British motocross rider Sam Sunderland is already showing his championship potential after just one year in the UAE.
Air to the throne
There's a storm brewing. The wind is whipping up sand on the newly-sculpted Jebel Ali Dubai Motocross (DMX) course. It is 38°C in the shade and the sun is slowly finding the horizon, but already the hardcore of the Dubai motocross scene are out on the track getting to know the turns and jumps bulldozed by Rob Elliot and John Watkinson, the track designer and curator of DMX, respectively.
It's essential pre-season training time and one rider in particular is already showing his colours. Twenty-year-old Sam Sunderland has only been in Dubai for one year, but with just one season under his belt he is already showing his championship potential. It's a potential that Tim Trenker, the general manager of KTM in the UAE, saw in Sam when they met at the showroom this time last year. At the time, Sunderland was just visiting his aunt and uncle Nikki and Paul Malpas and his cousins, young racers themselves. "I got talking to Tim and he asked me if I wanted to have a go on a bike", says Sunderland. "So I went to the track, did a few 20-minute motos and following that he offered me a sponsorship deal to come over here and ride for KTM". As easy as that.
Well, not quite. This sponsorship deal has arrived in his lap after 10 years of hard slog, financial scraping and countless injuries. Sunderland first sat on a 65cc bike at the age of 10 - which is not so young in the UK where racing starts at just six years old. "To be honest I just crashed and burned a few times", he smiles. His mum and dad finally brought him his own bike and he has never looked back. "I broke all sorts. I just used to crash all the time. If I stayed on for a race it was a result", he says.
So what has been the tally of injuries so far? Sam has broken his right collarbone four times - the most recent time last season. "I've got a pin and plate in there now, so it should be a bit stronger", he adds. He has broken his left wrist and right arm, and dislocated and broken numerous fingers from rocks flying off the rear tyres of bikes in front. He also suffered from a painful condition known as compartment syndrome or 'armpump' as it's known in the sport which he first experienced after a year or so of racing. "Basically your muscle sits in a tube of stuff called 'fascia' which doesn't stretch and when your muscle expands [under usage] it can't get re-oxygenated with blood and it gets so tight and solid that your hands go numb", Sam explains. The only option if you want to continue racing is to have a fasciotomy in which the fascia is cut along the inside of the forearm from elbow to wrist to allow the muscle to grow and expand.
And then there's the big one: when Sam was 16 he misjudged a jump on his new 125cc bike and landed heavily having completely flown over a 120ft long 'tabletop' - a raised flat section or track. The result was horrific. "I broke both my ankles, my tibia and fibula in both legs, both my knees and my pelvis. I was in a wheelchair for six months", he remembers. "I had to learn how to walk again as I'd lost my balance from being in a wheelchair for so long".
For many people such an accident would start ringing alarm bells that maybe this sport wasn't for you. But not Sam. After extensive physio and constant exercise, he eventually took to the track again; this time with possibly even more determination. That's a character trait which has been drummed into him by his father, Dene. He says, "My Dad always used to say 'winners don't quit and quitters don't win'. At the time it really used to wind me up and I hated it, but now I look back and without that maybe I wouldn't be where I am now."
And right now with the sandstorm baying on the horizon and temperatures tailing off to a balmy 36 degrees, he is without doubt the quickest and slickest rider on the track, effortlessly getting 'big air' and whipping the bike sidewards off the tabletop in front of the empty grandstand. This level of skill is the result of years of wholly being absorbed in the sport. Sam recalls his average week when racing back in the UK: "There were loads of four-hour drives. You'd drive up there [to the race venue] on Friday night. Race Saturday and Sunday. Get home Sunday evening. Unload the bike Monday. Strip and wash the bike Tuesday. Wednesday put it back together. Thursday load it up, and Friday you're off again." All during school time and, of course, all thanks to both the financial and emotional support of his parents - his Mum worked a full-time and part-time job to fund his racing. "When I was younger my Mum and Dad worked hard and I would give my arm and leg to go riding", adds Sam, "but here in the UAE there is more money and just the way the youths are treated, things don't seem so special to them. They take it for granted."
But the rewards of having everything handed to you on a plate are small when you are not passionate about what you do. "Motocross is a tough sport physically and mentally", Sam continues, "You need to have that heart, pride and competitiveness to push yourself. Don't get me wrong - I hate going training and trying to eat healthy, but those are the sacrifices you make, because I hate losing". Besides riding he also cycles, swims - his preference is free-diving and spear fishing, and in the off-season spends time bulking up in the gym with weights. At this level of fitness Sam's heart rate can average 182 beats per minute even during training motos.
And then come the rewards. He gets to ride the latest KTM machinery first and has a team of expert mechanics to tune and prep his 'steeds' which has so far resulted in a remarkable first season on terrain Sam hadn't had much previous experience on: "It's much more difficult than dirt. It's like trying to ride a push bike on a sandy beach". To just miss his maiden UAE championship win was disappointing, especially as it was the result of injury and a peculiarity in the local points scoring system. But his other sponsors Nivea For Men, the Al Shafar family and Oakley as well as KTM are more than happy with the 20 year-old, both on and off the track. Sam's get-up-and-go nature, however, wasn't quite so suited to working in the KTM showroom surrounded by bikes he'd rather be out thrashing: "I was sat there all day twiddling my thumbs until it got to the stage where I had to speak to Tim [Trenker]". Being a racer himself, Tim had to agree: "It's very difficult to keep someone like Sam in the shop. He's got a lot of energy and he just wants to ride". So now Sam teaches motocross to anyone who wants to learn, from six to sixty year olds.
But how do you teach someone a complex skill which appears so innate when you see the professionals in action? "Anyone can learn, but it definitely helps if you're in pretty good shape", says Sam. Apart from watching the riders' warming up on track he also rides behind them. "I watch their braking, where they are sat down and stood up, what lines they're taking, and then I'll let them follow my lines".
He is also a brand ambassador for KTM in the region and rides demonstrations at various promotional gigs and events including Dubai Bike Week last March. Sam is obviously where he wants to be. He has the 'surf dude' laid-back and good-humoured confidence of someone who knows what they can achieve and believes in their abilities, but also appreciates those around him who are becoming part of his success story. And if it all stalls to a halt, then he still has his skills as a lift engineer to fall back on [thanks again to Dad's insistence].
I watch his last practice moto and the grace of the 'whip' - laying the bike flat in the air during a long jump. As he removes his 'armour' and packs up his gear I ask if it's just for show. "It actually soaks up a lot of momentum so you don't get the full kick from the take-off", which allows you to push harder before the jump. "But sometimes it's showmanship as well", he smiles. For more details about the upcoming motocross season or if you want to get involved in the sport visit the DMX website at: www.mydubaimotocross.com