Route: San Juan de Marcona – San Juan de Marcona
Terrain: Mixed; sand/rocks/hardpack
Words: Georgia Wells
Images: Dakar/ASO/Laia Sanz/VBA
Stage 4’s loop from San Juan de Marcona and back again proved to be just as tough as promised – and then some! The daunting 444km day really took it out of the riders, and for one of the race favourites it was game over.
Competitors were feeling uneasy about the start of the day as an unusual ‘mass start’ marked the beginning of the special. As they took off in groups of 15 there were worries about the dust kicked up, and of course it was going to be hard to get the edge on your rivals when they are starting right next you. The start was delayed by 30 minutes as fog closed in around San Juan de Marcona, and far from allowing the riders more time to relax and prepare, this hold up actually served to make them even more apprehensive – although team-mates Laia Sanz and Toby Price took the chance to take a pre-stage selfie!
As they finally set off it was a incredible sight, with some riders absolutely flat out down the 17km stretch of beach. Sporting Director and 5-time Dakar winner Marc Coma had the ‘mass start’ idea as a nod to the event’s 40th birthday, and it certainly evoked memories of the past and the iconic run into Senegal’s capital, past the Lac Rose.
The special boasted one of the longest stretches of competitive sand riding that the Dakar has ever seen, and it also highlighted just how brutal this race can be with a mixture of high temperatures, navigational issues, and tricky terrain.
Pablo Quintanilla (CHL, Husqvarna. 4th stage/2nd overall):
“Today we have experienced a very intense day. Soft dunes and dust made it hard to find a way through, it has really been very difficult to even arrive here, so I’m happy to be 2nd in the overall.”
Matthias Walkner (AUT, KTM. 3rd stage/4th overall):
“We were all looking for one waypoint and it was absolutely crazy! There were about twenty of us all circling around!”
The likes of Sam Sunderland, Matthias Walkner, Toby Price, Gerard Farres and Kevin Benavides set off in the first batch of riders. However, the next group, which included Joan Barreda and Adrien Van Beveren, would be hot on their heels. After a troublesome Stage 3 where he lost a lot of ground following navigational errors, Barreda in particular was keen to put himself back in contention. ‘BangBang’ was able to forge ahead of his rivals by a significant margin, likely taking big risks in order to do so. But the Spaniard was eventually unable to hold back a formidable French faction as Michael Metge, Johnny Aubert, Xavier de Soultrait and Adrien Van Beveren all picked up their pace.
The Le Touquet Beach Race style start had clearly added a boost of confidence to sand-specialist Van Beveren’s usual spectacular riding. The Yamaha rider won the stage, a full five minutes ahead of his team-mate Xavier de Soultrait (who now moves into 5th overall). This Dakar day victory also allowed him to take over the rally lead, but it turned into a bittersweet moment for the young Frenchman as his best friend exited the rally….
Adrien Van Beveren (FRA, Yamaha. 1st stage/1st overall):
“It was super fun out there today but I told myself I needed to be careful and just try to pull an advantage where I felt more comfortable. To win a stage is a big emotion, it’s very special. It’s also important. Yamaha have worked very hard and it has paid off!”
Birthday boy Kevin Benavides enjoyed another strong day on his Honda, and he now sits just three minutes and fifteen seconds behind the rally leader, and twenty seconds behind 2nd place man Pablo Quintanilla.
After a steady start to the day following his Stage 3 win, KTM’s Sam Sunderland appeared to be doing enough for a decent result on Stage 4. But devastatingly disaster struck for the popular Brit. Last year’s winner was discovered at kilometre 253, sitting on his bike with his head in his hands. The evacuation helicopter was called to the scene and Sam, now clearly in pain, was quickly transferred to a stretcher.
The 28 year old had reportedly suffered a crash and caused damage to his back. Sunderland had been a victim of bad luck in every Dakar he had entered up until last year, where he finally and emphatically won, becoming the first Brit ever to do so. With the memories of that first victory still fresh in his mind, it was clear that Sam was aiming for nothing less than a repeat result.
His superb riding during the first three days of the rally, and the very fact that he only admitted defeat when the pain and numbness in his back and legs had become unbearable, shows just how driven he was towards his goal. The entire bivouac, including all his main rivals, sent heartfelt messages of encouragement to Sam, who is now thought to be stable and undergoing treatment in hospital. For many fans following the race, his exit has been a huge blow.
British Malle Moto (zero assistance) rider Lyndon Poskitt summed it up perfectly…
Lyndon Poskitt (GB, KTM. 55th stage/48th overall):
“I saw Sam towards the end of the stage, my heart just sank.”
Stage 5 will bring another 5am start to the fatigued field, and the shock of Stage 4’s events will make the 744km of riding seem all the more daunting. The run to Arequipa will feature a separate route for the bikes, but high altitude dunes and the sheer length of the stage will make it yet another extremely tricky day in this year’s rally.
Sam Sunderland (GBR, KTM. DNF):
“Thanks to everyone for all their kind messages of support, I’m sorry to be out so soon and to have let my team and fans down. But I’m currently sitting here feeling pretty lucky; it’s a scary thing to lose the feeling in your legs! Good luck to the rest of my team.”
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