Flashback to January. Ricky Brabec made history on his Honda CRF 450 – crossing the finish line of the longest, most gruelling and arguably most revered off road race on the planet.
Victory was in the can, and records had been broken.
Brabec became the first American to triumph in the Dakar’s 42 year history, and what’s more, for the Monster Energy Honda Team – it marked the successful ending of KTMs near two decade stranglehold on Dakar wins.
For Brabec, it was a truly personal victory too; marking the culmination of an eight year journey to realise a dream. Born in Mira Loma, California in 1991, Brabec has spent a lifetime around desert and bikes. When his family moved from Riverside to Hesperia – surrounded by the Mojave Desert – the die was cast. From four years old Brabec had been thrashing around in the sand and dust – honing the skills needed to one day conquer the toughest off-road race on two-wheels.
“You need to eat, sleep and breathe Dakar,” explains Brabec. “It’s an absolutely huge effort to go and race there… It’s absolutely wild to think we have gone there and won. I remember seeing photos from the Dakar when I was younger and wondering how we would one day get there. My Dad took me out riding dirt bikes when I was a little kid, and I loved it – I just never imagined that it could have led to this! To this day I still ride and train in the Honda Valley – we have some of the best single tracks in the world out here, and it’s all in front of my front door.”
Frustratingly, it could have been victory 12 months earlier, when Brabec came tantalisingly close to winning the 41st edition of the Dakar – and the first time the event had been run in Saudi Arabia. “I remember jumping off the plane and looking around at the desert and the rocks, and thinking – ‘this is just like home in the Mojave’. The desert was exactly the same. Saudi had fewer bushes and was more open — where the Mojave Desert is just bushes everywhere and it’s really hard to go fast in a straight line, Saudi was open. The dirt was the same, the sand washes were the same, the weather was, literally, exactly how it is at my house in California. I felt really comfortable there.”
With a near 16 minute lead on the event’s penultimate day, Brabec suffered mechanical failure, allowing Australian rider and closest rival Toby Price to steal the spoils. “It was a super tough moment, but it fuelled me to just come back stronger, and work with the team so the same thing didn’t happen again.”
And deliver he did. The 29 year old dominated from start to finish; grabbing the overall lead on day three and refusing to relinquish it until the race was in the can; including two stage wins, and some 5000km later.
Now poised to return to Saudi Arabia for Dakar 2021, Brabec is as motivated as ever.
A year in weathering Covid, lockdowns, and restrictions has done little to dull his desire to win again – having hit the trails and gym hard in preparation for the metal and mind bending challenge that lies ahead…
How’s it going? Tell us a little about your year so far? How did you bear up in quarantine? Plenty of time on the mountain bike…
Ricky Brabec: “It’s been tough for all! Unfortunately it’s what we have to do right now to get through things right now. It’s pretty strange everything going on in the world – but we are hanging in there tough with Covid. I’ve had plenty of time mountain biking and training. My programme has never really slowed down – so that’s been super good for us; despite everything that is going on. I’ve been riding my bike and training in the gym, to keep my strength up. It would be easy to sit at home and just hide, but I’m not like that – I want to get out there; and I have the goal of the Dakar pushing me forward. At the same time, I’m trying not to burn out on everything before I even get to the Dakar.”
Where does this rank alongside other victories in your career?
Ricky Brabec: “This is the pinnacle of victories in my career in any form of motorsport racing. The Dakar is gruelling, it covers more ground than any other race in the world and it feels really nice to wrap this thing up. It’s been 12 days of a lot of kilometres, a lot of desert, cold mornings, hot days and we’ve also had rain. It just feels so good to make this happen”
What big plans were you looking forward to, and what were you forced to cancel?
Ricky Brabec: “Honestly, I didn’t have big plans apart from focussing on what is next with my training and preparation for the Dakar.”
Nearly 12 months on from winning the Dakar – and becoming the first American to do so – has it sunk in properly? Tell us about it…
Ricky Brabec: “Yeah , it has sunk in now. I’m treating it like another race honestly. We always want more – we strive to work harder – and do our best to do more, that’s what we are going for right now.”
