▲ America Ricky Brabec (1) rebounded from a rocky start to win four stages and finish second overall at the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. His Honda teammate, Kevin Benavides, won the event.
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Roller-Coaster Rally

Ricky Brabec Finishes Second In Dakar Title Defense

Four minutes and 56 seconds is scarcely time for a coffee break, but after 47 hours, 18 minutes, 14 seconds and nearly 5,000 miles of racing, that is what separated American Ricky Brabec from his factory Honda teammate, Argentine Kevin Benavides, and a second successive victory in the Dakar Rally.

“Dakar is insane,” Brabec said of the grueling 12-stage off-road competition, the two most recent editions of which have been in Saudi Arabia. “We went 1-2, which is pretty awesome, because the last time Honda experienced a similar result was in 1987, with Cyril Neveu and Edi Orioli.

“Unfortunately, Joan [Barreda] retired in the penultimate stage. A whole Honda podium would have been legendary.”

Brabec recovered more than 2 minutes in the 125-mile final special stage, but that extraordinary effort was not enough to close the gap to Benavides.

“Kevin had a very good race,” Brabec said. “This year, we were No. 2. I’m just stoked to be one of the only Americans on the podium twice and the only American to win the rally.”

Fellow American Skyler Howes, representing BAS Dakar KTM Racing, finished fifth overall, 52 minutes behind Benavides.

After unprecedented success in 2020, second place was a difficult pill for Brabec to swallow.

“Sometimes, things don’t go as planned,” he said.

Brabec, 30, arrived in Jeddah for the prologue ready to race despite many event cancelations in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Living in Southern California, the Honda rider could train in the desert with off-road racing veterans Johnny Campbell and Jimmy Lewis, as well as motocrosser-turned-rally-racer Andrew Short.

“We set up a plan so that I could train with the road book three days a week, plus we did a durability test for HRC,” Brabec said.

The road book is a scrolling manuscript mounted on the motorcycle in the rider’s line of sight that guides competitors through each stage.

“After I won in 2020,” Brabec said, “I had to find new motivation to be a consecutive Dakar winner, because winning once is great, but winning twice would really set it in stone.”

After topping the prologue, Brabec discovered at his own expense a new philosophy of the rally: more technical navigation, with frequent changes of directions to break the rhythm and reduce overall speeds.

“The new road books were really complicated with all these crazy notes—aggressive navigation,” Brabec said. “So, when you ‘open the track’ [start the stage at the front], you lose a lot of time.

“Last year, I was leading from Stage 3 and managed well until the finish. The frustration this year was the impossibility to manage the race. It was a roller coaster out of control.

“Every day, there was a new overall leader, and the leader might not even have won a stage. How is that possible?”

When winning stages became a disadvantage, Brabec was forced to rethink his strategy.
“We had to find a new way to stabilize the consistency,” he said. “The challenge was trying to arrive with the front-runners, without winning.”

Brabec’s plan paid off through the midrace rest day.

He had a strong second week of the rally, winning three of the final six stages to steadily move up in the overall rankings.

“I tried my best,” he said. “I don’t really know what I could have done better.

“This only was my sixth year, but it was definitely difficult,” Brabec added. “I’ll learn from my mistakes, come back next year more prepared and try to get back on the podium in the top spot.”

▲ America Ricky Brabec (1) rebounded from a rocky start to win four stages and finish second overall at the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. His Honda teammate, Kevin Benavides, won the event.