The world fell in love with Nicola Dutto as he throttled off into Peru’s Atacama desert to make history as the first paraplegic rider to race in the Dakar. Days one-through-three brought challenges for the unconventional hero and his team of “ghost riders” (one riding ahead to choose lines, two following as spotters) but they felt strong at the end of each day and certain they would finish the legendary 10-day rally.
Day four’s course from Arequipa to Tacna was a marathon – 405 kilometers, much of it powdery dunes. It was here the team suffered its first major setback when Julián Villarrubia’s bike lost power. Three hours were lost getting the machine running again only to have it fail again a few miles later. At that point Nicola and his remaining teammates Pablo Toral and Victor Rivera decided to leave Julián and continue on, despite the safety risk of having only one rear spotter.
Not far down the route Victor’s bike also began to run poorly creating even greater concern. As the team limped into the next checkpoint they let officials know that Julián and his bike would need to be recovered so the disabled bike could be repaired. Next, they asked the head official at this checkpoint if it was possible that in exchange for a time penalty they could travel by highway to the night’s bivouac – a safer option now that the team was down one support rider.
And so began a cascade of misinformation that would prematurely end the race for Nicola and unleash a firestorm of outrage against the Dakar organization and its director, Etienne Lavigne.
According to Nicola, at that first checkpoint the top official there called to rally headquarters and confirmed the team could indeed travel via the pavement in exchange for a time penalty. And so they proceeded on to the next checkpoint where again they asked the top official there the same question. Once more calls were made to headquarters and once more the team was told they could continue to the bivouac on the highway with only a penalty, this last conversation, he says, caught on videotape by one of Nicola’s teammates.
Following this instruction the team arrived at the bivouac safely and began their preparations for the next day, excited that day five would mark the halfway point in the famous rally.
“We followed the direction of the marshals,” says Nicola in a video posted by Vicair, one of his most passionate sponsors, “and when we arrived at the bivouac the race director said we were out of the race because we must follow all the tracks.”
This sudden judgement by Lavigne quickly triggered a global ruckus.
Nicola and his team, hungry to finish the rally they’d spent so much time and money preparing for, were heartbroken. Also devastated were the legends of fans worldwide who had been moved by the comeback of Nicola and his quest — not only to make history in the Dakar — but to clear a pathway of hope for other disabled riders.
To add insult to injury the organization declined to explain Nicola’s disqualification, instead posting that his team had simply failed to start the day.
“It’s a sad way to go out of the race because we are feeling strong, I am feeling strong on the bike. I’m here and we [have demonstrated] we can finish the Dakar ” said a melancholic Nicola from the bivouac in Tacna, flanked by his likewise disgruntled teammates.
But above all else, Nicola wants to thank everyone who followed him, who he says gave him the power to ride each day. Inspired by all the support he hints he will be back, though never in the Dakar he insists. “Maybe in another race, another project in the future.”
Until that day, we will remain inspired of this courageous rider, who so galvanized the spirit of adventure riding without even finishing the race.