Of course it was made all the sweeter considering you came so close to winning in the 2019 edition too…
Ricky Brabec: “2019 we were super close, yeah. Unfortunately we weren’t able to seal the deal – a day short of the finish. Getting the win in 2020 made it a little bit better to say the least. Hopefully we can do the same again at Dakar 2021 and get another win!”
The win also ended KTM’s stranglehold – nearly two decades and 18 wins – what does that mean to you as a part of Honda?
Ricky Brabec: “It was definitely good to break the KTM streak that they had going on – it felt really good to do that! Honda (and I) are working as hard as we can to keep KTM off the box.”
Has the Dakar changed you? The test of endurance and resilience alone is huge…
Ricky Brabec: “It has definitely changed me – it’s a lot of work, and it’s a way of life. It’s a way of living entirely for a single event. You train every day for the Dakar. You sleep Dakar and eat Dakar – there’s no other way than to throw yourself at it completely.”
This will be your sixth Dakar – does having a win under your belt give you extra momentum, or is that ‘old news’ now?
Ricky Brabec: “I try not to think about it a whole load. In the most simple way just have the experience now – and I have the belief that I can get another win. That’s what we are going to shoot for, and that’s what I focus on.”
What aspects of preparation for the Dakar have you focussed on the most this time around, and why?
Ricky Brabec: “I’m just doing the tried and tested same thing as last year to be honest – I work on my road books, pay close attention to navigation, stay hydrated, stay focussed, and work as hard as we can to stay one step ahead of everybody else.”
What’s your favourite and most hated type of physical training?
Ricky Brabec: “Haha – that would have to be the gym. I’m not really much of a guy to stay in one spot and train like that. I like to get out on my bike, and be out in the fresh air! It has always been that way.”
The ASO has said the route in Saudi is 100% new – what are your expectations?
Ricky Brabec: “Yeah – the ASO has a new route of course, but it is the Saudi desert, so I believe that things will be more or less the same. Then after that, there will be rocky fast, twisty, sandy, and just flat out open desert. I felt so at home in Saudi – because even the temperature was the same as what I have at home.”
What’s new on the bike (CF450)? How much time have you had on the Dakar 2021 spec bike?
Ricky Brabec: “The bike doesn’t really have anything new. Covid really put a hurting on our development and test programme. So we don’t have any major upgrades to bring to the Dakar this time around. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. We have a solid, fast and importantly reliable platform – which proves we can win.”
Tell us a little about your tattoos – when was your first? Have you had one to mark the Dakar win?
Ricky Brabec: “As far as tattoos go – I don’t have one to celebrate the Dakar win. I really haven’t had enough time for that one. Maybe if we can win again we can do something extra special?!”
What’s the scariest moment you’ve had during off-road racing?
Ricky Brabec: “My scariest moment in off road racing is really the idea of crashing out in the desert and being out there all by yourself. I don’t like to think about it much at all – and don’t like to talk about it either.”
Your Dad was a major influence in you getting into off-road racing… Tell us a little about your formative years of hanging out and racing with friends in Southern California.
Ricky Brabec: “My Dad has definitely been a big part of my success. Getting me on a bike and showing me the way in the desert. Having friends that I could ride with was always good – we had a great time, and it was super fun to do that. To this day I still train in the Honda valley where I used to ride as a kid.”
Had you heard of the Dakar back then? Was it ever a goal?
Ricky Brabec: “I’d never heard of the Dakar until I was about 15 years old – around Junior High age – freshman year at high-school. It was fairly new to me! I think back then – around 2004 or 2005 – not very many Americans really knew about the Dakar.”
It’s fair to say winning a Dakar is a bucket list item – what else is on your list?
Ricky Brabec: “The Dakar is definitely a bucket list item. I would say the list is pretty complete – and I just want to repeat it all. I’m living out things right now that I never imagined!
Finally what’s the Hawaiian shirt of choice for Dakar 2021?
Ricky Brabec: “I’m not even really sure just yet. I need to wear the team shirt for most of the rally, but I’ll pick out something good so we can have a little vibe with us.