My goal is to finish in the top 20: Santosh

Before his departure to South America, Santosh speaks of mental conditioning, evolution as a rider and the challenges of the Dakar.

C. S. Santosh aims to improve on his 36th-placed finish last time.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

As C.S. Santosh heads for his fourth Dakar rally, he admits this is the first edition he has prepared for as thoroughly as he'd like. “This is the first Dakar,” he says, “I'm actually excited about.” In 2015, Santosh became the first Indian to take part in the world's toughest rally-raid. He finished a remarkable 36th on that occasion. A year later, he had to abandon in Stage 4 but in 2017, Santosh, who signed on with Hero MotoSports, finished 47th. As 2018 approaches, with rigorous physical and mental training, an improved bike, and fine performances in the OiLibya Rally of Morocco and the PanAfrica, the 34-year-old from Bengaluru has every reason to be bullish.

In this interview with Sportstar, shortly before he departs for South America for the 40th edition of the Dakar, Santosh states that his target is to finish in the top 20. He also discusses his mental conditioning sessions, the new route for 2018, and speaks of his evolution as a rider.

The excerpts:

This is going to be your fourth Dakar. How does it feel?

I feel like a veteran. This year I did a lot of things differently. In the last three years, there were so many things missing. So I tried to put everything together and prepare. This year I can say I'm a professional. It is the most different I've felt. This is the first Dakar I'm actually excited about. All the other Dakars, I was not ready, not prepared; whatever I did was a half-assed job.

What has your preparation been like?

After I finished the 2017 Dakar, I knew I had struggled. I didn't have any fun racing. I just finished it. So I needed to change a lot of things. When I came back I was looking to see who I could work with. All these years I've done things myself. This year I trusted a lot of people to help me with my physical training, my nutrition, mental conditioning and also with training on the bike. I started training with Invictus Performance Lab (in Bengaluru). Most of the training was to address my weaknesses. At the last Dakar, physically I wasn't strong enough. When I did the tests with these guys I found out that my body was in really bad shape. Over the years, a lot of things: bad training methods, bad nutrition...all of that was compounding my problems and making it difficult to perform. So we first set all of that right. Then we started working on strength and conditioning. It also happened that I had an injury this year at the Desert Storm, after which they fused my spine. So I went to Invictus and I told them 'I have all these things and I need to be ready.' They put a programme together and we've been working systematically. All this was an eye-opener for me.

What is the mental conditioning for?

You need to pay attention to the roadbooks and understand what note is important and what's not. While you're riding, you're trying to process the information they've given you. Physically you're exerting a lot of energy. At those speeds, it's not easy to process the notes. People make mistakes and get lost. If you're racing 300km every day...it's really important to have mental conditioning to be self-aware. Most of the time, when you're tired, you switch to auto-pilot. You just go through the motions without thinking. Now the aim for me is to be self aware, to understand how the body is feeling. Depending on that, I either push or I back off.

Your mental coach is Nimrod Brokman, a former soldier in the Israeli Army's special forces. What are the sessions like?

Today, I was really annoyed. They put me on a bicycle and I have to achieve a certain heart rate, like 170. It's a lot of effort. At the same time there are images and roadbook instructions that I need to remember and repeat back to them. Their job is to mess with me the whole time, take me out of my zone where I know I can operate and give me challenges I don't like to do. Then they have these weird games they make me play: connect dots and form shapes. They give you a couple of shapes and lots of dots. I need to figure the shape in the dots. That teaches me how to have a system. I'm a kind of guy that doesn't like a system. I don't like to train at a certain time, eat a certain kind of food. I'm a rebel. For me to conform and listen to people is a huge task.

Has your diet changed?

It turns out I wasn't eating enough. The maximum weight I've reached all these years is 72.5. Now I'm eating a lot of food and my body feels fuelled through the whole day.

After the Dakar this year, you said navigation was one of the things you had to work on. What have you done in that regard?

Navigation is more to do with experience. You're looking at diagrams on a piece of paper and you have to visualize that in 3D. It varies from person to person. I have to admit I'm a bit challenged. But I've been working hard at it. Every year I train with Jordi Grau in Spain. I met him when I did my second Dakar. He's always been the guy who's helped me with my roadbook training. He lives close to the Monegros desert in Spain. So we go into the desert and do the roadbooks there. I've addressed everything this year, everything.

You said you hurt your spine at the Desert Storm. How did it happen?

Long story. Within two weeks of returning from the Dakar, I was back racing, which was not a good decision in the first place. Because I was really fatigued. I was leading the race. In India for the first time we used roadbooks and not only GPS. I was the only guy using the roadbook, to see if it could be implemented next year. There were some notes missing. In the desert in Rajasthan, they do farming. In one place, the farmer had put barbed wire across his field. It was just one wire and it wasn't in the roadbook. I went through it and crashed. I dislocated the C5 and C6 vertebrae. I rode for the next three days. Then I came back and had it operated on. They fused C5 and C6.

What makes the Dakar so hard?

