Paris-Dakar Rally, 1998

by Bob Higdon

DAY 1:

     You think I'm nuts? You ought to see these guys (and a few women). They're in worse shape than even some of the people my psychiatrist won't let into his office.

     It's Paris-Dakar Rally time again, the mostly annual romp from north-central France to Dakar, Senegal via Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, and other exotic places. Geography fans will note that the straight-line distance requires riding through a significant hunk of a rather large desert. It is not something for the faint of heart. It's also not something that is always spectator-friendly. The public relations boys for the rally tend to cancel the event when they have to bury too many innocent bystanders from the year before. Last year must have been relatively quiet, for before dawn on New Year's Day, 349 vehicles --- 173 motorcycles, 115 cars, and 61 trucks --- were warming up in Versailles, France.

     Sure, they call it a rally, but believe me, in large sections of this event it is nothing but a flat out race. The course is divided into transit zones (called "liaisons") and stages (called "stages"). The purpose of the transit zone is to allow entrants to travel from one stage to another along public roads, generally at a velocity approximating the local speed limit.

     When you reach the end of a transit zone, you begin a stage at an assigned time. When you've completed the stage, you're either through for the day or you begin another quiet transit zone. It's not rocket psychiatry. The only requirement is that you must be on time to begin your stage. If you can read a watch, you should be in good shape. When they drop the flag that signals the start of your stage, you take off.

     And God, how you will take off. Here again, the problem is not a subtle one. Stages vary wildly in the distances that they cover, but they share one common trait: the time that you are given to complete the stage, no matter how long it may be, is zero seconds. Few vehicles, even the frightening super-production KTMs that are expected to dominate the bike class of the rally, can travel at the speed of light. You will thus incur penalty points --- one per second --- that you are late at the end of the stage. After eighteen days, the fewest penalty points will win. Simple, huh?

     The organizers took it easy on the field today. It was a 938 km tour from Versailles, through Paris, south down the spine of central France, and concluding at Narbonne near the border with Spain. There was just one stage, an 11 km section of dirt. No problem. Well, almost no problem. It was bitterly cold and the dirt wasn't dirt any longer. It was mud, cold mud, and there was a lot of it. But the neat thing about the Paris-Dakar is that no matter how ugly it gets, someone will get through there in the least amount of time. And today belonged to local amateur Francois Flick.

     Frankie couldn't have been looking forward to this. His bike, a Honda XR400, was an infantile joke compared to the brooding factory KTMs that could flatten him and never notice. But Frankie had a few things going for him: he was a Frenchman, there were nearly eighty thousand Frenchmen screaming his name at the start of the stage, and his bike weighed next to nothing. Allez! Frankie, they yelled.

     And allez Frankie did, cutting through the 6.84 miles of slime at about 43 mph. Normally that would have gotten him a finishing position of about 167th in the field, but this was not a normal day. The mud got worse. Then it got horrible. Then it became impassable. Halfway through the lineup, the organizers stopped the carnage. They gave median scores to contestants who were prevented from completing the stage. You'll never hear Francois Flick's name again in the Paris-Dakar this year unless he kills himself or someone else, but his time held up. Not only that, his tiny little production bike, a class just a step above a skateboard, was nearly a minute ahead of the fastest super-production entry.

     Flick's finish was a bonne New Year's present for the French, but it soon got more bonne: nearly half of the top twenty riders were their fellow countrymen. On top of that, the hated boys from Berlin were in the toilet.

     The two top riders on Richard Schalber's F650 BMW team, Italian Edi Orioli and Spaniard Oscar Gallardo, were stuck in 47th and 52nd place respectively. Yeah, Frenchman Jean Brucy was also on Schalber's rotten Deutsch team, but Brucy had clearly ridden out of his skull, ending the day in eighth place, and a repeat of that performance was not expected. He was clearly a mudder. Andrea Mayer, the sole distaff member riding for Schalber, was a distant 93rd, a mudder not.

     Day #2 will send them across the mountains to Spain, a long (1182 km) day with a short (35 km) stage. And, the glowing French hoped, maybe the warmer weather would wake up The Man. He's France's own Stephane Peterhansel, fifteenth overall on the first day aboard a Yamaha 850 XTZ, and the toughest rider the rally has ever seen. He has knocked the Paris-Dakar to its knees five times. The rider's entry plate is a fair estimate of potential success on the rally. Peterhansel carries plate #1.

     And he just loves Africa.

DAY 2:

     I think it was Robert E. Lee who said it first, though I admit it could have been George Patton or Ghengis Khan or Xerxes. It's called "the fog of war." In ancient battles it was difficult to tell what was happening on the field. Today it's a lot easier to understand the overall picture, what with computers, radios, and cameras in the nose cones of cruise missiles, so now the military commanders lie to everyone about what is transpiring, apparently to restore that old feeling of total confusion and doubt.

     Whoever is running the press tent at the Paris-Dakar has studied the problem facing war correspondents and appears to be making a conscientious effort to provide information that is at best humorous and at worst random bullshit. Day #2 of the rally is a fine example of that guy's work. I wouldn't mind this so much if I were actually part of the P-D road show, where I might have a fighting chance to figure out the truth, but I sit quietly in a basement in Washington, D.C., sift through French web sites, and try to make sense of something like the 11:45 a.m. interim press release:

     "After placing second yesterday, Italy's Fabio Fasola (KTM) provided the day's surprise by winning the Chateau-Lastours special in front of Spain's Solano (Cagiva) and Frenchman Morales (Muz). Peterhansel finished in 45th place. Sainct 70th, Arcarons, Magnaldi, and Orioli 77th, 79th, and 116th."

     The final press report of the day echoes those standings. That would be great if they bore any resemblance to the stage standings that appear for that day:

    1 Roma            KTM     30:21     00:00:00

    2 Perez           KTM     30:38     00:00:17

    3 Sala            KTM     30:43     00:00:22

    4 Peterhansel     YAM     30:47     00:00:26

    5 Sainct          KTM     30:50     00:00:29

    6 Fasola          KTM     31:21     00:01:00

    7 Katrinak        KTM     31:53     00:01:32

    8 Gallardo        BMW     31:56     00:01:35

    9 Morales         MUZ     31:59     00:01:38

     And so on. If you can reconcile the press reports with those stage results, there's a job waiting for you in a campaign finance committee somewhere. The overall standings, based on combining the final standings from Day #1 with the stage results from Day #2, put Roma, Sala, Fasola, Peterhansel, and Perez in the top five slots, but who's really there is anyone's guess.

     The truth is that it doesn't matter. A thirty-minute stage on the second day of the event has about as much chance of influencing the final results in another couple of weeks as I do of figuring out what is really happening in southern France. By the end of the first week they will be running through stages that won't take ten or twenty minutes to complete; they will last most of the day. When some of the amateurs like Flick and Fasola hit those 100-foot dunes in the Sahara for five hours at a stretch, they'll be wishing they were back in the cold, French mud.

     The significant thing about the second day's stage was that, unlike the first day's aborted mud bath, it closely resembled the sorts of conditions that the riders will face in Africa. And the European riders, as Peterhansel explained to an adoring crowd, greatly enjoy putting on a show for the home folks on terrain that the bikes were designed for. Last year it wasn't the Paris-Dakar Rally; it was the Dakar Rally, starting and finishing there with a giant eastern leap into the desert of north Africa. Peterhansel won that one going away. Only Gallardo was remotely close to him at the end.

     So whether the amateur Fasola won Day #2 with another slash-and-burn ride or whether veteran Joan --- he's a Spaniard, and it takes every fiber of my being not to spell his name "Juan" --- Roma took the honors, it's just a blip on the screen. In a while you won't need radar to see the big guns; they'll be in your rear-view mirror, and they'll be larger than they appear.

     Day #3 will find the bikes in Spain, the home turf of hot shoes like Roma, Gallardo, Arcarons, Solano, and Sotelo. They'll be rested, too. After the short Day #2 stage, the bike riders are permitted to stick their machines on a truck and ship them the last 1,000 km to Grenada. Japan's Naitoh Daisuke won't be there. The organizers looked at his eyes this morning and decided he was too whipped to continue. It might be the luckiest thing that will ever happen to him.

     And tomorrow, perhaps, we will get lucky too and the fog of war will lift in sunny Spain. Perhaps frogs will fly.

DAY 3:

     The first two days of the rally have had their problems. Mud on January 1stopped competition in the day's only stage shortly after the bikes had turned the course into an impenetrable mire. You know it had to be a scene straight out Dante's Inferno when Paris-Dakar 4WDs start going belly up because they need a push from spectators to finish. On January 2 the stage and overall standings were completely screwed up, though we have to presume that someone in charge knew who was on top of the leader board, even if they weren't bothering to tell the rest of us. Day #3 had to be better, right?

     It was worse. Today even the organizers didn't know who was winning. Two stages were scheduled on the short (234 km) route in Spain from Grenada to Almeira. The first was just a 4 km early morning jog for the benefit of the local Andalusian crowd. I think --- this, by the way, is far from certain, because the purported "overall" standings through the first three days actually appear to be the results from the first stage of the third day, but I won't complain because the afternoon will bring even grimmer comedy --- rookie Giovani Sala took first, followed closely by everybody and his brother. Since it was such a tiny little stage, you would expect the scores to be wadded and they were. Thirty-seven riders were within a minute of Sala.

     Eighteen of the top twenty bikes on that stage were KTMs. Only Stephane Peterhansel (7th on an 850 Yamaha twin) and Oscar Gallardo (19th on a 650 BMW single) broke up the Austrian bike brigade. Edi Ortioli on the other beautifully-prepped BMW F650 continued to hang back. He had a third consecutive mediocre run, coming in 1:24 behind Sala to nail down a ghoulish 50th place on the stage. Peterhansel might eventually walk away from the field as he has done in the past (he beat second-place Gallardo last year by 2.5 hours), but he was not expected to walk away from Ortioli, who is carrying the #2 plate in the rally. The Italian's riding style so far has been described as "extremely cautious." The star to date of Team Richard Schalber's travelling BMW circus has been Gallardo who, after a modest effort in the mud, has come out of the box with his hair on fire.

