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ADV NewsNicola Dutto: First Paraplegic to Race The Dakar Rally on a Bike

Nicola Dutto: First Paraplegic to Race The Dakar Rally on a Bike

After years of intense preparation, a far-fetched dream becomes reality.

Published on 01.09.2019
The human spirit sometimes shines its brightest from life’s inky-black corners, an experience Nicola Dutto could tell us all about. In 2008 and 2009 he was a European Baja champion, a pro rider on top of his game with only promise ahead. And then during Italy’s 2010 Baja in Pordenone – Wham! – in the blink of an eye his career ended with a catastrophic high-speed crash that left him paralyzed.

Can there be a more defining moment in a person’s life?

The heartbreaking turn of events didn’t keep Nicola down long. After only nine months of rehab he was determined to race again, entering the 2011 Baja 1000 in a Polaris side-by-side. Mechanical issues kept him from completing that race, but he did come away with a revelation: four-wheeled machines were not his thing. He missed the synergy and flow of commanding two wheels, and although he hadn’t considered it before, he became determined to find a way to race in the moto class again.

Nicola Dutto - paraplegic to participate in the Dakar Rally
Courtesy Francesca Gasperi

Inspired by the comeback of similarly injured three-time AMA motocross national champion Doug Henry, Nicola set about experimenting with roll cages to protect his lower body. At first he admits he was terrified to ride again, though less than a quarter mile into his maiden run his innate sense of balance returned and he knew at that moment he would be able to race again. Just four months later he placed 24th in Spain’s Baja Aragon.


Soon after, the ambition of becoming the first paraplegic to ride the legendary Dakar was borne, and today, after years of intense preparation and practice, that once seemingly far-fetched dream is Nicola’s reality.

The KTM 450 EXC-F he rides is modified with an electric clutch and bar-mounted front and rear brake controls. Wheelchair cushion specialists, Vicair, custom built a seat to support and protect Nicola from the punishing hits faced by a rider unable to stand in rough terrain while a tidy roll cage protects his lower extremities in the event of a crash. His legs are belted in with a three-point harness.

Nicola Dutto Dakar Rally
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.

“It’s pretty difficult explaining how I have to ride a bike now. It is a very involved manner of riding, and it has taken a lot of time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Working on getting the suspension to work for me was interesting, because I’m unable to stand up to take the blows anymore.”

While this setup allows Nicola to operate the motorcycle effectively he also relies on his heroic team of ghost riders: Julián Villarrubia, Pablo Toral and Victor Rivera, all one-time rivals of Nicola’s on the European circuit. They are his eyes and his legs during the Dakar, one going ahead of Nicola to scan the terrain and choose lines since he cannot stop his own motorcycle. This lead rider is also Nicola’s spotter when he does eventually need to stop. The two sweep riders will right Nicola and his motorcycle in case of a fall.

At the end of Stage 2 of Dakar 2019 this deeply inspirational, history-making team is still going strong, reminding us all that the human spirit lives not in the physical body, but in the intangible heart and mind and its relentless desire to light our way.

Follow Nicola on his Facebook or Instagram page.

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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