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4,000km down, Oran O’Kelly eyes Dakar Rally finish line

Oran O’Kelly says it’s a privilege to represent Ireland at the Dakar Rally, and has his sights set on completing the mammoth 9,000km race on Friday.

The Dubliner has become the first Irish competitor since Stan Watt in 2013 to compete in one of the world’s most gruelling races, but with seven days and 4,000km under his belt, the finish line is sharpening his focus.

Created in 1978, the Paris-Dakar Rally, as it was called then, tested drivers from the French capital to Sengalese capital.

It has changed many times since then – security threats across Africa led to the rally being staged in different parts of the globe – and is now held in Saudi Arabia.

There are five categories within the event – motorcycles, quads, cars, UTVs and trucks – with Malahide native O’Kelly competing on his bike.

Last year, O’Kelly was volunteering for the Audi team, driving a campervan and cleaning toilets, but is back in 2024 in a very different capacity

His performances last March in Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, where he consistently finished between eighth and eleventh across the five stages, also placed him third among Road to Dakar participants, a programme in which the best riders with no Dakar experience an invitation to the following year’s Dakar Rally.

“It’s something I have been preparing for, for the last four years now, doing qualification races and raced a couple of rounds of the World Championships,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

“It’s an absolute privilege to be representing Ireland at such a prestigious event. There was a strong wave in the late 90s, and all the way through to last decade, of Irish participants. There has been a bit of a gap since then, but I’m really proud to be representing Ireland here now.”

The stage distances range from 532km to 870km across different landscapes of Saudi Arabia and with challenging terrain, long days on the bike and temperatures that range from 0 to 40 degrees, O’Kelly, who is almost qualified as a sports and performance psychologist, is putting his academic skills to good use.

“Some days have been incredibly challenging. Fourteen, 15 hour days on the bike, riding through areas you can’t hike up or walk,” he says.

“I have taken a huge amount of that learning and education and put it into practice within my preparation and day-to-day management on the bike.

“The emotions have been absolutely wild, some of the highest highs and lowest lows. You need to keep a good positive narrative of self talk. Using sports psychology skills like visualisation has really helped me push through some really difficult times.”

Describing the event as “an expedition more than a race”, O’Kelly is conscious that targets on time and placings could prove folly ahead of the final stage on Friday.

“I think trying to achieve anything above and beyond a finish is wildly naive.

“I’m buzzing to be here and I have broken the back of it now.”

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