     After a transit zone, the field charged out on a 36 km stage (shortened for some reason from its original 80 km). Again, the posted results don't make a great deal of sense, but one thing seemed clear: Oscar Gallardo's BMW had kicked some serious butt, apparently 3:12 minutes ahead of second place rider Flavio Agardi and more than five minutes ahead of Peterhansel. It was a show stopper, and must have been particularly gratifying for the Spaniard to have performed so magnificently in his home country.

     "Show stopper" might really be the appropriate phrase, for shortly after the bikes had completed the second stage of the day, the organizers decided not to score it because of unspecified "time-keeping problems." Along with the "problem in the computer treatment of standings" from the day before, you might tend to agree with the press release that was issued at the end of third day of competition: "Things are still a little unclear in the bike class . . ." I guess so.

     This the twentieth anniversary of the Paris-Dakar, the premiere event of its kind in the world. Granted, these organizers have problems that start at the level of international nightmare and quickly spiral out of control. But timing a leg or scoring a stage isn't post-graduate work. Maybe it will settle down once they've left the comforts of Europe for the wilds of North Africa. I sure hope so. Having to make up all this stuff as I go along is straining my imagination to the snapping point. This, by the way, comes from one who sincerely believes that the finest journalism consists of reporting what should have happened instead of what probably happened and never mind what actually happened. You should expect no less from someone who grew up reading the Washington "Post."

     Well, I am optimistic. The BMWs, even with Edi Oriolo's mysterious riding, are doing better than I thought they would at this point. Being a shameless home team BMW supporter, I have been pleasantly surprised. Besides, I have a vested interest in what Schalber's boys and girl are doing, since they ride a bike like I have, sort of. In all candor my F650 is like theirs only in the sense that my rubber duck is like the Queen Mary, in that they both float.

     The riders are floating to Africa tonight across a short stretch of the Mediterranean. Tomorrow the real fun begins in Nador, Morocco, a 613 km day with 40% of it in a stage on a rocky road. Maybe we can find out what happens. Anything is possible.

DAY 4:

     No one was killed today on the 613 km run south from the Mediterranean coastal city of Nador, Morocco to Er Rachidia, but not for want of trying. At noon a helicopter carrying a TV crew crash landed, but somehow no one was seriously hurt. At least the occupants of the bird got an up-close and personal look at what a mechanical breakdown actually looks like on the Paris-Dakar. Film at 11:00.

     The middle 40% of the overall route, roughly on parallel with the western border of Algeria, was today's stage. The area is known as the "Moroccan Baja," a paved road but one not to be confused with a superhighway. It alternated fast stretches with potholes, smooth tarmac with rocks, and low-speed corners with high-speed terror. The route instructions point out areas of the course that deserve attention with exclamation marks. One mark (!) suggests a potential problem. Two marks (!!) cautions the rider that a definite hazard is present. Three marks (!!!) indicates the spot at which the rider's family may erect a suitable memorial if the rider ignores it; the route book's warning. An example of a !!! instruction might be at the end of a 180 km/hr stretch, an off-camber, descending radius hairpin corner with a 100 meter drop on the outside into a spiked rock quarry. Miss that instruction and you might as well have begun the day in a helicopter.

     This began the section of the rally where Stephane Peterhansel was expected to start kicking ass and taking names, but instead it was Finn Kari Tiainen on a KTM who was leading at the third checkpoint into the stage, ahead of Peterhansel, Roma, and Sala by more than a minute, and five minutes ahead of Sainct and Marques. Tiainen's first three days had been unspectacular, but he had been moving up in the standings each day. Besides, his countrymen had owned European car rallying for at least 2,000 years, so maybe he could hold off Peterhansel, if anyone could.

     He couldn't, but he wasn't alone. At the end of the day Peterhansel was back where his legion of fans would place him forever, in first place on the stage and in first overall. He not only recovered the minute he'd lost to Tiainen half-way through the first stage but ended up beating the Finn by an additional minute. He now leads fellow Frenchman Raymond Sainct in the overall standings by 2:24 minutes.

     It was another good day for the KTMs, taking eight of the top ten spots on the stage and twelve of the top fifteen spots overall, that last position held by Frenchman Thierry Magnaldi, the survivor of a crash yesterday that did more damage to his bike than to the rider. The BMW crowd was cheered by news that the heretofore somnolent Edi Orioli had awakened, took tenth place for the stage, and moved ahead of teammate Oscar Gallardo in the overall standings.

     But it wasn't just the strange-talking Europeans who did well on the first Africa leg. South Africa's Alfie Cox, a Dakar rookie, also had an exceptional run to move into sixth overall. His worst problem, he said, was trying to hold himself back. Calling Cox a "rookie" is really not descriptive of his talents; he has won the "Roof of Africa" off-road rally eight times. Australia's Andy Haydon moved into eighth place, and England's John Deacon continued to quietly climb up in the overall standings.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:02:24

    3 TIAINEN         KTM     FI     0:02:52

    4 ROMA            KTM     ES     0:05:53

    5 PEREZ           KTM     FR     0:07:10

    6 COX             KTM     AF     0:07:36

    7 SALA            KTM     IT     0:08:27

    8 HAYDON          KTM     AU     0:09:35

    9 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     0:10:09

   10 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:10:33

   11 KATRINAK        KTM     SL     0:11:31

   12 ORIOLI          BMW     IT     0:13:55

   13 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     0:14:35

   14 DEACON          KTM     GB     0:15:09

   15 MAGNALDI        KTM     FR     0:15:37

     Tomorrow the run through Morocco continues from Er Rachidia to Quarzazate, a generally western heading of 557 km, 60% of it in a single stage. Soon it will get even worse. They call them "Marathon stages." They're not kidding.

DAY 5:

     My psychopathic friend Greg Frazier, currently lost somewhere in Brazil, likes to say that when you run with the big dogs, if you're not in front the view is always the same. On the Paris-Dakar rally, that view, butt-ugly to begin with, is even nastier when the dog in front is throwing a cubic mile of sand in your face. The natural tendency of hard-core endurance riders, therefore, is to get in front of the pack and stay there. It tends to put the other mutts in their place. It also adds, as overall leader Peterhansel said yesterday, a little "pressure" to the bubbling pot.

     The downside risk of being in front as you're hustling through the middle of the Moroccan desert at 90 km/hr is that there aren't a lot of nice, friendly tracks to follow. Suddenly the pressure that you were putting on the other dogs is now a leash around your own neck. The top three riders at the end of Day #4 --- Stephane Peterhansel, Raymond Sainct, and Kari Tiainen --- found that out today when they made one of the most serious mistakes a rider on this event can make: they got lost.

     Peterhansel and Tianen had been riding together in front through most of the 344 km stage. At the final checkpoint, with still some 70 km left in the stage, Peterhansel paused briefly to change a gear lever. Tianen forged ahead. Peterhansel began running him down. Near the end of the stage Tiainen noticed a faint track bearing off to the right, but the main route obviously seemed to go to the left. He went left. Peterhansel followed. Sainct eventually followed them. Wave bye-bye.

     Something about the route bothered Fabrizio Meoni when he arrived there a few minutes later. It didn't seem to correspond with his route book, but he could clearly see that the riders ahead of him had gone to the left. He went left as well, but he wasn't a bit happy about it. The next route instruction also didn't seem to match. He stopped, took a compass reading, and found that it didn't correspond with what he'd been expecting. For situations such as this the organizers do not suggest that global positioning satellite units be carried by all contestants; they require them. Unfortunately for the uncertain rider, a GPS unit will not point you in the right direction. It will merely tell you where you are, and whether you are in a state of being completely lost or perfectly found now has become a matter solely of theoretical interest.

     I can think of a lot of people I wouldn't want to be, but being Fabrizio Meoni at that moment would have to rank close to the top of the list, perhaps just below the slot occupied by Bill Clinton's priest. In front of him are the hot tire tracks of the finest off-road motorcyclists in the world. To the right somewhere is what he thinks is the correct course. The expression "having the courage of your convictions" can't even begin to approach what must have been going through Meoni's mind as the incessant clock ticked in his head. His whole day, if not the rally itself, was hanging in the balance. Being a big dog, he barked, then headed right. For all he knew, he was aiming straight for the spot on the map labelled "Here dragons be."

     Spaniard Joan Roma, who'd earlier led the rally and yesterday stood in fourth place, was watching Meoni's agony. When the Italian headed off to the right across a literally trackless desert, Roma muttered a "Que barbaridad!" to himself and followed. Because Roma had the courage of Meoni's convictions, he is once again the rally's leader, though Meoni had the fastest time through the day's stage.

     Peterhansel and the other off-course excursionists came to the stage finish about twenty minutes later, the miscue having moved France's golden retriever from first to eighth overall and more than eleven minutes behind Roma, the new dog on the top of the snarling, dusty pile.

     The six BMWs that began the event are still running, and that's more than six of the 173 starters can say. Gallardo and Orioli each had another fine day, and Andrea Mayer's F650 moved up more than twenty places to 53rd overall. Depending upon which source you believe, she is either running in the super-production or the experimental class. If I've offended her by misstating her status, I'll apologize. Judging by her press photo, I'd prefer to deliver the apology in person. Privateers Raymond Loiseaux (145th on an R100PD) and Luc Fernandez (158th on an R80G/S) are hanging in, though barely. They are more than five hours behind Roma and sagging badly. It will only get worse. They're not even one-third of the way through. Woof.

