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ADV NewsNicola Dutto: First Paraplegic to Finish Africa Eco Race On A Bike

Nicola Dutto: First Paraplegic to Finish Africa Eco Race On A Bike

 Paraplegic rider completes one of the most grueling rallies.

Published on 01.27.2020

Imagine riding more than 4,000 miles across North Africa at racing speed, then make nearly 2,500 miles of it on technical off-road tracks, including rocky trails and all-day bottomless sand. Sound difficult? Now imagine doing it without the use of your legs. 

On January 19th Nicola Dutto became the first paraplegic rider to finish the grueling Africa Eco Race, a 12-stage rally raid born in a vacuum left in Northern Africa when the famous Paris-Dakar rally departed the continent for safer routes in South America. 

And coolest of all, Nicola didn’t come in trailing behind the able-bodied entrants. He finished a respectable 47th out of 66 riders that completed all 12 stages. 


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It’s no surprise that getting to the finish line of the Africa Eco Race wasn’t easy for the 50-year-old two-time champion of the European Bajas, but he says there was never a choice following a catastrophic crash during the 2010 Italian Baja in Pordenone that left him completely paralyzed from the waist down. He knew he’d get back on the bike and continue racing. 

“It’s Where I Feel Equal”

Nicola Dutto races Africa Eco Race
Dutto became the first paraplegic rider to finish the AER – a 12-stage rally raid that runs through the punishing terrain of the African desert finishing in Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Alessio Corradini / Africa Eco Race

Nicola says riding on two wheels is where he feels free and most alive. It’s also where he feels equal to able-bodied athletes. “If someone finds me an inspiration that’s good,” but he’s also quick to add that inspiration is not his intention. Instead, riding and competing on motorcycles is a necessity for the athlete. It’s what keeps him motivated.  “Not returning to the bike was not even an option,” says Nicola. And leaving the world of two wheels to compete on four wheels was also quickly discounted. “It was the only choice for me. Once a biker, always a biker.”

So how does he manage? His KTM 450 EXC-F is specially modified. All controls have been brought to the handlebar including a Rekluse automatic clutch. Suspension has been dialed for a full-time seated rider, and there is a lightweight back support and a roll cage for his legs, which are strapped to the frame of the bike. The seat and backrest are custom made by sponsor, Vicair, a Dutch company that specializes in high-tech wheelchair cushions. 

Nicola Dutto KTM 450 exc-f motorcycle
Dutto’s KTM uses an electronically-controlled shifter, an automatic Rekluse clutch, a custom seat with a 3-point harness attached, and a framework that keeps his legs secured. In addition, the rear brake master cylinder has been moved to the handlebars.

Because Nicola can’t put his feet down to stop the bike or right himself, he races with “ghost riders,” typically one ahead to scout the terrain and one or two behind to assist in the event of a fall. For the Africa Eco Race, Nicola used only two ghost riders, Julian Villarrubia and Stephano Baldussi, talented racers in their own right who once competed against Nicola, but are now devoted to his success. 

This year’s AER race was one of the most challenging to date, with more than half the stages run in sand. “The hardest part for me was the loop in remote Mauritania,” says Nicola. This was a new feature of the race that crossed treacherous stretches of smooth sand covering hidden rocks during the 7th stage. Many riders suffered crashes and setbacks here, even though they were able to stand on the pegs and absorb the shocks of such mixed terrain. 

Nicola Dutto falls during Africa Eco Race
Nicola’s sweep riders help reset him upright after a fall. Photo by Alessio Corradini / Africa Eco Race

“It was a nightmare for both my body and my mind,” says Nicola. “The only choice for me was following in the tracks of the big trucks and going full throttle like a motocross racer.” 

After years of training, thousands of miles of conquering technical terrain and sand dunes, countless nights in bivouacs repairing bikes and struggling to sleep, the smile on Nicola’s face at the finish in Dakar says it all.  

“It was such an amazing feeling,” he says. “Indescribable. My ghost riders and mechanics, my partner Elena and all the training helped me to get here, but the passion I feel for riding motorcycles also helped me finish.”

Photo by Alessio Corradini / Africa Eco Race

Dakar Controversy

You may have read our report about Nicola last year as he took on the 41st Dakar Rally in Lima, Peru, becoming the first paraplegic to participate in the notorious race on a bike. Having qualified like any able-bodied rider, he was riding strong for the first four stages with the world cheering him on when the mechanical failure of one of his ghost rider’s bikes caused him to ask an official if the team could shortcut to the bivouac in exchange for a time penalty. 

The answer he insists he got from not one, but two officials along the route was a solid yes, so later that night when he was informed he was out of the race for missing one waypoint too many, neither Nicola nor his legions of fans took it well. 

What followed was a major dust up between officials and Team Nicola, who had spent years training for the event, only to be disqualified under elusive circumstances. 

In the end, Nicola put the race behind him, explaining that the Dakar had never been a goal prior to the accident, that he had been watching it on TV during his recovery and thought, “Why not?” Instead, his big dream had always been to race in the famous Baja 1000 in Mexico, a race he was planning to ride in the year of his accident. 

The Africa Eco Race was also on his radar before he rode in the Dakar, being a rally Nicola feels is the “real Dakar,” set in Africa with all the challenges that represents. 

What’s Next?

Photo by Alessio Corradini / Africa Eco Race

Nicola has two more races planned for 2020. First, the Spanish Baja in July, then in November, living his dream of racing the Baja 1000. “I was meant to run this race ten years ago,” he says. “This was my goal when I had my accident, and now I’m very happy and proud to have the opportunity to finally ride a motorcycle in this famous race.”

Nicola Dutto may not have set out to inspire the world with his grit and passion, but here we are anyway, feeling both heartened and humbled by his heroics. Blessed to understand and share a world where an open track and two wheels can mean everything. 

Ride on Nicola! 

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge
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2 thoughts on “Nicola Dutto: First Paraplegic to Finish Africa Eco Race On A Bike

  1. It is a very inspiring story about passion & goals, but also about humanity and helpfulness.

    As a startup entrepreneur I currently read many books or listen to audio books. Books about passion and goals are many of them and can be found in management departments. Books about humanity and helpfulness, however, I have hardly discovered any in the management area. However, I am convinced that it is worth going to the psychology department. Because without humanity and helpfulness I personally can find little joy in my passion, can’t really live out my passions and my goals would become a very lonely place.

    I am happy to dedicate today to my start-up project about our common passion for motorcycling. I persistently pursue my goals, which I want to achieve personally on the bike, but also in general in my life and in particular in this context with my startup.

    With humanity and helpfulness I want to give my heart project a sympathetic friendly face.

    I wish you all a wonderful day. Live your passion, pursue your goals persistently and do not let humanity and helpfulness fall by the wayside. They belong in the always handy tank bag of every real biker and every real (startup) entrepreneur.

    We are #globalriders ✌

  2. Very inspiring. My very athletic dad was a paraplegic (car crash) since I was 3, so I’ve always feared if I crashed badly on my motorcycle or mountain bike (and have on pavement and dirt) I’d end up paralyzed. My dad never found a way to overcome his disability; I’d like to think I’d be more like Nicola (don’t want to find out mind you), but kudos to him.