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Joy and self-loathing on the dirt track

Dakar, the toughest, most celebrated rally in the world, demands riders to stand crouched over on the bikes for better part of the fast stretches.

other sports Updated: May 18, 2019 09:17 IST
Sandip Sikdar
Sandip Sikdar
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Dirt Bike Racing,CS Santosh,KTM Racing
File image of Santosh Chunchunguppe Shivashankar, better known as CS Santosh(Getty Images)

CS Santosh lay amid the sand dunes of Peru for close to 45 minutes. He was awake, but he did not know that. A rescue party at the 2019 Dakar Rally found him some 200km from Moquegua, the starting point of the fifth stage on route to Arequipa, stunned by a concussion injury. He was airlifted and admitted to a hospital in Tacna, in southern Peru near the Chile border, with back and hip injuries. That was in January.

The 35-year-old off-road rally biker from Bengaluru, however, has no memory of the crash and what followed.

“I had hit my head and apparently was awake the whole time. I thought I had passed out. I have no recollection. I had no idea I lay there for that long,” Santosh says calmly.

“You need to gamble with life. This is a sport where you need to take risks. This is not a game point, make mistakes and learn from there.”

Dakar, the toughest, most celebrated rally in the world, demands riders to stand crouched over on the bikes for better part of the fast stretches. Standing up helps the rider get a better view of what’s coming—loose rocks, slush, deep sand, holes in the dune—while zooming at over 90kmph, the sand flying from the wheels. One lapse could be fatal, and serious injuries are par for the course.

So far, the Dakar has claimed around 70 lives, 28 of them being competitors, apart from spectators and officials, in 41 editions.

Santosh is all scars. He wears them proudly. “In my whole career, I have been lucky to break the least number of bones. Guys at the same level have broken so many more,” he says. “But yeah, wrist, collar bone, my back a couple of times, hairline fractures... there have been some.”

The scar covering his neck looks like one massive tattoo that runs all the way to his shoulders. He acquired that one on his first attempt at cross country rallying. He had entered the 2013 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, an FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship event, as a privateer on a shoestring budget. It meant his machine “was not where it needed to be”.

“During the rally, a fuel leak...and it ignited and the bike went up in flames,” says Santosh. He just about managed to get away, with third degree burns on his neck and hands. Multiple surgeries followed. Pointing to his neck, he says: “This part is really vital because all the main veins run through here. So I am lucky I didn’t burn any of those. It was quite deep.” Next year, he finished in the top 10 at the same event, earning his first Dakar qualification.

Santosh also had a serious accident at the 2017 Desert Storm. Leading the pack through the fields in Rajasthan, Santosh snagged a barbed wire and crashed, dislocating a couple of vertebrae. But despite the injury, Santosh rode on through pain for the next three days only to lose his lead on the final day and finish third. “That was the last big crash I had because of which I had to get it operated and fuse my neck.”

But they were never a deterrent. “It’s like an artist who goes through his own process of self-loathing and joy,” Santosh says. “He experiences emotions that me and you cannot. For me it is the same, I am an artist but the canvas I choose is cross country rallying and the motorcycle is my way of expressing myself. That’s how I look at myself.”

Santosh’s concern post-Dakar was not the pain or recovery. He was more disappointed with the fact that 2019 was the second time in five appearances that he could not finish the rally.

“It was heartbreaking, especially when I had a lot of things going for myself. It took me a while to get back on my feet,” says Santosh after making a comeback in May at the Desert Storm in Rajasthan, his first event since Dakar. A multiple winner, the Hero rider finished second.

“There was some issue with my back (after Dakar) which the doctors couldn’t pinpoint because with the nerves, it’s a little more complicated,” says Santosh, the first Indian to complete the Dakar, in 2015, on his first attempt. He finished 36th with a broken toe and injured shoulder.

“Now I am almost back to where I was last year. It will take me the rest of the year to come back to form.”

By form he means getting ready for his sixth attempt at the Dakar early next year in Saudi Arabia. “My journey only started when I completed the Dakar because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have the life that I have today,” Santosh says. “Today the goal is to be competitive, reach and be among those top guys. I am not saying I am going to win. But I am the guy who can break the threshold. That is what I want to do, make a name by being competitive and not just the guy who finishes.”

When not near a bike, Santosh enjoys reading books, especially autobiographies, and particularly liked Abhinav Bindra’s ‘A Shot at History’. Of late, he has developed a passion for surfing. “I always wanted to surf so I learnt it recently and will pursue it now. It complements what I do on motorcycles,” he says. “On motorcycles everything is about the rush but when you are surfing you have to actually wait it out in the ocean for the right waves. I love it, need to go out and do more of that.”

Spending time with his parents and four dogs at their family farm house in Kolar, about 70km from Bengaluru, is another of his favourite past times. There, he also runs the Big Rock Dirt Park a three-track facility for off-road riding.

“It brings people to my world, gives them a chance to learn off-road skills and (for) me to spot talent,” he says.

“I want to do to off-roading what (Pullela) Gopichand did to badminton.”

First Published: May 18, 2019 08:24 IST