    1 ROMA            KTM     ES     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:01:33

    3 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     0:09:09

    4 KATRINAK        KTM     SL     0:10:01

    5 MAGNALDI        KTM     FR     0:10:14

    6 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     0:10:28

    7 COX             KTM     AF     0:11:06

    8 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:11:11

    9 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:11:58

   10 TIAINEN         KTM     FI     0:13:19

   11 ORIOLI          BMW     IT     0:14:21

   12 PEREZ           KTM     FR     0:14:29

   13 DEACON          KTM     GB     0:21:29

   14 SALA            KTM     IT     0:24:17

   15 HAYDON          KTM     AU     0:30:34

DAY 6:

     When I die and go straight to burning perdition for my manifold sins, I will either wind up on the Cross-Bronx Expressway for eternity or in a wadi. The Cross-Bronx I can handle; I have lived in New York. But the wadi? I don't think so. According to Microsoft, "wadi" is an Arabic word meaning "a stinking, festering, sweltering, lizard-riddled dry heave that makes every other place on earth look like Beverly Hills 90210, except when it rains, at which point it becomes all of the foregoing plus wet and anything ignorant enough to get near it drowns in about three seconds."

     Thierry Sabine, the creator of the Paris-Dakar rally, liked wadis. I don't. I should add that I have never actually ever seen a wadi, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like it if I ever came upon one. My reasoning is simple: wadis have sand in them, and if I wanted to ride in sand, I wouldn't do it on a motorcycle. Besides, if God had wanted people to ride bikes in the sand, She would have given them three wheels. The bikes, that is.

     Today was the longest day of the rally in terms of time. The first of 160 competitors started before dawn in Ouarzazate and would run south and west to Smara nearly until sunset. Of the leg's 1,050 km length, the 354-km stage was set in the Draa wadi. It is described, among other things, as "particularly bumpy." It is a feature so large that you can find it on a map of Morocco. And Algeria. Hell, the damned thing might go all the way to Israel for all I know.

     It is the kind of vile place that Stephane Peterhansel calls home, so it was no surprise that he won here, averaging better than 93 km/hr and beating the usual suspects --- Joan Roma, Raymond Sainct, and Fabrizio Meoni --- by relatively small margins. It was enough, however, to take the defending champion from 8th overall yesterday to 3rd today. Roma and Meoni grimly held onto to their top two spots, but Peterhansel is now a few minutes closer to reeling them in.

     Yesterday's 5th overall rider, Thierry Magnaldi, took his second fall-down-go-boom of the event, this time for keeps. He again wasn't hurt, but his gas tank was destroyed. Fourteen other bikes went to heaven on the day, including Luc Fernandez' R80G/S, dropping the number of starters for tomorrow to 145. That figure, of course, doesn't count the bikes that may mercifully die in their sleep tonight.

     Five women started in Versailles six days ago. Just three are still running: Germany's Andrea Mayer, Russia's Isabelle Jomini, and Portugal's Elisabete Jacinto, but it's no contest and never has been. Jacinto is running dead last overall and is about a fingernail away from being time-barred. Mayer (BMW) has annihilated Jomini (KTM) on every leg, usually by forty or fifty places, starting with an unbelievable eight minute lead over Jomini on the 11-km first day stage. That, even by my rather loose standards, is a pluperfect stomp. If this were Little League baseball, they'd be thinking about invoking the 20-run lead rule to spare everyone further embarrassment. What we need to do, I think, is yank the legendary Jutta Kleinschmidt out of the car class (where's she's currently fifth overall and the only woman ever to have won a stage on the P-D) and put her back on a BMW bike.

     Richard Schalber's dynamic BMW duo, Gallardo and Ortioli, continue to run flawlessly. They were 7th and 9th through the wadi and now stand 8th and 9th overall. England's John Deacon, who should have started today's run in a casket, is holding on to 10th overall as if his life depended on it. After the completion of yesterday's stage, he smacked into a car in the transit zone on his way to the finish, dropped the bike, and skidded to within inches of a 200-foot drop off the side of a cliff. Compared to that, the wadi today must have seemed to him no worse than a romp on the Cross-Bronx. To each his own, I guess.

    1 ROMA            KTM     ES     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:02:27

    3 PETERHANSEL    YAM     FR     0:08:45

    4 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:12:31

    5 COX             KTM     AF     0:12:43

    6 KATRINAK        KTM     SL     0:14:19

    7 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     0:15:07

    8 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     0:15:30

    9 ORIOLI          BMW     IT     0:23:30

   10 DEACON          KTM     GB     0:31:33

   11 SALA            KTM     IT     0:35:18

   12 MARQUES         KTM     PO     0:54:42

   13 HAYDON          KTM     AU     0:55:01

   14 SOTELO          CAG     ES     0:55:48

   15 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     1:03:20

DAY 7:

     Ten thousand years ago lakes, rivers, and McDonalds covered what is now known as Mauritania. Elephants, hippos, and rhinos sang and danced and read "The Cat in the Hat" in this happy land. It was a Garden of Eden where the lion lay down with the lamb. Then the Sahara showed up at the doorstep. Things haven't been the same since. Today Mauritania is a sand box, a living example of how bad things can get, given enough time and determination. In that sense it is sort of like Washington, D.C., but the roads are better.

     The Paris-Dakar contestants weren't on any Mauritanian roads today because they came into the country from the north, and there are no roads in northern Mauritania, at least by any normal definition of a road. There is a path in that area, however. It is called The Imperial Route, and it formerly was the camel interstate that linked Casablanca to the north with Timbuktu to the south. The finish of the leg today was in Zouerat, a mining town that continues to linger on after the mines played out a few years ago.

     At 614 km it was a short day, 494 km of it on a stage with four checkpoints. Stephane Peterhansel, apparently irritated at being in third place overall, came out of the starting gate like a Quaker oat. He led Spain's Carlos Sotelo at the first checkpoint, increased the lead by the second, and at the third checkpoint was more than sixteen minutes ahead of Sotelo's Cagiva. Everyone else was far behind. The soft sand was obviously favoring Peterhansel's and Sotelo's big twins over the single cylinder KTMs and BMWs.

     But Peterhansel was paying a heavy price for his speed and he knew it. By the 170 km mark he was averaging a ludicrous 12 miles/gallon, perhaps just 25% of what the bike could normally produce on the street. He had no choice but to back off or run out of gas. When Peterhansel slowed down, Sotelo continued apace. By the stage's finish he had come within a minute of catching the flying Frenchman. The rest of the pack was eight minutes or more behind them. But Peterhansel's effort had been enough for him to slip back into first overall, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

     It wasn't that the other competitors were dogging it. Fabriozi Meoni had yet another fine day to take third on the stage, just ahead of Oscar Gallardo's BMW, and in so doing managed to hold onto his second place standing overall. Steady Raymond Sainct took fifth. South African Alfie Cox, fourteen minutes behind Peterhansel today and sixth on the stage, said that he'd had his throttle pegged for the first 240 km. What he really needed, he said, was Mick Doohan's Grand Prix bike with knobbies.

     The overall leader for the past two days, Joan Roma, had a sub-par run, finishing 9th on the stage and more than seventeen minutes behind Peterhansel. He has dropped back to third overall. Still, he was luckier than Edi Orioli, who was halted for some forty minutes with electrical problems. His 20th place finish on the stage dropped him back to 12th overall, more than an hour behind the leader.

     At this point attentive readers might wish to recall what was going on back in the good old days of this rally, when riders would lope along through a 700-km transit zone, run a ten-minute stage, and suck contentedly on a quart of ouzo at night while they watched their mechanics take care of the bikes. Yes, it was a simpler, happier time and place, much as was Mauritania 10,000 years ago. But that was then. For a week I've been promising that it would get bad, and we are now on the eve of three consecutive Real Bad Days.

     Tomorrow is a 684 km leg from Zouerat east through the Sahara to El Mreiti, a nothing place in the middle of nothing. The stage takes 680 km, or 99.4% of the total distance. That's why they call it a "marathon." They will run across sand dunes that are described as "cathedral-sized." On top of that the mechanics who routinely fly in to service the bikes at night will be barred. Nobody is permitted to work on anything at night except prayers and if you need a spare part, that's too damned bad. You can't have it. The day following, Leg #9, is 478 km, all of it a stage. No mechanics, no spare parts, no mercy. The tenth day is 918 km, 806 of it being the stage, the longest of the entire event. On the 11th day they will rest.

     I think then I will too. I get tired just thinking about what these poor bastards are going through.

    1 PETERHANSEL    YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:02:25

    3 ROMA            KTM     ES     0:08:48

    4 COX             KTM     AF     0:18:02

    5 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     0:18:31

    6 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:19:39

    7 KATRINAK        KTM     SL     0:22:14

    8 SOTELO          CAG     ES     0:47:59

    9 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:05:21

   10 DEACON          KTM     GB     1:05:52

   11 SALA            KTM     IT     1:06:32

   12 ORIOLI          BMW     IT     1:12:47

   13 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     1:33:44

   14 MARQUES         KTM     PO     1:50:55

   15 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     1:51:18

DAY 8:

     Today was the first of three marathon legs, running eastward into the middle of the Sahara to El Mreiti through dunes and fast sand tracks. It was designed to separate the sheep from the goats. It did. By the end of the day El Mreiti looked more like a battleground than a motor sport rally.

     Commenting on the conditions, the organizers noted somewhat ominously that "They are still fresh in the memory of the reconnaissance team . . ." The rally has travelled through this area in the past, so it was known to be traversable. That has not always been the case. There have been stages on previous rallies where conditions were so bad that the best riders in the world were reduced to walking their bikes through the sand. It can get hairy, but once they have made it through the worst of the dunes, the track would improve and speeds intensify. At least that was the theory.

     Australian Andy Haydon, a rookie on the P-D but no stranger to off-road riding, led several other riders into the first of three checkpoints on the 680 km stage, arriving just before noon. At the second checkpoint Giovani Sala and Jaroslav Katrinak, always referred to in press releases as "the Slovakian surprise," edged in front of Haydon. Unknown to the Slovakian surprise, who stood 7th overall at the beginning of the day, he had just reached the high-point of his rally. Two-thirds of the way into the stage his motor crumped. Sala began fade. Haydon recovered his form and eventually won the stage by a minute over Joan Roma, the consistent Spaniard who is no surprise to anybody. It had taken Haydon more than eight hours to subdue a desert that 99% of the motorcyclists who have ever lived would have no hope of crossing in a week. He had averaged an incredible 81 km/hr. The stage win would deservedly move him from 9th to 6th overall.

     Behind Roma came Raymond Sainct, Jordi Arcarons, overall leader Stephane Peterhansel, Edi Orioli (recovering from yesterday's electrical problems), Carlos Sotelo, and Fabriozi Meoni. For the Spaniard Arcarons, the rally continues to remain a teeth-gnashing case of always a bridesmaid and never a bride. In the five years between 1992 and 1996 he finished 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, and 2nd overall, the most remarkable string of near victories in the 20-year history of the rally. This won't be his year either. He is in 17th place, more than three hours off the pace.

     Peterhansel was obviously taking no chances, realizing that he is facing three straight days of no service and no parts. You're not going to win the rally in these marathon stages, but you sure as hell can lose it in a hurry. Nine minutes behind Haydon at day's end, he retains a tiny lead over Roma, with Meoni and Sainct within easy striking range, and the rest of the hoard nearly an hour or more distant.

     Paul Krause on a KTM, the only American entry, took a tenth on the stage, his best placing so far, and moved into 31st overall. He has to be happy with today's run. Britain's John Deacon, who had held a death grip on 10th place overall for days, moved up a notch to 9th to the delight of his fans. He may be the only rider in the pack with his own web site.

     Distinctly unhappy tonight is Oscar Gallardo, one of the aces of Richard Schalber's F650 BMW team. Mechanical problems ruined his day. He finished in the 48th spot, more than three hours behind Haydon and fell from 5th overall to 16th.

     But at least he finished. One hundred thirty-three bikes had started the eighth day of the rally. They were allotted no more than seventeen hours to complete the leg. Two-thirds of the riders in this world-class field couldn't do it. By 0930 on the morning of Day #9, ninety minutes after the first bike was to have begun the second marathon day, only 46 of the riders had shown up from the previous day. On an event in which chaos routinely is king, the P-D's maximum wizard, Hubert Auriol, probably was longing for a return to simple insanity. Rather than bounce a vast majority of the remaining field from the event, Auriol ultimately decided to extend the maximum arrival time to twenty-six hours.

     In the meantime it must have been the purest kind of hell for a rider struggling through the Sahara tonight. He is stuck, or out of gas, or lost, or broken down, or just blindly screwed, blued, and tattooed in a dozen other ways. It's getting dark. He can barely see tire tracks, but he can see sand dunes ahead that look like the Chrysler Building. His seventeen hours expired about two weeks ago and he's still ninety klicks from El Mreiti. He doesn't know that Auriol might save his bacon tomorrow. All he knows is that he has come a long, long way from home to be in a place that no one calls home. And even if he can get through this hateful piece of land that God threw away in disgust, he hasn't finished half the rally.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 ROMA            KTM     ES     0:00:49

    3 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:13:00

    4 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:15:00

    5 SOTELO          CAG     ES     0:49:43

    6 HAYDON          KTM     AU     0:56:21

    7 COX             KTM     AF     1:05:14

    8 ORIOLI          BMW     IT     1:14:18

    9 DEACON          KTM     GB     1:38:34

   10 SALA            KTM     IT     1:46:48

   11 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     2:12:42

   12 MARQUES         KTM     PO     2:14:07

   13 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     2:15:45

   14 BERNARD         KTM     FR     2:43:31

   15 CASTERA         YAM     FR     2:53:09

DAY 9:

     The fallout from the disastrous leg ending in El Mreiti yesterday hasn't stopped, but Hubert Auriol, the man behind the event, is a genius at putting a good face on toxic waste sites. This morning's first presslIf this kind of spin control had come from anyone but Auriol, you might ask, "Oh, yeah? What do you know?" In fact, Auriol does know, and in a way that few do. He competed in sixteen consecutive Paris-Dakar rallies, starting on bikes and taking third overall in the first P-D in 1979. He won in 1981 and 1983 and finished second in 1984. In 1987, leading on the next to last day, he broke both ankles during a stage, finished the day anyway, and decided that he really belonged in the car class. He won there in 1992. No one has ever worked both sides of the street so successfully or for so long. Auriol eventually retired from competition to mastermind the event following the death of rally founder Thierry Sabine and four others in a helicopter crash during the '86 rally.

     The truth is that yesterday's conditions are nothing new to this awesome rally. In 1979 one rider alone was able to complete a stage in the allotted time. In 1983 a terrible sandstorm almost swept the field away. Two years later another storm stopped the rally in its tracks. In 1994 only a couple of Mitsubishi cars were able to cross a section of dunes; every other competitor in the event abandoned the effort. In just the first week of this event we have seen one stage terminated because of mud and another one shortened because of outraged olive grove farmers. Mid-way through today's 478 km stage the event was effectively halted because of an administrative error, and that wasn't even the worst thing that was in store for the contestants.

     Part of me believes that the organizers almost welcome these kinds of catastrophes, which do lend a sort of dark cachet to an already desperately difficult event. Adversity on such a cosmic scale gives the contest an aura that no other kid on the block can claim. Auriol and his staff might even secretly be hoping for a war to erupt. If so, they ran across the next best thing tonight.

     This was the second marathon day, an easterly ride to Taoudenni, where no service or parts would be available. That, as it turned out, was pretty much an academic issue anyway, since many of the service vehicles were still stuck in the dunes en route to El Mreiti. The stage would comprise 100% of the day. It was labelled "The Thousand and One Dunes," as if the riders hadn't seen enough dunes yesterday. One-third of the way into the stage they would leave Mauritania and cross into Mali.

     It is one of the five poorest countries on earth. One adult in ten can read, putting in on par with residents of the San Fernando Valley. If you are born a sextuplet, one of you won't see your first birthday. The northern half of the country is the Sahara, nothing else. Like Mauritania, there are no roads up there, just camel tracks leading south to Timbuktu. Three hundred years ago 100,000 people lived in that fabled city; today maybe 20,000 do. It went into permanent decline when people figured out that the rottenest boat circling west Africa was better than the best camel hoofing it through the dunes. The red-hot trade item was salt. Africans craved it and, in the midst of the world's largest desert, couldn't find it. They traded for it, even up and pound for pound, with gold. Who knew?

     As the day unwound, the familiar pattern was repeated. Endless dunes were crested and the boys in front yesterday continued to be the boys in front today. Until the third and final checkpoint, 269 km into the stage, it was for most riders just another day at the office. But at that juncture a planned 15-minute "neutralization period" was mishandled. Auriol froze the standings then and there. I'm not sure how the contestants greeted the news that the stage had been interrupted, saving them from riding at 9/10ths over the remaining 209 km, but if I'd been breaking myself and my bike to bits for more than a week, I'd probably have tried to buy Auriol a beer.

     The top ten riders for the stage to that point were Meoni, Sala, Sotelo, Peterhansel, Deacon, Sainct, Jimmink, Marques, Roma, and Haydon, a little over six minutes separating 1st from 10th. Gallardo and Cox were 14th and 15th, some twelve minutes off Meoni's time. Because of the attenuated stage, the terrible dispersion of times seen yesterday was gone, to the probable relief of everyone except overall leader Stephane Peterhansel.

     Joan Roma's ninth place finish on the stage is deceptive. His engine croaked just before the overnight bivouac in Taoudenni. Even if he could have the motor worked on tonight, his KTM service truck is bogged down and has not yet reached El Mreiti. No one in the field has put more pressure on Peterhansel than has the determined Spaniard. He was a mere 49 seconds behind the Frenchman last night, but it may already be over for him. If so, Peterhansel now has nearly an eleven minute lead.

     Even worse news was in store for BMW fans. Four-time Paris-Dakar winner and the star of the Schalber F650 team, Edi Orioli, is out, the victim of a blown motor at noon today. The favorite son of Udine, Italy was in his twelfth rally. It is the first that he will not finish.

     That should have been enough for one day, but more was to come. Koen Wauters and Jurgen Damen in a Toyota and Tonio Lattanzi and Bruno Cubin in another were wobbling the last seven miles into Taoudenni at 10:25 p.m. tonight. Suddenly they were attacked by a gang of bandits. The Toyotas managed to escape into town. The Malian army hustled out to the scene but found nothing. Five minutes before midnight three more cars were struck, but they too were able to evade the robbers. Still later two Tata trucks were hit and one of them was stolen. You have to be thinking here that the guys still stuck in the dunes 300 miles to the west must finally be feeling pretty lucky.

     Which leaves me with just two questions. If I'm a Malian crook:

1. What sort of vehicle should I use to attack other vehicles that were specifically designed to leave me so far behind that I won't catch up with my prey until next September? and

2. Even if I do run my victim to earth, what are the possibilities of selling the truck I've stolen, given that there has never been anything quite like it on the market within a radius of ten thousand miles?

