By motorcycle through the hot sand of South America
BY KATHARINA KULL
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2018)
Speed, adrenaline and a feeling of freedom. Matthias Walkner’s heart beats faster when he takes part in races. An opaque cloud of dust follows him when he rides through the sand dunes. Rocks are whirled up around him and nature shows its unpredictable yet breathtaking side. He has mere seconds in which to make the right decision and give it all he’s got. The aim is to persevere and, above all, to win the fight against nature. Matthias does just that, he lives for motorsports and is very successful at it. He only recently won the notorious race in Dakar. He spoke to us about his adventures and his fascination for a sport that is far from safe.
Matthias, how did you get into motocross?
I got into it relatively late, as I did ski racing before. I didn’t get my first motocross bike until I was fourteen. I immediately took part in my first race with it and ended up on the podium on my first attempt. I enjoyed it so much that I stuck with to it and began doing the sport professionally. My father rode motocross when he was a teenager and took part in several races, I think he passed his passion for motorsports on to me.
Participating in a race can involve sitting on a motorcycle for an entire day, which can be long and tiring. Where do you get your motivation from?
I just enjoy it, and if you enjoy something that much then you don’t need to try hard to find your motivation. Of course there are some really tough moments, especially during the Dakar Rally, during which there is more than one occasion where you ask yourself why you would put yourself through the agony. But the moment when you cross the finish line and stand on the podium is so intense that the pain and the torture of the past two weeks is soon forgotten. It’s the small and major moments of success that drive you on, as well as the experiences you have each day.
You have already won several major races, including your most recent victory at this year’s Dakar Rally. How would you describe such a race?
There is good reason why the Dakar Rally is seen as the toughest motorsport event. I could write a book on each rally about all the things that tend to happen during it. Your body and mind are subjected to extreme situations. One day I ride 1,000 kilometres at 40 degrees Celsius and the next to 5,000 metres altitude at temperatures just above freezing point. I get a maximum of five to six hours of sleep per night over the course of two weeks. If everything goes well and you manage to snag a spot on the podium, then it was all worth it. Unfortunately, my first two rallies ended prematurely, the first one due to food poisoning and the following year due to a fracture of the femur. These moments do sometimes lead you to question the purpose of it all.
What are some of the most common challenges you face?
Navigation is the most common challenge. You could make a mistake with every roadbook chart, and there are hundreds of them, and the slightest roadbook errors could cost you the race. The tension is always extreme. But I continuously work on myself and my concentration, and I think I am getting to grips with it more and more.
To what extent is mental strength crucial to winning such an important race?
Your mind is extremely important in every type of sport and it can be decisive. If you want to complete the Dakar Rally, you have to be prepared to be able to suffer and to push your limits, no matter whether you are a professional or an amateur. It’s a constant up and down. One day you will feel fine, and the next day you will feel physically exhausted. Nevertheless, you get back on your bike and do another 600 to 1,000 kilometres. It’s a massive strain. The crucial moment that led me to victory was during the tenth stage, in an all-or-nothing decision. The other riders turned off in another direction ahead of me, but I didn’t follow their tracks and instead trusted my instinct and chose another direction. If I had made the wrong decision I would have presumably lost the opportunity to stand on the podium, but I made the right choice and took the lead. You have to be incredibly mentally strong and believe in yourself.
How do you manage to stay calm in risky situations?
By trusting myself and my ability. You always need a modicum of luck, but you must also know your limits. I think I have a precise idea of what I can and can’t do. This helps me get through risky situations in the best possible manner.
How would you describe your impressive victory? How proud are you of yourself and your achievement?
Winning the Dakar Rally is every beginner’s dream, but you also need a lot of luck in my opinion. When you cross the finish line, are surrounded by dozens of journalists and are handed the Bedouin trophy you get a feeling you are certain to never forget. I am certain I will draw on these unforgettable moments for a long time.
You do a very noisy and dangerous sport. How do you balance this out? What do you do in your spare time in order to switch off?
At home, I like to go hiking on the mountains. In winter, I love doing ski tours there. I like meeting my friends for a BBQ. I really enjoy the time I get to spend at home.
What other plans do you have for the future?
I can’t say yet for certain. I definitely want to participate in the Dakar Rally again for the KTM Factory Team before 2020, I don’t know yet what will come after that. I will think about that when the time comes.
Matthias Walkner was born in Salzburg, Austria. He was able to compete in the Dakar Rally as the first Austrian rally raid biker since the legendary Heinz Kinigader and finished this year’s race in first place. Matthias has already been able to celebrate countless victories throughout his young career.
Picture credit © Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull Content Pool