KOCHI: Harith Noah was just 16 when his father Rafi gifted him a motorbike. His first ride was through the muddy tracks on a paddy field. That’s where he learnt the basics of bike riding, at his house in Shoranur. Back then, the idea of a motorbike crossing a puddle of mud and splashing the dirt fascinated him and thus the boy entered the racing tracks.
Though initially, all the riders went past him, Harith wanted to experience the speed and find his way through off-road terrain. The adrenaline rush later led him to achieve the National Supercross championship thrice, completing the 2018 Rallye du Maroc in Morocco even while sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament tear.
This TVS racing prodigy has suffered broken ribs, injured shoulders and even a fracture of the T5 of his spine after he had an unfortunate fall in the dune during the fourth stage of the 2023 Dakar. After being evacuated in an helicopter and months of treatment, he went back to the sand dunes, now to win the Dakar Rally Stage 8 in the Rally Class 2.
The 30-year-old who rides for Sherco TVS Rally Factory has finally scripted history for India. He is the first Indian to win a stage and also to land a podium at the event, he even secured 11th position overall.
The Dakar rider speaks to TNIE about racing from AlUla to Yanbu on the shores of the Red Sea against 700 competitors and facing the toughest terrain in the middle of nowhere.
Competing with 778 participants from around the world, navigating deep into the interior of Saudi Arabia, you’ve won Stage 8. This is an exemplary feat...
Yes, I’m still not over the feeling of standing on the podium and holding the coveted trophy. It’s beyond just an achievement; it is the result of the sacrifices and dreams of many. I have been associated with the rally since 2020 when Saudi Arabia started hosting the races. This year, the fifth edition of the Rally had one prologue and 12 stages.
I couldn’t even finish all the stages in the initial rallies due to technical issues and crashing incidents. In 2021, I managed to do it and secured 20th position. Last year, I crashed at stage 4 and had to retire from the race. Then followed a year of hard work and training. But it paid off. I finished the rally, 5,000km.
It is one of the most gruelling races in the world. How does it function?
Every year, the contestants expect segments that test the endurance and ingenuity to the extreme. I found 2024 Rally the most challenging in terms of physical difficulties and navigation.
The race starts with a prologue ride where the Dakarists navigate through rocky and sandy terrains. This year, stage 1 started from AlUla. Before going to the starting point, the participants have to ride from their bivouac — now, this is done on the road, and the distance to the starting point can range from 5km to a maximum of 500km. While covering this distance, there have been instances of riders crashing and breaking arms.
Upon reaching, the riders get at least 30 minutes before the next event. The distance to be covered differs from each stage and can go up to 800km.
After finishing one stage, the riders must ride to the next bivouac. A road book would be provided, and from this, the participants have to navigate the rest of the way.
As a five-time participant, which stage did you find the hardest?
Aside from fast stretches, terrains have an equal share in making the rally physically exhausting. I’ve experienced jagged stones that can burst the tyre, rocky terrains, and towering dunes. For me, the hardest level was stage 6, the 48-hour Chrono Superstage, where we had to cover over 600km.
It was just sand and dunes, and it was the first time the Dakar Rally provided such a terrain. The ride started around 8 in the morning, and as we progressed, we reached the Empty Quarter. This is like being in the middle of nowhere, just a sandy desert encompassing a large area. The navigation gets even more tricky here. We had to wind up for the day and pull into one of the eight bivouacs along the route by 4pm.
The next morning, we returned to track and finished stage 6 at Shubaytah. Stage 1 was also a struggle, mainly because I was dehydrated.
You’ve faced a considerable amount of injuries, even a T5 fracture of the spine. How has this year been for you?
The T5 fracture was one of the major injuries. I was bedridden for a month. The fall happened at the 2023 Dakar rally. stage 4. My motorbike hit a bulging form on the dune, the hit was hard and I went over the bars and landed on my back.
I started riding again after three and a half months, and in the second week of training, I broke my right arm wrist.
So injuries have always been a part of the game. I even have a history of breaking my ribs in one of the events, but it never mattered, except when I cough (Laughs).
This year was better for me. I did fall several times but somehow managed to finish the rally with minor injuries. I believe it’s mostly because I made the right choices at the right time. Injuries are inevitable in Dakar. But when you finish a stage, you should be grateful because not everyone can do that. In the 48-hour stage, almost 80 vehicles got stuck in the middle of the desert, and they had to leave. Latter half of 2023 was good for me. In my maiden rally in Turkey-Transanatolia, I won in the 450cc category.
Despite these injuries, what keeps you going?
I would be lying if I said I’ve never thought of quitting. This year, at stage 1 itself, I felt like leaving the race halfway. I didn’t take that step because I knew I would regret it the next morning. Also, my parents support helps me going. My father played a pivotal role in igniting the rider in me. At the age of 5, he used to get me Dakar rally cassettes. My mother Susanna also supports me. She is a bike enthusiast, since her days in Germany.
Has Dakar 2024 given you any interesting moments?
Dakar 2024 means stage 10 for me. What I felt after finishing that level was indescribable. Honestly, I’m still not over it. I don’t check the results after every stage; it’s a strategy I employ. But the organisers told me that I was leading in the last 30km, and even surpassed the two-time winner Ricky Brabec on the challenging dunes and emerged as the fastest rider of the day. I think I have the potential to surptise me (Smiles).
Now, where do you see yourself as a rider?
Dakar isn’t just an event that requires motorbike riding skills; navigation, endurance, and mental strength are must. I still feel like I’m not there yet. But I certainly believe that my navigation skills are better than a majority of the riders.
Do you feel India falls back in providing an adequate amount of facility for training?
When you go to national racing events; we can see children participating, though there aren’t many training grounds. But this sport is still a niche here.
I do 60 per cent of my training in Kerala at home. During summers, I ride on the dried up Bharathapuzha. During the rainy season, I visit Panchavady Beach in Chavakkad. Of course, there will be many who questions when they see me practising, even when I ride in such secluded areas. Convincing local people is a requirement to use these spaces for training (Laughs).