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 ROMA            KTM     ES     0:04:58

    3 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:10:45

    4 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:17:04

    5 SOTELO          CAG     ES     0:49:36

    6 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:00:35

    7 COX             KTM     AF     1:14:30

    8 DEACON          KTM     GB     1:39:54

    9 SALA           KTM     IT     1:46:13

   10 MARQUES         KTM     PO     2:17:30

   11 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     2:17:49

   12 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     2:19:35

   13 BERNARD         KTM     FR     2:50:02

   14 CASTERA         YAM     FR     2:59:25

   15 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     3:20:55

DAY 10:

     Today's route was scheduled to head south and east from Taoudenni to Gao, a 918 km run through Mali with all but the last 112 km constituting the day's stage. Riders would cover the stretch in eleven hours; it takes the local camel caravans forty days to make the same trek. It was to be the last of the three "marathon" days and the longest stage of the rally. It didn't happen

     In the first week of the event, 40 of the 173 bikes that began the rally were lost to attrition. In the last two days, between Zouerat and Taoudenni, they have lost 37 more. One truck has been stolen, another has a 7.62 mm bullet hole in its turbine, and a third has tires that resemble a spaghetti colander. The trucks were brought down by third-world bandits with first-world weapons: automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. I was wondering yesterday how you'd catch a vehicle than can outrun a desert wind; now I know. It shows that while law school prepared me superbly for a career as a white collar criminal, it left me woefully lacking in knowledge of military tactics.

     Even to organizers accustomed to the random perversity of the universe, it must have been painfully apparent to P-D chief Hubert Auriol that his beloved rally was quickly coming apart at the seams. Contestants, or to be more precise, former contestants, were stewn out to the west for five hundred miles. The only way that they might see Taoudenni this year would be on CNN. Service trucks were mired in sand. Insolent thieves, contemptuous of the rally's prestige, had made off with one of the Czechoslovakian trucks and were rumored to be on their way to Algeria, just 100 miles to the northeast. I might mention here that Deep Throat, my confidential informant on mid-eastern affairs, doubts that it was an Algerian raid, for "Algerian bandits would simply have killed them and decapitated the corpses." A helicopter dispatched at dawn this morning could find no trace of the missing vehicle. A ripped-off truck is one thing, but a missing rider is a different can of worms, so to speak. You don't survive unassisted in the Sahara for long.

     The Paris-Dakar rally is no stranger to the rich and famous. It welcomes celebrities, dotes on them, and curries their royal favor when required. Princess Caroline of Monaco has graced their presence; European pop singers take a turn at the wheel in the dunes; and French movie stars make cameo appearances at checkpoints, having aimed an experimental car through a wadi for a grueling five minutes. Flash-blinding photo ops are the norm. His Holiness the Pope is called out of an emergency conference with the Sanctified Nuns of Our Lady of Non-Interlocking, Front-Load Debenture Bonds to bless the start of the event. But if something --- anything --- should happen to Stephane Peterhansel, the French government will collapse faster than the Pillsbury Dough-Boy on Thorazine.

     And, if you're Hubert Auriol, your life at this moment has been reduced to one simple directive: Don't piss in the soup

     Auriol, no fool, cancelled the day, not in the metaphysical sense of making it disappear (though I believe he would have taken that choice, if given the chance), but of turning the former longest stage of the event into a middle-eater, untimed transit zone to Gao. It effectively made one rest day into two and three marathon days into one, for which act he will shortly be nominated for sainthood by any number of people, including me. Forget what the riders were going through; these shenanigans were wearing me thin, and I wasn't all that fat to begin with, though I admit to being pleasingly plump in spots.

     The standings are thus frozen at the end of the ninth day: Peterhansel in front of Joan Roma --- the fate of whose broken bike remains in doubt --- by five minutes; in front of the dogged Fabrizio Meoni by eleven minutes; in front of imperturbable Raymond Sainct by seventeen minutes; and in front of the rest of the field by an hour or more. It is a lot of time, though far from insurmountable, for the followers to make up, and if they were trying to make it up on any ordinary mortal they might have a chance.

     But Stephane Peterhansel is not one of us. He is literally in a class by himself now, for his only historic competition in this year's event, Edi Orioli, has retired. Between them they have won every P-D for the last eight years. This event doesn't reward new guys: In nineteen years just six different riders have won this demanding rally --- Peterhansel (5), Neveu (5), Orioli (4), Rahier (2), Auriol (2), and Lalay (1). Rarely will you see such a dramatic demarcation between the winner and the also-ran. These men have dominated their sport in the way that Babe Ruth, Secretariat, Muhammad Ali, and Jack Nicklaus did in their day. They were the best who ever played. If you were in the same game with them, you fought for second place and were overjoyed to get it.

     You could be really, really good. You could be Jimmy Clark when I saw him thirty years ago at Rockingham NC in a NASCAR race. He was the reigning Formula 1 champion then, but he was a first-timer at American short tracks. They made him wear a yellow bumper, the indelible sign of the rookie. I couldn't get over it. The man was better than Fangio and Moss combined, grabbed flies out of the air with his hand, and could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Naturally, the legitimate press, if there is such a thing, was all over him. I went like a rat terrier to the back-up driver, Joachim Rindt, who sat alone on a stump in the infield.

     "This yellow bumper thing," I began in my most diplomatic tone, "doesn't that drive you fucking nuts?"

     "Nein," he said. "Vee are plizzed to be heer."

     Clark didn't win the race that day. Mechanical problems forced him out. He came back to win the Indy 500, the first of many foreigners to do so, and then was killed. Rindt became the Formula 1 champion and then he too was killed. I have photographs that I took of them back in those heady days of 1967 when the future was before them and the world lay at their feet. They were the golden days, the days of wine, women, song, and the smell of sizzled racing oil. You ask anyone who has ever been at a track; it's a smell you can't forget.

     They will rest tomorrow, thanks to Auriol. God knows, they deserve it.

DAY 11:

     Today is a rest day in Gao, Mali, and if there are people on the face of the earth who deserve a day of rest more than the entrants on the Paris-Dakar rally, I don't know who they might be. Ninety-four bikes made the transit zone from Taoudenni to Gao but only eighty-seven of them will resume the rally tomorrow. Joan Roma, the Spaniard who led the event at times and put some true pressure on the odds-on favorite, Stephane Peterhansel, won't be among those on the starting grid. His engine is dead. Peterhansel will begin tomorrow's leg with nearly an eleven minute lead over Fabrizio Meoni.

     Watching Peterhansel at work is like observing a Chinese water torture. He is methodical, careful, and certain of his purpose. He knows he doesn't have to win every stage, so he doesn't try. He can grind down the competition slowly and he does just that. His fellow riders must feel as if they're being bitten to death by a duck. You might handle him today by a couple of minutes, but he'll be ahead of you tomorrow by five. After two weeks of that, he's two hours in front. He could be the poster boy for Alcoholics Anonymous: One day at a time.

     He has never broken down. In fact, with the exceptions of 1994 (where he sat out because Yamaha was protesting changes to the rules) and 1996 (where he withdrew following a protest about the quality of gas he had received during a stage), he has won every time he has entered. Death and taxes may be life's only abiding certainties, but Stephane Peterhansel standing atop the podium at the finish of the P-D isn't a bad bet either. A great rider on an underpowered bike --- Edi Orioli, for example --- could flush a poor rider on a fine bike, but Peterhansel is the best rider the P-D rally has ever seen, and he's riding a bike that has won almost half of the nineteen rallies. I don't know how you beat a combination like that, except maybe by dripping poison into his ear.

     Tomorrow they will follow the north bank of the Niger river west to Timbuktu. It will be an easy day, just 420 km, almost all of it a stage. Rescue trucks and reconnaissance planes in the meantime have found everyone lost in the desert. Nearly all of them have retreated to Atar or Nema in Mauritania, places notable principally because they have airports that can facilitate their return to the real world. In a few days their teeth will stop chattering.

     The stolen truck is still missing. After O.J. Simpson has found the person responsible for his ex-wife's murder, maybe he can start looking for it. Somehow I doubt that it will turn up on a golf course, which is where O.J. is concentrating his search these days.

DAY 12:

     In one scene of the movie "Bull Durham," Kevin Costner, doomed perpetually to the minors, begins teaching cliches to a young pitcher on his way up to the big leagues. There must be a comparable school for football announcers. There's a time out on the field, as opposed to a time out somewhere else; somebody has the momentum or somebody's losing momentum or somebody doesn't know what momentum means; a steroidal, pre-limbic mutoid is giving 110%; and the hallowed, "Time is becoming a factor." I took it for as long as any rational human being could. Five years ago I stopped watching football games. It was either that or double up on the Valium.

     In the Paris-Dakar rally, time is becoming a factor. The big days are behind them, there will be no more time outs on the field, and they stand this morning just 3,300 kilometers from the beach in Dakar where the rally will end next Sunday. Stephane Peterhansel has the momentum. Carlos Sotelo, some 49 minutes behind Peterhansel at today's start, needed to give 110%. By actual measurement, he gave 113.4%, banged through the 420 km leg at almost 107 km/hr for his first stage win on the event, and left Peterhansel in the dust . . . by thirteen seconds.

     I looked the stage results and just started laughing. Sotelo is not going to need a mechanic from here on out; he's going to need a full-time psychiatrist and a security squad for a suicide watch. For nearly four hours today the poor man beats himself senseless, to the point where hardened flagellants must be envious; turns a magnificent motorcycle into a piece of hot, whimpering metal; calls in favors from every saint in the diadem; has the entirety of Spain on its knees at ten thousand cathedrals, eyes upraised and imploring; and what does it get him? Thirteen crummy seconds and a night in Timbuktu, a place that five-time Dakar winner Cyril Neveu described so viciously that I can't bring myself to repeat it. Sotelo's not 49:36 minutes behind Peterhansel any longer; now he's 49:23 behind. And even there he was luckier than teen-age sin. Peterhansel had developed overheating problems on his bike and stopped for five minutes to add some water to his radiator. No worries. Give five minutes to the field? What the hell. Get lost for twenty minutes the other day? Big deal. Maybe Spiderman can stop Peterhansel, but I don't see anyone else around who looks up to the task.

