Decoding Athletes Podcast with Matthias Dandois – Episode 8

The Recipe of Winning – Pushing the limits with Cyril Despres and Mike Horn.

Five-time Dakar Rally winner Cyril Despres and new co-pilot, adventurer and sports psychologist Mike Horn, meet Matthias Dandois in the extreme sports capital of Chamonix for the next episode of “Decoding Athletes”. If you want to find out what it takes to master the desert on two wheels or swim the length of the Amazon then stay tuned…

“When you love bikes it is forever”

Cyril, a five-time Dakar Rally winner, discovered motorcycles at the age of 13, buying his first trial bike with his “communion money”, which he still owns. “I felt it was my way,” says Cyril and having scrapped through school from five to 13, he took a mechanics course for two-wheeled vehicles and his life was changed forever.

“Take my bike. Take my tires. Take my spares”

Cyril found himself working as a bike mechanic, preparing desert bikes for adventurous Parisians. When his boss took a bail while racing Cyril found himself in charge of the shop and did such a good job that the following year the gaffer gifted him his spot in the Tunisian Rally. “It was the beginning of the second part of my passion with motorcycles,” states Cyril.

“I need to go fast. I need to navigate. I need to find my way”

This was his first ever rally and as a skinny kid with no training it was daunting as well as inspiring. He remembers stopping on top of a dune to just take in the scenery: “That is a place I want to come back to as much as I can,” he remembered thinking. He finished 13th overall and first in his class on a 400cc. “If I do 13th on my first rally raid I can do better with a bit of training,” he thought at the time.

“Because of passion. Because of motivation. Because we saw that everything was possible”

He had caught the competing bug and the next big thing was the ‘99 Dakar Rally but he and his teammate would need to raise €15,000 for the entry fee, the equivalent of a years salary for a bike mechanic. They devised a crazy funding scheme, involving 2000 bottles of donated wine and a further 2000 bottles of bought Chablis and the cornering of the office Christmas gift market in their home town. Cyril laughs that he was a better rider than wine seller but they managed to raise the cash a make the start line.

“I was pure amateur,” remembers Cyril but he finished 16th out of 180 bikes and second in his class. “There was no fear, It was just pure adrenalin, 6 to 700 km a day and enjoying every one of them,” recalls Cyril.

“You can’t throw gold into the ocean”

By the 2001 Dakar Rally Cyril was riding as the ‘water boy’ for the BMW team, a position that meant he was a mobile mechanic backing up the rest of the team. But with mounting injuries the team boss put Cyril into the race for real, stating “you can’t throw gold into the ocean” at the team meeting. Cyril would win his first special stage and never ride as the water boy again.

“I started the race with four riders. When I was back home there were only three”

A year later Cyril was now on the KTM team and he says riding without realising the dangers of the sport. Then in 2004, his teammate Richard Sainct was killed while racing as a team and the following year, while competing in the memory of Richard, his friend Fabrizio Meoni was also killed. “In just three months I lost two teammates,” he laments. “I got respect for the desert at that time”. In 2005 Cyril won his first Dakar with Richard and Fabrizio in his heart and would repeat the success in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013.

“Close to the pole I got the message:

Do you want to do the Dakar with me?”In 2019 Cyril dropped a message to explorer and sports psyciatrist Mike Horn asking if he wanted to race the Dakar in a buggy? Of course the answer was yes. Mike was at the time trekking across the North Pole, from Alaska to Spitsbergen, in complete darkness and temperatures of -40. Who wouldn’t want to be in the desert.

“You need experience to face nature”

Both Cyril and Mike had been asked by Red Bull to coach the Red Bull Junior Off Road Team Project, which in the words of Red Bull provides “a chance for young racers to accelerate their path to the top”. Cyril would enlighten the new recruits with his experience of the desert and competition, while Mike, who had coached the Indian Cricket team, German football team and South African rugby team to success, would provide them with the mental strength to succeed: “ I was there to tell the boys to stop crying and thinking you’re tired and to stand up, look the sun in the face, and go”. In short the rookie drivers with the shared input of Cyril and Mike, could “stop making the mistakes of a beginner” and enjoy what Mike describes as a “a shortcut to success”.

“One life only has 30,000 days. We can’t waste one”

Mike and Cyril have taught the young recruits on the program to take ownership of their advice and experience and to own it to “jump a generation of experience.” Cyril even admits that there is a part of every trophy in his stash that is in part-owned by Mike, because through his books Cyril found “the mind and power” to win. The project is working: In their first Dakar Rally the Juniors won six out of 12 special sections. “If you are tired, the competitors next to you are tired as well,” says Mike to his young charges.

“If you can do a little bit more than they can do then you are ahead”.

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