An all-consuming passion for the Dakar

January 10 th 2020 - 08:39 [GMT + 3]

Saudi Arabia is opening up to tourism, at the same time as it welcomes the Dakar for the first time, this year. This is perfect timing, for these are the two main centres of interest for Mishal Algunheim, the first Saudi to compete in the rally in the bike category.

© @viniciusbranca

 The planets have well and truly aligned for Mishal Algunheim. Almost 30 years ago, the young boy from Al Khobar, a city with a population of almost 500,000 located on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, climbed onto his first bike, a 40 cc, under the supervision of his older brother who took him on his first rides through the desert. As the years have passed, so has the size of his engines, but as a teenager he became an insatiable all-rounder in terms of sport, especially keen on kite surfing. “It was from 2008 that I really started spending time on bike riding,” explains the rider who has now reached a more mature age of 35 years. Mishal especially caught the biking bug a little more than a year ago, when the country’s all-terrain enthusiasts understood that something was happening concerning the Dakar: “I immediately thought that I just had to take part and in order to do so, it was essential that I ploughed all my energy into it. Over the following days, I registered for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge so that I could have a reference that would help convince the organisers to accept my application”.

This represented a significant challenge for the amateur rider, who had recently started to move away from his professional activity in his family’s property construction firm to organise treks in the desert, first with friends, but then with the ambition of developing it as a business. “The Dakar is a double challenge for me. Firstly, there is the personal sporting motivation and secondly, if I become the first Saudi rider to finish the Dakar on a bike, I could not hope for better publicity for my own little company!” To win such a jackpot, biker number 70 knows first and foremost that he will have to earn it the hard way, by mastering his steed on terrain that he had not thought would be so technical: “The first four days were really hard. I’m just not comfortable on this terrain with all the rocks. I didn’t think we’d be riding at 30 kmph… but you have to be in control of the bike in all conditions”. Mishal has not been able to avoid falling, “but only once at high speed and without any damage,” as well as putting a hole in his fuel tank, though it has not compromised his continuing participation in the rally. He is a strong-minded character and will therefore be relying on a strategy of caution: “I’m not a fast rider, but on sandy terrain I don’t fall, so the second week seems better suited to me. I’m not looking to race, just to get to the finish. That said, to preserve my chances of reaching the finish, I’ll have to ride at a decent pace to avoid being last”. Indeed, it would not be a very good advert for boosting his business…

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