If Dakar is like climbing Mount Everest, then the ‘Original by Motul’ class has been described as climbing Everest but with no oxygen tank – just ask South African wonder woman Kirsten Landman – South Africa’s top female enduro racer.
In January this year Kirsten took part in one of the hardest, and definitely the most rewarding, races of her life and finished the 2023 Dakar in the Original by Motul class, a class where riders are allowed no technical support and are required to maintain their motorcycles themselves. Kirsten (31) is no stranger to tough challenges. A professional off-road and hard enduro rider from Cape Town, she competes at the top level of her sport all over the world, thriving in a male dominated arena where she is often the only female competitor.
She has been riding since the age of 8 and launched her professional career at the age of 22. She grew up on dirt bikes and each year, with each new challenge, is making headlines and changing the way the world sees female athletes.
Avid fans that follow her will know that Kirsten has achieved her Protea Colours for motorsport and competed in a number of major international events. She became the first female to finish races such as Red Bull Romaniacs, Red Bull Sea to Sky, Red Bull Megawatt 111, Red Bull Braveman, the Roof of Africa and in 2020, Landman was the first African women to finish the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.
Motorsport South Africa (MSA) caught up with Kirsten to find out more about this incredible racer and what really goes into competing in this category where it is not just about one’s riding ability, but also about one’s mechanical competence, organisational abilities, and capacity to perform mentally and physically in the face of extreme and cumulative fatigue.
Tell us first about the Original by Motul class?
The Original by Motul class is the original Dakar class, it goes back to when Dakar originated all those many years ago. There was no such thing as assistance from service crews. The competitors would carry whatever they needed on their bikes and then the organisers would put whatever else they needed into an 80L drum and that would go from point to point. The class, also known as Malle (Malle means Trunk) Moto (Bike), emulates that same practice and is largely unassisted.
What inspired you after your 2020 Dakar to compete again, this time in an even harder class?
I grew up watching Dakar on TV. As a young Dakar fan I was fascinated with South America. South America had this sense of adventure about it. One minute competitors were at sea level in 40 degrees; then they were in the Andes battling to breathe; then traversing the Amazon through rivers, greenery, dunes and rock crossings. I knew that one day I wanted to participate in a race like that. Finally in 2020 I entered Dakar but felt it was not as physically challenging as I had hoped. Emotionally it was difficult. I had to overcome the fear from my accident in 2013 where I nearly lost my life at the Botswana Desert 1000 which left me in a coma for 11 days. But from a physical perspective, everyone advised me that if I wanted the true Dakar experience, I must try Malle Moto – the Original by Motul class.
How much harder was the 2022 Dakar when compared to 2020?
2020 was like a highway compared to 2023. This year was so much harder in every aspect. The navigation of the road books were much harder and the time out every day, much longer. For example, in Dakar 2020 I got back every day at 4pm compared to 2023 where I got back most days in the dark. The longest day in 2020 was 10 hours and my longest day in 2023 was 16 hours. 10 hours was in fact my average day on the bike in 2023. Then the weather conditions were a huge factor. It was hot, cold, windy and wet. The rain made the racing so much harder, particularly when you needed to ride through rivers which I did not even know existed in the desert. The physicality of the race took so much more out of you that I actually lost 6kg, burning 163 000 calories in the 14 stages. My step count alone every day was about 5 -6 km just going between bike, tent, the truck and the dining hall and that was over and above the racing. Dakar 2023 really was the pinnacle. It tested us in every way possible. Emotionally it was very tough – I’ve never cried so much in my life. Physically, I’ve never pushed my body to that point, especially since I also had flu and needed to race with a fever, tight chest and dizziness. It was definitely the hardest Dakar in many years.
What drives you to try harder and harder challenges and draws you to the sport?
I think for me it epitomises who I am. I grew up being highly competitive from a really young age. I was swimming provincially from the age of seven. Swimming is also a really tough sport you need to do on your own. When I started riding bikes, at age -8, I fell in love with the sport but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be a professional sports woman and making a career out of it.
Getting into hard enduro, is physically and emotionally demanding and really tests your true character. I tend to really cope well under those hard conditions being able to ‘vasbyt’ and just push through. I make sure I am mentally and physically prepared before going into a race and this year I was definitely strong enough and ready to compete.
How did you prepare for this year’s race?
I did two years of preparation. In terms of physical and bike fitness, coming from hard enduro we tend to be really fit so that helps. I live in Cape Town so the Atlantis dunes are just 20km from my house and were excellent to practice on. I switch it around practicing on sand and normal tracks. Then off the bike, I mountain bike, surf and walk my dogs 5km every day on the beach. I also love running with my dog Sammy and hiking. My goal is to train twice a day – one hard session and one lighter session and then the daily 5km walk with the dogs. My rest day is usually a Monday.
