My life in bikes: Sam Sunderland

Published: 06 January 2016

Official KTM rally rider and Britain’s best chance of winning future Dakars reflects on a lot of ups and downs

n elite rally rider, Sam Sunderland was 2015 runner-up in the FIM Cross Country World Championship, won the final round of the series, then suffered a sickening crash that put him out of this year’s Dakar.

‘I just used to go flat out until I crashed’

How did you get into bikes?
My next-door neighbour ran the local scrambling club, and he’d seen me always outside the front of the house riding my BMX and he asked if I wanted to have a ride. The first time out I crashed through a hedge, but was totally hooked. I then began a campaign to try and get my Mum and Dad to buy me a bike, and eventually they bought me a PW80. It had three gears but there wasn’t a class for it so I couldn’t actually race.

Starting young
85cc Kawasaki
‘I crashed seven times in one race’

When was your first race?
In 1997 I got a Kawasaki KX60 – I can remember it now, it was a great day and I was really happy. I started racing in local events. I was 10 years old and they were cool times. I used to crash an awful lot and I can remember one race when I was on an 85cc Kawasaki that I crashed seven times and still won! I used to be very fast, but crash a lot – I guess the problem is that not much has changed. I just used to go absolutely flat-out until I crashed, get back on and do the same over and over. Once I finally figured out how to stay on I started winning. My Mum and Dad worked their arses off for me to be able to go racing, but they couldn’t afford to be travelling every weekend so I ended up just doing local events.

Who was you hero?
Jeremy McGrath, his nickname was ‘Showtime’, and I just loved watching him ride. 

How did you come to live in Dubai?
My uncle lived in Dubai and I went out to see him for a holiday. From the moment I got there I saw how much riding there was and how easy it would be to get to races – so I just packed my bags and moved there. And I’ve been there for five years now.

Do you even have a road licence?
Up until I wanted to do some rallies I had no need to take my bike test, I only ever rode off road. But then I entered the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, so I had to take it. The test here is different to the UK and there are 30 mandatory lessons you have to take that cover things like riding in a figure of eight. I only did about six and luckily got a guy to sign it off. The only other guys taking the test were guys from India and Pakistan who wanted to be couriers in Dubai. We were made to do an emergency stop but they hadn’t been taught how to do it. The first guy crashed and left a big pool of fuel on the ground and then one after the other the next guys crashed on the fuel. It was pretty funny to start with, but the instructor was going to let them just carry on crashing but I got pissed off and ended up going mental at the instructor and he finally stopped it.

Dream Bike
KTM 450RR
‘I already have my dream bike’

What’s your dream bike?
In many ways I already ride my dream bike because I’ve got a factory KTM 450RR Dakar bike. But if I was to ride on the road I think it would be an RC8. I saw one at a showroom in Dubai with a full Akrapovic – burbling away.

What’s your big ambition?
To win Dakar. But I don’t just want to win one. I’m only 26, so I could beat the record (Stephane Peterhansel has six Dakar motorbike victories). I want to be the top guy in the sport. The crash I had in Mezouga was unfortunate. Before that I’d just won my first World Championship Rally and was leading Mezouga. I got caught out by something that wasn’t marked on the road book, but up until that point I felt totally in control. 


Photos: KTM Images