Dakar 2016: CS Santosh on the challenges that lie ahead
Our conversations with CS Santosh tend to follow a rather telling pattern. The pattern indicates that India's ace cross-country rally specialist is almost always busy. We usually schedule a telephone conversation days in advance, and even then we somehow manage to catch Santosh in the middle of, well, everything. Training in the desert, day-long bicycling sessions, long days thrashing his off-road motorcycles through the woods near his Big Rock Motopark, combined with various errands. This time those errands are quick last-minute shopping trips before he heads out for the Dakar 2016. It's been a long and tiring year for the first-ever Indian to compete in the grueling Dakar Rally. A year full of training, coupled with that rather uneasy feeling of 'will I-won't-I' make it to the Dakar again.
CS Santosh is all set for his second attempt at the Dakar Rally, this time astride a Suzuki 450 Rally
Fortunately for Santosh, who had been considering riding with the Kini Red Bull Team again, but wasn't sure exactly how it was all going to pan out, things eventually fell into place. You see he'd spent three months this year training in the Pyrenees with Jordi Grau, owner of the Suzuki Spain Rally team. And just when it seemed like he was running out of time, soon after the Morocco Rally, the Suzuki Spain Rally team stepped in, along with Red Bull India and CEAT Tyres to give him the backing that he needed to get to the 2016 Dakar Rally. Which is how Santosh finds himself getting set to swing a leg over the No.56 Suzuki 450 Rally on the 3rd of January. And with the pressure even greater in his second attempt at the Dakar, Santosh has been training hard.
How, you ask? Well, to begin with there was that aforementioned training in the Pyrenees. "I never really got Enduro routes earlier," Santosh says. "You know, motorcycling is supposed to be fast and free-flowing, but Enduro is really slow and technical. And the truth is, in the Dakar, we're made to tackle dry riverbeds and it isn't like we're going fast all the time," he continues, acknowledging that he made big gains in technique this way.
Santosh competed in the 2015 edition of the event with the Kini Red Bull Team, ending the rally 36th overall
But it's also the time on the bike that's helped him gain speed, which is a critical component of the Dakar, and he's managed to spend approximately four months this year consistently on his motorcycle. "I think I've done more time on my motorcycle this year than I have in the last three years." There was a time before, though, when as a Team TVS factory rider he'd be on his motorcycle three or four days a week, riding all day long. However, since he stopped being a factory rider things changed, and, in his own words he "struggled to find time on the bike". But, given that he only did two rallies this year, he did the Desert Storm in addition to the Morocco Rally, the time spent training seems to be paying off. "I've worked on my speed and I'm faster this year, which I hope will be evident in the Dakar," he declares.
But there's been plenty more to work on. Other than just riding hard to sharpen those skills, he's had to work on his fitness. A more rigorous training programme that includes bicycling as much as possible in order to build strength and stamina has helped. "It's great because it really prepares you for long stretches of riding, so 400km at a stretch, because during the Dakar you're doing 350 to 450km long stages." In addition Santosh has worked on strengthening his core and legs by working out in the gym. But there's another change that he made - a change to his diet. "I needed to gain weight, and with difficulty I have put on 1kg and 250gm," he laughs. "The goal was to bulk up before the Dakar, because when you're riding out in the desert for 14 days, you're completely finished by the end of it. And when my muscles start getting burnt, then I get tired really quickly," Santosh tells us.
Finishing the Dakar also earned him the Motorsport Man of The Year award from the FMSCI
Another tricky area that he needed to tackle was navigation. "I realised that last year I spent the first couple of days just getting used to navigation again, and trying to cope with the roadbook, which slowed me down overall," he says. Which is why this year, in Spain, and even when training in the dunes in Rajasthan for a week recently, he practiced working with the road book. Of his time in Spain Santosh says, "There were times when of the 120km on the road book I'd only be able to go 40km before I'd get lost. Then I moved to 50km, then slowly to 60km. Now I am sure that this year at the Dakar I will mark the roadbook better. With more confidence," he says.
What are the areas that he believes will be critical at his second attempt at the Dakar, though? CS Santosh says it begins with speed. "Speed is definitely critical, because at the Dakar, being fast is being safe." There's the added challenge of the dust, which means passing slower riders can be tricky, which is why Santosh says that it is critical to keep up with riders who are as fast as him, if not faster.
Another really crucial area, will be the stages in Bolivia. With rain forecasted in Bolivia, and also in the stages in Argentina that are before and after Bolivia, the riding can get particularly tricky. "Last year Bolivia threw up the hardest single day for me in the entire Dakar," he says. Getting it right this year is then, critical. There's also the fact that Bolivia is a marathon stage, which means that riders get no technical support at the end of the day, having to repair and service their own motorcycles by themselves. "My Suzuki 450 Rally is a bike that's been under development, so I really hope it is reliable," Santosh laughs.
And that brings us to a rather important question. Going into the 2016 edition of the Dakar, Santosh hasn't tested the motorcycle that he will rally at the event. Which means that he's running on faith and optimism at the moment. "I've ridden the regular 450 with a fuel tank at the rear just to get used to it, and since it is similar to the 450 Rally I ought to be okay," he declares. Like he says, when it comes to the KTMs, the rally bikes are developed ground-up, so getting used to them is a lot harder, as opposed to the Suzuki Rally bikes, which are modified versions of the road-going bikes, which makes it easier to adapt to. "I'm optimistic," he says quite confidently.
'Optimistic'. It's a word we've heard Santosh use a lot. He's always looking for silver linings, is CS Santosh. Or, as he'd put it, he's always off "chasing rainbows". Which is why he's not as nervous as one would think he'd be ahead of the Dakar. "The whole year you end up so busy and stressed both personally and professionally, and that's life," he says. Which is why he describes the Dakar a little unusually. "The Dakar is a nice time. It's two weeks of just riding and leaving everything else behind," he says. "I'm excited, a little nervous, but mostly I'm anticipating all of it The speed " he says, his voice trailing off. It's a little like he's already in the sand dunes. Already chasing that second finish at the Dakar, a position that he hopes will be "in the twenties - whether it is the high twenties or low twenties I can't tell, though," he says.
CS Santosh, in some senses, is a regular guy with big dreams. And he describes his Suzuki Spain Rally team rather similarly. "They're a small team with big hearts and big aspirations," he says. It could well be that Santosh has found his way home. The perfect team to take him to the finishing positions that he's aiming for. But time will tell us more.
Watch this space for more updates on CS Santosh at the 2016 Dakar Rally. And if you're checking the results on the Dakar website everyday, make sure you look out for Chunchunguppe Shivashankar, which is what the CS stands for.
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