LONDON (Reuters) - Sam Sunderland’s road to Dakar Rally success has taken the British motorcycle rider from a dairy farm in southern England to the desert dunes of Arabia and high plains and salt flats of South America.
Along the way, the 2017 winner has learned to hold his breath underwater for three minutes at a time and kill fish with a spear.
Freediving and spearfishing are more than mere recreational activities for the Dubai-based 29-year-old, the first and only Briton to win the Dakar in any category.
That race, with individual stages of up to 1,250km in all manner of conditions, demands complete focus with only a few hours of snatched sleep along the way in the most grueling challenge in motorsport.
“You have to be so mentally strong to keep focus and try and avoid the mistakes and I think that side is hard to train,” Sunderland told Reuters on a visit to London to collect the prestigious Segrave Trophy at the Royal Automobile Club.
“The top guys are all professional athletes. We train every day of the week, more than 100km on the bicycle every day...I think after that it comes down to really small details that you have as a person.”
Which, for Sunderland, is where the spearfishing comes in.
“The psychological side is something that’s huge in spearfishing. You have to be able to resist the urge to breathe and calm yourself down and not get excited,” said Sunderland.
“It’s like when you’re racing your bike and you’re in a zone and everything you know that’s happening is all in slow motion.
“You don’t think about anything else except that. And that I have on the bike and when I’m spearfishing. Because when you’re spearfishing, you have to be completely calm and focused and relaxed.”
Sunderland developed a love of mountain biking and motocross on the farm as a kid, before leaving school and going to work in a concrete factory.
He then spent three or four years doing a lift engineering apprenticeship before joining an uncle and aunt in Dubai at the time of the ‘credit crunch’ in 2008/09.
“Everyone said don’t go and I chose to follow my passion. My passion was not lifts,” said the rider, who raced at weekends while working for a local KTM motorcycle dealership.
“In Dubai you can go wherever you want on your bike. There’s a thousand dunes, off you go. There’s no controls, it’s complete freedom.”
This year’s Dakar remains a painful experience, Sunderland retiring from the January event with a back injury on the fourth day in Peru while six minutes ahead of the field.
Almost blinded by the glare of the sand, he got a jump wrong and landed with a jarring impact. For several hours he had no sensation in his legs.
“It was horrible. I’ve got a few friends that are paralysed and all kind of thoughts start rushing through your head,” he said. “Luckily after a few hours and some treatment, it (the feeling) came back.
“It was because I’d squashed two discs and it was pushing on my spinal cord, the disc, so that was the reason for losing the feeling.”
He was back competing a month later.
The Briton is no stranger to injury, also spending two months in a wheelchair in 2005 when he fractured his pelvis and knees.
He plans to be back on the Dakar next year and could eventually switch to cars, as other motorcycle winners have in the past, even if the current preference is for drivers with world rally championship pedigree.
“I did a car race last weekend and I drive pretty good in the car,” he said. “It was my first time and my times were really only a second or so off the top guys.
“I just love racing, you know. If I was on a lawnmower I’d want to race it.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis