In the last ten years Dakar has changed. Once upon a time it was a race where men went to become legends. It was a breeding ground of myths and heroes, where people pushed the limits of human resolve, riding humongous and heavy motorcycles with a fuel range comparable to a family car. Sent into the desert on a whim and a prayer, the Dakar really was adventure racing at it’s purest.
Dakar has undergone some gargantuan developments in recent years. It’s all 450cc based, the race is shorter in days that it once was, it is run in South America and more importantly, it is now a genuine race.
Despite that growth, the Dakar is still unique. It is a race that breeds the ridiculous environments that endurance sports are famous for and it maintains the moniker of world’s toughest motorcycle event for a reason. Throughout the ages everything from sleeping in the desert to using cheese to mend engine cases has occurred. The human desire to not perish in a desert is equalled only by the determination of a single track mind.
The protagonist of this anecdote is one Manuel Lucchese, a former over 500cc Baja World Champion, Italian journalist, skilful enduro and motocross rider and all round super nice guy. He is also man who has ridden himself into folklore with his tales of extreme good luck, horrendous bad luck, stubbornness and charm.
Manuel’s story goes right back to his father. Like many people who race, he was born into motorbikes. With a stuntman for a father, the young Manuel was drowned in images of motorcycles. It was no surprise that inquisition would take over.
“One day, when I was six, I decided I wanted to have a motorbike. My father had images and magazines of bikes everywhere. At that point I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle. So my Grandparents took me to a junior motocross and that same evening, when we got home I went and learnt to ride my bicycle in the back garden. After a month my father bought me my first bike.
At the start I was so slow, you can’t imagine how bad I was. I was racing junior motocross, I still have some videos from it where they are starting the next race and my father is shouting at the organisers that I am still on the track.”
Manuel kept racing junior motocross and by the time he reached high school things had changed. The speed had arrived he was in the top ten for his age group at Italian nationals. That’s where his Dakar story really begins. For a lot of junior racers, the place for winter training is the motocross school of the utterly legendary motocross racer Stefan Everts, in Benicassim near Valencia.
“I was training in the Evert’s school over New Years and the Dakar came to Castellon. It was just around the corner from the school so we went and watched the stage on the beach. It amazed me, I couldn’t believe these people were heading off to ride across the desert on these huge bikes. I was completely star struck. I was very lucky too; because of the school I got to meet some of the top riders. I also spent a long time talking with Simon Pavey and Nick Plumb. From then on I knew one day that I would race the Dakar.
I continued to race motocross for the next three years and I was pretty good. When I turned 15, my father randomly asked me if I wanted to get a scooter or an enduro bike. I was already riding scooters around motocross tracks with friends and wanted something different so we went for the enduro bike. The same day it arrived, I went to my first enduro, which was an Italian championship round. It was like hell for me, it was so hard. The race was a huge shock but I did well so we did the whole championship. We also decided to go and do one of Italian Rally Championship rounds too, on a 50cc. It was so different, even at the first turn on the tarmac I was lost. The navigation with a road book was so different, I spent the whole day just chasing people.”
From there his progress continued upward. Over the next few seasons he chased Enduro hard, going onto to claim 5th in the Junior class at Italian nationals and stepping up to some World Championship (EWC) rounds. At that point he realised his motocross base didn’t afford him the skills to compete at the gruelling level that is EWC. His continuing enjoyment and success in European and Italian rallies saw his direction change again.
Claiming second in 450cc class in the European Baja championship saw Manuel score a ride with Husaberg for the 2011 season. It was a great opportunity and at that point he decided he would do the next Dakar. The season went very much according to plan as he took 5th Overall in the World Rally Raid championship and claimed the rookie of the year award in the process.
Entering Dakar however was a different story. Manuel stumped up the initial cash deposit, around €4000 from his own pocket but like most people, that was it. With his cash reserves drier than a mid Saharan well, the Italian started spawning ideas. The now well known, names on shirt, fund raising helped him procure a good chunk more cash. Still strapped for funds, Manuel did his best to make friends, get parts on trucks and generally blag his way to the start.
At that point he had no mechanic and his spare parts were stashed across various cars and vehicles throughout the bivouac, mostly by fellow riders without permission from truck owners. His mechanical assistance came in the form of his father, however without the €10k required to properly enter him in the rally he hitchhiked from bivouac to bivouac, sneaking past security every night.
