Just before New Year’s, we brought you up to speed on the adventures of Dentsu America CEO Will Travis, who was about to take part in a 3,500-mile bike race through the Andes known as the Dakar Rally. Well, the race is over and now that he’s shaken the rust off and is back to work in New York, Travis is ready to tell the inspirational tale of his arduous 12-day trek. Without any further ado, take it away, Will.
The Dakar is known as the toughest overland race in the world and this year was to be no exception. Had I have known four people would die, only 1/3rd of my team would complete the distance and I’d be riding 7,200km, not 5,000km in 11 days, across thick sand and gravel, in temperatures bouncing from -5 to 42degree C, I’d have given signing up for this trip a real second thought, but I didn’t and so here’s my story.
Every two years, I try and break away from the creative industry bubble to absorb the real world out there, a world of adventure, real risk and real people, waking myself back up into a perspective that’s in balance and re-tuned for life. Cycling 500miles across Alaska, summiting the highest peaks of Antarctica and Europe, motorcycling 4,000km at 18,000ft through Himalayas, out of cage diving with Great Whites and now this, the toughest of my trips, riding The Dakar from Buenos Aires over the Andes to the Chilean coast and back. OK, so now I sound like a real nut, so I better get on with sharing my experience.
I landed into Buenos Aires December 26th, taking the overnight flight down the continent after a sober Christmas Day and plenty of farewell tears from my family. This was supposed to be the easy part of my adventure, prepping the bike, checking my gear and reviewing routes and weather patterns to insure the success of the trip. Wrong. The second I landed we were in turmoil. The support truck carrying all of our backup gear was now stuck on a cargo ship, delayed from clearing customs, with an estimated release date three days after The Dakar had already commenced. Not only that, Argentina had just announced a gasoline strike and the lines at fuel stations to get the last few drops were horrific.
We were about to embark with over six hundred race vehicles when something we’d all taken for granted had just blown up in our faces. The next few days were one crazed scramble, to which the snowstorm in the USA and issues in European airports were only adding panic to the mix. Two days before we were about to set off on this race, it now felt like all the odds of the world were totally against us, but as my mrs had reminded me at the time, I’d wanted adventure and here it was!
I was launched into day one of the race at 5am, by the overhead press helicopters and the thundering race trucks, warming their highly tuned engines. I’d only had four hours sleep due to a missing luggage hunt, but I was one of the lucky ones to now have my gear, three didn’t. Those poor souls were bundled into a one of the luggage vans and the ride set off at a hair-raising pace. Seven hundred km’s later I was the most knackered I’d ever been in my entire life. My face looked like I’d had it too close to an inferno from the 98-degree heat and I won’t go into how sore my rear end was after eleven hours of riding the severe off-road terrain. Three of our twenty bikes were already having mechanical issues and several of our team were visibly shaken from what we were all enduring. Thank goodness I’d spent the last four months in intense training to cope with this trip.
Whenever I undertake a trip of this magnitude, I am astonished by the vast swing of emotions that hit me. When climbing the final summit of Mt. Vinson Massif, I hated every person that came into my oxygen-starved mind, but when I stood proud on its summit at the bottom of our planet, I cried like a father holding his first child. My heart was reborn and my sensitivity to emotion reignited. I went through exactly the same emotional swings riding with The Dakar.
Day one beat the life out of me. I struggled constantly keeping my 600-lb bike upright as I raced this mammoth distance over sand that tried to suck me from the saddle and winds that tried to blast me unannounced from my bike. I swore, I prayed and I looked for ways to keep my humble body in control, as I faced the relentless elements of The Andes. Yet when I passed through towns or along roads, it seemed like the population of Argentina had come out to welcome us to their country. Babies were passed to me as I stopped to fill up for gas, kids wanted their t-shirts, their hats and their bare arms autographed and husbands pushed their whole families forward to be in photographs with these crazed racers from the north. I’d never felt so welcomed and loved by complete strangers. These moments truly carried me through the day, but when I finally reached my place of rest, I collapsed fully dressed in my body armor and riding boots. I’d burnt over 15,000 calories and faced challenges I couldn’t have predicted at speeds I’d never ridden in my life. All I could think of was what the hell was I doing so far out of my comfort zone.
Sleep had an amazing power of diluting the real misery we’d all felt the prior day and morning after morning we’d reemerge enthusiastically to be beaten up once again to the edge of our abilities. Two of my riding partners and fellow industry friends Michael Quinn and Mark Fewell became part of my backbone, as we all dug deep to support and make light of each issue. Belly laughter would emerge from our exhausted group as we’d try to pick ourselves back up to ride the next hundred or so kilometers, stage by stage by stage. Without it, we would have struggled finding the strength to go on, especially on the tenth day, the day we crossed The Andes on the San Francisco passage.
We rode out of San Juan at 4.45am with mouthfuls of cocoa leaves for the anticipated altitude change of 15,000ft that day, excited to be on the road but tired still and trying to wake up swiftly to handle the damp streets of the city. I was amazed to see fans camera-ready on the side of the roads, waiting to capture the memories of our swift 24-hour visit, bidding us farewell from this silver mining society, deep within the Chilean desert. Within two hours, we were meandering up into the mountains with trucks, quads, cars and bikes powering past our team, racing to get through one of the toughest days of the race as quickly as possible. The sun was spreading beautiful light on the mountains ahead of us, but in the valley the temperature had plummeted into the minuses and our hands were starting to freeze in our spring riding gloves, taking the feeling from the fingers that controlled both our speed, direction and stopping ability. Leaning forward as we placed our hands on our engines, we road off tarmac onto the gravel pass and before long we were standing on our pegs to navigate the thickening sand and shrinking visibility from the kicked up dust. Rounding one corner we rode into a cloud of riders, desperately trying to lift their bikes from under the twelve-foot shadows of the racing trucks, their bikes sucked to the earth by the thick sand that stood waste deep on this bend. We all scrambled to help racers out of danger, unaware several of us would soon be in the same predicament–but this time at 12,000 feet.
The first I knew of the incident ahead, was when I was riding blindly through the sand cloud of a passing race truck. I’d slowed my bike down to 40kmh and was peering desperately forward to see where the road would go, the hairs on my body fear-driven and erect as sweat started to run down by lock-solid back. Suddenly a shadow ran towards me, arms waving desperately trying to direct me off the road ahead. Swerving, I gunned my BMW from the path, up into thick powder and leaning back for stability, I accelerated the bike to a safe spot from where I returned at a sprint. There, two of our huge bikes lay the full width of the road and riders Michael and Diego were trying to warn the oncoming race vehicles of the obstruction, whilst trying to wrestle their 600lb machines upright. I held my breath as one of the RedBull trucks jackknifed with race precision from the course to avoid us, the whites of its pilot, navigator and mechanics eyes clear to see, but totally un-phased by what was obviously a standard Dakar maneuver. We had no time for shock or dramatics, it was move or be crushed and within minutes we were sand pit free but gasping for breath like partially drowned men.
The day saw the sand pit take ten of our remaining twelve riders down, and over the next six hours, three of our riders passed out due to the effects of the altitude and two more of our bikes were taken out of the ride. I could go on and on with story after story from my trip but we all have work to get on with. My blog nods to some of the other incidents and my memory holds them all for my kids and their kids in the future. What a trip, what an adventure and what a damn lucky bloke I am to have experienced it. I hope some of you rise inspired to partake in such a break from your day-to-day lives. As they say, all of us will die for sure, but not all of us will really live our lives to the fullest.
Will Travis CEO of Dentsu America and former US founder of ATTIK. His blog from the above trip, can be found at willindakar.com