In terms of an all-round test on the human body there cannot be many tougher events to compete in than the Dakar Rally.
Speed, endurance, navigation skill, supreme fitness, adaption to huge changes in temperature, terrain and altitude, as well as avoiding terrifying collisions with care free cows, are just the essentials to be competitive in the annual race held in South America.
In the 2017 edition, seven selective sections were over 400 kilometres with one more than 500. Six days were spent at more than 3,000 metres above sea level.
While there is the element of being fitter than the rest, Sunderland admits that a big part of being successful in the rally is making the least mistakes.
With days that can see riders sit on their bikes for up to 14 hours, it’s a huge test on concentration together with the rapidly fluctuating temperatures the riders have to deal with.
‘This year we went from 45 degrees in a really, really humid Paraguay to six days in Bolivia at two degrees and then back in 45 degrees for five days,’ Sunderland reflected. ‘That was heavy, really heavy.
With altitude levels like that it’s no wonder that Britain has struggled to crack the event.
Until now. Earlier in January Sam Sunderland became the first Brit to win the famous rally after triumphing with the Red Bull KTM factory team.
The Poole-born rider took the lead of the rally on the fifth of 12 stages, and maintained it to the end.
Preparation for the rally isn’t just a case of practising opening up the throttle and riding off into the desert sunset though. The 27-year-old admits he has to train like a full-time athlete, and the sport has bit back at him in the past for doing so.
Sunderland broke both his wrists training for Dakar in 2013, while two years later he would suffer a broken leg. In between he became the first British rider since John Deacon in 1998 to win a stage of the course but until this year he had never completed the event due to injury or mechanical failure.
‘People don’t understand because they say “come on you have an engine pulling you” but it is so, so physically demanding,’ Sunderland continued.
Despite the broken bones, the intense training and the hazard littered course of the Dakar Rally, the one-time lift engineer apprentice wants nothing more than to do it all over again. Trying to win the world’s toughest race as the defending champion is his next task.
‘It’s an amazing feeling and it’s still sinking in a little bit,’ Sunderland added. ‘But it’s human nature to want more. I wanted to win a stage in a normal rally, then I wanted to win a rally. Then I wanted to win a stage in the Dakar. Then it was wow if I could win the Dakar that would be insane as the first English and British guy.
‘For me it’s going to be lining up next year with No 1 on the bike and I want to win it again for sure.’