     The Frenchman didn't need to whack Sotelo. He needed to whack guys like Raymond Sainct and Fabrizio Meoni, who stood a little closer to him this morning than Sotelo did. So Peterhansel whacked them. He's now twenty minutes in front of the second-place rider, Sainct, and tomorrow he'll whack them again, if that's what he has to do. The man is a machine. He just gives you that terminator look and says, "I'll be back." And back he comes, up the front steps, through the door, and over a wall of some of the best motorcyclists who ever lived. I've never seen anything like it.

     Tomorrow they continue on a westerly course back into Mauritania. It's a 559 km leg, all but eight kilometers of it being a stage. It is a route that the rally has not taken before, so it might turn out to be a repeat of the siege of El Mreiti. This much seems certain: Peterhansel has definitely established his running game.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:20:06

    3 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:25:10

    4 SOTELO          CAG     ES     0:49:23

    5 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:03:29

    6 COX             KTM     AF     1:51:30

    7 SALA            KTM     IT     1:55:10

    8 DEACON          KTM     GB     2:13:56

    9 MARQUES         KTM     PO     2:34:22

   10 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     2:37:36

   11 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     2:58:16

   12 BERNARD         KTM     FR     3:14:53

   13 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     3:53:08

   14 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     3:54:39

   15 MAYER           KTM     AL     4:31:28

DAY 13:

     Genius cannot be overcome by brute force. Stick 500 physicists in a room for 500 years and they won't come up with a theory of relativity or develop fundamental laws of motion; it will take one Einstein or one Newton to do that. Put a million monkeys in front of a million typewriters for a million years and they won't write anything to equal "Hamlet." Brute force is good for some things. It was good for building the pyramids, capturing Iwo Jima, and beating chess grand master Gary Kasparov. But when confronted by real eye-popping genius, a human wave is pretty much a waste of time.

     KTM team manager Heinz Kitigadner doesn't believe that. He thought if he could take ten of the best off-road endurance riders in the world, stick them on his highly-prepped machines, and throw them at Stephane Peterhansel and his ancient Yamaha, one of his boys would have to come out on top. Kitigadner already knows what it's like to lose. He started five of these rallies himself and finished none. But in the last few years, KTM has stood on the highest step of the victory platform in one hellish contest after another. They've won everything there is to win. But they haven't won the Paris-Dakar.

     So Kitigadner got on the phone. When he was through he had Jordi Arcarons, Giovani Sala, Fabrizio Meoni, Joan Roma, Paul Krause, Kari Tiainen, Thierry Magnaldi, Dirk von Zitzewitz, Richard Sainct, and Eric Bernard in his back pocket. If you've seen these reports over the past couple of weeks, every one of those names is familiar to you. At one time or other they have all made appearances on the leader board. Kitigadner's heroes have won half the stages so far. They've even had the overall lead in the rally at times.

     And the closer the rally gets to Dakar, the more Stephane Peterhansel is laughing. I can make this short. To find out what happened today, read what happened yesterday. All you have to do is substitute Richard Sainct's name for Carlos Sotelo's. Sotelo beat Peterhansel yesterday by 13 seconds; Sainct beat Peterhansel today by 41 seconds. At that rate, by picking up an average of 27 seconds each day, they will catch the Frenchman by the middle of March. Unfortunately for them, the rally will conclude on January 18, which pretty much accounts for the smile on Peterhansel's face lately.

     It was a hot, windy day on the 551 km stretch from Timbuktu to Nema in Mauritania, all but eight kilometers of it consisting of the day's stage. The route is described as being "run over a twisty, soft sand piste." "Piste" is a French word that means if you like your car, don't put it on this road because it really isn't a road and never will be. The English-speaking riders --- Haydon, Cox, and American Paul Krause --- were running furiously and well. Then Haydon fell, hurting his wrist. He taped it but it didn't help. He dropped from first to tenth. Cox had fuel problems, caused by heavy wind, and had to back off, dropping from second to fifth. Englishman John Deacon had a relatively poor day by his standards, but it still was good enough for him to move up another notch to seventh overall. He wanted to be in the top ten; he was there a week ago, but he keeps pushing.

     Krause alone sailed through without difficulty, taking a fourth on the leg, far and away his best placement to date. He has moved up to 18th overall. He said that he had "great fun" during his seven-hour stage --- blinded by sand, whipped like a red-headed stepchild by the alleged piste, and hammered by wind. You see variations of that happy sentiment expressed by many riders every day. Following my lobotomy, I have had great fun any number of times. I think.

     Oscar Gallardo is still having great fun, today taking sixth on the stage and sliding into twelfth overall. Antonio Boluda, standing 16th overall last night, was surely having great fun. Tonight he is fighting for his life. He sustained a terrible fall and was air-lifted to Dakar, comatose.

     Day after day these riders make it look easy; it isn't. You can be killed out there. You wouldn't be the first.

     At the end of the day Kitigadner sat in a hot, fly-specked tent, staring glumly at the leader board. Three of his Magnificent Ten --- Roma, Tiainen, and Magnaldi --- are out, but six of them are in the top fifteen overall. Paul Krause will be there too when the rally is over. It is a remarkable showing for the KTM team. Still, you almost have to feel sorry for Kitigadner. To field just a single rider in this event must cost something close to the gross national product of Chad; multiply that figure by ten and you're talking about some serious money.

     Still it eludes him. Still Peterhansel chuckles.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 SAINCT          KTM     FR     0:19:25

    3 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:33:20

    4 SOTELO          CAG     ES     1:11:22

    5 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:29:27

    6 COX             KTM     AF     2:04:11

    7 DEACON          KTM     GB     2:47:32

    8 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     2:55:25

    9 SALA            KTM     IT     2:56:09

   10 BERNARD         KTM     FR     3:44:45

   11 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     3:48:47

   12 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     4:09:53

   13 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     4:16:12

   14 MAYER           KTM     AL     5:32:50

DAY 14:

     The rally is taking a toll. If it weren't ending in four days, they'd have to call a truce.

     Yesterday was a literal blood bath. The truck carrying the rally's doctors rolled over. Spain's Antonio Boluda was air-evacuated to Dakar in a coma following an accident. The rally's oldest entrant, 65 year-old Hubert Sheck, crashed his car and was hospitalized. Two Frenchmen in a Toyota, unable to cross the dunes to Zouerat last week, were still retreating yesterday to Dakar when they were involved in a catastrophic accident with a local car. Five people were killed and two were injured. The rallyists have taken refuge at a French embassy. That brings to 34 the number of people killed in the rally's twenty-year history.

     There is possibly some happy news. My trusted spy on third-world matters, Deep Throat, reports that ". . . authorities have recovered the stolen Toyota truck." The Throat adds, "I doubt the authenticity of this bulletin. I am unaware of any 'authority' in sub-Saharan Africa, much less more than one."

     Seventy-eight bikes began today's grueling stage from Nema to Tidjikja, a 745-km haul through unforgiving desert. All but four kilometers of it constituted the stage. They have run through this section of Mauritania in previous rallies, except they used to do it in two days. It was expected to be the most difficult day of the entire rally. No mechanics would be flown in for service tonight, perhaps because not even the National Geographic Society knows where Tadjikja is.

     It may have lived up to its billing: As of 0130 EST (six hours behind the rally's local time) on January 15, with the riders scheduled to begin departure this minute, only 44 bikes are listed as having finished the previous day's leg. That may be a function of poor communication from the front lines or it may represent the sequel to the siege of El Mreiti, where fifty riders disappeared in the dunes.

     In any event, one picture is worth a wall of words. If you go to the Dakar's web site tonight, you will see a photograph of a dejected rider. It tells you everything that you need to know about what happened today. It is a picture of Richard Sainct. Yesterday he was ahead of every rider in the rally except Stephane Peterhansel. But standing second to Peterhansel on the Paris-Dakar has become equivalent to the curse of "Time" magazine; if an athlete's picture shows up on that rag's cover, within days you will see the onset of a slump from which that poor creature may never recover. Today it was Sainct's turn to be fed to the wolves.

     The marching orders at this point could not be more clear: If you're not Peterhansel, you do whatever it takes to get in front of him; if you are Peterhansel, you sit back, roll along, and watch the medics pick up the pieces of the guys who've passed you. Raw speed for one ragged group; a leisurely stroll through the dunes for the leader. Simple, right? Let's watch:

     At the first checkpoint Peterhansel leads the field by five minutes;

     Up the terrifying track to the Enji Pass they go --- here Jean-Pierre Fontenay, overall leader in the car class, blows out a rear tire but the conditions are too dangerous to change it until he gets to the summit --- and Peterhansel lopes along in the lead, enjoying the spectacular vistas;

     Across the dunes called the Mountain of Elephants they plod, Peterhansel still leading and whistling to himself as the trailing riders gag in the dust, sand, grit, and rocks that the Frenchman continuously lobs at their crusted faces;

     At the 650-km mark and nine hours into the stage, Peterhansel tires of making a mockery of the sport, lets Andy Haydon and Alfie Cox pass, and takes third for the day, increasing his overall lead by fourteen minutes. Sainct, meanwhile, is lost somewhere between Ethiopia and Hawaii and eventually arrives nearly an hour behind Peterhansel. All of this puts Fabrizio Meoni back into second overall, where he was maybe a week ago, except that now he's a lot farther behind Peterhansel than he was then. And, as we've seen, second place is where death spirals usually are launched.

     If you've spent any time around cats, you've seen this kind of behavior before. They'll grab something, bat it around for a while, stare at it in a vacant, bemused sort of way, smack it again, and finally bite its head off. To the uninitiated it appears that the cat is enjoying the slow, dripping torture. What is really happening is that the cat is working itself into a killing rage. It knows, in a primal, instinctive way, that good things take time.

