Dakar 2015: What to expect

The Dakar rally is probably the toughest thing you can do on two wheels.

It’s that time of year again. The Christmas crap is packed away, the New Year’s party decorations are in the trash, and the Dakar rally starts on Sunday morning.

This time around, the rally will visit three countries – Argentina, then Bolivia, then Chile, ending in Argentina once again. This year’s race has two marathon stages (7 and 10) and is 9,295 km long, with 4,752 km of timed specials.

The 2015 race is going to be particularly tough on competitors, as they’re not allowed outside help on those marathon stages, and there’s usually only one. The marathon stages often cull out many unlucky, unprepared or otherwise weaker riders, and a second marathon stage might really reduce the ranks later in the race.

Anything can happen at the Dakar rally – all it takes is one disaster at the wrong time and the favourite can be unseated. However, it seems Marc Coma will likely repeat last year’s winning performance for KTM.

Coma’s closest competitor for years was KTM teammate Cyril Despres, but Despres had some rotten luck when he moved to Yamaha last year (although he mounted an impressive comeback attempt). This year, Despres is not racing a bike; he’s driving a car for Peugeot.

With Despres out of the motorcycle race, Coma’s greatest competition will still likely come from his teammates. Chaleco Lopez, one of KTM’s top stars, has dropped out of the bike race to pilot a car in 2016, but Sam Sunderland, Ruben Faria and Jordi Villadoms are all riding for Team Orange.

Individually, none of them likely has the ability to beat Coma, but they’re all threats, and they can whittle down his points total to the point where one might beat him, or maybe someone from another team. Sunderland, in particular, is a rider to watch this year, as he performed well for Honda last year before his bike blew up.

The other teams are all aiming at ending KTM’s long reign. Yamaha is usually closest to this goal, but now that Cyril Despres has left after a short stay, their top rider is Oliver Pain, and he’s yet to prove himself as a Dakar champ, since nobody but Despres and Coma have won for a long, long time.

Honda is the other big team gunning for top spot. They’re didn’t perform as well as Yamaha last year. This year, they’re once again aiming to regain their past dominance in the race, with Joan Barreda Bort as their top rider. Helder Rodridgues and Paulo Goncalves will also likely steal some points for them, but none of Big Red’s riders have mounted a significant challenge on first overall in the past.

One other rider to watch will be Sherco’s Allain Duclos. Duclos surprised many last year, putting up a strong showing for what would normally be considered a lesser team. If luck goes his way and his bike holds together, he might repeat that performance this year.

One last note: A quick glance at the competitors list here shows one solid face: KTM is by far the bike of choice for the Dakar. No other manufacturer has anywhere close to the number of KTMs showing up at the South American race. It seems if you want to win, or even survive the rally, most riders are betting on Team Orange.

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