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Sunderlands takes control

Dakar Rally organizers promised competitors an edition difficult in navigation and altitude and at the end of the first this two-week, almost 9,000 km offroad trek through Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia, that is exactly how it has been.Red Bull KTM Factory Racing go into the second week with Sam Sunderland as the overall leader but the first week has brought the team challenges and the exit through injury of reigning champion, Australia’s Toby Price.

British rider Sam Sunderland won a shortened Stage 5 on his KTM 450 RALLY to be the fifth stage winner since the rally kicked off in Asuncion, Paraguay. The Dubai-based rider has never been out of the top four overall so far in this edition. This solid and consistent result is a confidence booster for Sunderland. He has already much improved on his two previous starts in the Dakar and after various injuries is mentally and physically very strong.

Sunderland: “It’s been a hard time with a lot of crazy things – temperatures of 45 degrees to 5 degrees here in Bolivia and altitude of 4,500 meters. The navigation has been heavy and very physical riding as well. It’s good to arrive here in the lead but at the same time I know it doesn’t mean much because we still have a long way to go. I need to stay focused until the end.” Asked how he has spent the rest day, he commented: “We’ve been busy organizing things for next week and I went to see my friend Toby Price and it was nice to see him in good spirits and on the road to recovery. For next week I am expecting a lot more rough times to come. We’re heading back into Argentina but first we have the marathon stage, which is always interesting. We’ll be on our own in the desert, so that will be a bit rough. I think the organizers have in for some rough times with the navigation, the riding, and lots of riverbeds, dunes and camel grass. I’ll just be trying to focus each day because this year I really want to see the finish line.”

Red Bull KTM factory rider Matthias Walkner is overall fifth at the half way mark after a stage win in the fourth stage, when he moved up to overall second. Like most riders he experienced some difficulty with the navigation in the following day’s Stage 5, the first full day in Bolivia. He was ranked 21st in the stage, which was shortened because of weather conditions. It is Walkner’s third Dakar start. His pre-race goal was to see the finish line in Buenos Aires and hopefully achieve a top five in the general rankings.

At the half way mark Walkner said he was quite satisfied although he had been ‘up and down’ in the first week. “I won one stage and I was second in one other so that was pretty good. I try to ride on the limit but when it comes to the navigation it’s extremely difficult. I just hope I can find my rhythm and ride fast.” Asked about the level of difficulty of this year’s rally he commented: “The extreme altitude, combined with very long days. We start each day at around 4.00 a.m. so we get up about 2.00 a.m. But it’s the same for everyone.”

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KTM factory rider Laia Sanz of Spain remains resilient and determined to improve on her present 26th overall. As the most outstanding woman in the field of the remaining 111 riders, Sanz still plans to aim for a top 15 finish.

Riders were spared Saturday’s sixth stage, which was to be the longest and probably the most difficult was completely washed out. After the official cancelation, riders and teams traveled to La Paz for the rest day along the liaison route, only to receive a brilliant welcome from the fans on their arrival in the capital.

Sanz said however that despite difficult conditions, she would have preferred to contest stage six. “It wouldn’t have been possible to contest the stage but I would have preferred to do it. It was long and hard and many things could have happened. The more stages there are, the more chance I have of improving my position.”

While his teammates prepare for the second half of the rally, Australian Toby Price is in La Paz, recovering from a compound fracture of his left leg after hitting a stone and crashing hard in stage four. Price was desperately disappointed to have been denied the chance to defend his title but is a resilient athlete who has the ability and mental strength to bounce back from the injury setback.

On Monday riders turn south to travel from La Paz to Uyuni, the marathon stage of the rally where they bivouac overnight and are denied any access or assistance to and from their teams on the way to Salta (in Argentina) on Tuesday. They have three long and difficult rides on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as they head east to Buenos Aires. Saturday is the final day with a short 64 km timed special, but a total distance of 786 km to reach the finish line.

Standings Dakar 2017 after 6 of 12 stages
1. Sam Sunderland (GBR), KTM, +15:22.05 h
2. Pablo Quintanilla (CHL), Husqvarna, +12:00 min
3. Adrien Van Beveren (FRA), Yamaha, +16:07
4. Gerard Farres Guell (ESP), KTM, +20:57
5. Matthias Walkner (AUT, KTM, +29:01 (5 min penalty)
Other KTM
7. Stefan Svitko (SVK), KTM, +48:43
26. Laia Sanz (ESP), KTM, +2:08:15 h

Stages Rally Dakar 2017
Monday, January 2, Stage 1 – Asunción – Resistencia (39 km timed, 454 km total)
Tuesdasy, January 3, Stage 2 – Resistencia – San Miguel de Tucumán (275 km timed, 803 km total)
Wednesday, January 4, Stage 3 – San Miguel de Tucumán – San Salvador de Jujuy (364 km timed, 780 km total)
Thursday, January 5, Stage 4 – San Salvador de Jujuy – Tupiza (416 km timed, 521 km total)
Friday, January 6, Stage 5 – Tupiza – Oruro (447 km timed, 692 km total)
Saturday, January 7, Stage 6 – Oruro – La Paz (527 km timed, 786 km total)
Sunday January 8, Rest Day – La Paz
Monday, January 9, Marathon Stage 7 – La Paz – Uyuni (322 km timed, 622 km total)
Tuesday, January 10, Marathon Stage 8 – Uyuni – Salta (492 km timed, 892 km total)
Wednesday, January 11, Stage 9 – Salta – Chilecito (406 km timed, 977 km total)
Thursday, January 12, Stage 10 – Chilecito – San Juan (449 km timed, 751 km total)
Friday, January 12, Stage 11 – San Juan – Río Cuarto (288 km timed, 754 km total)
Saturday, January 13, Stage 12 – Río Cuarto – Buenos Aires (64 km timed, 786 km total)

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