During the first week of the 2022 Dakar Rally, Skyler Howes was looking good. He was the top-placing American, 15 minutes out of the lead. Then, on stage 5, the lights went out. He suffered a concussion from a fall near the end of the Special, and his rally was over. We talked with him after he returned about the rally, life as a Rockstar Husqvarna factory rider and the future.
Dirt Bike: Tell us about the crash
Skyler Howes: It’s still a mystery. Afterwards, I sat down with a couple of the guys and they reminded me, and some of it came back. I know I had picked myself up and was moving again in less than a minute, because Daniel Sanders was just behind me. He had turned around to find a waypoint and he was less than 3 minutes behind me. I was moving again before he came back by. He looked at me, asked if I was okay and I waved him on. Same as Toby. I got to the finish of the special and didn’t really know where I was. All the medics decided that I should get checked out. Mason Klein actually came and stayed with me and was trying to coax me to get back on the bike to finish, but with a head injury like that the best case is to stop and be checked out.
That was at the end of the special?
Yes, so I picked myself up and was able to finish the special, but I still had a couple of hours on the bike to go and I was kinda blowin’ bubbles.
Tell us a little about how different it was this year on a Factory Husky?
Last year all the hard work was in trying to get to the races. Between all the fund-raising, T-shirts and riding schools, I didn’t train at all. I didn’t ride or go to the gym, I went that whole last month without training. This year, after signing with the team, it was all about training. I got an email with my tickets and the only thing I had to focus on was myself; fitness and all the gear I was going to take. The whole year was just about riding the world rallies and preparation. Training consists of a day of testing and a day of road books and then testing, then roadbooks, over and over. So you’re getting serious road-book time and ride time. And then when I got home, I didn’t have to go to a day job. I could go to the gym and ride and focus on getting my life in order. The stress wasn’t any less. It’s the biggest race in the world and I still had to make sure I was ready to go and focused, and there are expectations as far as getting a result, but the stress of riding isn’t as much of a burden as the stress of fund-raising. The riding is when I feel everything gets easier.
So this bike is a new platform. Did it require some extensive testing?
Yes, so that’s pretty much what my year consisted of. I signed in March, and at the beginning I tested the old bike. I got that original setting and then rode with that setting the whole year. Then right around July we started testing the new platform. It was a new chassis and new engine, new tanks; a completely redesigned bike. Testing was a serious process. Typically if they are doing a new bike they have test riders do a lot of the development, then the race team riders get on it and fine-tune it. In this case we got the whole bike last minute and didn’t have a lot of time before Morocco. We, as a race team, did all the development. It was a ton of work figuring out all the different offsets and linkages; all these things like frame flex and tons of little things that I never messed with before. I had to learn what to make of a different triple clamp that had the same offset, but just flexed differently. I needed to tell them if it felt better or worse.
Did you come out of the process as a better test rider?
I was kinda worried about it, because I didn’t know if I would be a good test rider. I was surprised and excited that I was able to tell if something worked. I put a lot of focus on testing. There are other riders who would get annoyed when they have to do things like that. I was kinda stoked because this is what I signed up for to do, this hard work. And even though you are on the factory team and have all these resources, things don’t always go perfectly. Developing and testing is a seriously long, stressful process of hard work. It took us a lot of time to get what we thought were the right settings, and when we got to Morocco,we found out we still weren’t where we needed to be. Then went back to Austria and had meetings and went back to the dyno. This is happening literally a month before everything has to be shipped out for Dakar. We were still doing our final development, which is crazy. It was a stressful process, but it was cool to see, because for everyone on the team, this isn’t just a job. If it means you have to get up at 4 am and work till 11 at night, every day for a month, that’s what you do. It’s not a 9-to-5 thing and you don’t say, I’ve worked my 10 hours and I’m done. It was super cool to see in Austria they are grinding in every department. It was cool to see that because I’ve always been the one in the garage putting in the work. Now, to be a part of a team that puts in so much work for us to succeed, it’s such a cool feeling. It’s not just me out there. There are so many other people who care.
