At 33 years of age Joan Barreda is in his physical prime to be attacking the world’s toughest race. 9000km (5600 miles) in two weeks through three countries and a plethora of terrain, conditions and navigational twists means the Dakar Rally is not only the jewel of the off-road crown but arguably the hardest and most punishing test of man and machine. Athletes have perished and prospered on the Dakar trail and it takes a certain type of individual to even consider hitting the challenges of phenomenal speed cross country against the clock and more than a hundred other single-minded and mentally dogged rivals.
With six Dakars on his CV and the achievement of thirteen stage victories across three editions, Barreda has nevertheless had to watch others spray the elusive and treasured final podium champagne…so far. However the factory racing department of the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer – HRC – have been shearing the development trimmings of their rally project for what will be their third attempt at the South American spectacle and the Spaniard is now ready to pick up where countrymen like Nani Roma and Marc Coma left off and bring the motorcycle racing-mad nation to the peak of yet another competitive discipline.
A matter of days and hours remain before the majority of teams and riders depart across the Atlantic from their European bases. Months of testing, training and bonding in preparation for a fortnight of energy-bashing intensity have come down to this and a nervy start line in Asuncion (Paraguay) awaits on January 2nd. Barreda – leading a formidable line of talent for Honda – much in the way a cycling team will hassle and harry their teammates and keep the unit in front-running positions took a few minutes to talk about the 2017 task ahead…
What’s your take on the coming Dakar…?
Joan Barreda: I think with more enthusiasm than ever because we have put in so much work, and every day this makes you dream a little bit more and think about everything that is possible. I cannot wait to get there and start. It has been a strange year for the team in 2016 but we have made some important changes and pressurised HRC back in Japan to have the definitive bike that we need. We’ve pushed hard on reliability and have done a lot more kilometres. We’ve changed the logistics of the team and also brought in new staff with a crucial point of experience that perhaps was lacking in the past for what is quite a young group of people. So we have been building on small points and details all around us. We are a good mix. Having management and other riders with experience comes in useful when you find yourself in a race where the stages become complicated. These guys become like a ‘filter’ and we can benefit.
What about expectations of the route?
Joan Barreda: This year I think with Bolivia, a few stages in a row and a lot of elevation means it will be a bit different to what we’ve had in the past. It will be important to maintain both the wear on the bike as much as myself. The navigation elements will be hard; I’m sure the route and the rally will push us to the limits. We have to keep very concentrated and focussed to remain in the game.
Any different approaches to training and preparation?
Joan Barreda: In the last few years we’ve been strong and competitive so the preparation for this Dakar hasn’t changed much. For sure I have tried to refine my physical training but I’ve always been a skinny guy and I need more bulk to cope with the wear-and-tear. Even in the final weeks before the race I’ll be looking for more muscle profile because the physical side is so important to keep up the regularity and consistency of riding.
Is this the best Honda so far?
Joan Barreda: Well, we’ve had really good bikes before and at a really high level. I would not say this one is better than any others but we hope it will be safer and reliable; this is the first objective. I don’t think we have any huge gains in performance compared to 2016 but this bike has many more kilometres accumulated and a very strong backbone. The feeling is great because it has always been an agile and good-handling motorcycle. It is powerful. I haven’t tested anything else that comes close. We will be strong.
Your rivals: it seems you might have more ‘threats’ within the team than out?!
Joan Barreda: I hope not! If you want to win the Dakar then you have to beat everybody else…but I’m confident in the team [structure] and the way we are set-up. There is a good feeling between us and we know that when things get tough or complicated then we are there to support each other. Running close together in the pack is always an advantage and I think we have a collective that can do that and also near the front of the standings. With so many KTMs it was easy to feel almost ‘alone’ as a rider sometimes…but I think that will change now. We know there will be a pretty big group of other riders that will be pushing hard but we have to keep focussed, keep the bike running and on two wheels.
At 33 do you ever have the sensation that each passing Dakar is one less chance to win…?
Joan Barreda: For sure you are aware of that…it is a ‘rucksack’ that a lot of us bear! I don’t think I have to do something super-special compared to what I have been doing in recent years. I’m proud of the work and approach I’ve done in the last couple of years and the effort we have made as a team. I won’t be going crazy that one or two things haven’t gone my way. I simply have to believe in our work, which for me it has been very good. Every year it seems that there are younger and faster guys to deal with! Experience is a big asset though. [increasing] Age can be a disadvantage but knowledge is key and I think this period of 33, 34, 35, 36 years is a great one for this rally.
What do you like and fear most about the rally?
Joan Barreda: The thing I like the most is the whole effort made by the team in the build-up and through the race. I have a big responsibility and job on the bike but the engineers, technicians and teams also have a big role. Fear? Obviously a crash. It is something that could happen any time, any day. Your health is always the number one priority, without a doubt.