Why you should care
Because you can’t even imagine the grueling work that goes into this stuff.
It’s 5,500 miles of mud, swamps, ice and deserts, with ascents to over 16,000 feet and temperature swings from 11 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. No roads, signs a rarity. Speeds of 100 miles an hour riding a motorcycle sometimes for more than 12 hours a day. Quite simply, it’s survival of the fittest for two weeks.
Laia Sanz’s professional momentum is all geared toward this course, the meanest motor race on the planet. It’s called the Dakar Rally, winding from Buenos Aires, across Chile, to Iquique in Bolivia and back again. Sanz, 29, is already the best female motorcycle rally racer in history, has won the title of best Dakar racer five years in a row and was, in fact, the only woman to finish the race at all in two separate years. She’s the three-time Women’s World Enduro Champion too. Gender aside, she’s top-tier, no matter how you look at it, in a $700 million race where men and women compete tête à tête. Known as the “Queen of the Desert” by competitors, Sanz finished Dakar in the top 100 once and top 40 three times. This year, she landed in ninth.
“It’s a race of resistance. There’s physical and mental hardship. There’s despair,” she says. But bring on 2016, when, naturally, she wants the podium and the big W.
The world of motorcycle sports is globally popular, with a surprising number of variations, from road racing to endurance to off-road motocross. Most involve speed, but some depend only on agility. Rally racing is the smallest and Dakar is the top draw, attracting around 150 competitors every year. Sanz’s event is now outdoor motorcycle rally, in which the goal is simple: Navigate complex roads, and do it faster than anyone else. Her races generally range from a few days to weeks, competing mostly in North Africa and South America, but also Europe. Though it’s something of a subculture sport, its fans are devoted: Almost 4 million people worldwide tuned in to watch Dakar this year, and it was broadcast in 190 countries.
As she won championships, she fetched attention, and eventually sponsors and kick-ass bikes.
It’s also a head-spinning sport: Terrorist attacks on the original Paris-Dakar route forced its cancellation in 2008, only to resume in 2009 when it moved temporarily to the Andes in South America. Twenty-four competitors have died in the race since it started in 1978, including one of Sanz’s rivals in the last edition. She too has been injured there, her big toe almost amputated after a fall.
Sanz looks younger than her years, with pretty, delicate features and a lively smile. Born in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia, she’s been riding a bike since age 4, competing in everything from simple speed racing to dirt bike competitions that had her weaving through complex obstacle courses. Sanz’s dream, though, when she stayed up late watching TV as a kid, was always the Dakar and its “wild landscapes.” But she took her time to make it: In her first race at age 7, encouraged by her mother, she came in last place. Five years later, she won her first race in the Catalonian junior tournament, in a boys’ league (there were no girls’ leagues).
Spain was a lucky birthplace for Sanz — the country has a reputation for being one of the keenest cultivators of motorcycling talent, with impressive academies devoted to training children as young as 4 or 5. Engines and oil in Spain are on par with soccer and paella, and more popular than bullfighting. Spaniards have long been racing among the top three in the world, in all modalities.
As she won championships, she fetched attention, and eventually sponsors and kick-ass bikes. In 2004 she got put on Montesa team; being backed by a corporate team is, as you’d expect, crucial in the sport. It’s the way you gain credibility, get into races and land yourself on the map. Through the years, she developed a rep as a “fighter,” with a “privileged body,” says racer Marc Guasch. Broad-shouldered, muscular and attractive, with a wide, sparkling smile, she looks like a colorful Harley biker on a catwalk. But her advantage isn’t all body: Because of her experience in other forms of motorcycle racing, she’s got the “brains” to concentrate and think strategically, making her a “flawless pilot,” Guasch says. Her meteoric ascent “put us all on the map,” says Inés Fonseca, president of the women’s commission in the Royal Spanish Motorcycling Federation.
Her father, a mechanical engineer and motor sports die-hard, started her out when she was 2, taking her for rides on his motorcycle in their small town of Corbera de Llobregat. When she was 4, while nobody was looking, she took her first solo ride on her older brother’s children’s motorcycle, a Cota 25. High school saw her just “making time” during the week until she could finally race on weekends. After finishing high school, there was only time for training. Motorcycle racing is a family mantra, but danger was not really an issue until Dakar, when racing became a life-and-death affair.
Sanz faces a number of stumbling blocks: Injuries, caused by a single wrong twitch of a handlebar, can knock riders out forever, or worse. She still has many good years left in the sport, where some compete well into their 50s. Then there is the issue of sponsorships: She’s been lucky so far, but sponsorships for female racers are few and far between. That means fewer dollars for equipment, training and safety. Plus, she has a target on her back — people have tried to “hurt” her career, to do “wrong by her.”
“Boys can’t accept that girls can win,” she says. “They get mad.”