Most of us will baulk at the prospect of a drive lasting more than about 90 minutes. Longer than that and we’d be stocking up with water bottles, sugary snacks and plenty of downloads from Audible to pass the time.
Ireland is a mere 500km – or thereabouts – from top to toe, and you can easily enough cover that distance in a few hours, if your bladder can withstand a long stint or two. Now try to imagine covering 9,000km within the space of two weeks. And this is not on some neat, well-marked tarmac road. This is climbing and descending sand dunes that tower above skyscraper height, and coping with rocky defiles that would rip the axles out of a normal road vehicle. This is the Dakar Rally, and Oran O’Kelly is going to tackle it.
“I’d set up the Exemplar car-parking service at Dublin Airport,” O’Kelly says. “But with Covid and everything else, that was starting to run into challenges, so I sold up and headed back to Dubai with the idea of scratching an itch.”
O’Kelly was born in the Gulf, as were his siblings, and he lived in Dubai until he was 12.
“My dad’s from Kilkenny and my mum’s from Dublin, and they raised us out there and, as you can imagine, it was a very competitive environment with me and my four brothers. Part of that competitiveness came out in doing a lot of motorbike riding. When we moved back to Ireland for secondary school, we kind of packed that in but it was always there in my mind, so yeah, that’s the itch that needs scratching.”
Not merely scratching, either. O’Kelly didn’t want to just go and muck about riding motorbikes on the odd sand dune. He wanted to compete on the greatest off-road racing stage of them all. Having relocated back to Dubai in 2020, O’Kelly quickly set about earning his off-roading stripes, and in 2021 finished a highly respectable 13th on the Dubai International Baja rally, his first ‘navigation’ rally.
A navigation rally is one where you can’t rely on modern GPS tech to work out where you are and where you’re going. Added to which, bikers race solo – those tackling these long-haul off-road rallies in cars or trucks have a navigator sitting next to them, figuring all of that out. “We use a paper road book, on a scroll, which is kind of an old-school way of doing things” O’Kelly says.
“It’s the navigation that’s really critical on these events. You can have the quickest bike in the world, you can have Tour de France levels of personal fitness, but if you can’t navigate and can’t figure out the right direction and the right speed you need to be going, well…” Quite.
The Dakar Rally will take a long, sandy loop across the middle of Saudi Arabia when the event kicks off on January 5th. That’s 2.15 million square kilometres in which to get dangerously lost, with temperatures that can range from roasting during the day to near-freezing at night.
“On the bike you can be racing at speeds of up to 180km/h on some sections, but you have to constantly be looking up and glancing down and cross-referencing your heading as well as making sure that you’re following the correct path and not getting lost. It’s hard, on this event, to make up a few seconds if you lose them. If you get lost, you’re talking losing minutes and minutes and there’s no coming back from that.”
The geographers among you may have noticed that Dakar isn’t anywhere near Saudi Arabia. It’s actually in Senegal. That’s because the event began, in 1978, as a long-haul off-road rally between Paris and Dakar, the brainchild of racing driver Thierry Sabine. The event became famous in the 1980s as works teams from Porsche, Peugeot and Citroen slugged it out in the sand, before the likes of Mini, Mitsubishi and Toyota took over in the 1990s and 2000s.
In the mid-2000s it became too dangerous to run the event through the wilds of western Africa, particularly after an incident in which several French tourists were shot in Mauritania. So the Paris-Dakar stopped starting in Paris and finishing in Dakar, and took on a peripatetic existence that led it to South America for a time before finding a new home in Saudi Arabia. The distances remain the same, but the route can be more tightly managed and the safety of drivers and riders is easier to manage.
O’Kelly will be tackling the 9,000km route as part of the Vendetta Racing team – there’s obvious reluctance in his voice when he tells me that, as a Dakar rookie, he won’t be allowed to race solo on his first time out. His motorbike will be a KTM 45 Rally Replica.
KTM, the Austrian-based racing motorcycle specialist, makes only a handful of these racing machines each year, and according to O’Kelly: “They’re limited to around 60 each year, and they actually sell the bikes at cost – they’ve no interest in commercialising them, they’re for racers. You actually have to try pretty hard to get hold of one. Basically, you have to be invited to buy one.”
KTM has a storied history on the Dakar, setting records for consecutive wins. Meanwhile, O’Kelly’s Vendetta team-mates – Northern Ireland’s David McBride and Portsmouth-born David Mabbs – are experienced off-road racers.
None of which will change his reaction when that first massive sand dune towers above him on that first stage in January.
“When you arrive before a race, you’re flat out doing paperwork and getting through scrutineering” says O’Kelly. “Then suddenly you’re looking up at that skyscraper-height dune and your heart is definitely bouncing through the roof. It’s really important at that point not to get carried away, not to burn up all your energy at once. This is definitely a race that’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
O’Kelly now has a few months to train – physical fitness is key when hauling a motorbikes over some of the most inhospitable terrain you can imagine – and raise some more sponsorship cash, preferably from Irish sources to supports a home-grown talent, before January.
“You just have to be so prepared, and pack two or three times what you think you need,” says O’Kelly. “If anything goes wrong out there, you’re not going to find a 10mm spanner under the nearest rock. Most importantly; get to the finish line. I think I’d be very happy, and feel very accomplished, just achieving that in itself.”