To Dakar and Back

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Hacking’s account of the 2001 Dakar

There are very few sporting events that capture the imagination or arouse a person’s sense of adventure the way the Dakar Rally can. Set against the backdrop of the Sahara desert, it is a stage on which the human condition is played out for two weeks every year.

The Dakar’s mysterious allure is regarded by many as an allegory to life, the bittersweet struggle between survival and victory. With all the ingredients for a compelling narrative, why then is the Dakar so underrepresented in the world of literature?

Six years after becoming the first Canadian motorcyclist to complete the Dakar, Lawrence Hacking is helping to right the imbalance with his new book To Dakar and Back: 21 Days Across North Africa by Motorcycle.

Chronicling his exploits in the 2001 Dakar, the book was co-written with Wil De Clercq, who Hacking credits with having turned his rally notes into words that "accurately conveyed the message".

THE MESSAGE

After reading To Dakar and Back it’s clear that message is about the courage and determination required, not only to face the Dakar, but to finish the rally on the fabled shores of Lac Rose.

Although I already knew how the race turned out for Hacking, the book is full of surprising twists and turns that illustrate how unpredictable the journey to Dakar can be. Interspersed in the tale are accounts of strange encounters in strange places, from tourist caravans in the middle of the desert, to threats of terrorism against the rally.

The rule seemed to be: expect the unexpected. "In a Mali village I spotted a young boy wearing a pale blue t-shirt with the name and logo of a bicycle shop in Burlington, Ontario on it. I had to do a double take to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. It was just too weird. To me this was further evidence of just how small our world has become."

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"Did that t-shirt say what I thought it did?". Checking out T-Shirt designs in Mali 2001.

The layout of To Dakar and Back is both logical and methodical. The background and history of the Rally presented in the first chapter is a good primer for those not familiar with the rally, and nicely sets up the book for those with prior Dakar knowledge.
 
In Chapter 2 Hacking reveals his personal and motorcycle history, explaining where the resolve and fierce determination he needed to face the Dakar challenge came from.

Great achievements such as finishing the Dakar are not the result of solitary efforts however. They owe thanks to the accumulated experience and knowledge of those who previously risked taking the challenge. To that end I took a great interest in Chapter 3, where the preparation work for the rally is discussed.

Hacking used a very analytical approach to his planning, and methodically addressed the mechanical, physical and psychological demands of the race. He also conducted extensive research into why the drop-out rate for the Dakar was so high.

His conclusion? Failure to complete the rally was most often a result of: 1. Running out of fuel, 2. Riding errors/crashing, 3. A lack of fortitude, and 4. Mechanical failure.

Despite entering the race equipped with that knowledge, Hacking would face and have to overcome almost every one of those dangers. His meticulously prepared Honda alone would suffer broken wheels, a burst rad pipe, cracked exhausts, fuel delivery problems and a failed stator before the end could be reached. Any one of those failures could and nearly did mean the end of his race.

Hacking’s final word on preparation: prepare a will.

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You’re on your lonesome out there … prepare a will.

The remainder of the book is a straightforward, blow-by-blow account of the actual 2001 Dakar. It doesn’t spend much time ruminating about the significance of the Dakar as an allegory, nor does it delve very deeply into any philosophical musings; when the narrative does extend beyond the boundaries of race coverage, it’s kept relatively brief.

That’s not to say that the writing comes off as a cold recital of facts, it’s just that I would have liked to read more about the psychological demands placed on a Dakar rider.

Hacking must have kept very detailed notes during the race because I found the amount of recounted detail to be very surprising. For those less enamoured by the particulars, there’s enough drama to keep the pages turning.

"I was passed by one of the Ford Pro trucks. He came so close it startled the living daylights out of me. I instinctively veered off the track and was immediately blinded by the wall of dust stirred up as the truck sped by me at breakneck speed. With rocks strewn about like confetti on both sides of the track I was now in very hazardous territory. The thought had barely surfaced when I felt myself clipping the side of a hard object. It was a dreaded rock, of course, and it washed out my front wheel, causing me to crash into the rough terrain. Somewhere in the distance I heard the aggressive sound of a high-performance engine barrelling down on me."

Even with the drama, those expecting moto based prose in the vein of Ted Simon or Robert Pirsig will be left wanting. At times the writing in To Dakar and Back becomes stilted and lacks consistency. Descriptions used to describe daily events can range between lyrical nostalgia and an impassive stream of data. 

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A rich man’s sport. Either that or you know someone rich.

While not explored in great detail, to his credit Hacking does touch upon a few of the criticisms aimed at the rally. The most obvious perhaps is the dichotomy of Dakar – a rich man’s sport held against the backdrop of the world’s poorest nations. 

"Seeing kids run fearlessly out into the street, begging, shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it was unsettling nonetheless. Here I was riding a motorcycle through their town – for no practical purpose – spending more money than they would accumulate over their lifetimes."

Another  Dakar criticism is that over the years it has been slowly ebbing from the spirit in which it was created. The Dakar is becoming more vested in big money and professional teams. For the amateur entrant, that can translate into a financial black hole. The lucky few that have their applications to race accepted can find themselves spending upwards of $100,000 for the privilege.

When Hacking faced elimination in Stage 13 because of a last minute rule change, he understandably became enraged. "What really got my goat was that it seemed like TSO just wanted to cut a bunch of privateers because there were still too many in the event. It meant more expense for the organisers the longer we stayed in the race. It was another typical Western bottom-line business scenario: it’s always about the money."

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Lawrence Hacking

Despite those flaws, the Dakar is obviously very addictive and Hacking
recently announced his intention to compete in the Dakar again in 2009,
and in preparation he will be following the 2008 edition as an
observer, in a rental car of all things. I’m not sure what Avis will
make of his request for off-road tires and extra road-side assistance,
but you can bet it will likely need a little maintenance by the end of
his trip.

A MUST READ?

As far as recommendations go, To Dakar and Back is a must read for those impassioned by the rally. It provides the perpetual dreamer of adventure a first hand idea of what it takes to turn an embryonic vision of racing the Dakar into the reality of finding their boots in the sand of Lac Rose.

Although off-road riders and racing enthusiasts might also find the book of interest, I would caution those just looking for a casual read, as the writing in this book can fall a little short.

To Dakar and Back is being published by ECW Press, the same people behind Neil Peart’s "Ghost Rider" amongst other motorcycle related books. It’s due for release in February 2008 and retails for C$17.95; for more information, including a list of sellers, visit www.ecwpress.com

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