Next week, Australian Andrew Houlihan will tackle the biggest challenge of his short enduro riding career when he takes on the biggest of them all – Dakar – which this year takes place in Saudi Arabia.
The Albury rider has overcome some amazing obstacles just to make the show.
Speedcafe.com is a proud sponsor of Houlihan in this year’s Dakar and is featuring his incredible story in a five-part feature series.
Houlihan will also provide a ‘daily diary’ during this year’s event from January 3-15 as part of its extensive coverage presented by KTM and BFGoodrich.
CLICK HERE for Part 2
The plan for Andrew Houlihan to compete in the Dakar Rally in 2021, often considered to be the toughest motorsport event in the world, was hatched while he was still recovering from the massive injuries he received in the 2018 Hellas Rally.
The race schedule for the next two years had been mapped out, Houlihan had committed to the plan, and 2019 was his comeback year. It had to go well for him to be ready for Dakar.
There was only one small problem – Houlihan hadn’t been back on a bike yet.
That didn’t happen until January 2019 and the first event in the plan was the Hispania Rally in Spain in March.
He’d also been told by some of his medical team that his recovery could take several years.
Andrew had lost almost 20kg and his body was depleted. He went to see Ben Greenwood from 100 Percent Strength, himself an ex professional offroad racer, for help with his rehabilitation.
“Ben got me back back in shape. I’m pretty good, I can be given something to do and I’ll do it at home,” he said.
“So, I just concentrated on the rehab, exercise, getting my limbs moving again. And then, I had a ride in January and just started riding more.”
When he arrived in Spain for Hispania, he was still far from being in peak health, but was motivated by his determination to be ready for Dakar in 2021 and, he says, he was also missing everyone.
“We got hooked! Because of the support we got, we just missed everyone. And I thought, what a better way to get back on the bike,” said Houlihan.
Andrew was joined in Spain by fellow Australian Michael Burgess, who will also be competing in the 2021 Dakar Rally.
The Hispania Rally was tough for Houlihan but the outcome was good.
Competing for the first time on a new Sherco 450 he had purchased in Switzerland, Houlihan got a bit more comfortable with navigation and finished sixth in the Veterans’ class.
The next event was due to be the Tuareg Rally in Algeria, just one week after the end of Hispania. It was a pretty ambitious plan considering Hispania was Houlihan’s first event back from injury and only his second ever international rally.
But elections and a big presidential uproar in Algeria raised massive security concerns and on the last day of the Hispania Rally the team owner, Hernan Samaniego, decided to pull out of Tuareg and go to Morocco for a couple of weeks instead.
Houlihan’s wife Katie flew back to Australia, and Michael and Andrew went to Morocco to get some training in the sand dunes, something they had never been able to do before.
And it only took a couple of days before disaster struck, but this time it wasn’t Houlihan.
“I remember Hernan giving us this big lecture on safety, and how bad an African hospital was going to be compared to the Greek one I was in,” recalled Houlihan.
“So Michael, Hernan and I headed off into the dunes with Pablo and a couple of other guys that day and within an hour Hernan had come over a dune and snapped both his wrists!”
While Hernan was off to Zurich for surgery Houlihan stayed and did some navigation training that, even though he had already competed in two rallies, gave him his first real insight into how to read a road book.
Houlihan now felt that he was able to push it to the next level. That next level though, meant a return to the Hellas Rally in Greece where it had all gone wrong just 12 months before.
Unfortunately, just like the year before, Hellas took its toll.
Houlihan had injured his right knee before leaving for Greece, and his surgeon advised him that he needed a knee replacement, but he was committed to the event.
He actually turned up to Hellas in 2019 on crutches and, like most racers would, threw them away and raced anyway.
This time he was concentrating more on his navigation rather than speed, and by day three he was sitting in 14th position in the pro class until…
“I got caught in a ball of dust and hit a rock the size of a small car”, Houlihan recalls.
“I broke my ribs and punctured my lung again just like the year before!”
Houlihan rode about 150km back to the bivouac with his injuries, able to use only one arm for most of the ride. Katie then drove him to the hospital in Karpenissi.
Fortunately, the injuries were nowhere near as bad as the previous year, and rather than being confined to a hospital, he was able to spend two weeks in a hotel in Athens while he recovered enough to fly home.
Once back in Australia, there was an anxious wait for four weeks while his lung recovered enough to allow him to go to into surgery for a knee replacement.
Time was getting critical now; it was May and he was scheduled to race in the Pan Africa Rally and Rallye Du Maroc in September.
And prior to competing in the Pan Africa Rally Houlihan had also agreed to do some training in Morocco with Dakar legend Gerard Farrés.
Competing in those two rallies was critical for Houlihan to qualify for Dakar in 2021.
Based on his recovery time from his left knee replacement, the surgical team figured it was probably achievable.
But a lot was now hanging on Houlihan’s ability to recover from yet another major surgery.
TOMORROW: If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. The preparations continue