As hard as racing in the Dakar Rally, the task of getting there is just as arduous for Skyler Howes.
But a shoestring budget hasn’t deterred the American from excelling in the renowned off-road raid.
Howes led the bikes division after Tuesday’s Stage 3 (of 12) despite being a privateer rider up against the big-budget factory teams.
“The main difference is the factory riders are getting paid to be here, and the privateer has to pay to be here,” Howes, 28, told NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman in a Zoom interview (video above) from Saudi Arabia this week. “So honestly getting to the race is one of the hardest things as a privateer to be able to raise all the funds, and I had a lot of people step up to help me out and get me here.”
Howes hails from St. George, Utah, where he offers off-road riding lessons and also raises funding through merchandise sales and donations (he stenciled the names of all his donors on his BAS Dakar KTM Racing bike)
“I understand the value of money and the amount people stepped up to give means a lot,” he said. “I don’t know I could ever repay everyone who stepped up to help me. All I can do is make everyone proud. Being in the overall lead for a day hopefully everyone back home is stoked.”
At the halfway mark of six stages, Howes ranks ninth overall entering Saturday’s rest day. He finished 20th in the fourth stage Wednesday after taking the lead, dropping four spots, and since has finished seventh Thursday and 19th Friday.
Unlike factory riders, who have managers to help with logistics, planning and tactics, Howes has “a lot more strategy to figure out ourselves,” particularly with a new rule limiting riders to six tires.
He has tried to conserve for the second week, sacrificing some performance by running three days on the same rear tire. “That’s just one of those things that privateers face handling things on our own,” Howes said.
Because riders start in the order of finish in the prior stage, finishing well often has been a disadvantage because the fresh courses have been difficult to traverse.
“It’s a little different this year,” Howes said. “If you’re leading out, the navigation is quite difficult, so there’s this big yo-yo effect if you lead out, you get a poorer result then if you start behind, you get a good result. There’s this big fluctuation with results.”
Even with fewer resources, Howes still managed to finish ninth overall last year, which is as impressive for the state of his health as his finances.
Howes entered the 2020 Dakar Rally with only a week of training after breaking his neck three months earlier. His surgery for the injury included inserting a plate and six crews while fusing three broken vertebrae.
“Someone once told me you have to be a certain kind of stupid to ride a motorcycle fast, and maybe that has something to do with it,” he said. “You kind of shut that part of your brain off, the pain receptors.
“Dirt bike riders are some of the toughest dudes on the planet. Maybe it’s just we’re a certain kind of dumb. At the end of the day, there’s no other feeling like ripping a dirt bike through the desert. That’s why we do it. We live for it. Whenever the pain comes, we push through it because the glory and feeling afterward outweighs it.”
Those feelings have come early for Howes in the 2021 Dakar.
“I always hold myself to a high standard, but coming in after Stage 3 and putting a camera in my face and saying I’m the overall leader of the Dakar Rally, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “Not something, honestly, I really expected. Honestly, I’m just having a lot of fun out there.
“I hope to finish strong. Dakar, so much crazy stuff can happen. I don’t want to put pressure on myself to get a certain result. I just want to cross the finish line and hope everyone back home is proud.”