Sam Sunderland

‘We do 180kph 
through the desert’

Words: Ruth Morgan
Photography: Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull content pool

The British motorcyclist has made a massive impact in his first year on the world circuit and survived a close encounter with a bull shark. Now he’s taking on the world’s toughest rally

Six years ago, Sam Sunderland had a day out at a motocross track on holiday in Dubai. Now he’s competing on the world stage in one of motorsport’s toughest disciplines. This year, in his first year with Red Bull KTM in the Cross-Country Rallies World Championship, the 25- year-old finished second at the Rally of Morocco, and became the first Brit for 15 years, and the youngest ever, to win a stage of the Dakar Rally in South America (engine failure later stopped him in his tracks). As the newest signing to a team with an unsurpassed 13-win history on the Dakar, he’s on fighting form, with the ultimate rally podium in his sites.

THE RED BULLETIN: How was your 2014 season? 

SAM SUNDERLAND: Finishing on the podium in Morocco was cool. I’ve only done 11 rallies, and most other top runners have done over 100. Plus, I was next to my teammate, Marc Coma, who won his sixth world championship title. It’s an important test of where everyone’s at ahead of the big one, Dakar in January. 

‘What do I miss about the UK? Tacky, grippy mud to ride on and sausage rolls’

What makes the Dakar Rally the biggest event in your calendar?

It’s 10,000km over 16 days, alone on the bike for 12 hours a day over really difficult terrain through Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Anything can happen. The sheer scale of it makes it an adventure. You get to see volcanoes, mountains and waterfalls at strange times of day, at heights of up to 4,500m. Every day is 900km-worth of discovery. 

Has your performance on the Dakar in 2014 given you a confidence boost for the 2015 race? 

Winning a stage was great, and of course a step in the right direction. I didn’t have much time to celebrate; you’re like a robot with all the prep. It only sank in at 3am on the trip to the start of the next stage. It was minus five degrees, and I was riding along in Argentina, freezing my butt off, screaming into my helmet ‘Woo, yeah! That was sick!’ But really I so badly want to win it overall, my whole life is focused on that. You have to remember that the Dakar is a very different beast to all other rallies.

How risky is it? 

Very! We do 180kph through the desert. If you miss one note in the road book at that speed – it’s happened before – it can be disastrous. If you’re riding by sight, by the time you’ve seen something it’s too late and you’re already upside down, so you stake your life on your road book. 

Sam Sunderland

“We do 180kph through the desert. If you miss one note in the road book at that speed – it’s happened before – it can be disastrous”

© Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull Content Pool

Have you taken hard knocks? 

Lots, but the worst was coming off my bike when I was 16. The impact of landing broke my ankles, my legs, my knees and my pelvis and kept me off the bike for a year. I stopped riding and resigned myself to getting a real job. In 2008, I visited my auntie and uncle in Dubai and got spotted at the local track. I won the Dubai MX championship in my first year, got taken on and it’s where I live today. 

How does it compare to the UK? 

I miss sausage rolls. I miss the tacky, grippy mud that I used to ride on. But it’s amazing. I ride out into the desert from my house every day, at dawn and dusk to avoid the midday heat. And no one complains about the noise. In Bournemouth, where I used to live, I turned the bike on in the garage once and someone called the police.

You’re a busy man. What do you do to wind down?

I get the worst guilt trip if I sit around doing nothing. I do things that I enjoy, like freediving. I started at 3m, and now I go off oil rigs, 25m down on one breath. Apart from when I’m riding my bike, it’s the only time I can zone out. And I spear fish for food. I caught a barracuda that was bigger than me: it’s a bit sharky. I had a bull shark come at me once and felt like a helpless blob of meat, like the shoe was about to be on the other foot. But luckily it changed its mind. It made the risks that I take on the bike seem more manageable.


Eleven-time Dakar Rally champ Stéphane Peterhansel; six-time world champion and Red Bull KTM teammate Marc Coma

I coulda been an ascender!
The teenage Sunderland trained to be certified lift engineer. “I did a three-year apprenticeship, but it’s not riding dirt bikes for a living, is it?” 

Read more
01 2015 The Red Bulletin

Next story