Sunderland's Dakar glory fuelled by 'crazy highs and terrible lows'

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British biker Sam Sunderland has one leg shorter than the other due to a horrific accident in 2015 but two Dakar victories later his desire for crazy highs and terrible lows appear justified (AFP/FRANCK FIFE)
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  • Sam Sunderland
    British off-road motorcycle rider

Sam Sunderland's right leg is two centimetres shorter than his left one due to a horrific accident in 2015 but the two-time Dakar motorbike champion says he would not swap his profession for a safe office job.

The 32-year-old Briton's attitude is reflective of the spirit that motivates him and his rivals to take on the extreme challenge of the Saudi desert for a fortnight in January.

Having become the first Briton to win a Dakar crown in either the bike or car categories in 2017 in South America he has now conquered Saudi Arabia.

"I'd sooner be in pain in a dirty hospital than do an office job every day," he told the Red Bull website in 2020 prior to the 2021 Dakar Rally.

"I'd rather have a life full of emotion with crazy highs and terrible lows and die at 50 than live to 90 with no highlights at all."

Sunderland -- born in the picturesque coastal town of Poole in Dorset, southwest England -- was speaking from bitter experience regarding hospital.

For it was in 2015 in the Merzouga Rally in Morocco -- his prep race for the 2016 Dakar Rally -- he shattered his thigh bone after coming off his bike.

Taken to hospital in Errachidia his first obstacle was being understood as none of the doctors spoke English and he was further alarmed by the sight of cats parading around the ward.

However, such was the pain with the swelling in his leg increasing he had to undergo surgery there -- though he at least persuaded them to give him a general anaesthetic rather than a local one.

The end result was greeted with horror by Sunderland when he saw the x-rays -- according to the Red Bull website both parts of the thigh bone were displaced by 15°, and the doctors explained there was an extra hole in the bone because they hadn't got it right the first time.

"I don't believe in self-pity," he said.

"But at times like those you really retreat into the human condition in its purest form with your pain and desperation.

"No one can see you. You're all alone in your head."

- 'Life is pretty chaotic' -

It was back in England that as a result of the surgery he learned his right leg was shorter than his left.

Despite his best efforts he lost his race to be fit for the 2016 Dakar -- but a year later he went from sadness to joy making history.

"The first person I called after my Dakar win was ... my mom!" he told the Red Bull website in July 2017.

"She told me that she knew I was going to win.

"This victory is more important to my parents than to me.

"They sacrificed a lot so that I could train and then they were so happy and proud!

"I found that the desire to make one's parents proud is very strong and now I feel much calmer."

Family ties also played a role in moving to Dubai where his uncle and aunt lived -- his mind made up after a holiday there in 2009.

"Of course, as a rider, I sat down on the bike and rode into the desert (in 2009)," he said.

"Once I tried it, I realized that the desert racing was what I wanted to do in life."

Away from the sand and the dunes Sunderland likes to while away his spare time in the sea.

"For me free-diving is the only time when I can really zone out.

"My life is pretty chaotic, but under the surface I somehow manage to control my thoughts.

"I go free-diving because I spearfish. I like it because it is an active form of fishing and you only shoot what you are going to eat."

Sand and sea have been taken care of and yet Sunderland eyes conquering the air too.

"I know, it's a cliche but I've always wished to be an airline pilot. One day I will for sure get my licence!"

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