Cyril Despres You have just been crowned Rallye-Raid World Champion, has that increased your confidence going into the 2004 Dakar? Obviously it hasn't done it any harm! But whether I had won the World Championship or not I would still be going...
You have just been crowned Rallye-Raid World Champion, has that increased your confidence going into the 2004 Dakar?
Obviously it hasn't done it any harm! But whether I had won the World Championship or not I would still be going into this Dakar with the same ambition -- to win. Everything is in place. I have a great bike, I'm in a professional team and have great mechanical back-up, both on the piste with Jean Brucy, and at the bivouac. All that remains now is for me to make sure I'm at the peak of my physical fitness. Last year I broke my collar bone just five weeks before the start and still managed to finish second, so I see no reason why this year I shouldn't finish right on top of the podium.
Physical fitness is one thing but isn't mental strength also a cruxial factor?
For sure and in that respect two things have changed for me since the start of the last Dakar. The first was just before the end of the 2003 Dakar. Meoni made a navigation error and lost six minutes and I realised that if he could have gone wrong so could the leader Richard Sainct. For about half an hour during that stage I thought I was in with a real chance of winning and I really liked the feeling. It is difficult to explain, but it really gave me a taste for victory. The second big change was my win on the Rallye de Maroc which I achieved fair and square ahead of all my main rivals.
And will being in an all French team make your task any easier?
Yes and no. I'd say that Meoni and Roma have gained the most out of the way the teams have been formed as they are clearly the lead riders in their teams, while myself and Richard are team mates and rivals at the same time. We do however have the advantage of Jean Brucy.
You have already won the Dakar three times, what are your ambitions for 2004?
To win a fourth time! It is true that after winning even once finishing anything less than first is a disappointment, but winning a Dakar is always a very emotional experience, a huge challenge and that is what keeps me motivated. I won't be starting to finish second.
At the launch of the Dakar the man responsible for drawing up the route, Patrick Zaniroli, said this was the hardest Dakar he'd ever laid out. What do you think of the 2004 route?
We will have to wait and see if it really is the hardest in 10 years -- we've heard such claims before and been disappointed. But on paper at least the route looks long, varied and technical and that suits me just fine. As a rider with an enduro background I prefer difficult conditions and it also puts one of my main rivals, Fabrizio Meoni, who will be riding the big KTM twin, at a disadvantage.
Talking of rivals, you've already cited Meoni as one, who are the others?
My biggest rival is myself. My biggest fears are of crashing, running into a mechanical problem or getting lost. After that there are 11 KTM factory riders, all of whom could win. Of those I'd say that in addition to Fabrizio Meoni, Nani Roma and Cyril Despres are the biggest threats.
You said that if the route turns out to be as technical as advertised Meoni's V-twin will be disadvantaged, but that hasn't always been the case, and yet you have always refused the ride the 950, why?
The main reason is that I'm much lighter than someone like Meoni or Roma and so wouldn't be able to throw the bigger bike around like they can. In addition the bike isn't that much quicker, so really I don't see the advantage.
For 2004 KTM have divided the riders into distinct teams, KTM Gauloises France, KTM Gauloises International etc. What difference, if any, will this make to you?
In a way not much as everybody is fighting to win. On the other hand we have by far the best 'water carrier' in our team, in the shape of Jean Brucy, and the fact that he is there uniquely for myself and Cyril is a big bonus.
The Gauloises KTM International team features three 'elder statesmen' of the off- road world. Both South African Alfie Cox and Italian Giovanni Sala were born in 1963 and both came relatively late to rallye-raid, making their debuts on the 1997 Dubai Rallye.
Both also have illustrious pasts in enduro racing - Alfie has won the infamous Roof of Africa a record breaking 9 times, while 'Joe' Sala has been world enduro champion a staggering 5 times! To date their best Dakar results were in 2002 with Alfie taking 2nd place and 'Joe' finishing 6th.
Despite sharing the same nationality and expansive nature with Sala, if anything it is Fabrizio Meoni who is the odd one out in the team.
Born in 1957 Fabrizio came to serious motorcycle competition relatively late in life, and lacking the high-level enduro background of his team mates is, by his own admission, not the most technical rider in the KTM camp.
He is however blindingly fast in the dunes, a fine tactician and an excellent navigator -- talents that have seen him win the Dakar on two consecutive occasions -- in 2001 and 2002. Incredibly strong, he is the only podium challenger to opt for the Austrian manufacturer's mighty 950 V-twin in preference to the more manoeuvrable 700 single.
Mature, vastly experienced, fast and extremely talented, the Gauloises KTM International team also comprises of three riders whose openness and good humour makes them among the most popular competitors in the bivouac.