The survivors of the third stage

Dakar 2023 | Stage 3 | AL DUWADIMI > AL SALAMIYA
January 3 rd 2023 - 16:57 [GMT + 3]

Matthieu Dovèze, Jean-Loup Lepan and Neels Theric were among the last riders to reach the finishing line of the special before the race was neutralised at CP3. Soaked but happy, the three bikers did not deny themselves the pleasure of the final few kilometres of a stage that will live long in the memory.

It was not a wash out for them; or not quite, at least. “I loved it,” admitted Matthieu Dovèze as he put on a bin liner to protect himself from the cold on the 160-km link route remaining to reach the bivouac in Ha’il. “The route was covered with water, we were sliding all over the place… You needed proper riding skills, you know! At the end, it was even like surfing! It was great fun!” Jean-Loup Lepan arrived a little later at the finishing line and was visibly less enthusiastic about the experience. “Yeah, it was really funny,” he coyly remarked. “I can imagine the mucky pup making big splashes in all the ruts in the tracks”. The third rider to savour the moment, Neels Theric, described his last few kilometres in the following terms: “It was like a war! Fortunately, the cars didn’t catch up with us”. The third to arrive is the least experienced of the bunch and it is his very first Dakar. He met Matthieu on enduro races and Jean-Loup during the Rallye du Maroc, a race on which he was able to accomplish qualification for the Dakar. Since the start of the rally, the rookie whose only ambition is to reach the finishing line is doing his best and drawing inspiration from his friends. “I try to follow them to learn from them. Today, I finished the special with Jean-Loup because my roadbook wasn’t working. I rode behind him, but he wouldn’t stop trying to speed off and leave me!” With a laugh, the buddies moved off to enjoy the food served at the small canteen set up behind the finishing line to enjoy something warm before tackling the link route to Ha’il in the cold. Like Neels, Jean-Loup has come along first and foremost to reach Damman. He owes his passion for the Dakar to his father, a former competitor on the most famous of rally-raids, but this is only his second participation. However, it will most certainly not be the last, given how crazy he is about the race. If proof was needed, like his father, he has had a tattoo of the emblematic Tuareg logo created 45 years ago by none other than Jacques Vivant. “My position at the finish isn’t important,” he explained. “I just want to reach Damman and I’ll be delighted if everyone can do it”. It will unfortunately not be the case, because the rally has already witnessed a number of premature exits, including those of Sam Sunderland and Ricky Brabec, two pretenders for overall triumph. “The first two days were really tough,” said Jean-Loup. “It’s a race in which you need to take it easy at times. In fact, I nearly had a nasty fall today… The Dakar can come to a halt at any moment. That said, the hardest part is finding the money to be able to take part”. Neels is not likely to contradict him, because he took out a student loan to pay for his registration. “But don’t tell anyone!” he giggles. “My banker wouldn’t be happy if he found out about it”. Even if it means getting into debt, Neels intends to make the most of every moment spent in Saudi Arabia. “I’m trying to ride consistently and avoiding taking too many risks,” he explains. “I want to reach the end of the rally and enjoy the landscapes which are magnificent. I’d never seen sand covered with vegetation”. While he also enjoys the scenery and regrets not having been able to participate in one of the South American editions, Matthieu Dovèze boasts loftier ambitions. The former enduro rider who has switched to rally-raid is among the best French riders in the discipline. “My goal is to be in the top 25 during the first week and then take advantage of people dropping out in the second to get into the top 20,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’ve had too many mishaps at the beginning of the rally. I lost time on the first day due to getting barbed wire stuck in my rear wheel and then the next day I had to slow my pace because I damaged a tyre by starting the special too aggressively. But there is still a long way to go”. None of the three are likely to complain about that. Ça ne sera pas le cas, le rallye ayant déjà enregistré nombre d’abandons, dont ceux de Sunderland et Brabec, deux candidats à la victoire. « Les deux premières journées étaient vraiment cassantes, témoigne Jean-Loup. C’est une course où il faut savoir rendre la main. J’ai d’ailleurs failli m’en prendre une belle aujourd’hui… Un Dakar peut s’arrêter à tout moment. Mais bon, le plus dur reste quand même de trouver l’argent pour pouvoir partir. » Ce n’est pas Neels qui dira le contraire. Lui a même fait un prêt étudiant pour payer son engagement. « Chut, il ne faut pas le dire, s’amuse-t-il. Mon banquier ne serait pas content s’il l’apprenait. » Quitte à s’endetter, Neels a bien l’intention de profiter de chaque instant passé en Arabie saoudite. « J’essaie d’être régulier sans prendre trop de risques, explique-t-il. Je veux aller au bout en profitant des paysages qui sont magnifiques. Du sable couvert de verdure, je n’avais encore jamais vu ça. » S’il profite aussi du décor et regrette de ne pas avoir pu participer à l’une des éditions sud-américaines, Matthieu Dovèze affiche des ambitions plus élevées. Cet ancien enduriste converti au rallye-raid fait aujourd’hui partie des meilleurs pilotes français de la discipline. « Mon objectif est de figurer dans le top 25 durant la première semaine puis de profiter des éliminations dans la seconde pour accéder au top 20, avance-t-il. Malheureusement, j’ai connu quelques mésaventures sur le début de course. J’ai perdu du temps le premier jour à cause d’un fil barbelé enroulé dans ma roue arrière, et le lendemain j’ai dû rendre la main à cause d’un pneu abîmé alors que j’avais bien attaqué la spéciale. Mais bon la course est encore longue. » Aucun des trois ne s’en plaindra.

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