Burgess books golden ticket to Dakar Rally

By Meg Saultry

For Michael Burgess, the journey to the Dakar, the world biggest — and toughest — endurance rally is set to be a battle.

And as a rookie rider, he knows there is no way he can fully grasp hitting the cauldron that is the desert circuit until the race begins.

But for 40-year-old Burgess there is no turning back — he has dreamed of this chance for years.

The Benalla-born rally rider, who now resides in Bendigo, said text after text dragged him out of his sleep on September 7 and when he found his golden ticket to the 43rd edition of the Dakar Rally in his inbox he couldn’t believe it.

He said you could think you know what the race is about, you can see it in your mind, but with race temperatures routinely 40º C and above; nothing could really prepare the novice before he reached the start line.

“I think when you’ve got something in your head, you kind of know what you’re in for. But when it comes (to) Dakar, you’ve just got to double that — this is a rally on steroids,” Burgess said.

With barely three months to prepare, Burgess’ road to the Dakar will be made much more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The organisers are confident it will go ahead,” Burgess said.

“So flying over will not be a problem and I’ll have to take a COVID-19 test 96 hours before I fly out.

“But returning will be a different kettle of fish, so I’m anticipating I could get stuck over there for some time. There are a lot of elements to navigate.”

But those hurdles aren’t even registering with Burgess; he’s got bigger challenges with his shot at testing himself in the toughest endurance race on the planet.

And there’s no hurdle he won’t kick out of his way to be there on race day.

“It’s less than ideal, but I’ve been trying to go for the past three years,” he said.

“The first time I was setting up to go I broke my sternum.

“Then last year I broke my neck.

“So the road to get there, and with the condition of my body now, while not perfect, I’m doing everything I can to get over there.”

Endurance rally races are nothing new for Burgess.

He won a gold medal in the Kalgoorlie Desert Race, took out a class win at the Finke Desert Race and has raced in rallies across Europe.

But these all pale in comparison to the Dakar – all 10,000 gruelling kilometres of it.

That’s roughly Benalla to Perth to Benalla — and back to Perth. And we’re not talking roads here; it is sunbaked desert, swept by wild winds turning sand into a weapon, with the heat sucking every drop of moisture out of competitors.

Burgess admitted it was hard to know exactly how he would best prepare for the race.

“You’re spending 10-16 hours a day on the bike and there have been people who haven’t been able to get off at night, so they’re starting the next day (stage) straight away,” he said.

“With COVID-19 restrictions we can’t get to the desert at the moment, but we’ll be doing everything off the bike — nutrition-wise, sweat testing — to prepare my body as best as possible, and then get in as much bike riding as we can.”

But the Dakar doesn’t just test a rider physically. According to Burgess, the race is at least 60 per cent technical.

Starting in Jeddah on January 3, and tackling 11 stages across 12 days, Burgess will be given as little as a simple scroll of information with which to navigate his way to the finish line.

“For example, there’ll be a certain distance, say 1.3 km, then an arrow going left. There will be a picture of some dunes, and you need to marry all this information to make the right decisions along the way,” he said.

“And there are electronic checkpoints which can get you time penalties if you miss them.”

Added to this is the mental onslaught the experience throws at its riders.

“When you are on the bike for so long, you need that mental strength and physical capability to be able to stay focused,” Burgess said.

“When I was in Morocco in 2018 a trainer compared the mental stress there as being the same as the brain of a fighter pilot in the war.”

A top 50 finish is the target for Burgess; but whatever the outcome, he is in for one hell of a ride.

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