The first Greek woman motorcycle rider to enter the Dakar Rally
Polytimi Kyriakopoulou is the Greek motorcycle rider who is getting ready to compete in the 2020 Dakar Rally, one of the toughest motorsport events in the world, held every year since 1979 in some of the most inhospitable areas on Earth. The early years, it started from Paris and crossed Europe, heading to Africa, and was called “Paris-Dakar Rally”, while in recent years it is called simply the Dakar Rally.
The motorcycle has always been not only a mean of transport for Polytimi Kyriakopoulou, but a special love and a different way of life. From age 16, as a student of the 1st grade of Lyceum, she had a small Honda C50 motorcycle with which she went everywhere at a time when it was quite rare for a girl to ride a motorcycle. She wanted it very much and her father was receptive, so instead of riding her friends’ motorcycles, she bought her own, got her driving license, always wore a helmet, and was riding carefully in the streets of Athens.
In the following years, she studied Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and later alongside her career and motherhood, the motorcycle was still always present in her life. As stated in an interview, “The bike gives you this feeling of freedom that is not exchanged, whether you are in town or countryside, or in a race or mountain ride with friends”, highlighting the ability of the machine to give transport to places that are not easily reached otherwise.
In 2006, she acquired a BMW 1200 GS which was not suitable for what she needed. She learned to ride it, and at some point she was informed about a one-day trail ride, and decided to take part. “What I liked, is that I was riding with a map. I was looking for the correct route and that had its own charm”, says Ms. Kyriakopoulou.
About ten years ago she entered her first race with her own motorcycle. Participating in rallies is a matter that requires time for preparation as well as money for team building and its travel expenses, and of course financial support from sponsors. The cost for a long and famous rally like Dakar is big, since only the cost of participation is several thousand euros.
Polytimi Kyriakopoulou has three motorcycles in garage, each with different engine capacities, but the prominent position belongs to her Husqvarna, on which is mounted the roadbook, the navigation guide that riders read in the race, and on which she highlights with a different color the left and right turns, in order to quickly understand where to turn when riding her bike. That’s to prevent the rider from losing the way, because if she is lost, at best she will realize it after five to ten kilometers and she will have to turn back, thus losing valuable time.
A rally is mainly a race of endurance. Because there are many days and hours of driving daily, it is important to complete the race. With harsh terrains like stone, dirt and cliffs, Polytimi Kyriakopoulou has a lot of experience, as they are quite common in the Greek landscape. In the desert it is all much more difficult, one can not ride in a straight line in the sand dunes. But it’s a very nice feeling, almost like skiing on snowy mountain slopes.
Navigation in the desert is also different. The rider drives by using degrees (angles) and with secret control points that if he misses them, the penalties on the scoring are very strict. In the wilderness one must have a continuous flow, have the throttle open, because when the motorcycle stops, it gets stuck in the sand. At the same time the rider has to do the navigation and when he has no experience, it is not easy.
On 10 March 2018, she managed to finish in the Tuareg Rally 2018, after 7 days and 25,000 km of riding in the Moroccan desert, rocky soils, steep passages, tall or less tall dunes, fast special stages, rivers or dry beds, cold, strong wind and unbearable heat. The conditions were difficult, but once again they did not beat Polytimi Kyriakopoulou.
“In 2009 I went out for the first time outside of Greece, I went to Bulgaria without knowing what I was going to meet. It was an unprecedented and unique experience and from then on I continued to do so, especially with navigation races. Now I participate when I can in enduro races, because they also help training for a rally”, says Ms. Kyriakopoulou.
When she started participating in rallies, her four daughters had grown up. “I have my job and my family, so finding time to improve racing on a motorcycle is something quite difficult. To be able to take part in a rally takes time to prepare yourself and the motorcycle. It presses me, but I do not want to leave it. If I stop it, I’m sure I will lose something that I love and that gives me energy. I spend half a day on the mountain and “I charge my batteries” for a month”, says Ms. Kyriakopoulou.
Her family supports her very much. It is worth mentioning that her great daughter followed her mother’s footsteps and rides an Enduro 125cc motorcycle. “I know they are worried. In the last argument I had with my girls they were angry because I had been injured the previous time. But they like it and admire it. If they did not support me, I could not do it because it is very special and difficult”, the Greek rider adds.
The motorcycle, and especially its racing world, is a purely man-dominated area. Women who are involved in motorcycle racing are very few. In Greece, she is the only woman who enters motorcycle rallies, and there are two or three other women who are racing on off-road riding. Nevertheless, they never faced a problem with the opposite sex. Always male athletes support them and are positive with them because they understand how difficult it is and respect their efforts and dedication.
In the question she sometimes receives, if she is afraid, she answers that riding a motorcycle in Athens is much more dangerous than what she does in rallies. “You’re even more exposed, do not wear knee and chest protection and special boots, and the dangers are bigger from the mistakes of other drivers. “Eventually, when you want something, you find the way. Obviously and I’m afraid, but the joy that I have done one night every night is an indescribable thing”, she says.
The five biggest difficulties of the Dakar Rally are the tedious preparation for such a great rally, the loneliness and devotion to the goal you set, the long hours of riding every day for many consecutive days, the demanding terrain, and especially riding on the sand dunes. The worst scenario that everyone is struggling with in such a demanding rally is an injury that will force her to quit her effort. Her goal is to concentrate on riding and navigating, with strength to end each day and to be a winner. She is also confessed she often speaks to herself inside her helmet.
“The speed and feeling of freedom I feel every time I ride my bike fills me with energy and strength. It is perhaps my own version of “living dangerously”. My friend, coach and great supporter, Thanasis Chountras, insists that only when someone really believes in himself and his forces, he will be able to accomplish his goal. I try and make it a reality especially in the difficulties and adversities that are presented to me”, says Ms. Kyriakopoulou.
The Greek rider Polytimi Kyriakopoulou has scheduled two major challenges for 2019, the Merzouga Rally and the Morocco Desert Challenge as part of her preparation for the 2020 Dakar Rally. She will be the first Greek woman to participate in the Dakar rally and she is filled with great emotions and pride.
The 10th “Merzouga Rally” is an event taking place in the Moroccan desert and one of its special stages is part of the Dakar Rally. The “Morocco Desert Challenge” tests the strengths of drivers in the difficult desert conditions, while at the same time they are fighting against the clock, chasing the best time. Polytimi Kyriakopoulou, who participates in both races in the Rally Pro category, is preparing herself with the invaluable experience of the Tuareg Rally and the Libya Rally from 2018.