Three Canadians started this year's infamous Dakar rally in Lima, Peru. But only one was able to finish the world's most gruelling race in Santiago, Chile, on Sunday after 15 days and 8,000 kilometres of punishing off-road racing.
A blown motor on day two ended the race early for David Bensadoun, the Aldo Shoes executive from Montreal who, in 2012, became the first Canadian to finish on four wheels. Don Hatton, an insurance-brokerage owner from Duncan, B.C., didn't make it past day three on his fifth attempt to finish the Dakar, his motorbike too damaged to continue after being sideswiped by a truck while stuck in a dune.
That left Montreal's Patrick Beaulé, the top-level Canadian motorcycle enduro racer and a sales manager for KTM Canada, who was co-driver in Bensadoun's car for their 2012 finish. He overcame mountainous dunes, powder-soft sand, rocky dry riverbeds and dusty remote tracks on a motorbike this year to finish 62nd out of 183 bikes and 125 that made it to the end. The Globe and Mail reached Beaulé in Santiago.
You're now the first Canadian to finish the world's most gruelling race twice, and the first Canadian to finish on a motorbike rider and in a car. How does it feel?
I'm happy to have made it to the finish line, to have achieved most of my goals for the race. It was my life's dream. Objective No. 1 was to stay alive, because there's a 0.5 per cent chance of dying if you do the Dakar on a motorbike. Objective No. 2 was to finish. There are more than 100 places each kilometre to ruin your Dakar. You have to be sharp all the time. And, I proposed to my girlfriend on the finish podium. She said yes. Now I'm super excited to be engaged.
Dakar competitors talk about the race as an effort to manage the snowball, those layers of mechanical problems, injuries and fatigue that build up to make each kilometre more difficult. When was your snowball at its biggest?
Day four, my engine broke. There was a defect in the motor. I had to be pulled for 320 kilometres holding a rope in my hand to finish the day's ride. I was really beat up at the end. With the help of my team, we found a motor and my mechanic changed it. The day after, I attacked a very steep and rocky hill. Three quarters of the way up, I fell and the bike landed with the handlebars on the lower side of the slope. My front wheel was higher, and the gas tanks were full. It was too heavy to lift, but I found some strength from somewhere. It took me four tries, but I got my bike back up, although it really burned me out.
You were seen in television footage helping eventual motorbike winner Cyril Despres change his engine overnight after he had transmission problems during the two-day marathon stage, which riders have to race without help from mechanics. How did that happen?
We had met at a ride in Quebec last summer. That night, he explained to me what was wrong, and realized I had the skill to swap the motor. The morning after, he thanked me. I told him I'd be grateful for one of his jerseys. He said, 'Don't worry, you're going to get the jersey and the pants.'
You were riding a $45,000 KTM 450RR, which the Austrian motorcycle manufacturer makes specifically for competing in the Dakar, and yet you needed a new engine after just four days and 1,600 kilometres. What is it about this race that is so damaging to the machines?
My engine didn't break because of wear. There was a defect in the main bearings. KTM said it should have lasted the whole race. The day after I helped Cyril swap his motor, the KTM factory team manager came over and told me I didn't have to pay for my replacement motor, because it was defective.
What else did it take to get the bike to last mechanically to the finish?
The mechanic I had was amazing. I didn't take my toolkit out once during the race. He was going to bed at 3, 4, 5 every morning. Because of his preparations, he kept the engine going.
If the race is that hard on the machines, what did it do to your body?
I crashed and broke a rib and cracked my helmet on day six. In a corner full of boulders, I high-sided, got projected off the bike, and landed in a rock pile. Also, my wrists were suffering with pain up to my elbow. But they have incredible physiotherapists. Every day, I almost started with wrists like new. My ass is raw and I have a couple of blisters, but other than that, my body is almost in better shape. My back has more muscle, my abs are now cut. I lost almost 10 pounds. The Dakar is a good way to lose your holiday fat.
Many motorcycle riders dream of riding the Dakar rally one day. What would you say to them?
They dream about a desert rally, and going into the dunes. It's so much fun when you ride in the sand, and it's not as dangerous. But we only did four or five days of dunes out of 15. Otherwise, there was a lot of trails that aren't fun and just wear you out.