“The first Dakar was crazy, I had no money at all, so my dad had to hitchhike everywhere. Every morning he would stand outside the bivouac and get a ride off somebody. It’s not so hard to sneak into the bivouac either. Also because we had no money we couldn’t pay for storage on a truck either, people ask a lot of money for this. In Le Havre before the race I managed to get some people to stash my parts in their vehicles, but the drivers of them didn’t know. Every night I would have to stand around and wait for the riders to come in from their days racing to get me my parts so the drivers didn’t find out.”
As well as all the stress born out of this, Manuel’s bike was less reliable than one would hope. Riding ‘for the finish’ and on a bike that was struggling with the gruelling conditions of the Dakar was proving tough. Injection problems were plaguing his race. After a brutal stage six was spent asleep in the dunes Manuel thought his troubles might be behind him.
“I had so many problems with the injection on my bike that year. On stage nine, the issue struck again and I lost so much time, it was incredible. I was the last person on the course by a long way too. The stage had some extremely swollen river crossings in it; lots of people had crashed and drowned their bikes and cars. When I got there it was about 12.30 am, I made the silly mistake of trying to ride across it way too fast. I hit it full gas but the water was flowing very fast and was deep, it washed my front wheel away and I drowned the bike. I couldn’t believe it at the time.
I was sat on the edge of the river thinking about what to do when a medical car that was at the back of the race arrived. They were really helpful. Thye helped me get all the water from inside the bike. We pulled the bike apart to dry everything and make sure it was all clean. The bike wouldn’t start at all. So then we towed the bike with a rope all the way to end of the first special stage section.
I started trying to fix it again; I spent almost two hours working on it. There were still a few slow cars coming out of the special stage too, I would ask for help but nobody believed the bike would run again. At that point the doctors decided that enough was enough. They told me I had to return to the bivouac, that Dakar went this way sometimes and there was nothing I could do.
At this point I broke down. I was crying like a baby and making phone calls to anyone and everyone in my phone. The only person who picked up the phone was my grandmother.”
The desperation to finish was so clear that Manuel managed to convince the Doctors to keep trying to start the bike. If it didn’t work, then he had to call it a day. It was a fair deal and in true Dakar fashion, the bike gave Manuel a glimmer of hope. Towing it along the road to bump start it, the bike made a little cough. They tried again, it coughed a little harder. A third time and the bike spluttered into existence. The only problem now, the water had killed Manuel’s lights. He was behind the whole event and chasing his next start time, without lights. What lay ahead was 100km of the toughest navigation that Dakar had to offer, working across the featureless dunes that surround the town of Iquique. To the utter surprise of the Doctors, Manuel informed them they must follow him to provide him light.
“The doctors couldn’t believe it when I told them. The said they had to return to bivouac, the organisers were calling them to return on the radio. I told them to tell the organisers I would ride the stage without light if they didn’t come. They came with me. We rode the transfer section; it was so cold because I was still wet from the river crossing too.”
Arriving at the start of special stage with the clock showing 4am, the team found a collection of local spectators. Taking Manuel in, they made him hot chocolate and re-clothed him to help restore some body heat.
“From there I entered with stage with the doctors following me, it was really hard. It was like riding in nightclub, the lights of the car were going up and down all the time. After an hour I had to stop, I was so tired I started to see things that weren’t there. I agreed with the doctors we would stop and sleep a bit, so I joined them in the car and we slept for the next hour.”
The organisers, assuming the car being stopped meant Manuel had retired, informed the doctors car that they should return to the bivouac. Manuel found out that he had just two hours to make his start for the next morning. Convincing the car to set off with him once more, the sun yet to rise, they headed on. Quickly realising that the car was simply driving too slowly to reach the finish in time, he made the decision to push as hard as could, despite it still being dark. His decision was the right one.
“I made the top of the huge Iquique dune before the finish with 15 minutes to make my start time. I was so relieved. I thought I would be able to start the liaison and return to the bivouac, sleep and eat a little and then ride again. When I got the bivouac they told me I also had to start the special stage before the cars too. I ran around, grabbed some food to eat and then set off. I didn’t even have time to put my new road book in. I made my special start time and then decided to stop, do the corrections in my road book a sleep a little.
When I set off again I was so incredibly tired, everything felt like I was riding really fast but I knew I was going incredibly slow. At one point I stopped again and put the bike on the side stand. I was so tired I didn’t even get off; I just slept, sat there with my head on the road book.
After 170km’s, the engine exploded because I hadn’t had the chance to change oil after drowning it. That was the race over.”
Fast-forwarding eight months and Manuel had enjoyed another good season of racing under the Husaberg marque, claiming the Baja World Championship. Just one week before the shipping date from Le Havre, he headed to Austria to collect his new bike for the race and to sign a new contract. With stirrings happening inside Husaberg, he was informed that he would not be allowed to ride the bike in Dakar. Four month’s later parent brand KTM AG bought Husqvarna and began the closing Husaberg.