     And, surprisingly, it's not all that bad even if you're not playing the part of the cat in this Hobbesian drama. When the cat sinks that first claw into your neck, you more or less know that you can count the minutes remaining in your life on the fingers of one paw. It's just plain over, Jack, and there's no point in whining about all your missed opportunities now. Morphine-like endorphins begin flooding around your system like a bloated river, coating your nerve endings. You feel absolutely great, right up to that last big bite. It was a giggle while it lasted, but now it's time to say goodnight.

     That's what we're watching here.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:33:32

    3 SAINCT          KTM     FR     1:12:34

    4 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:21:29

    5 COX             KTM     AF     1:59:31

    6 SALA            KTM     IT     3:17:13

    7 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     3:30:30

    8 DEACON          KTM     GB     3:59:22

    9 BERNARD         KTM     FR     4:06:05

   10 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     4:12:33

   11 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     4:29:43

   12 GALLARDO        BMW     ES     4:37:32

   13 MAYER           KTM     AL     6:40:34

   14 VERHOEF         KTM     HO     7:00:43

   15 KRAUSE          KTM     US     7:18:45

DAY 15:

     The schedule says that after today there are but three days remaining in the rally. That is technically true, since it will end on Sunday afternoon, January 18. More accurately, however, this rally will be in the bag by Saturday night. Sunday will be a yawner, a 247-km leg that includes an 18 km stage. My predictive abilities are not as good as those of the supermarket tabloids, but I guarantee this: The rally will not be won or lost in those last 18 kilometers.

     Three days cannot pass a moment too soon for me. I am bone weary of trying to dream up new and improved ways to describe how badly mismatched this field is against a lone rider, Stephane Peterhansel. From the moment he set foot in North Africa, he has been going through the rest of the bike class like a buzz saw through butter. That may do wonders for the spirit of the buzz saw's supporters, but as a sporting event, it lacks a certain dramatic tension. When Peterhansel shows up for the start of the Paris-Dakar, the question isn't whether he's going to win, but by how much.

     Every day we watch riders crashing, getting lost, breaking down, flailing hopelessly through the dunes, and generally screwing the pooch. By and large, they don't recover. But Peterhansel --- falling down once in Morocco and going off-course the following day --- always recovers. Sure, his bike is a little bigger than the others, but that just makes it a little harder to shove through the sand. He is such a fine rider, however, that he doesn't seem to care. When the occasional road pops up, his extra half-pint of engine displacement is all that he needs. He vanishes.

     It isn't that the KTMs and BMWs aren't trying. I'm sure they're trying just as hard as I've been trying to find Andrea Mayer's home telephone number. But nothing works for them. Or me either. They are now at the point of hoping for miracles. Maybe Peterhansel will drop into a wadi and not come out; maybe his Yamaha will crump; maybe a wet bird really can fly at night. But the man *always* comes out of the wadis and his bike *never* breaks. As for the wet bird, that really would be a miracle. But if it's going to happen, that bird had better put down the garden hose and start flapping: There are just 787 stage kilometers left.

     Fabrizio Meoni is the only one left with any realistic chance of catching Peterhansel, and by "realistic chance" I mean roughly the odds in favor of someone finding the undiscovered tomb of King Tut in my backyard. But Meoni's global positioning satellite unit hasn't been working well for days. On one of the European sports channels the other day, there was a film clip of a Taureg tribesman, who had apparently been observing Meoni at a bad moment, imitating the rider's frustration with the malfunctioning equipment. The man spun around and waved his arms and kicked some sand and basically disported himself in a manner that closely resembles the actions of motorcyclists who are so far behind Peterhansel that they simply start going postal. Everyone had a good laugh and the Taureg man was internationally famous for fifteen seconds, which is about as much as any of us can ask these days.

     Each day there is a unique topographical feature whose apparent purpose is to induce naked fear into the rider. Yesterday it was the Elephant Rock. Today, on the 358-km run north from Tidjikja to Atar, the Chinguetti Dunes were waiting. They ran this route north-to-south two years ago and Dutchman Gerard Jimmink won it. He won it again today. It isn't a section that Peterhansel much cares for, so he dogged it, taking a lazy fourth place on the stage. Jimmink needed to make up better than three hours on Peterhansel today; he got back seven minutes. Meoni took second on the stage, six minutes behind Jimmink. Alfie Cox came in forty seconds behind Meoni and eighteen seconds in front of Peterhansel. When the dust settled, Meoni had inched closer --- 59 seconds worth of an inch --- to the overall leader. If the past is prologue, that means Meoni will follow Peterhansel into the paddock tomorrow afternoon by a half-hour or more. Stop me if you've heard all this before.

     It didn't get any easier for Richard Sainct. For a while he was tearing up the track as if there was no tomorrow. At 265 km into the stage, he broke his shock. For Sainct, who has struggled as hard as any rider in the rally, there will be a tomorrow, but it will be the first of just a lot of rest days until he returns home. The KTM team, having started with such high hopes and great expectations in Versailles, is slowly but surely cracking up on the rocks of Africa.

     Yesterday I noted that the standings showed only 44 bikes having made it to Tidjikja. But during the night 27 more bikes apparently limped in. They weren't in good shape. Seven of them were moaning so badly that they had to be shot. That left 64 starters this morning. The standings tonight list 55 finishers today. Of the nine missing bikes are the BMW F650s of Oscar Gallardo and Andrea Mayer. No press release mentions the absence of these two riders. If this information is accurate, that leaves just a single BMW in the field, the R100PD of Raymond Loiseaux. I am not certain of this, but I think that no one has started more Paris-Dakar rallies than Loiseaux. He stands 52nd overall, three steps above the basement, but he's still standing. On this ride, that is saying something.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:32:33

    3 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:22:02

    4 COX             KTM     AF     1:59:13

    5 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     3:23:40

    6 BERNARD         KTM     FR     4:16:10

    7 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     4:21:34

    8 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     4:33:51

    9 DEACON          KTM     GB     5:55:30

   10 MAYER           KTM     AL     7:22:12

   11 KRAUSE          KTM     US     7:25:34

   12 SALA            KTM     IT     7:37:01

   13 VERHOEF         KTM     HO     7:45:14

   14 ZLOCH           KTM     RT     8:05:27

   15 DE GAVARDO      KTM     CH     9:32:58

DAY 16:

     He has spent his whole life preparing for this day. He may never have another like it. But fifty years from now England's John Deacon will be telling his great-grandchildren about the day he won a stage on the Paris-Dakar rally. In the process he beat the second-place rider by fifteen minutes, far and away the greatest margin of victory in the motorcycle class of the rally this year. And the man he stuffed back into second place was the greatest rider the event may ever see, Stephane Peterhansel.

     Deacon isn't the only one in orbit tonight. If a web site's home page could have an orgasm, Deacon's did today. It blinks, it flashes, and it pops, all in a shade of violent blood red. It sings out the pride of an entire nation, and for the very best of post-colonial reasons: He is the first subject of her majesty ever to have won a stage on the P-D. He may still be nearly six hours behind Peterhansel on the overall leader board, but today he did something that not even Sir Francis Drake ever accomplished.

     Fifty-six riders started today's leg which ran south and west from Atar to Boutilimit. Missing were the BMW F650s of Oscar Gallardo and Andrea Mayer, victims, according to the press release, of "technical problems and exhaustion." Isabelle Jomini also did not take the start. That eliminated the last two women from the rally. Mayer had crept up to 44th overall before folding it up. At that point she was leading Jomini by almost eighteen hours. Jean Brucy, thought to be long gone (he was not listed in the overall list of finishers yesterday), apparently showed up in Atar last night. He is the last of Richard Schalber's F650 team, holding on to 37th place overall.

     The reconnaissance truck that leads the field by a day reported that the final section of the course had become impassable because of recent sandstorms. As a result organizers elected to halt the scheduled 456-km stage at the second checkpoint, 290 kilometers into the stage. That news could not have been unwelcome for the riders; part of the eliminated section encompassed a mammoth wadi. Despite that, the course was expected to be fast. It wasn't. Deacon averaged under 70 km/hr (43 mph) for the day.

     The problem is not just one of road, track, or dune conditions. There is an ever-present danger of becoming lost in that Saharan wasteland. In the old days the riders had to maneuver through here using nothing but maps and compasses. Keeping on course was far more important than speed. Travelling slowly would just make you late; getting lost could kill you. Margaret Thatcher's son was missing for five days on a desert rally some years ago. It can happen to anyone; it has already happened to Peterhansel this year.

     The riders are now issued global positioning satellite units, but the devices are not state of the art. The units can accept no more than ten waypoints. For $350 you can go to your local electronic toy supplier tomorrow and buy a comparable device that will store 100+ waypoints. The more waypoints --- essentially the intersection of a latitude and a longitude --- you can store to begin with, the less likely you are to stray from the straight and narrow path. Ten waypoints would be great for scratching your way from your front door to the Kwiki Mart five miles down the road, but for navigating through 800 kilometers of trackless desert, they leave something to be desired, namely decent directions.

     In his book "Investment Biker," Jim Rogers described the basic Saharan road map that he used in traversing the Sahara from north to south. There are no road intersections out there and no signposts. Every few kilometers there would be, or should have been, an oil drum that represented a mile marker. He would stand on the seat of his bike, scanning the horizon for the next drum. If he saw it, he headed for it. If he couldn't see anything, he would hope for the best and continue by compass readings. It was slow, dangerous work and it didn't forgive mistakes.

     The riders are also issued route books, but I am given to believe that they are not as detailed as those that are customarily used in pro rallies in Europe and the U.S., where every instruction is accompanied by an elapsed mileage pre-checked to the hundredth of a mile. Without stable landmarks in the Sahara, route books become more of a general guide for living, like the Book of Proverbs, rather than a morass of sub-paragraphed fine print, like the IRS code. As a consequence, in huge stretches of the rally a gift of navigation is more critical than a heavy hand on the throttle. If you don't know where you are, having Superman's speed won't help. You'll just be loster faster, Buster.

