x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Tackling the beast

Feature Former rugby international Christian Califano enjoyed a glittering playing career. Now he is preparing to face his toughest challenge, competing in the Dakar Rally.

Christian Califano, right, pictured with fellow rider Franck Cornille. Califano will compete in the Dakar Rally for Team 100% Sud Ouest
Christian Califano, right, pictured with fellow rider Franck Cornille. Califano will compete in the Dakar Rally for Team 100% Sud Ouest

Former rugby international Christian Califano enjoyed a glittering playing career before retiring from the sport earlier this year. Now he is preparing to face his toughest challenge, competing in the Dakar Rally. Forty-eight competitors have lost their lives in the 30-year history of the Dakar Rally, which begs the question: why do it? "C'est la vie," says former France rugby international Christian Califano, when the statistic is put to him after having swapped his rugby boots for motorbike overalls for a first stab at the 9,500-kilometre event, which starts in Buenos Aires on Jan 3.

But Califano is undeterred by the potential risks. "I won't worry about accidents," he said. "I won't think about that at all. I realise it's risky, but I'll probably think more about the dangers once I'm finished. It's no good going into the event worrying about the risks and the dangers because that's when it goes wrong." Califano is one of nearly 550 competitors taking part in the event, which has been relocated to Argentina and Chile from its traditional Euro-African base because of terrorist threats, which saw last year's rally scrapped entirely at the last minute by organisers.

The 36-year-old has plenty of experience of Argentina from his playing days, but is all too aware things will be very different over the 16 days of competition. He said: "I know Argentina well. It's a beautiful country with amazing people. But when I've been here before I've been lucky enough to be stay in five-star hotels. This time will be very different and I'm not excited about that part of it. But I'm really looking forward to doing the Dakar, this has been a dream of mine for so long."

Califano has been obsessed by the endurance rally for as long as he can remember. He has long told friends, families and former rugby colleagues about his desire to enter. But his rugby teammates in particular were always massively dismissive. "I used to say 'guys, one day I will do the Dakar'," he recalled, "and they'd be like, 'shut up Christian, don't be crazy, you'll never do it, you're a liar'. Anyway I didn't tell any of them I was entering, I just waited for it to appear on the news in France.

"When it did, lots of them telephoned or texted me. Again, they all told me I was crazy to do it and they couldn't believe me. I told them I was serious but that's their fault for not believing me." Competitor number 83, the bib Califano will be wearing, will line up as a complete Dakar novice, although he has some limited endurance experience having competed in the Baja Espana in July this year. And it was that outing in Zaragoza that made him decide to go ahead with the Dakar Rally.

"I loved it and I realised afterwards that I was ready for the Dakar," he added. "It's a much shorter competition over just four or five days but I think it gave me enough experience to go for Dakar." While competing in the Baja, he met Cyril Despres, a two-time winner of the Dakar's motorbike class and the favourite to take victory again this time around, and he has been taking advice from him ever since.

"I was minding my own business at the Baja when he came over and said, 'Ah Christian Califano the rugby player'," he said. "And he was like 'what are you doing here?' "I knew who he was, of course. He's a motorbike legend, he's so fast and he'll probably end up winning. Anyway, we got talking and he's become my teacher. You don't get a Dakar teacher much better than that - he's giving me all the secrets."

The pair have already been out on exhausting training runs together in preparation. "We went out riding for an hour and it felt like I was at 120 per cent while he was pushing about 35 per cent at the very most," he said. "After an hour, he pulled over at the side. I was desperately trying to catch my breath, I was exhausted and he was totally relaxed. "He then turned to me and said 'right, warm-up over, let's get going'. I couldn't believe it - he was being serious, we were only warming up! Anyway, I've not ridden with him since then. I just can't keep up. Let's just say he doesn't have to worry about me catching him once the race starts!"

While the training rides with Despres have been somewhat demoralising, the words of advice from the two-time Dakar winner have been invaluable. "The first thing Cyril said to me was to keep your eye on the road all the time," he said. "It might sound obvious but the terrain is so tough that you just can't sit back on your bike and relax for a moment. You have to keep focused the whole time otherwise you come off and crash, and that's no fun.

"He also said the mental toughness was even harder than the physical side, but I think I've got that covered, I'm used to big mental pressures from my playing days." Califano is the most capped French prop forward of all time, winning 72 caps for his country. He made his final appearance for his country against New Zealand two years ago. His club career, meanwhile, took him from France to New Zealand - where he spent a season at the Auckland Blues - and onto England, where he played for Saracens before finishing his career at Gloucester.

Career highlights included winning the Heineken Cup and six French titles with Toulouse, representing France at the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, and becoming the first front-row forward to score a hat-trick of tries in an international. But he warned that none of those achievements come close to the rigours of the Dakar Rally. "The Dakar Rally is like the World Cup of motorsport," he said. "It's as big as it gets. I've had a passion for it most of my life from watching videos of it back in France. Now it's gone from being a passion and a dream to becoming a reality.

"The aim is to finish it - nothing more, that's hard enough and, if I do that, it'll exceed anything I've done during my rugby career." Califano flies out to Argentina on Dec 29 to acclimatise with his team, 100% Sud Ouest, who are running two motorbikes, a car and a truck at the event, and he is already plotting a course for future events. "This is the first of many Dakars hopefully," said Califano, who will be riding a Yamaha WF450.

Califano has had a passion for motorbikes since being given his first as a 14-year-old by his parents and admits that Yamaha is the bike he has been most closely associated with over the years. "I've had lots of different Yamahas which have always been best for me," he said, "but I've ridden some Hondas as well and I'd love to get the chance to get on board a KTM. The Yamaha I have for the Dakar is the most powerful bike I've ever got to grips with. It's a really potent beast."

There are all manner of obstacles facing Califano on board his Yamaha, perhaps most notably the rigours of up to 800 kilometres in the saddle a day. "I've never ridden that far, not even close," he said. "I guess I'll have to set off at six every morning if the organisers let me!" And another major hurdle he has had to overcome has been his training. Still fit from his lengthy career as a professional rugby player, he had expected to make light work of his preparations.

"I thought I'd be OK as it's not long since I retired from professional sport but the work's really different," he said. "As a big prop I was always in the gym lifting weights and getting stronger and stronger. Now, I do completely different weights and a lot of running. I run four times a week and go to the gym four times a week and it's all about building up my endurance. I don't mind telling you I don't like it much!"

The final hardship to encounter, according to Califano, is the terrain of the Dakar, which will be unlike any other in its 30-year history. "The Dakars of the past have all been mostly similar terrain: sand, sand and more sand," he said, "but Argentina's not like that. The terrain changes so quickly. It'll be the toughest Dakar Rally ever so I've picked a good time to make my debut." First, however, Califano will have a frugal Christmas. "I better watch what I eat". But it's all about the small matter of finally realising his lifelong ambition. He said: "I can't quite believe it's happening."

On Jan 3, on the streets of Buenos Aires, his dream will finally become a reality. mmajendie@thenational.ae