“I had just five days to find and build a bike for Dakar, I had nothing. I phoned the whole of Italy and by a huge stroke of luck, the former mechanic of Richard Sainct, Mauro Sant, gave me a used TM. It was the same bike that TM Factory rider Zanotti had used the year before in Dakar. I put on Facebook that I wanted someone to come Le Havre with me. A random person said they would come and help. We turned up very early in the morning because I had the same problem as the year before of not having anywhere to put spare parts. I asked everyone, every single person to take my stuff. I didn’t have money to give so almost everyone said no.
A Spanish team who look after some Venezuelan riders said they would help me, they took all my kit and parts. My original plan was to use money from my sponsors to rent a car in Peru and have a mechanic and my parts in that. When the start came my sponsors didn’t pay up and so I couldn’t even afford my plane ticket. A friend of mine, a former rider couldn’t ride due to an injury and so offered to pay for mine. This was just five days before I needed to fly.”
With such a last minute dash, Manuel had little time to organise real spare parts for the race. Between the shipping date at the end of November and the flight at the end of December he managed to pull together some parts and a very used engine for his TM. He arrived at the airport with riding kit, luggage full of spares and an engine in his bag. An ENGINE.
With a maximum baggage allowance of 32 kg, even after paying for excess, the 55kg bag didn’t cut the mustard. Unsure of what to do, he produced a bunch of magazines that he scribbles for and tried in vain to convince the airport staff to load his bag.
“My only saving grace was that it was New Years Eve, the staff wanted to go home. I kept pushing them to let it on and eventually they loaded it as a musical instrument and they only charge me €150. I hid two backpacks under a bunch of jackets too and wore them all on the plane.”
Armed with just €200, no mousses, sleeping on strangers couch in Lima, a bike he’d never even ridden and an attitude of finishing at all costs, things were never going to be easy for the Italian. Having convinced his Venezuelan friends to let him stow the parts on their truck, the biggest problem Manuel faced was a lack of funds for petrol.
“On New Years Eve, my girlfriend and her flat mate worked extra hard to earn as much money as they could. They are both strippers and New Years eve is a very good night for them, they made a lot of cash and transferred it to me so I would have enough fuel to make the finish.”
Despite, having never ridden the TM before he crossed the start podium, the race went incredibly smoothly. The bike was a true pig; heavy, over engineered and just plain hard to ride but Manuel clung to his ‘ride to finish’ mantra. Keeping well within his abilities he cruised every single stage, riding each day like he was green-laning, stopping to help people, spending time with spectators and making sure he cared for the bike.
“I was actually very lucky, people were really kind on the race. I was able to get a lot of second-hand tyres and mousses, especially from Simon (Pavey). The bike really ran well; we didn’t have any problems either. It was really hard for me to ride that slow. I wanted to try and push hard for some good results but at the same time I didn’t want to risk not finishing. People at home were asking my why I was riding so slowly too, that was difficult.
Really the whole race went well, I just followed the plan. Until the second last day I had no bike problems. The out of nowhere, a part in the carburettor broke off and was sucked into the cylinder. I couldn’t believe it had happened. We were in the dunes of Copiapo, they are really huge and very soft. The engine was so damaged I had to ride full-gas everywhere, otherwise the bike wouldn’t run. I was also really stressed about burning the clutch out then too because the bike was hard to ride in the sand, it was too big and heavy.
Whenever I saw people I would stop with them to let the bike cool down, the stage took forever to finish. I fell off so much too, all because I was trying so hard not pull the clutch in. You also couldn’t shut the throttle ever because the bike would just quit working.”
Managing to scream the TM across the finish of penultimate day, Manuel was faced with just 400km to finish his Dakar dream. Just 150km from the end of the race, the engine stopped dead. There was nothing, not even a splutter or a cough. Despite his best efforts, there wasn’t a shred of life left in that cylinder. In typical fashion and true Dakar spirit Manuel managed to convince another competitor to tow him into the finish, 150km down the road. They even crossed the podium the following day in the same way.
After two years of getting his Dakar fix as a volunteer for organisers ASO, Manuel is back on the start line as a racer. His enthusiasm for the event is infectious. Like every year, racers struggle to create the funds for the events and so Manuel finds himself in the Malles Moto class, where all outside mechanical assistance is banned.
It’s a throwback to days of Africa, the class people enter knowing that they will suffered like they’ve never suffered before. Hats off to you Manuel, you are not like the rest of us.
You can follow Manuel in the 2016 event by clicking here.