Mohammed Al Balooshi could not have asked for a better start to his 2018 FIM Bajas World Cup campaign.
Just 11 days ago, the Emirati rider produced a sensational display to register one of his most impressive results of his career when he reigned supreme in the Dubai International Baja.
It was his first-ever triumph on home soil and when key rivals Aaron Mare and Kuwait’s Mohammed Jaffar retired, it presented an opportunity for Al Balooshi – one that he grabbed with both hands. He eventually found himself at the front of the pile and did just enough to hold off UAE-based French rider Benjamin Melot to cross the finish line.
In his own words, the triumph was “icing on the cake” but more significant was the improvement he made in the last 12 months.
“For me, I went there with the same mentality to do my personal best,” the 38-year-old told Sport360. “Last year, I finished second and this year I won the event. I wanted to improve my timing and skill-set. You cannot make up for lost time and I really wanted to give it a go. As long as there is progress then I’m happy but for sure the victory was the icing on the cake.”
Progress is exactly what Al Balooshi will be looking to do when he gets on his 450 Rally Replica at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
According to the provisional entry list for the opening round of the FIM Cross Country-Rally World Championship, he is one of 14 riders that will be on the starting line when the race gets underway on Friday. But he faces an even bigger task of replicating his Dubai feat in the UAE capital.
Standing in his way is two-time defending champion Pablo Quintanilla, who headlines a strong field as well last season’s winner and 2017 Dakar Rally champion Sam Sunderland.
Al Balooshi is fully aware of the challenge that awaits him over the six legs and while he accepts another victory might not be possible, he’ll be happy just to complete the rally as long as he gives nothing but his best.
“As a competitor, I’ll by lying if I say that victory is not in my head,” said Al Balooshi, whose best finish in the capital was fourth in 2015. “That is why we race. I train every day to win. With my capability, I always go out there and give my best. It was the same with the Dubai International Baja. I did very well in that and was happy with my performance regardless of whether I won it or not.
“This is the best attitude going into any big races. If you do your personal best, whatever your result, you’ll be happy. That’s what I’ll be doing in Abu Dhabi.
“I’m ready to give 100 per cent. As a rider, you can go in and just complete the race, but for me it’s about doing better than last time.”
He added: “The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is definitely one I’d like to win and it would be another milestone in my career. To be honest, I’m not thinking too far ahead because that can bring unnecessary pressure. But for me I’m really looking forward to riding on the high dunes over the next few days.”
One advantage that works in his favour is the knowledge of the dunes and terrains that he will face. With eight Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge appearances and regular training sessions in Liwa, Al Balooshi isn’t exactly stepping into unknown territory – it’s one of his favourite rallies on the FIM calendar.
“If you don’t like riding in the desert then the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge can be really difficult,” he said. “But then again, it’s one of the fun races because you can have the time of your life and race in one of the biggest dunes on the desert.
“I wouldn’t say it’s one of the most difficult rallies but perhaps one of the most physical, especially if you’re not used to the heat. But it doesn’t affect me because I train here every time. If you like dirt biking, then for sure this is the place to be.”
One factor that has aided Al Balooshi for the demanding season ahead is his Dakar Rally participation at the start of the year.
In the world’s most notorious cross-country race on South American soil, he tackled a gruelling terrain of more than 9,000km for two weeks before crossing the finish line in 50th position in Argentina.
And he believes his time on the wheels on a route that started in Peru, crossing into Bolivia ahead of the finish in Cordoba, has made him a better all-round competitor.
“The Dakar Rally has been a big help,” he said. “You can say it’s like doing three cross-countries back-to-back. To do that over a period of 14 days in very tough conditions with just one day off, is difficult because you get to cover a lot of distance.
“I feel like I have matured in this Dakar Rally. I’m always in shape but what has been missing is the lack of navigation training because we don’t have it here. I prepare the navigation for myself but it’s not the same when you travel to other countries. But for sure, the Dakar Rally was a real help to me and by finishing it has given me a lot of self-confidence that I can achieve good results in the future.”
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