David Thomas may have crashed out of his first Dakar Rally, but the almost surreal experience of competing in the world’s most famous off-road race has left the affable Hout Bay local wanting more.
The fact that he was challenging the times of the frontrunners before his devastating stage-5 crash, which ruled him out of the rest of Dakar 2017, has shown he has what it takes to conquer the gruelling 8 000km route, and he is already thinking about next year’s event.
While David’s leg was severely broken in four places, his determination to compete in the Dakar in honour of his late brother, Justin, who died in a car accident on is 30th birthday in 2003, has already made him the toast of race fans around the country.
Speaking at his family’s Hout Bay home this week, David recalls being overwhelmed by the levels of support for the rally.
“What really blows your mind are the fans. They almost pull
you off your bike so they can get a selfie with you. The police would form tunnels in the crowd so you could get through,” he says.
“Guys sometimes find hands and fingers that have been ripped off as people try to grab the cars. I couldn’t believe the spectators – it was like they were coming out of the concrete.”
What impressed him most were the organisational and logistical aspects of the rally.
“I honestly believe Formula 1 could learn from the Dakar. Before the race even starts, you go through two days of checks on your equipment, and they make sure you are carrying three litres of water at every checkpoint.
“Your bike is fitted with a signal, and if you crash, a signal is sent to the helicopters on the route. When I crashed, a helicopter landed about 18 minutes later, and the doctors on board immediately came to my assistance.”
David is still feeling the effects of the high-speed crash, both physically and mentally, particularly since it also produced a story that will be entrenched in Dakar folklore for decades to come.
Fellow South African Joey Evans himself made headlines for his miraculous recovery from paralysis to ride Dakar 2017, and it was Joey who stopped to check on the condition of his compatriot.
He sourced financing from well-wishers for his own ride, in return placing their names on various parts of his motorcycle. David carried a memorial sticker paying tribute to his brother on his bike, and Joey graciously agreed to place this sticker on his motorcycle once it was established David’s race was over.
“He (Joey) is an amazing character. He was even ridden over by a car, but he just carried on, and stopped to help everyone who crashed.”
Understandably, David felt disappointment in being out of his first Dakar, riding for the Husqvarna satellite team.
“I felt I was going well. In most stages, I was not far off the times of the top guys, and I was 20 minutes off the leader. I was very happy with the pace,” he says.
“The race really changed for me in the fourth stage, when I was penalised. That meant I had to start at the back during the fifth stage. By the time the stage started, sleet had started falling and the road was icing over. The crash happened when I came over a rise and I ran off the road, hitting some rocks.”
Before each stage, race organisers identify caution areas, but David was unaware the cautions had been changed as the inclement weather set in.
He had already worked his way up from 102nd position to 43rd and was lying a mere four minutes off the leader. This stage had already been shortened to 216km, so there was every chance he would have placed high in the standings.
David believes the key to riding a successful Dakar is ensuring the “road book”, or map of the terrain illustrating smooth and difficult areas, is understood.
“I was spending two or three hours every night studying my road book. It was made more difficult because it was in French, but you have to do it. You are alone out there; you have to navigate your own way. That’s why it’s so important.”
With an average speed of 112km/h , David was under no illusions that his undertaking was a dangerous one and that the Dakar had claimed the lives of many participants over the
“The accident was traumatic, but I was lucky. I think the main thing is to remain positive. I clocked a top speed of 172km/h, so it is quite scary. But this experience taught me that I have the potential to compete, and I have already entered for 2018. This time I do not have to qualify for the Dakar.”
He also paid tribute to his sponsors for supporting him in his memorable endeavour.