Wheels up! Biker Harith Noah on his record-setting finish at Dakar 2021
Harith Noah was speeding through the ergs of Saudi Arabia when he saw it. “Wider than a car and a metre high”, the rock protruded out of the sand. At 110 kmph, he was going too fast to avoid it and his bike crashed straight into the stone, throwing him from his seat. “I don’t know if I passed out,” Noah says. “I don’t remember the crash. It was so fast.”
All he remembers of the accident on January 6 is that when he regained consciousness a minute later, he saw that his airbag vest had luckily inflated. And he felt pain in his left leg. His bike was badly damaged; without an exhaust and with a large hole in the rear fuel tank.
Noah was in the midst of the Dakar Rally, a 43-year-old annual event that’s not so much a race as a test of rider-machine endurance. It lasts up to 15 days, includes several stages and covers several thousand kilometres. Many see it as the world’s most dangerous motorcycle rally, the ultimate off-road challenge. The 28-year-old biker from Kerala missed out on completing his Dakar debut last year, over a technical glitch. He wasn’t giving up.
So he picked up his TVS RTR 450, glanced at the roadbook and rode ahead on his broken bike to eventually finish Stage 4 in 66th position. That focus carried over to the rest of the event — he finished no lower than 29th in the remaining eight stages, and completed Dakar 2021 with an overall classification of 20th, the best finish by an Indian yet.
Incredibly, Noah had no idea of his position until the end. He says he deliberately didn’t follow the daily results, to keep himself free of any pressure. “At the end of the day I can only ride as well as I can,” he says. “I was actually surprised it was 20th.”
The rank beats CS Santosh’s record from 2018, when he finished 34th. And Noah, whose father owns a bakery -- his German mother paints and takes care of their farmland in Shoranur -- is an unlikely contender.
His journey began in 2011, when Noah, then 18, took up Supercross, a sport in which motorcyclists race on a constructed dirt track consisting of steep jumps and obstacles. After seven years of winning national championships, the sports-science graduate switched over to rallying, making his international debut with the 2018 Rally of Morocco.
Dakar, however, is every motorist’s Everest. His finish is even more noteworthy, given how little of an Indian presence there has been at the Dakar. Santosh was the first Indian to participate, as recently as 2015. KP Aravind became the second Indian to complete the rally, in 2019. A growing interest in rallies, meanwhile, prompted two Indian motorcycle manufacturers, Hero and TVS, to start factory teams, which now regularly take part in rallies around the world, including the Dakar.
Last year, with the pandemic disrupting the off-roading calendar, several Road To Dakar events, cross-country races that serve as prep for the rally, were cancelled. Noah had only nine days to train on unfamiliar terrain — dunes, mud, dirt, camel grass, rocks and gravel. “I am someone who takes a lot of time to get used to a bike, so it wasn’t easy,” says Noah. “I didn’t have any time on the dunes, which definitely affected me. But I made the most of it.”
The rally itself is hard on body and mind. A biker must crouch or stand for most of the race, for hours at a stretch, his eyes constantly darting back and forth from the horizon to the roadbook on his bike’s navigation tower. The trick is to find the highest speed at which you can do both. “It’s challenging,” says Noah. “If I follow the lines [tracks left by others] and don’t look at the roadbook, I can go much faster, but what if the lines are wrong?”
Rallyists regularly made navigational errors this Dakar. “I don’t think there’s anybody who didn’t get lost,” Noah says. After going astray multiple times and consequently losing time in the first week, he decided to concentrate more on the navigation. That meant dropping to a lowly 35 kmph at times.
Despite his finish, Noah has his feet firmly on the ground. “I am the same guy I was before 20th position,” he says with a laugh. “This one result doesn’t mean it is always going to be like this. So many things can go wrong. There are always going to be problems. It’s about how you overcome them.”
So what makes the Dakar rally so difficult?
* The Dakar is the world’s toughest motorcycle rally. Participants cover more than 7,000 km in 12 stages over two weeks, across a wide range of terrains, from desert dunes to scrub and rock.
* Held annually since 1979, the rally is an endurance test for both rider and machine. Of the 322 participants this year, only 206 finished the rally. Riders typically drop out as a result of crash, injury or irreparable damage to their vehicle.
* The rally was originally held in Europe and Africa, culminating in Dakar, Senegal. It was moved to South America in 2009, due to unrest in Mauritania. Last year and this year, it was held in Saudi Arabia.