Dakar Rally in Bolivia
Dakar Rally in Bolivia

It is fair to say that for the 40th Edition of the Dakar Rally, multi-times Dakar Rally Winner and now Race Director, Marc Coma, has met the demand of the competitors: A tough Dakar with plenty of challenges, both navigational and with the terrain. By Christophe Barriere-Varju

With key favourites such as Sam Sunderland (KTM), Sebastien Loeb (Peugeot) and Nani Roma (Mini) already out of the race and many more privateers out of the race after 5 days, many dreams have already perished, machines have suffered and the remaining competitors are exhausted.

  • In the car category, 37 competitors are out, 92 started.
  • In the motorbike category, 25 competitors are out, 139 started.
  • In the truck category, 18 competitors are out, 44 started.
  • In the quad category, 6 competitors are out, 49 started.
  • In the SxS category, 2 competitors are out, 11 started.

So you know first what works best in the soft sand dunes of Peru, a SxS!

However, whilst the Peruvian sand dunes crossings can still be managed with the proper strategy, navigation and skills, what’s next in Bolivia is out of control from the competitors: high altitude and lack of oxygen.

As competitors leave Arequipa in Peru to enter Bolivia they will be greeted with freezing temperatures on their way to La Paz climbing to heights of 4,700 meters early in the day (very cold) with another climb to 4,400 meters later in the day. During the day, they will gravitate between 3,800 to 4,000 meters altitude. La Paz bivouac is situated at 3,625 meters above sea level, and most everyone will be fine at that level, others might be a bit light headed which a coca leaves tea can help alleviate.

La Paz, Bolívia
La Paz, Bolívia

How to deal with lack of oxygen?

This affects both competitors and assistance vehicles whether you are racing or not. Factory racers with large budget can train prior to the race with oxygen chambers, but those people are a handful. Everyone else will have to deal with the elements.

In normal “non-race” conditions you have to let you body acclimate itself and slowly climb to these heights. Not in Dakar.

People are more or less affected by the lack of oxygen, no doubt oxygen bottles will be used by car participants and oxygen will be offered by ASO to all competitors and crew members.

In the film Dream Racer, we see the effect this had on Simon (Film maker) and Jacob (SBS) journalist, light headed, cold, wanting to stop to sleep, poor reaction time. As a motorcycle racer crossing the Andes at 4,700 meters altitude I did not use oxygen from the organisation. This is what works for me, but everyone is different:

  • The day before, and during that day at high altitude I drank a lot of water, a lot more than usual. Water contains oxygen, so I keep drinking to offset the lack of oxygen in the air. This is hard to do when it is freezing cold and you better become a master at controlling your bladder too!
  • I controlled my breathing, long breath, nice and slow whilst riding;
  • I focused on lowering my heart rate with controlled breathing and using the least amount of effort on the bike;
  • Finally, I was not sight seeing and I was on the move to go up and down from 4,700 meters as quickly as I could.
Filming Dream Racer
Simon – Filming Dream Racer

The way down is actually more dangerous than going up. Your body is still affected by the lack of oxygen experience, but as you come down there is more oxygen in the air and you feel ‘powered up’. Down and careful is key.

When you get affected by the lack of oxygen, your extremities become numb, for me the tips of my fingers get affected. Your eye lids become heavy and your eyes start rolling like you haven’t slept in days. You start having micro-sleeps which had been the cause of many accidents in the past with competitors literally falling asleep when riding or driving.

When the brain experiences a lack of oxygen, any number of conditions can cause hypoxia, including stroke, carbon monoxide poisoning, heart dysfunction. One symptom that is often recognized with cerebral hypoxia is the loss of motor skills or proper coordination. The cerebellum is responsible for much of our coordinated movement and balance. Changes can include decreased attention, poor judgment and memory loss.

When the brain is not receiving enough oxygen, the heart rate will increase in an attempt to deliver more oxygen. If hypoxia is severe enough, the heart will be unable to keep up with the demand and may eventually fail, causing a heart attack.

To minimize oxygen deprivation and symptoms, local people chew on coca leaves, others take tablets, or resort to boost of oxygen on the way up.

With the compounding effects of five exhaustive days in Peru, the Dakar Rally competitors will have another tough day ahead getting into Bolivia, racing or not. On the upside, the warm welcome from Bolivians and Bolivia President, Mr. Evo Morales will be well worth the effort.


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