Did all the testing help your riding skills?
Testing gave me some valuable riding time. We spent time in Dubai and I got that dune experience. I got a lot more comfortable in the Dunes. This is the first Dakar that I didn’t feel was at a disadvantage there. I was right there riding with Kevin Benevides and Daniel Sanders; these guys who are the best dune riders in the world and I was leading them out and I wasn’t off-pace or anything. The testing time and all that had a huge benefit. I made a mistake on stage one, and even though it wasn’t as bad as many other rider, I still lost about 17 minutes. I was able to recoup that and get into the top 5. I had done pretty much what I wanted to do and put myself right in that perfect position where I wasn’t leading, but I wasn’t too far behind, and wasn’t losing time. I played a pretty good strategy until that point. And then I had a crash. That was a day to get time, so yes, I was pushing, but not taking blind risks.
When you are in danger of finishing too high, what do you do?
It’s a weird thing. You actually get bonuses if you win. They try to give you an incentive, but it’s a major diastagetage because you can’t follow tracks the next day. “Following tracks” is a misleading term because you still have to navigate. If you don’t look at your road book at all, you’re going to get lost. But in the dunes you don’t have to focus as much on your compass heading if you have tracks. When you start up front, you don’t have any of that and you have to be perfect on your navigation. You have to ride slower, you just can’t push as hard. From fifth to tenth, even to the top 15 is where you want to finish. It’s really hard to judge, because everyone is pushing. Dakar is no longer a race where you can choose your days to ride hard and try to manage your position the rest of the time. Those days are gone. It’s a sprint race now. If you don’t push everyday, you’re going to be way off the pace. So it’s hard to determine where you will be at the end of the stage. If you push all day, and think this is a winning pace and slow down, you might find you lost 20 minutes. On the prologue, I decided to take it easy and get a rear starting position, 16th to 18th. I wound up in 25th.
Tell us about Mason Klein
We have been training together. I told Mason I thought we could train on our own, so he would come up and spend two weeks, and we would make road books and then go ride them. Then go out to the desert and work on technique. For the last 7 days just before Dakar and we didn’t even do road books, we just focused solely on the mental side of things. What are you going to encounter in Dakar that you will have to deal with mentally? There will be crashes and things that you have to push through. What people might not realize is, yeah, Mason is young, but he was way more prepared for this Dakar than I was going into my first two. He had done Sonora a couple of times, he had done Morocco. He had done all this training, so many road books and so much preparation. People worry about young riders going down to Baja trying to prove something and having a crash. With Mason, everyone was expecting a young kid just making a ton of mistakes, but he had done the work, he had done the prep. He had really worked hard for this and so that’s why I wasn’t really surprised with his results. He might have done a little better than I expected when he got third on a stage, but I knew he had top 10 pace. You can be good at navigation but you have to be good at navigating at speed. Mason’s difference is that he has done so many road books that he can interpret thighs at a glance. If you put Sam, Toby Ross Branch and Daniel Sanders on a hard scrambles course, Mason and I are not going to be the fastest riders. These guys are really talented and have motocross skills. But that’s not what Dakar is. So Mason isn’t the fastest guy out there, but he’s really good at all the other stuff. His biggest thing is patience, I think. He was worried about strategy on where he should finish. I told him his whole deal is to just finish every day. He’s young, so if he has a bad crash or something, everyone is going to automatically label him as this inexperienced kid that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I said don’t give these people that fuel. You have to finish, so just be smart and ride every day. He went out there and crushed it. He did such a good job. He rode this Dakar like he was an experienced veteran. So that’s why I’m not surprised, He’s extremely dedicated and he put in the work.
The expectation is to do all of the training and testing and all of the world rounds. However, I do feel there’s a lot of other stuff I can do here in the U.S. that will be good for testing. Sonora is tough because it’s a few days after Abu Dhabi. There are a lot of other events that would be good for testing, and they know we know what to do. There is really no pressure. We are professional athletes, and they trust us to do what we feel we need to do.