Saudi motorcyclist’s road to Dakar and the dunes of Saudi Arabia

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Saudi motorcyclist Mishal Al-Ghunaim is ready to face the challenges of the 13-day Dakar rally in his home country. (Supplied)
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Updated 04 January 2020

Saudi motorcyclist’s road to Dakar and the dunes of Saudi Arabia

  • 36-year-old Al-Khobar native began riding as an enthusiast then turned his passion into a professional career
  • On hearing the news of Dakar coming to the Kingdom, he jumped at the opportunity and joined qualifying rallies

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.  




Saudi motorcyclist Mishal Al-Ghunaim is ready to face the challenges of the 13-day Dakar rally. (Supplied)

“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.”

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READ MORE: Arab News' dedicated Dakar Rally 2020 Saudi Arabia Spotlight

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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.”


No fans, no problem as Serena wins on return

Updated 12 August 2020

No fans, no problem as Serena wins on return

  • The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion looked to be flirting with an early exit in the second set

LOS ANGELES: Serena Williams shrugged off the absence of fans to make a winning return from her six-month coronavirus layoff on Tuesday, defeating lowly ranked Bernarda Pera in three sets at the WTA Top Seed Open tournament in Kentucky.

Williams, who before Tuesday had not played a competitive game since a Fed Cup appearance in February, came from behind to defeat American world No. 60 Pera 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in two hours and 15 minutes at the Top Seed Tennis Club in Lexington.

The former world No. 1’s first round victory played out to an empty arena. This week’s tournament — the first WTA event in the US since the COVID-19 pandemic — is taking place without spectators.

Williams, 38, later revealed that the sedate surroundings had suited her game.

“It was a really calm atmosphere, it was really chill,” Williams said.

“I can’t say I disliked it. I didn’t mind it at all. I’ve been through so many things in my career and this was totally different. I think I won today because I was calm for once in my career.

“Kind of reminds me of junior days. Something nostalgic about that. I kind of enjoyed it.”

The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion looked to be flirting with an early exit in the second set, but recovered from 0-40 down at 4-4 before holding and eventually winning the set.

“I just knew I could do better,” Williams said. “It was an interesting game. I just had to get used to her game a little bit. She played really well.”

Williams will now play either sister Venus or Victoria Azarenka in the second round.

Pera had seized an early advantage in the first set, breaking Williams to take a 3-2 lead before holding for the remainder of the set to win 6-4.

Williams was soon in trouble on her service game in the second set, falling 0-40 in the opening game before battling back to hold.

Williams moved into a 3-1 lead with a break of Pera’s serve in the fourth game, but her Croatia-born opponent hit back immediately with a break of her own before holding to level at 3-3.

With the next two games going to serve, Williams looked to be in trouble after falling 0-40 down in the ninth game. But she dug deep to hold for a 5-4 lead and then broke for the set when Pera sent a forehand return wide.

The momentum spilled into the deciding set, and another misdirected forehand from Pera handed Williams a break to move into a 3-1 lead.

Another break took her into a 5-1 lead and she closed out the win by holding to love, wrapping up victory with a cross-court forehand that left Pera stranded.

This week’s WTA tournament is the first to be staged in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the tennis season earlier this year.