Czech driver Martin Prokop retained his overall cars lead while Sam Sunderland made a big move towards a second successive bikes title, but it was Toby Price’s heartwarming gesture that stole the show on Day 3 of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
The Australian motorcyclist came to the rescue of UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi, who was knocked unconscious following a crash near the end of the 281km Al Ain Water Stage and left stranded in the Liwa Desert.
Red Bull KTM rider Price, 30, stopped and waited with Al Balooshi, who was airlifted to hospital, with Price going on to complete the third leg in 11th place in just over four hours, leaving him 35mins 51secs off the lead of stage winner and overall leader Sunderland.
Price, who was crowned Desert Challenge and Dakar Rally champion in 2016, and is considered one of the world’s top cross country riders, holds little hope of catching Sunderland to claim a second win in the Emirates, but said that never entered his thinking when he came across his stricken colleague.
“Rider safety is so important and I’d happily throw a race to make sure a rider is okay,” said the New South Wales native.
“I had a good day but it was a bad day for him as right near the end he fell off his bike, so I stopped to make sure he was okay and waited for the helicopter to pick him up.
“I was happy to do with that. He got a bit of a knock on the brain so I’m just thankful I was there and I hope he will be OK. I would stop any day to help someone. You want everyone to be safe and go home at the end of the day.”
Price crashed on the Nissan Stage on Day 2, coming home in 11th to effectively curtail his chances of glory.
And the motocross veteran admitted accidents are a dangerous element of the sport that is not highlighted too much, due to the fact that when it does happen riders are often stranded without help, putting them in harmful situations.
“It is a dangerous aspect of the sport,” he said.
“We bikers are out there in the elements and alone, it’s not something mentioned often but when you come across someone laying on the ground you hope for the best.
“He’s (Al Balooshi) a good guy and a good friend and I’m sure if it was me out there he would have done the same. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, it should happen to anyone in the same situation.”
Al Balooshi, racing for his own Balooshi Racing KTM team, was transferred to Madinat Zayed Hospital and is being kept under observation for 24 hours. Although concussed, he has no other injuries. But he will not re-start the rally.
Speaking from his hospital bed Al Balooshi paid tribute to Price, saying: “The day was going really well for me. Toby came by me before the refuel and the day got even better because I was happy to ride with somebody so fast. I was really honoured to be doing the stage with him.
“After the refuel we were riding together and I went to take the lead, and then I honestly don’t remember what happened next. I only remember that Toby stopped to help me and I have to give big thanks to him for being such a great champion who showed such sportsmanship.”
The recent Dubai International Baja winner was clearly shaken, but not seriously injured, adding: “He was there until I left the ground in the helicopter. He was talking to me all the time before the medics came, reassuring me.
“I think now I remember that the bike stalled before the accident. It was a mechanical problem not a rider error. Everything went so fast. I think I was out (unconscious) for about two minutes.”
After gearbox problems ruined his prospects 24 hours earlier, Frenchman Alphand recovered to win the Al Ain Water Stage with 3mins 42secs to spare.
Overnight leader Prokop was third fastest on the day to finish the leg with a reduced advantage of 8mins 40secs from Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, second quickest on the day.
The UAE’s defending champion Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi suffered a major setback, losing 30 minutes because of a broken drive shaft. While he retained third place overall, he now lies more than 45 minutes off the lead.
Dubai-based Sunderland, meanwhile, dominated on the bikes, winning the stage by just over six minutes from KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner to take a 7mins 34secs overall lead from the Austrian rider who succeeded him as Dakar Rally champion two months ago.
Argentinian Kevin Benavides was third-fastest on the day to finish the leg another 2mins 14secs further adrift, just ahead of overnight leader Pablo Quintanilla in fourth.
After a two-minute penalty had denied him the lead at the end of the first leg, Alphand had a dreadful time on Monday’s Nissan stage, plummeting down the field because of gearbox problems.
From the start on Tuesday, however, the 2006 champion was flying across the dunes with all the style and confidence that made him the World Cup downhill skiing champion before he switched to motorsport in 1997.
Overall cars leader Prokop said: “It was a very nice stage today. We don’t want to say it is easy but we made no mistakes, our navigation was good, we found a good rhythm and had a lot of fun.”
Alphand added: “It was a perfect day for us. The car was really good, especially in the dunes – we really enjoyed it.”
Al Qassimi said: “We had a broken drive shaft 30kms in and we had to stop for 30 minutes. There were lots of big, scary dunes today.”
In the Bikes, Dubai-based Sam Sunderland dominated winning the stage by just over six minutes ahead of KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner to take the overall lead.— ATCUAE (@ATCUAE_NEWS) 27 March 2018
Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a Honda was third fastest today.@Sundersam @MatthiasWalkner @kmbenavides pic.twitter.com/C5FC2Bcilo
In the battle of the bikes, Quintanilla clearly had a tough time opening the stage, and by the first checkpoint his 1min 8secs overnight lead had virtually been wiped out by Sunderland who immediately began pulling away.
It was the most emphatic way to show that he has fully recovered after injuring his back in Peru while defending his Dakar Rally title in January.
New bikes leader Sunderland said: “It was a very good day. We benefitted from the earlier start which made it easier to read the tracks. A really good stage and I’m confident I can hold my position.”
Provisional leading positions after Al Ain Water Stage 3:
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