In the 2023 edition of the Dakar Rally, Dutch rider Mirjam Pol embarked on her 10th journey in the epic off-road event. On January 15th, she finished 49th (1st woman) in the bikes category, matching her performance in the 2022 event. We caught up with Mirjam after she returned to the Netherlands. Let’s get to know her story at the Dakar and beyond.
© All photos provided by Mirjam Pol
I enjoyed it a lot, not only the racing, but the overall culture around it. In between races, we were playing in the sand. When I was a child, I didn’t have big dreams like going to the Dakar.
Mirjam’s connection with a motorbike has been cemented since the day she was born. Coming from a motorsport family with her father as a side-car and motocross rider, racing has always been a family activity. “There was already a picture of a motorcycle on my birth card, which was used to announce to families and friends that I was born. I have an older brother, it was a picture of me, him, and his motorcycle. When I was four, I got his bike and started riding. On the weekends, we would go to races as a family thing. My mom always clears up everything around the races. I don’t know anything else other than going to the races every weekend since I was really little and small.”
Sometimes I don’t have very good classifications, but as long as there was a really nice fight, even when I lost it, I would still enjoy it. I really enjoyed racing no matter which position I was in.
As a child, Mirjam mostly raced motocross, then at 18 years old, she started enduro racing, and started planning for Dakar. At that time, her plan was to get to the Dakar Rally in ten years’ time. “When I turned 18, I got my license. But I didn’t get the license for riding on the streets, it was for my enduro racing. Here in the Netherlands, when it’s Dakar time, there is a program every day on TV for one hour showing the highlights of the day. I watched that program and I thought that now with my license, if I could learn to do some navigation, and if I started to do some rallying, maybe I would gain some experience and go to the Dakar in ten years with all the knowledge and experience I gathered.”
But it didn’t take Mirjam ten years to prepare for Dakar. Four years later in 2006, at 22 years of age, Mirjam embarked on her first Paris to Dakar Rally. “When I graduated from college in 2005, it was 6 months before the Dakar. There was a big motorcycle event here in the Netherlands, with some Dakar riders participating. I had a lot of questions regarding the organization, like how much money I’d need, how to get a rally bike, and how to get an inscription for the Dakar. It was before people can easily find all that information on the internet. So at the event, I spoke with a lot of people and it all started rolling. At that moment, I didn’t have a good job lined up at graduation. So I thought, maybe this is the time, you never know whether you’ll have a family or a good job in ten years which would hold you back from going.”
I thought it was now or never. I went to the Dakar when my mechanical skills were still not good enough and my riding skills were still not good enough. I went with no rallying experience. I had no clue about navigation. But in the end, it worked – I made it to the finish.
It was like the Dakar was built for Mirjam. It is the most challenging race in the world, and Mirjam thrives in challenges. “The best things for me are when it gets really, really, really tough. I’m not the most talented or technical rider. I work really hard for it, because I know I’m not the best rider. I make sure I am 100% fit, my bike is at 100%, and my team is at 100%. That’s all I can prepare for. But the best days and stages for me are when it’s really bad. Because the longer the day, and the tougher it gets, the better it is for me. Also mentally, I enjoy it when it’s really hot or really cold or really wet. When everyone thinks ‘ah, I wanna go home’, those days are the best days for me because I don’t give up. I was like that when I was a child, and now I’m still like that.”
In 2011, after participating in five editions of Dakar, Mirjam temporarily left the stage to work for the team and the factory. In the years when she was not racing, she learned how to come back in a different fashion. “When I stopped in 2011, it was just because of money. It was such a struggle to get the money to go to the Dakar, and it never got any easier. When I stopped, I said I wanted to do something else just for one or two years maximum. In those years I learned a lot about public relations, communications, and social media. I was also paying attention to the other riders who come to the Dakar year after year. Those riders either come with their own money, or they go all in, 100% for motorsport. Prior to 2011, I was combining it, working, training, and racing at the same time. I had to go to the sponsors in the evenings and on the weekends. I did everything, which actually meant I was not doing anything well enough. That was when I decided, if I wanted to go back to the Dakar, I needed to go all in.”
After being away for six years, Mirjam was finally ready to wake up the rider in her and come back to the Dakar in 2018. “I was working for the HRC factory team. It was a really wonderful job and everyone wanted to have my job. It was not easy to say ‘I quit’. But after all, I’m a rider, racing is still what I want to do. I saved up three years of my income, and I could go all in this time. I’m still an amateur, but much more professional than before. I have help with social media. During the races, I have sponsor updates in Dutch and English.”
In the ten editions of the Dakar Mirjam participated, she has ridden in Africa, South America, and now Saudi Arabia and Asia, all three continents the Dakar has set foot on. For her, they are all challenging and amazing in their own ways. “Africa made a big impression on me because I rode my first Dakar there. It was also my first time away from home. We were going through a lot of different countries and different types of nature. There was really empty deserts, then really rocky terrains, and also some jungle sections and a bit more green right before the finish. You could be in the middle of the desert and you don’t see any civilization around. You’d think you are never getting out of it. When we moved to South America, I really enjoyed the interaction with the people there. For example, in Argentina, the people are crazy about sports, they don’t care whether it’s football or motorsport. They could put up a tent in the desert, start a barbecue and watch us race. Now we are in Saudi, racing in only one country, but they have a lot of different terrains to offer. They have open places, mountains, deserts, really wet and cold deserts. It doesn’t matter where we are, the organizers always know how to make it tough.”
Seventeen years ago, Mirjam went to her first Dakar with the ‘just go for it’ mindset. This is what she would still tell younger riders now when they ask her about Dakar. If the younger Mirjam had met the Mirjam today at the motorcycle event from all those years ago, she would tell her the same. “When I have children and sometimes even grown-ups asking me about the Dakar, I always say, just really go for it. Maybe you have to stop a lot of things because you need more time. It’s a tough way to get there. But it doesn’t matter if you’re a competitor, or in the assistance, or a member of the press, if you ever have the chance to go to the Dakar, GO. It’s such a nice atmosphere with the people, the spirits, and everything around it.”
I always say it’s more difficult for me to get to the start than to get to the finish. So just hang in there, don’t give up. In the end, it’s worth it.
Besides ‘just going for it’, what makes Mirjam proud is also her progress and growth in her Dakar conquest. Step by step, she is becoming a more mature rider each year. “What I’m proud of is the process I’ve gone through. In my first Dakar, I had no clue except for the limited information I could find online, on TV, and from asking people. Every year the Dakar gets faster and faster, now the top guys and factory guys are like going full throttle all two weeks. But every year, I got faster as well. When I check my results, the people I’m racing with this year, I was behind them last year. I grew and progressed to the level I am at now, and I’m most proud of it.”
Now the preparation for the next Dakar begins for Mirjam. We wish her the best of luck this season, the 2024 Dakar, and beyond!
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