     Fabrizio Meoni, Andy Haydon, and Gerard Jimmink, riding in a pack, followed Deacon and Peterhansel to the finish line. Alfie Cox and Jordi Arcarons shuffled in twenty minutes later. The rest of the pack dribbled in. They lost just one rider. Peterhansel extended his lead by a couple of minutes. One small step toward Dakar; one giant leap for an elated Englishman.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:34:24

    3 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:24:03

    4 COX             KTM     AF     2:21:49

    5 JIMMINK         KTM    HO     3:27:00

    6 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     4:58:46

    7 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     5:39:01

    8 DEACON          KTM     GB     5:40:33

    9 MAYER           KTM     AL     7:51:14

   10 KRAUSE          KTM     US     8:44:01

   11 ZLOCH           KTM     RT     8:52:16

   12 VERHOEF         KTM     HO     9:04:09

   13 DE GAVARDO      KTM     CH     10:50:45

   14 LE BLANC        HON     FR     11:10:16

   15 ISIDRE          KTM     ES     11:14:55

DAY 17:

     We have a nomenclature problem, these organizers and I. Since Day #1 I have been hoping that they would recognize the error of their ways and eventually conform to my method. They haven't; worse, they show no signs of doing so. They are apparently more doctrinaire and rigid than I am. I didn't think that was possible.

     What I call a "stage" --- a section of the day's course whose optimum time for traversal is zero seconds, thereby turning it into a red-eyed, flat-out race --- they call a "special." I call it a stage because that's what pro car rallyists in the U.S. call it, and, since it is the only part of the day upon which the overall time is based, it is invariably the only item of drama during the day. Correct me if I'm wrong, but drama happens on a stage.

     What I would call something "special," for example, might be a car coming over a beach dune at an unseemly speed, becoming airborne, failing to achieve escape velocity, and plopping down into the Atlantic ocean with saltwater lapping up against the car's windows. That happened today to Jean-Louis Schlesser today during the second of two . . . er, specials on the leg from Boutilimit to Saint-Louis. I hasten to add for our geographically-challenged readers that the Saint-Louis referred to here is the city in Senegal on the west coast of Africa, not the equally dismal city in the United States, which is spelled without a hyphen.

     You can hardly blame Schlesser's enthusiasm in the moments that preceded his unscheduled bath. He had won the first . . . um, special of the day, a 166-km stretch that ran south and west from Boutilimit toward the ocean. What he needed to do on the second . . . ah, special was to finish high enough so that his combined time for the two . . . hmm, specials would be less than that of all of the Mitisubishis who have dominated the car class even more handily than Peterhansel has subdued his fellow bikers. That would give him a win for today's . . . oh, stage. For Schlesser, that would be no mean accomplishment, inasmuch as Mitsubishi has won every single stage of this rally.

     The car had stalled. Waves lapped over the hood. Ten seconds ago Schlesser was making 180 km/hr along the beach; now he was being carried off toward St. Louis, the one in Missouri, at maybe 1.2 knots. Miraculously he managed to restart the car, head it back to the beach from whence he had begun this bizarre detour, and eventually cross the finish line in tenth place. It wasn't good enough. Mitsubishi won again.

     Nothing quite so dramatic occurred in the bike class today, though there you might get an argument from South Africa's Alfie Cox. He, alone among the day-to-day leaders, had not won even one . . . let's see, special, "and I didn't want to be left out." He is not pressing his nose against the window any longer, taking the first . . . ach, special, and a virgin no more. In the second, he said that his bike kept cutting out in fifth gear, forcing him to run the length of the beach in fourth. It wasn't quite enough, but at least he wasn't sopping wet at the finish. Gerard Jimmink had run steadily over both sections, winning the second and taking third in the first, and thus took home first place in the day's . . . yow, stage.

     Stephane Peterhansel, cruising on automatic pilot all day, lost another meaningless minute overall to Fabrizio Meoni, the only rider with even a laughable chance of roping in the leader. One man who is certain not to catch Peterhansel absent a nuclear attack is the terminally-optimistic Raymond Loiseaux, whose R100PD now stands more than two days behind his fellow countryman with just one day to go. The entry fee for the Paris-Dakar starts at about $7,200; Loiseaux is one rider who is obviously determined to get his franc's worth.

     Even little children in Senegalese villages have known for a week that Peterhansel is on the edge of making history in this rally. Tomorrow he will take his sixth win, breaking his current tie with Cyril Neveu. But when the microphones began to swarm around him at the end of the day, he simply said, "I haven't won yet. Tomorrow I could hit a donkey on the road and it would be over." He's right, in a cosmological sense, because Hubert Auriol bombed out on the next-to-last day eleven years ago.

     But it won't happen to Peterhansel. He has a mere 247 kilometers yet to ride before he pulls up at the edge of Lake Rose tomorrow in Dakar. I'm betting that there won't be any donkeys on his front fender. If there are, that will indeed be something special.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:32:27

    3 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:17:12

    4 COX             KTM     AF     2:15:57

    5 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     3:19:15

    6 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     5:00:54

    7 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     5:34:46

    8 DEACON          KTM     GB     5:47:20

    9 MAYER           KTM     AL     7:58:11

   10 ZLOCH           KTM     RT     9:01:53

   11 VERHOEF         KTM     HO     9:28:38

   12 DE GAVARDO      KTM     CH     11:07:49

   13 KRAUSE          KTM     US     11:15:32

   14 LE BLANC        HON     FR     11:26:42

   15 SCHILCHER       KTM     AL     11:34:56

DAY 18:

     It was almost 25 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

     I had holed up in the late spring of 1973, studying for the bar exam. It was dreary work, 18 hours a day, trying to learn crap I should have learned in the previous three years but never had. Now I was paying for it. I'd crammed through high school and college and if there is a course you have to take in order to die, I'll cram for that too. But on three Saturday afternoons back then, I'd taken a half-hour off to watch The Horse.

     He had stomped the field in the Kentucky Derby, winning in a time that even to this day has never been approached. Two weeks later he'd crushed the Preakness. The Pimlico track timer had screwed up or he would have had another record there. The Belmont Stakes came on June 9. I turned on the TV and made my girlfriend sit down and watch it with me. She hated horses. I told her she wouldn't hate this horse.

     It was, as the sportscasters say, the last jewel of the Triple Crown, at 1.5 miles the longest of the three races, and a stone heartbreaker. But Secretariat, going off at a laughable 1-9 odds, was making it look easy. The jockey, Ron Turcotte, was just hanging on. When they flashed the one-mile split, yet another record, the crowd started to grow curiously quiet. Secretariat began to stretch out the lead. Five lengths. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. It was unbelievable. The camera pulled back in a wide angle shot as he hammered toward the wire. There was no other horse in sight. Twenty-five lengths. Turcotte looked back. Thirty lengths. Then it was over. Two twenty-four flat and thirty-one lengths, records that still stand.

     "We are never going to see anything like again for as long as we live," I said.

     Now I'm not so sure.

     Stephane Peterhansel took it easy on the final day, knowing that all he had to do to take home his sixth Paris-Dakar title was to cross the finish line in one piece. He did. It wasn't a thirty-one length lead, but it didn't have to be. Everyone else had given up a week ago, victims of broken bikes, equipment, or spirit. KTM's factory had pitched the best riders and wrenches and equipment they had at him; Peterhansel turned them away effortlessly. It never was close.

     My confidential informant, Deep Throat, thinks that until KTM changes its approach to the Paris-Dakar rally, nothing is going to change. Yamaha concentrates nearly everything it has on Peterhansel. He has three mechanics, guys who've been with him for years, who follow him like shadows. They may take showers together. They apparently communicate telepathically. Peterhansel shuts down the motor, looks at something without even speaking, and the wrenches fix it. KTM, on the other hand, dilutes its energy, giving one mechanic to each rider. Deep Throat thinks that if they'd focus on just two men, perhaps Meoni and Roma, instead of the armada that they fielded in this event, they might have better luck. That makes sense to me.

     But then Meoni and Roma would have to beat Peterhansel through the dunes, and in the last eight years no one, not even Batman, has been able to do that. This year he fell down once, got lost once, and overheated once. That is not what I'd consider a mountain of tribulation, particularly when you recall that two-thirds of the starting field never made it to Dakar. The rally even now is being viewed as one of the toughest ever, but for Peterhansel it was merely a case of watching the wheels go round and round, up one dune and down another. Repeat as necessary for eighteen days. Accept the crown at the end. No one has ever done what he has now done.

     Secretariat died in 1989. A necropsy was performed. They found a heart that was nearly twice the size of the average equine heart. People wanted to believe it explained the animal's success. It didn't explain anything to me. I already knew that Secretariat was a gift from the gods. They hand them out occasionally to remind us of what true greatness really is. We can't understand it any other way. All we know is that we may never see anything like it again.

    1 PETERHANSEL     YAM     FR     0:00:00

    2 MEONI           KTM     IT     0:30:29

    3 HAYDON          KTM     AU     1:19:42

    4 COX             KTM     AF     2:25:57

    5 JIMMINK         KTM     HO     3:16:29

    6 ARCARONS        KTM     ES     4:57:44

    7 VON ZITZEWIT    KTM     AL     5:32:35

    8 DEACON          KTM     GB     5:48:37

    9 MAYER           KTM     AL     7:56:41

   10 ZLOCH           KTM     RT     9:01:30

   11 VERHOEF         KTM     HO     9:42:22

   12 DE GAVARDO      KTM     CH     11:08:08

   13 LE BLANC        HON     FR     11:27:10

   14 SCHILCHER       KTM     AL     11:33:26

   15 KRAUSE          KTM     US     11:33:26

Bob Higdon

January, 1998 1