Dakar 2018, final stage – Heroes all

 In News

Route: Cordoba – Cordoba
Liaison: 166km
Special: 120km
Total: 286km
Terrain: Dirt tracks.

Words: Georgia Wells.
Images: Dakar/ASO

The final stage of the 2018 Dakar Rally may have been high pressure, but thankfully it was without high drama. After a draining two weeks, which has seen heartbreak for many riders who suffered crashes and mechanical failures, everyone was desperate to complete the final test and experience the joy of the finish line and a heroes welcome from the passionate crowd.

With a 22 minute lead coming into the final day of racing, Matthias Walkner had to ride with the same care and precision he had used all rally long.

Behind him Kevin Benavides and Toby Price were embroiled in a battle, not only hoping to beat each other, but also to set a good time should Walkner make a mistake. The pair put in a solid effort, coming across the line separated by just 54 seconds. For Benavides the risk had paid off and he won his first stage on home soil. The Honda rider has executed an extremely impressive run in only his second Dakar, his previous best was 4th place as a rookie in 2016. And after missing the 2017 race due to injury, Kevin was clearly thrilled to make such a strong return to the world’s toughest rally…

Kevin Benavides (ARG, Honda. 2nd Place):
“I’m happy because I pushed, and I came really close to fulfilling my goal of winning. I’m sorry about what happened on Stage 10 when I got lost. I think I can do this – I’m going to work harder in the hope of one day winning the Dakar!”

Kevin’s lament of lost time on Stage 10 was a common one. The day will go down in the history of the 2018 race for the way it shook up the results and left many top riders suddenly and surprisingly out of contention. Mechanical failures and crashes are often thought of as the biggest way to lose time, but this year’s rally proved just how crucial good navigational skills are.

Just six weeks ago Toby Price made his return to riding following the gruesome femur fracture he sustained in last year’s Dakar. The 2016 winner had low expectations of his chances of fighting at the front in 2018 and he approached the entire race in a much more measured way than we’re used to seeing. But while Toby is usually frighteningly fast, this “softly softly” technique seemed to suit him and he was able to chip away at his rivals throughout the fortnight. The popular KTM rider seemed overwhelmed by his eventual 3rd place overall…

Toby Price (AUS, KTM. 3rd Place):
“If you’d asked me a couple of months ago if I could be here on the podium, I probably would’ve laughed at you! My main goal was the finish line, but I’m stoked to come away with a podium, and to be fit and healthy at the end of all this!”

But neither Benavides or Price could get close to a flawless Walkner, the Austrian finished the stage in 8th place and did enough to take his first victory, becoming the only Austrian to win the Dakar on a bike. For KTM, Walkner’s win meant their 17th consecutive top spot, an amazing stat, especially when you consider the strength of the other riders and manufacturers this year. Matthias appeared to take many people by surprise this year, despite finishing 2nd last year. The former Motocross World Champion (MX3, 2012) barely made a single mistake during this year’s arduous race and was able to take advantage when his rivals faltered.

Winning the 40th edition clearly meant a lot to a jubilant Matthias, who seemed dazed as he celebrated with his team and received congratulations from the entire Dakar circus.

Matthias Walkner (AUT, KTM. Winner):
“This is like a dream! This is the biggest race we have in our sport! I need some time to realise what has happened, I have been dreaming about this for so long! We made it, this is unbelievable!”

There was yet more joy for the orange squad as Antoine Meo came home in 4th place, a superb result after a long period of injury. And Spanish superstar Laia Sanz won the women’s class, 12th overall despite two big crashes the ‘Queen of the Dakar’ has finished all 8 Dakars that she has started! A seriously impressive achievement.

Himoinsa KTM’s Gerard Farres announced just before the start of this year’s race that it would be his last. The veteran has competed in 11 Dakars, with a highest placing of 3rd last year. In 2018 he took an impressive 5th overall and was happy to bow out on a high. Gerard will be missed around the bivouacs as one of the friendliest, kindest, and relentlessly positive riders you could ever wish to meet.

Spain already has new reasons to smile however, as Oriol Mena took the crown for ‘Top Rookie’. The former world enduro rider plugged away with his Hero bike (an Indo-German offshoot of the Speedbrain brand) and finished an incredible 7th overall.

Similarly, former enduro champion Johnny Aubert made a superb comeback to the Dakar. His last participation was in 2012, yet the Frenchman was able to take 6th overall. GasGas decided to count on Johnny for their return to rally racing, and he didn’t let them down. The Spanish brand also brought Jonathan Barragan onboard as a rookie and he finished 15th overall.

Just behind Barragan in 17th overall was American rookie Andrew Short. The factory Husqvarna rider deserves a mention as he redefined the meaning of grit and determination on the final stage; riding the 286km to the finish line with a broken ankle!

We must also give a shoutout to Olivier Pain, the winner of the unimaginably tough Malle Moto (zero assistance) class. The Frenchman beat his rival, YouTube star Lyndon Poskitt, by 5 positions.

So under gloriously sunny skies in Cordoba the 2018 Dakar has drawn to its emotional end. The podium ceremony saw every competitor exhausted, relieved, and congratulating one and other. Some were fulfilling a life long ambition just to enter the race, let alone finish it. And others were out to put their all into winning gold in this near-nigh impossible endurance race. As the riders enjoy their well-earned post-race party, I think we can safely say that 2018, the 40th edition of the Dakar Rally, was an absolutely vintage year.


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