We spoke to Devitt-supported racer, Simon Hewitt, back in December as he prepared for his second attempt at the world’s toughest motorcycle event, the Dakar Rally. Three months later and having successfully completed his mission, Simon is still trying to get his head around his undeniably impressive achievement.
Simon, you went back to the Dakar with “unfinished business” and the aim to come home with a finisher’s medal. How does it feel to have achieved that goal?
It still doesn’t feel quite real, to be honest, I’m worried I’ll wake up and it was all a dream! It was a goal that I was chasing for a long time, so I think it will take a while to get used to seeing the ‘tick’ in that box on the life goals list. Every time someone congratulates me, I’m almost surprised and it reminds me that I actually did it.
Talk us through your emotions as you crossed the finish line. Was it as good as you imagined it would be?
The last timed stage was only 163km, but they went by so slowly. All I wanted to do was get it over with and cross the line. But when I got within 5km or so of the finish and I knew I’d be able to do it, I didn’t really want it to end. I rolled off the gas and cruised it in, thinking about the journey I’d been on over the last few years and everyone who had helped me.
I thought about everyone back home following the live tracking, waiting in suspense for me to validate the last waypoint at the finish. At the end of the special there was a lot of hugs with the other competitors and messages on Whatsapp before starting on the 300km liaison to the finish podium in Jeddah.
How did your experience in 2022 compare to that of your first experience in 2020?
Coming into the race this year I felt much more prepared, it was a total contrast to 2020. I went into that race carrying an injury, on a bike I hadn’t had the opportunity to test, with the added pressure of having to work on my own bike in the evenings.
Thanks to everyone who supported me, I was able to have a place on the team with the support of a mechanic, and my girlfriend Holly was able to join me to provide moral support and help with kit admin. It was fantastic to get to experience it together.
Which stage did you enjoy the most?
Purely from a riding standpoint, I’d probably say the first proper stage, which was the loop around Ha’il. The stage was 100% sand, and it had rained the night before which made the terrain super fun to ride. Desert riding after rain is like skiing or snowboarding just after it dumps snow, a real dream day!
It also felt really good to get the first stage done and dusted after building up to it for so long. Of course, energy levels were still high so early on in the race, which always helps! Stage 11 was also really fun in places. It was one of the hardest stages of the race but I felt like I rode the dunes well and everything came together nicely.
Did you experience any issues during the race?
Even though I had a generally clean run, there were a few slight dramas along the way. I was pretty ill during the first week of the race, which all started with a bit of hypothermia at the end of the second stage. The road section at the end of the stage to get to the bivouac was long and we can’t carry many warm clothes with us during the day. When I got to the team truck I was shivering uncontrollably and it took a long time in front of an electric heater to stop it.
I didn’t get much sleep that night, suffering from cold sweats and fever dreams, so the next couple of days were a real mission. This was all made worse when I had a monster crash on Stage 4, so bad it set off my Alpinestars TechAir airbag system. I struggled with pain in my left shoulder and ribs for the rest of the race but strangely it hurt less when I was riding, the worst bit was getting dressed in the mornings!
If you had to choose one highlight (aside from crossing the finish line), what would it be?
Obviously the riding was mostly really fun, so that has to be up there. My favourite part of the day was getting back to the bivouac at the end of the day and seeing Holly and the other guys on the team. They were always really happy to see me (and the other riders) back at the bivouac healthy and relatively in one piece!
Another little bit I loved was getting a slice of normality on the rest day. We stayed in a hotel in Riyadh, had a lie in and then went for a walk in the city and found a nice coffee shop. It sounds very dull compared to the epic days in the desert but it was a great little ‘reset’ before the hard work began again on the second week.
What are your biggest learnings from taking part in, and completing, the Dakar?
It probably sounds a bit corny, but the biggest learnings are about myself, I guess. It’s crazy what the human spirit can endure when put to the test. Every day at Dakar is a massive physical and mental challenge, so to arrive at the finish of 13 stages in a row just makes you realise what you’re capable of when you put your mind to it.
Do you have any plans to take part again? If so, what will you be aiming to achieve the third time around?
I would absolutely love to do the race again. Going in back-to-back years is very difficult for privateers such as myself. The preparation takes a lot of time out of your life, so much so that it’s like having another full-time job. My goal at the moment is to go back in two or three years. In that time, I want to improve my fitness and bike skills. This time around I rode very much within myself, just focusing on reaching the finish and taking no risks.
Having shaken that monkey off my back, I’d love to push on a bit for a decent result. The editions I’ve done have both been solely in Saudi Arabia, so it would be extra motivation if the race started to explore more countries in the Middle East like Oman, Jordan, The UAE etc.
What would you say to someone looking to take part in the Dakar for the first time?
Firstly, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. It doesn’t necessarily matter what they are, it will be different for most people, just make sure they’re important to you. Your resolve will be tested but if you know why you’re doing it then you’ll find it easier to keep going. Secondly, on a similar note, it’s important to enjoy the journey. The race itself is only two weeks, but the road to get there is years long. Lastly, if you can do those two things, get your entry form in! It’s all worth reaching for.