As the world’s toughest stage race officially reaches the halfway mark, Ross Branch will be using every minute he can to rest at the Dakar Rally today. After coming off a gruelling marathon stage, riders are now recovering on rest day. A day that does not usually foresee any riding will however see riders tackle a 177km liaison stage to shorten the following race day. The racing action will then continue tomorrow back to San Juan de Marcona.
With a current 22nd provisional place overall, Branch has long abandoned the nerves of being a Dakar Rookie and instead describes “having the time of his life”.
He has faced some hair-raising challenges that had the potential to put his Dakar journey to a halt at times. But the joy of living out his Dakar dream has clearly surpassed them all.
We used rest day as an opportunity to catch up with the rising desert star:Physically, what does your body feel like right now? How demanding have the last five days been on your body?
My body is feeling good, surprisingly enough. I made it to rest day in one piece! The last five days have been hectic on my body, especially with the added weight on my back that I needed to carry. Other than that, though, I’m feeling healthy and strong and ready for week two!
How have your goals changed now that the first few stages are behind you?
My goals haven’t changed at all actually. One of the goals was to get into the top 20 overall, which I’ve proved is within reach. I’m just going to take it day by day though, and make sure my bike and my body stays in one piece! If I can keep up my navigation at the speed that I’m going, then I’m happy.
How has the first half of fulfilling your Dakar dream lived up to your expectations?
Experiencing the Dakar is truly living my dream - it’s everything I wanted it to be and more. I didn’t expect to be having so much fun on my bike, even on the long stages. I’m honestly having the time of my life!
What has been the most challenging stage that you've faced so far and why?
Stage five was the hardest stage I’ve ridden, I could write a book about it! The terrain changed so much, and the navigation was really tough. There was also a lot of fesh -fesh (powdery sand), which is something we’re not used to back home. The dunes were massive – I don’t think people can comprehend how big they are on TV. If that wasn’t challenging enough, I also had a crash and burst my fuel tank! I nursed it back home, but I lost a lot of time.
As South Africa's fastest Cross-Country rider, it's not often you ride in someone else's dust. What's it been like to follow the best riders in this sport?
The guys are unbelievably quick, even faster than what we thought they would be. To ride with the best Dakar riders in the world is really quite something. Yesterday morning I was lucky enough to break into the top 20, so I got to line up with some previous Dakar winners. It was an incredible experience! I realised I’ve got a bit of homework to do on the navigational side of things and need to work on my dunes. But I also saw that my pace is there – now everything else just needs to come together.Going into the next five stages, what are you focusing on to be even more successful in the second half?
The next five stages I’ll be focusing on navigating and trying go a bit quicker. It depends on the stage though because some days the terrain suits me and other days it takes me right out of my comfort zone. The main thing is to just keep my head down and stay out of trouble, and then hopefully get faster every day.
Take us a through a specific highlight that you've experienced in the last five days.
The first day started off slow, but then I saw big improvements and began moving up places. I’ve been getting better and better at navigation and pushed the pace more with each stage. So I guess the highlight is experiencing those improvements, and getting to tick off the goals I had set for myself.