This year’s edition of the epic off-road event, the Dakar Rally, ended on January 15th. South African rider Kirsten Landman finished 71st in the Bikes category, 12th among the Original by Motul riders. This has been her second adventure in the off-road marathon, and her first attempt at the Original by Motul category, where riders enter the rally without assistance. We caught up with Kirsten after she returned to South Africa. Let’s get to know her story at the Dakar and beyond.
Growing up in Cape Town, Kirsten was first introduced to motorcycling when her cousin received a KTM 50 SX. “I don’t remember life before my cousin got his first bike. I was seven years old, two years older than my cousin. When I saw his bike, I said to my dad, ‘I want one of those’. I nagged him until he eventually came up with a deal with me. I was swimming provincially at the time, so my dad promised me if I made the A team swimming squad he’d get me the bike. Needless to say, I got my first little motorbike at the age of eight, and then the rest was just history.”
It was just love. I’m very fortunate that what started off as a hobby, just having fun, has very luckily turned into a professional career.
While motorcycling was a hobby, and something she loved the most, Kirsten first focused on school and school sports. Then, it came the time when she had to make a career out of it herself. “I swam throughout primary school and high school competitively. School results and school sport for my parents was a priority over bikes. But for me, motorbikes always took preference. I found it more fun. When I left school, my parents said it was up to me. They couldn’t afford to pay for the motorbikes anymore. I got a gap year. I put a lot of effort into my training. I had to work two or three jobs to be able to pay for my racing. I was hoping that sponsors would come on board because there was no way I could sustain being able to work and race at a competitive level.”
That was the first year I started to get sponsors, and I’ve been sponsored ever since then. It hasn’t been easy. It never is easy. It’s not necessarily a fight but it’s a constant debate. But here we are. It’s been a roller-coaster of a career.
Ever since Kirsten got on the bike, she has been mostly sticking to dirt bikes in off-road and enduro events. For anyone in the off-road world, the Dakar seems like a natural ultimate goal, but also a goal riders don’t set easily. For Kirsten, the Dakar was the unimaginable comeback after a life-threatening accident in off-road. “It’s not like one day you ride your motorbike and all of a sudden you want to do the Dakar Rally. It’s the pinnacle of motorsports and it takes a lot to get there. Any rider who gets to the Dakar, they’ve come through a lot in their career to get to make that decision. It comes with a lot of experience as a rider, because it was the toughest rally in the world. It goes back to my accident in 2013. I had a really bad high-speed motorsport accident. When I was recovering from it, I said to myself never to go fast again. I didn’t ever want to put myself in a life-threatening situation again. Then I really kicked off my career in the hard enduro, doing RedBull Sea to Sky, RedBull 111 Megawatt, and Roof of Africa. I’m doing really well in those, and many times the only female doing them. In 2016, a journalist asked me in an interview, what was next for me after doing most of the races in the hard enduro world series. I hadn’t really thought about that at the time. Then he suggested the Dakar Rally.”
I’ve been on a motorbike since the age of eight. I kicked off my career at the age of 22. My first Dakar was at the age of 28. It was a long time coming. It took 20 years before I decided that I wanted to do that.
When the journalist suggested Dakar to Kirsten, she brushed it off quickly. However, a seed was nevertheless planted, and soon she embarked on her journey to prepare for it. For her, the biggest preparation for Dakar is to get over her fear of going fast again. “I’ve grown up watching the Dakar Rally. I’ve seen all the people that have sadly lost their lives over the years and the accidents that happened. It’s a high-speed race and it’s over such a long period of time. I’ve always been interested in the Dakar, but never really been interested in racing it. But that was when the seeds got planted, and I started thinking about it. Then a fellow South African rider Joey Evans got back from the Dakar (Joey Evans finished the 2017 edition of the Dakar Rally in the Bikes category, 10 years after the off-road accident which paralyzed him from the chest down). He had this crazy experience at the Dakar, and he said to me he knew that I’d like to be the first woman from South Africa to do everything, and if any woman from South Africa could do the Dakar, it would be me. That was when it became a challenge that I set my sights on. I gave myself two full years to work towards the 2020 Dakar. The work was actually more on the mental side. Coming from enduro, I was quite fit and strong. But mentally, I was scared of going fast. I would never go over 4th gear or faster than 80 km/h. There was no way to finish a 9,000 km marathon going 80 km/h. I worked with a mind coach, and we worked together to overcome my fears from my accident. I went back to the race that I crashed at, the Desert 1000, and finished the race this time.”