You have to eat well too but I don’t have a strict diet, just good clean eating. Then I have a mental coach that I work closely with. I do a lot of meditation and focus work within meditation. That for me was very important at Dakar at night, just to stay focused and to stay in line with my goals and what we were there to do.
We saw that at some stages you were almost at breaking point and yet you managed to push on – how do you find the strength to continue?
Wow, I was already at breaking point at stage 2. I look back now and don’t know how I made it. I remember lying in the tent with my wife Bryne and just crying saying “Flip, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this – the riding is so hard and the distances are so massive”. She said to me, “I know you’re tired but please just go and look at what’s on social media, quickly log on to FB and Instagram and see the messages of inspiration coming through from so many people.”
I did just that and was totally overwhelmed by the comments, shares and likes. That inspired me so much and it was then that I realised I could not let so many South Africans down that believed in me as well as the fans around the world and Bryne, who had sacrificed so much for me to be there.
I was blown away and still am so overwhelmed by the support. I really have a lot of people backing me, supporting me and trusting me – and that is what got me through.
Growing up who was your inspiration for the sport?
Laia Sanz – still is. Amazingly I got to see her and chat to her this Dakar. She is so strong and has done so much for women in sport. She really is so nice and my hero.
We see your post on facebook – This one is for you Mom,”
“Thank you for keeping me safe and giving me the strength to be the woman I am today. Can you tell us more about that (only if you are comfortable though)
I was supposed to compete in Dakar 2022 – I was ready to jump on a chartered flight to Saudi with my fellow South African competitors when I tested positive for Covid on Christmas eve and could not board the flight. Funny how everything happens for a reason. My mum had not been feeling well and that night when I phoned my sister to tell her I was not going, she said she had had to take my mom to hospital. I took the first flight out to Joburg the next day to be closer to my mom. She had gone in for a brain scan and was diagnosed with a Gliobastoma , a very rare and horrible brain cancer that grows at 1.4% per day. I moved up to Joburg to be with my mom and nursed her for the four months that she survived. She sadly passed away on the 13th April.
That for me was the hardest thing I have ever been through. My mom was the strongest woman I have ever known. She was such an incredible person – she sacrificed everything for my sister and I. She lived for us and when she was sick she didn’t complain once. She didn’t make it about herself. She didn’t cry once, she was so strong right up until her last breath. I didn’t leave her side for the 4 months that she was sick. I must say that during Dakar I honestly believe that she kept me safe. I spoke to my mom throughout the whole rally asking for her strength and her guidance. I could feel my mom around me, during some of the stages. There were so many times in the rally when I thought I was going to die, so many close calls. She kept me safe, she got me to the finishing line, and gave me the strength to be the woman I am today. I’m strong because I was brought up by a strong woman. Growing up racing my mom would never be on the side of the tracks because she feared for my safety. She was my biggest fan on the side-lines though. She has been gone for 9 months now but it feels like 9 days. This race was dedicated to my mom – she is my hero and I love her and I miss her.
Was there a point during the 2023 race when you thought you would have to stop?
Yes, several actually!
The first one would have been stage 4 when I was sick. We still had another 150 kms of racing and then a further 350km home into Riyadh and then we got the weather warning at the end of the special, which was really scary. The rain started 150kms into the liaison and we still had another 200kms to go. I needed to keep going and get back to bivouac which for me was the scariest riding of the whole Dakar. Those long liaisons, the long days and you are only on stage 4. You’ve only done 2000km, you’ve got another 6000km to go… so that was all very overwhelming.
Then going out into the marathon stage, I hurt my back the day before. My back was so sore I couldn’t pick up my bike, and we had now entered the Empty Quarter. I dropped my bike on every dune. The sand was so soft and the last time I dropped it, I was in a bowl – a steep little downhill, uphill, in the dunes. Not only could I not pick up my bike but I had to worry about cars coming down and riding over me. Thankfully there were medics there and a guy came over and helped me pick up my bike. I said to myself, “Kirsten! That’s it, you drop your bike once more and your race is over, so you don’t drop your bike, and you get there – keep your bike upright, commit to the dunes and get over them.” I realised I was getting stuck because I was hesitating because you don’t know what’s on the other side of them. You have to go at speed to get over the dunes – it’s all very intimidating. I didn’t drop my bike again but the experience makes you emotional – you are hot and tired and crying and it takes so much to just keep going.
There seems to be an incredible amount of camaraderie and respect between racers – can you tell us how you find the support, particularly being a woman in a largely male dominated event?
