Sunday was the big day. Rally Raid legend Franco Picco left for his twenty-ninth desert marathon: the Dakar. The Italian rider has twice finished the event in second place, as well as having clocked up two wins in the Rally des Pharaons and three wins in the Rally of the Pyramids, competing since he was very young. When he’s not racing, he organises bike trips in the desert. It’s no surprise then that his nickname is “the African”.

As we’ve said, at 65 years of age, Franco prepares to write another page of history, competing in the Dakar once more. A feat he will tackle alone, because he has decided to participate in the “Original Motul” class, without support. 

Leaving yesterday

We spoke to Franco Picco shortly before he boarded a charter flight arranged by ASO, the Dakar organisation, bound for Jeddah.

“They’ve done a great job to get around the latest issues with the British COVID strain”, explains Franco Picco.Saudi Arabia has closed in terms of all scheduled flights and only charter flights arranged by the ASO are permitted. Luckily I had already opted for a charter flight and so there were no changes. Those who went for a scheduled flight, which cost less, have now had to look for a seat on a charter flight, some having to leave a couple of days early. The organisers have done well to find a last minute solution in agreement with the authorities”.

A ‘health bubble’

What is your schedule looking like once you arrive in Jeddah on Sunday evening?

“I did a COVID test three days ago and will do another when I arrive, organised by the ASO. Then I have to stay in the hotel for two days. If the result is still negative, I can go to the port and get my bike.

“They’ve basically created a ‘health bubble’: you have to be OK to enter, and then not leave. During the race, this health bubble will move without having any other contact. A system that the organisers tested at the Tour de France and Saudi Arabia has definitely helped to ensure we can run the Dakar”, adds Franco Picco.

How have you trained in recent days, after loading your Yamaha?

“With the exercise bike and with handlebars and weights, to keep moving, but always at home. I didn’t go out and about in order to reduce any risk. To avoid COVID I’ve distanced, used a mask, washed my hands. I was just thinking that once we arrive in Jeddah there might be some cases, and anyone positive won’t be able to race”.

"The route is well conceived"

What do you think of the route?

“It’s the opposite way round to last year, when we started from Jeddah and headed north, crossing the desert on the last days.

“This time we head south from Jeddah, into the Rub’ al Khali, then to Riyahd before climbing north. The rest day is in Ha’il, where they had a Baja two weeks ago and some riders who will do the Dakar got some training in. Then we head a little further north, with another desert to cross, and then we have the famous Marathon phase, without support on arrival. Then it’s back to the Red Sea, across from Sharm El-Sheikh, and down towards Jeddah in three stages, with the longest 500 km special on the penultimate day.

The route is well conceived, each day will see us cover many miles as we exit and enter the cities. The longest stage is 800 km to Riyahd, although the special is 300 km, we need to get up very early in the morning! There are 12 stages split into two groups of six, with a rest day inbetween, two boucles, or rather two ring-shaped routes, and we’ll reach Jeddah on 15 January.

“The temperature looks good too. I’ve spoken to some guys who have already arrived and they tell me it’s a good temperature, around 25°C at eight in the evening. The second week might be a little cooler, at least in the evening, because we head north and to the mountains”, adds Franco Picco.

“There’s definitely a bit of everything, sand, tracks, navigation near the Red Sea and at least four more technical stages in the desert.

"Without charging in"

How will you approach the race?

“I’ve decided to take it easy, without charging in”, comments Picco. “I haven’t done anything for a week, and then we have another week before starting. So I need to get back into the rhythm and the best thing is to start easy and then build up towards the end. This is always the best approach at the Dakar, and for me too, considering I have #65 on the bike, my age. I never thought I’d be doing a Dakar now, I have to remind myself of this too…” concludes Franco Picco.

Translated by Heather Watson

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