If you had come here with a big bag of money and a full factory sponsorship for me to go to Dakar, I would say ‘thank you’, but ‘no, thank you’.
Getting to the starting podium doesn’t mean the battle with fear has been won. It’s a constant battle throughout the two weeks in the desert. “The 2020 Dakar was the first time the Dakar Rally moved to Saudi Arabia. It was so fast, and there were so many accidents. You’re racing on track and you see someone injured on the side of the race. This mental thing starts playing in your head. You’ve survived the accident, you live to tell the tale and here you are at this crazy race back again. You relive that moment every day. After Dakar 2020, I said to myself I’m never going back to it. It was so scary. I had faced so many things from my accident in 2013. But then about a month later, I was over it and I wanted to go back.”
There were a lot of triumphs in building towards the Dakar as opposed to just going and racing the Dakar Rally. It was more of an emotional thing for me and getting over my fears. It was the most terrifying thing that I had done. Dakar 2020 was exceptionally emotional, but it helped me grow as a rider. It helped me move past my accident.
When Kirsten decided to go back to Dakar, it wasn’t just about doing another Dakar, it was about getting the full Dakar experience. With that, comes the decision to enter the Original by Motul category. “I want a challenge. I want to get the true Dakar experience in South America I grew up watching on TV – the adventure, the crossing borders, the change of weather going from dunes to the amazon. Then everyone told me, if I want the true Dakar experience, go into malle moto, which is now named the Original by Motul class. It challenges me mechanically – I had to work on my own bike, and emotionally – it is the biggest emotional mind game. They really made it difficult this year. We were faced with everything, the weather, the change of terrains, the long liaisons, the tough navigation, and the long days. Now I sit here and I think back, it was so worth it because it was so rewarding to know what you had gone through. It just made the victory so much sweeter.”
It’s not like the Dakar wasn’t challenging enough, but I just wanted a bit more.
Finishing the Dakar in the Original by Motul category is definitely one of the most difficult things a human being can achieve. It made this Dakar the most rewarding thing of Kirsten’s career so far. “I went into this year’s Dakar with a bit of ignorance. But if I had known what I was getting myself into, I might not have done it. Only two women have ever done malle moto before, Anastasia Nifontova from Russia in 2018 and Sara Garcia from Spain in 2019 and 2020. We stepped into a real men’s world, and the girls are doing well at it. When you got a goal in sight and you focused on it, you’ll do anything and nothing will stop you. For me to have done what I’ve done, I’m still letting it all settle in and taking it all in. It was so overwhelming. This Dakar is definitely the highlight of my career so far.”
You must be running on adrenaline. Because the amount of sleep you get as opposed to the hours you spent on the bike, the food you are eating and the water you are consuming compared to the sweat loss while you are racing, you are becoming a superhuman. What we are capable of is incredible. I surprise myself in the rally.
In the 2023 edition of the Dakar Rally, two other women, Mirjam Pol from the Netherlands and Sandra Gomez from Spain were also competing in the Bikes category. Back in the 2020 edition when Kirsten made her debut, she also rode along the legendary Laia Sanz who has been Kirsten’s idol since she started her career in motorsport. Laia switched to the Cars category in 2022, which is a common move for many riders after a certain age. Even though Kirsten does not plan to hang up her boots any time soon, she starts to plan a switch in the future already. “When I really started to make motorsport my profession, Laia Sanz became a real hero in my eyes. She still is. To be able to rub shoulders with her at the Dakar and to be on a friend basis with her and still has her as an idol is cool. I would love to keep going back to the Dakar, and I will stay in the malle moto class for now. I’m still fairly young. I’ve still got a healthy body and a very eager mind. In the future, I definitely see myself following in the same direction as Laia. I would like to get a seat in a car and try the navigational side of things and then switch over to the driver’s side.”
Coming back to Dakar is Kirsten’s chase for challenges, at the same time, it’s also her way of representing women in motorsport. “I hope I can inspire the younger generation, being a part of the likes of Laia Sanz, Sandra Gomez, and Mirjam Pol. I think we can see a girl within the top 10 or even the top 5 among the guys. We’ve seen it with Ana Carrasco in road racing, women in the single-seaters on four wheels. Slowly it’s coming through. It’s exciting, and I want to be a part of it all.”
For now, Kirsten is enjoying some downtime before getting back to training and getting back on her bike. Her new season starts in April. We wish her a fruitful new season and another great adventure in the next Dakar!
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