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ADV NewsDakar Rally 2020: 10 Riders With the Strongest Chance to Win

Dakar Rally 2020: 10 Riders With the Strongest Chance to Win

 Ex-Dakar Racer Ned Suesse gives us his top picks for the Dakar Rally 2020 win.

Published on 01.02.2020

Dakar — the race that defines the year for many of us. 2020 promises to be the most exciting race in years, with a new location, a lot of factory involvement, and some big changes to the organization.

The first and biggest story about this year’s race is the new location in Saudi Arabia. The race was originally named for the ultimate destination – Dakar, Senegal, in North Africa. After some apparently terrorist related “unpleasantness,” the 2008 edition was cancelled and the race was moved to South America. South America was beautiful and dynamic and challenging but had a different flavor from the African version, for two reasons in my opinion.

Everywhere you go in South America, you run into people everywhere, and most of them are just like you are. They are part of the modern world, filming you on their cell phone as you ride by, drinking beer and cheering you on. Africa was not like that. There were many fewer people and many of those, were living in a way that is totally different to our own experience. Dakar is a mental race, and the solitude of Saudi Arabia may be a return to an old challenge.

Dakar Rally racing

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Furthermore, while South America has every kind of technical riding challenge you could hope for, it doesn’t have the kind of endless monotony that Africa did. I have spoken to many people who raced in Africa and said they had a moment when they realized they were in a sea of dunes that continued unbroken to every horizon, an epiphany of their place in the world and how small it is. Saudi Arabia should offer a return to the stark surreality of Africa, and it will create a different mental challenge for the riders. To me, that is exciting and a benefit.

Another change has to do with, put bluntly, cheating. In South America, the routes had to be checked with local authorities, and word is that they didn’t always keep them totally secret, for the right price. There were map men, who labored behind the scenes to prepare their teams with the best information available… in short, the playing field was not as level as it should have been. My guess is that competitors who attempt to bribe a roadbook away from the government will not have much luck, and might have fewer hands to attempt the race with. Again, I see this as a benefit, because while some might call it preparing, I call it cheating.

Dakar 2020 Saudi Arabia route

Finally, it will be interesting to see how the liberal French culture of Dakar meshes with the ultimate conservatism of Saudi Arabia. Competitors have received notice that they are not welcome to wear shorts, have public displays of affection, or drink alcohol. All of these things are normal to the bivouac, so the change in attitude will be substantial.

Rule Changes 

Next up, there are some substantial rule changes this year. First, the tradition in rally has been that roadbooks were distributed the night before, so that riders could mark them up and prepare for the following day. That was fine in the era before satellite mapping, but now teams are able to see the route from the clues in the roadbook, fly it in Google earth, and look for shortcuts that will avoid difficult terrain without missing waypoints.

To avoid this problem, the organizers are trying something new – pre-marked roadbooks distributed on the start line in the morning. This is a major departure from the past, and carries a substantial risk – the top riders are totally committed to the notes, riding way beyond their sightlines. If the roadbook marking leads them wrong, someone could get hurt. But on the flip side, it will make an absolutely even playing field, and that has been lacking for some time. I see this change as a really positive one that will re-emphasize navigation.

Dakar rule changes
A ‘joker’ pass will be granted to less experienced racers forced to retire, allowing them to re-join the rally under the ‘Dakar Experience’ category.

The other big change that I see comes from Longitude. Although, the race has a cult following here, Dakar is primetime news in Europe and the pressure was on to have results for the evening news. Since Peru is at least 5 time zones behind Europe, that meant the stage had to complete by midday. When I raced in 2012, the winners were generally done with the special section by very early afternoon. Saudi Arabia is 3 hours ahead of Europe, so a stage could theoretically run to dark and still make primetime in Europe.

This may open the way for longer stages, which will spread the field out more. Again, I see this change as a big benefit, that will change the feel of the race from a sprint to a marathon.

Now on to the predictions – Best guess for the win:

Previous Winners

TOBY PRICE #1 (AUS, KTM)

Dakar 2020 Toby Price

Last year, Toby broke his right wrist a few weeks before the start. I said not to count him out, but in truth, I did (and so did everyone else, teammates included). We didn’t realize how much pain Toby was willing to accept- he proved us all wrong, and won in spite of a wrist that looked horrible by the end. The best surgeons on earth reckon he is ready this time, so I guess we better put him on top of the list. Toby is the only two time winner in the new era, I see 2020 as his race to lose

MATTHIAS WALKNER #2 (AUT, KTM)

Dakar Saudi Arabia Matthias Walkner

Matthias won the 2018 race and has never finished lower than 2nd. He is rock solid with speed and skill, and he understands that winning the race does not require winning a lot of special stages. If he is in the race at the end, he will be on the podium.

SAM SUNDERLAND #3 (GBR, KTM)

Dakar Sam Sunderland

Toward the end of last year’s race, Sam was supposed to lead out but had a mysterious Iritrack problem, causing the second rider to be first on course, which is a major advantage for Sam. Many find the circumstances suspicious, myself among them. Sam won in 2017, he is a sand specialist and he will be a threat for the win.

