.
Most people will never experience the feeling of freedom coupled with isolation of flying through the Atacama desert on the thousandth kilometer of a race that puts them so far from friends, family, team, and civilization in general. Can you describe that feeling?
It’s very difficult. Could you describe to me a Dalí painting? It’s very personal. I also can’t think too much when I am competing, I am just competing.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
What’s the best part of your job?
Every moment of my career. I love what I do. It’s a part of me. So I love every aspect of it even though it can be tough at times.
What’s the worst part?
When you can not take part of it.
What do you always pack in your suitcase when you travel?
What’s your training regimen like?
It changes some depending on my next race, but in general, I’m always working on the endurance, flexibility, and the muscular side.
For me, driving 5,000 kilometers in a comfortable car is difficult, what does it feel like on a motorcyle with no roads?
Not one of your muscles is spared from pain.