I felt the camaraderie more so now at Malle Moto. We entered as a team and were the biggest team at the Dakar rally in terms of riders. There were 27 riders, and only 14 finished. We are all out there doing the same thing. At the end of the day we are all there just trying to survive and there is this understanding that everyone looks out for each other – everyone is quite helpful. If you see someone with a red number, you’ve got this sense of respect from the other competitors. As a woman, the guys treated me just like any another fellow competitor which is great – no special treatment.
Only two other women have done it before and they were happy to see me competing. The organisers of Original by Motul were also very supportive of our entire team. I am used to being the only female amongst the boys. Of course that’s changing and we are trying to inspire the change and the future. Give it 10 -15 years and the Dakar Rally will have a whole lot more female competitors. That is special to me because Laia Sanz, Mirjam Pol, Sandra Gomez, we were the stepping stones and hopefully pave the future for future women in motorsport.
We saw you really showed the true spirit of SA Ubuntu by stopping and helping Saudi Arabian Mishal Alghuneim during the race – is that what Dakar is all about?
Definitely – any race is – whether it is a fun race or Dakar Rally. I was taught from a very young age that if there is a rider that needs help, you stop. Even if it doesn’t look like he needs help, you stop and ask if he’s okay then you go. That’s what I was taught, and that’s what I’ve done my whole career. It’s cool that everyone is saying it’s SA Ubuntu, but for me it is just rider etiquette. When I had my accident in Botswana in 2013, every rider stopped.
What would you like to change, if anything, about this kind of sport?
I would like more exposure, not for myself only, but for motorsport. Off road, Enduro, Dakar is on another level and for women racers like myself exposure helps us get the necessary sponsorship to go to more races. My whole career has been made possible through the support of sponsors. We need the backing of big federations like MSA to help us to do that. We’ve got to get our girls out there and shown to the world.
How did you feel when you crossed that finish line – without even a single penalty?
It felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I can sleep peacefully knowing that it’s done and we did the job well. Doing it penalty free is very important to me because I enjoy the navigation, and I was vigilant. I made sure that I picked up all my way points and if I did miss one, I’d go back and get it. I enjoy that side of it and find navigation lots of fun. I did the same in 2020 and I’ve done the same in 2023 – it’s like the cherry on top.
This is an expensive sport. We see ASP International is sponsoring you now – how important are sponsors – not only in terms of financial support but also team support?
I am a full-time rider and fully reliant on sponsors to get me through. I am very fortunate and blessed that I am able to do this full-time. I am hugely grateful to ASP who sponsor me and took me on board from the beginning of 2021 to do Dakar 2022, which as you know I could not do due to Covid. They’ve been very kind and supportive and backed me through the whole of 2022 and 2023.
Sponsors are important because a) they pay for the racing, but for me, the biggest thing is that they see your value as an athlete. Ryobi come on board for my first Dakar, then ASP came on board. Having an “ALL IN” title sponsor is an athlete’s dream. I am very fortunate with the sponsors that I have had. ASP has been incredibly supportive and understanding. They have become like a family, not only in terms of financial support, but team support. You know my sponsor even came to Dakar and camped with us. You can’t explain what Dakar is like until you experience it so it was so special to have him there.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years’ time I’m going to be 41, hopefully with a family and children. I will still most definitely be involved in motorsport because that’s all I know. In terms of racing Dakar I’m hoping to move towards the four-wheel side. I still want to be in development and involved in women in motorsport – it is in my blood.
What is one thing people would never know about Kirsten Landman?
You all know that I love dogs and that I’m very emotional. I’m actually quite a softy behind this hard, tough exterior. I also love baking and cooking. I’m pretty much an open book – what you see is what you get.
When you are not racing and practicing what do you do to relax?
When I am not training, surfing or hiking or walking my dogs I like pottering around doing things around the house and spending time in my garden. Just being outdoors is great. I also enjoy kicking my feet up and vegging in front of the TV. I don’t do it often but I can just switch off and enjoy a good series. I love going to movies as well. Bryne and I tend to do that quite a bit or we go to good restaurants, or invite our friends over and we have a braai and I cook. The only time I really relax is when I am sleeping.
What is next?
I don’t know to be honest. I’m still going to compete within the South African races. I’ll do a race here and there, hand-picked races. I’d like to go overseas and do some more extremes, back to Turkey for Sea to Sky and to Romania because the last one I did was in 2018. I love the Hard Enduro stuff, so more of the Hard Enduro world series – that’s my favourite. I would love to do that and in terms of Dakar I don’t know. If I ever went back to Dakar on two wheels, I would only enter the Malle Moto class. I won’t do it any other way because you get the full experience. I am definitely not hanging up my boots – I am only 31 years old. I’ll still be out there racing. Take each race, one race at a time!
PREPARED ON BEHALF OF MSA BY CATHY FINDLEY PR.