Gareth Jones’ Dakar Rally was about to end, he thought. He was on Stage 5, a few hard days into the event, and he was busted up, with a hematoma between muscles on his forearm, a souvenir from a crash earlier in the race. He could barely manage his bike’s clutch lever. He was hurting, and because he was hurting, he was crashing. The safest thing, he figured, would be to call it quits.
And then—a ride cleared his head., along with a call home and some help from the medics, and he’s our first Canadian finisher in years. Here’s the story of his ride.
It’s been a few years, but finally, we have a Canadian back on the board at Dakar. This year, Brit ex-pat Gareth Jones, now living in southern BC, rode a Husqvarna 450 to 73rd overall at the Dakar Rally. Getting to that podium after two weeks of hard racing was the achievement of a lifetime for Jones—especially as he’d almost had to quit at Stage 5.
The Dakar Rally is a rally raid race that originally ran from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal when it was founded in the late 1970s. In the 2010s, it ran across several countries in South America, leaving the Sahara due to threats of terrorism. Now it runs entirely inside the borders of Saudi Arabia, with massive trucks, off-road cars, side-by-sides and motorcycles all competing across thousands of kilometres of desert, every second counting against their finish. It’s the opening round of the FIM Cross Country Rallies world championship, running for two weeks every January. (We have a whole story here, explaining the race).
The best dirt riders in the world run the Dakar Rally, right alongside normal guys like Jones—a very capable athlete and off-roader, with experience at events like the Corduroy Enduro and the Rockhound Rally—but not a factory racer either.
Not that he didn’t earn his way to the race—he’d trained for months to get there, and earned respectable finishes at the Hellas Rally and Rallye du Maroc in 2022. Thanks to his training and friendship with well-known racer Lyndon Poskitt, Jones was able to get a seat with the respected HT Rally Raid Husqvarna team. And yet, at the start line on the first day, Jones said he had a hard time believing he was actually there: “Before the prologue stage, I thought ‘Am I going to be lost here? How embarrassing is this going to be for me?'”
He made it through the first day just fine, and settled into the day-to-day of the rally. Viewed as a whole, each day was a massive challenge, but Jones said he broke it all up into smaller, manageable parts.
“The only slight nerves I had was just as you pull up too the start line and you see the people in front of you leave. But you know, with the engine on, blipping the throttle, it’s gone.”
From there, Jones attacked the rally piece-by-piece.
“I bit off chunks of the rally,” he says. He’d focus on each challenge as it came. Get to the fuel stop. Start the special stage. Get to the next fuel stop. Get to the end of the special. Then, knock off a few hundred kilometers of non-timed riding in the liaison stage, ending in the bivouac—”Then you’re at the end of the day, and then after a few days of that, you start to think ‘Okay, well getting to the rest day would be good. That would be an achievement.’ ”
But even with this strategy, Jones had to conquer the hard terrain each day, and on Stage 5, he said he almost called it quits. The pain from his injury in a crash on Stage 2 made it difficult to control his machine.
“I just couldn’t operate the bike anymore. My hand was so painful, my arm was so painful on the clutch side, I dropped my bike, Crashed it four times in about 20 minutes in dunes … each one was setting my airbag vest off,” says Jones. With his safety vest out of charges, Jones had to ride the last 80 kilometers of the special knowing that he wouldn’t have its protection if he had another crash, a serious one. The pain was from his arm was terrible, sunlight was fading, and he didn’t know if he would be able to tackle Stage 6. Mentally, he was at the lowest point of the race.
But a long ride through the liaison, the transit section between end of the timed special and the bivouac, was enough to stabilize his emotions. He got some medical help in the bivouac, and called his wife and told her he’d thought about bowing out.
“She was really supportive and basically said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll wake up tomorrow be fine,'” says Jones. He managed to get a good night’s sleep, took the painkillers the doctor had given him, and it turned out his wife was right—Stage 6 went well.
“I didn’t make any navigational errors. I didn’t have any crashes,” says Jones. “And then the following day was the same, and from that point, from that low point of Day Five, I just got better and better and physically stronger and stronger.”
He was picking up speed as he learned the secrets of riding through the dunes. It helped that he spent a lot of time riding with James Hillier, a name some readers might recognize from his Isle of Man TT heroics. Hillier was tackling the Dakar for the first time in 2023, but with his greater experience in riding the desert, Jones was able to pick up some helpful tips that improved his results.
Day by day, the rally ticked off and Jones was only one stage left from the finish. The final day’s ride is usually a formality, with no serious challenge. Unfortunately for the motorcycle racers, the Classic car class had run through this stage the day before, and left a muddy mess.
The bike slid out from underneath him as Jones rode through this quagmire, leaving everything covered in clay: the handlebars, the controls, the the roadbook, everything was sticky and gummed up. Far from an easy walk in the park, the last day had turned into a nightmare, and Jones said he thought he might not actually finish, because of the mud packed into every part of the machine. But finish he did, taking a dip in the Red Sea along the way to clean all the muck off as best he could.
He was only moderately successful, as photos of him on the podium will show! But it was hardly a problem then, as he rolled across the finish line, surrounded by friendly fellow competitors and collapsing over his handlebars in tears of joy, thinking about his family. And it’s certainly not a problem now, as he’s home from the race with that much-coveted finisher’s medal in hand—a medal that eludes even some of the best riders each year.
What’s next for Jones? He doesn’t plan to race next year’s Dakar. Even if he had the time, it’s a very expensive undertaking. He figures his ride with the HT Husqvarna squad cost about $90,000, plus flights to and from Saudi Arabia, plus the cost of time off work, of riding gear, of training, and more. He ran a GoFundMe (see here) to help with expenses, but he bore 90 percent of that cost himself, with no corporate sponsorships.
And yet—he didn’t say he’d never do it again, and if we’ve seen one thing from Canada’s Dakar competitors over the years, it’s this: Once they’ve finished the challenge, they’re always looking for a way back.