JEDDAH: Saudi motorcyclist Mishal Al-Ghunaim is ready to face the challenges of the 13-day Dakar rally, where bikers and quad racers will have to endure the sand dunes and mountain ranges alone.
The 36-year-old Al-Khobar native began riding as an enthusiast then turned his passion into a professional career — and now has the opportunity to achieve success and reach the finish line of this most demanding of races.
We met Al-Ghunaim at the “Parc Ferme” at Jeddah’s waterfront with team X-raids, as the riders and mechanics focused on tweaking their bikes ahead of the race.
“I’ve always looked for a challenge in my life and motorbikes gave me the adrenaline kick that I’ve always sought,” he said. “I’ve been told by many that I have a wild soul; motorbikes and being off-road is one way to express myself.”
He started riding at the age of 7 and has not stopped since, but the motorcycle aficionado moved up a scale when he decided to ride professionally.
“I starting racing rallies three years ago and began regionally, and though I was out for a year due to an accident, I’ve kept myself busy after taking many on bike tours of the area with my company, gaining experience as I rode across Saudi Arabia; something that helped me later with Dakar,” he said.
On hearing the news of Dakar coming to the Kingdom, he jumped at the opportunity and joined qualifying rallies, which he successfully completed. He rode his motorbike in the Dubai International Baja, the 2019 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, one of the most difficult rallies, with 500km of nothing more than sand dunes. He was the first Saudi to finish in the rally’s 30 years and this was a major boost for his preparation in Dakar.
His knowledge of the Kingdom’s terrain as an off-road free rider gives him an advantage over other competitors. It took Alghunaim months to fully prepare for Dakar, with plenty of riding and familiarizing himself with the terrain, as well as physical and mental training. “It’s been a nine-month struggle” to make it happen, he said.
“Deserts are deserts, and it’s very comforting for me to be racing in my home country; you don’t feel like an alien,” he said. “This lifts the strain from myself and from my family, that’s the home-country advantage.”
Although tough, Al-Ghunaim believes the 8,000km tour around the Kingdom will be exciting.
“Dakar is a very mental race; obviously it’s a challenge I’ve never been through so I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “The most challenging aspect will be the duration, almost 12 hours of riding each day; it’s physically straining and fatigue can set in. My plan is to take it day by day and find the inspiration to keep going.”
For riders on motorbikes and quads, the challenge of finishing Dakar is more difficult as they ride for hours on end. Al-Ghunaim’s strategy is simple but there is a lot of pressure.
“It’s when your bike breaks down or crashes and my routine changes; that’s when everything creeps up,” he said. “You need to deal with those scenarios, try to resolve them to get back on track and get back to racing again.”
“If I’m focused and develop a routine the first few days, I’ll be able to settle into the Dakar routine nicely and manage the ‘flow’ easily. My focus and aim is be an official Dakar title finisher.”