Close But No Cigar (Yet)

ADRIEN VAN BEVEREN #4 (FRA, Yamaha)

Adrien Van Beveren races Dakar 2020

Adrien has shown that he has the speed to be at the front, and he is known for his ability on sand. But, the Yamaha has not finished at the front, so the team does not have experience managing the race the way that KTM does. Winning would be a surprise but a podium is within reach.

PABLO QUINTANILLA #5 (CHL, Husqvarna)

Dakar Pablo Quintanilla

Pablo has been the World Champion twice, and the big goal that remains in front of him is victory in Dakar. After injuries on the final stage last year, he is only recently at full strength. We know he wants it, we know he has the bike and the skills, the question is, will the cards fall his way? 

ANDREW SHORT #6 (USA, Husqvarna)

Andrew Short ready to race Dakar 2020

Andrew won the last World round of the year, in Morocco, which perhaps not coincidentally, was the first place they tried the new pre-marked roadbooks.  Andrew is an awesome racer who loves nothing more than being on his dirtbike, and he has steadily improved his game until he has to be seen as a threat for the podium. He is the guy I will be cheering for up front, I’ve never met a sportsman I admired more.

RICKY BRABEC #9 (USA, Honda)

Ricky Brabec ready to race Dakar 2020

Ricky was in position to win last year when his bike expired. He has the speed, he understands the race, all he needs is a little luck on his side. The HRC team has not always treated him as well as other members of the team, I hope this year has less drama for him. I was heartbroken last year when his bike quit, and he handled it with courage and grace. 

Others With a Lucky Chance

KEVIN BENAVIDES #7 (ARG, Honda)

Dakar Saudi Arabia Kevin Benavides

Kevin has been a force in South America, the terrain he grew up with. My question is whether his pace will be as fierce in the unfamiliar circumstances of Saudi Arabia as it was at home.

PAULO GONCALVES #8 (POR, Hero)

Paulo is a legend, part of the old guard who has been fighting this game for longer than most. His pace may not be on par with the very fastest but his head game will be. The new roadbook rules may be an advantage for him, and he is a sentimental favorite with me and many other longtime fans.

JOAN BARREDA BORT #12 (ESP, Honda)

JBB is a polarizing figure. He has been at the center of several controversies over the years, and while he has won more stages than most, he has never been on top of the podium at the end. His pace can be incredible, but he will have to work for consistency to have a chance at the win.

American Racers To Watch

This year, we are lucky to have a really strong American contingent. In addition to Andrew and Ricky, we have the following entries:

GARRETT POUCHER #47 – 32nd last year, Garrett is legit. He made some errors and reckons if he cleans up his act, he can get in the teens or twenties, and I wouldn’t bet against him. Garrett has done a lot to help Skyer Howes, and has shown incredible motivation in advancing his career offroad. Garrett has the speed and the toughness, it will be matter of keeping himself upright to be there at the end.

PETR VLCEK #52 – Angelo is Czech, but lives in South Carolina, so we’re adding him to our list here. He has finished Dakar 3 times before- 68th in 2017, and 47th in both 2018 and 2019. This year, he is doing it the hard way- Malles Moto, with no support. Given that, I am not looking for an improvement on his finish, but I am looking for some great stories.

SKYLER HOWES #59 – Skyler is the 2019 Best in the Desert Open Pro champion, and had a 10th place stage finish last year… after he had dislocated his shoulder. So I think it is safe to say he is faster, and tougher, than most. Last year, a spectator on a minibike caused him to crash on liaison, so while it is tempting to say he should have managed risk better, I don’t think that is entirely fair- S#$T happens on a race as long as Dakar. I hope he has a clean race and I think he can hope for a finish in the top 10 if he does.

KYLE MCCOY #104 – Kyle finished the Africa Eco race last year, so he knows what he is getting into. He is physically strong, he will make good decisions, and I think his mentality will be there when the going gets tough. He’s on excellent equipment, I think we can all look to him as our everyman hero for getting to the start line and committing himself to his dream. Kyle will be steady when the going gets tough, and that is the name of the privateer game.

The 2019 Dakar Rally runs from January 5th to the 17th with 12 stages of racing plus a rest day in between. You can watch daily highlights on Red Bull TV starting January 4th at 8:00 PM PST. A list of TV Broadcasters can also be found on the Dakar Rally website.

Author: Ned Suesse

Ned is a Moto Journalist, Dakar Rally Finisher and the founder of DoubleTake Mirrors. He began riding off-road motorcycles shortly after college, which eventually developed into a desire to race. His competitive racing career has taken him from Mexico to Tunisia, Italy and all over the Americas. He finally reached his dream of racing the Dakar Rally in 2012 at the age of 35. Ned crossed the Finish Line 53rd out of the 188 participants, and was the only American to go all the way that year!

Author: Ned Suesse
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2 thoughts on “Dakar Rally 2020: 10 Riders With the Strongest Chance to Win

  1. Great article Ned ! very well written and researched – thanks! +1 for TobyPrice to podium – mainly because he’s such a humble everyday bloke and calm under pressure. as you said, the nav this year will be harder than hard, and everybody above will be truely tested by the road book.

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