It's two weeks of racing. It's an endurance sport. Every day is hard. Every day counts. You get five hours of sleep and you can't eat all the food you want to eat. The stages are long. To reach the finish every day is quite tough. They put you through so much. There's so much change in terrain. There are rocks, dunes, riverbeds...every day there's a new challenge.

Does the Dakar get easier for you with every edition?

No, it doesn't. You are riding 9000km in varying terrains and conditions. Sometimes you can forget how tough it is when you're back home. But when you return to the Dakar, on the first day it reminds you.

What is the atmosphere at the Dakar like?

I love it. When you go to Argentina, it's the best. All the people are on holiday. They're all out with their barbecues. It's festive. When you're suffering, it's nice to see all that. And there are beautiful women everywhere. It takes your mind off the race because you're suffering so much. It's nice.

You need distractions like this. In Argentina, they just love the Dakar.

What do you make of the route this year?

Every year they say it's going to be the hardest Dakar so far. I don't know how they do it. This year, I'm sure it's going to be very hard. We'll spend the first six days in the dunes in Peru. That is at high altitude, at 4000m...apparently the highest dunes in the world. It will be the first time in Peru for me. The dunes are going to be tough. We ride on the dunes every year in Morocco but Peru is a different animal. Both man and machine will struggle. After six days, we get into Bolivia, which is going to be really cold. I'm sure it's going to be raining. I'm sure it's going to be s**t. I hate Bolivia. Man, it's six degrees and raining, and it's supposed to be summer. Then when we get to Argentina, where it's going to be 40 plus. Imagine the body having to go through all of that in two weeks. It's going to be tough.

How does the new bike feel?

The bike that I had last time was more suited to the old Dakar in Africa, where the stages are really fast. That's partly why I struggled through the technical sections. This time, we have a small, light, nimble bike. The Hero RR 450 is on par with the bikes from any of the other manufacturers. That is why my performance has been really good this year.

Read: Santosh gets new bike for Dakar rally

What has changed?

On a rally bike you carry 30 litres of fuel. And that fuel is moving. Off road, it really affects the handling. You have to centralize that weight and lower the centre of gravity, so the bike feels really light. The old bike had the fuel tank at the rear, which unsettled the bike. The first 100-150km, when there is still a lot of fuel in the tank, was really difficult on the old bike. You could really feel the weight of the bike with that one fuel tank. Now we have three fuel tanks, two on the sides and

one at the back. So the weight is more centralized and you don't feel it so much. We needed a bike that handled better. I've done two rallies on this bike – the OiLibya Rally of Morocco, where I finished 13th and the PanAfrica Rally, where I finished ninth. It's the best year I've had so far.

You finished 36th in your first Dakar, back in 2015. Do you look back on it and wonder how you did it?

I don't know how I finished 36th. I don't know how I finished that rally at all. Thinking about it now...no preparation, no training, nothing. I did nothing that year and just went and rode the Dakar. It was a really good result.

So 36th, DNF and 47th in your first three Dakar rallies. What's your target this time?

My goal is to finish in the top 20. I have the speed to do it. In my mind there is a goal, but it's really important not to be too attached to the result. It's an unpredictable race. It can be over in the first five minutes. So I I take every kilometre as it comes. To be within the top 20 in the world is a huge step. From being the first guy to go the Dakar to being a guy who performs at the Dakar are two different things. It often doesn't happen in the same generation (in a country). For me it's a huge task. But I think I can achieve some amount of success. I'm not going to sit here and say I can win the Dakar. But I want a result that I can take home and be happy about. I want to finish top 20, let's see. Actually, my real goal at the Dakar is first to finish and then to come on television. Every day they show you the daily highlights. I want one of those clips to say, 'This is the fast Indian'.

What kind of impact can your Dakar performance have on Indian motorsport?

When I go to Europe or meet guys from around the world, they say, 'You guys are always on motorcycles.' They see pictures of India where everyone is commuting on bikes. Dakar is getting traction in India because you can identify with the sport without needing to know the nuances. You can just watch it on TV one day and understand what's happening. For that reason, Dakar has more of an appeal. India is one of the largest manufacturers of automobiles. Today, we have participation from two two-wheeler manufacturers. I don't see why the car guys don't come. I predict that Tata or Mahindra will be at the Dakar in the future.

So do you feel extra responsibility because you are representing India?

The sense of responsibility comes from yourself first. Yes, you're an Indian but we all go there as competitors, to compete (as individuals). The rest is just a by-product. You guys (the media) can say we've put India on the map. But we just go out there and drive.

How has your riding evolved?

I think I've been more careful over the years. I ride within my comfort zone a lot and that's why I'm consistent. But this year, I've tried to push that a little bit, to come out of my shell, and try and find the speed I know I have. Also, in the last two or three years, I've crashed for stupid reasons. This year, in all the races I completed, I crashed only once. I'm keeping the bike upright more. My skills have improved.

Read: Andreas Villas-Boas to drive in Dakar

When you went for your first Dakar back in 2015, your mother gave you her watch as a lucky charm. Have you continued that tradition?

Yes. I take it all the time. We have two watches now. (One of them is pink!) I give my mother one watch and I wear the other. When I come back, I give that to her and take the other one. It's something I always do.