How CS Santosh is learning to fly

Vaishali Dinakaran  /
05 Jun 2017 13:16:40 IST

CS Santosh has a recurring dream. In it, he's running a race - a one-hundred-metre sprint - with the best runners in the world. At the 50-metre mark he looks to his left and then to his right and realises that all the runners, including him, are in the exact same line. But then he looks down and his legs are moving in slow motion. Santosh says it represents "the only thing in life I'm really afraid of - not living up to my own expectations". In the dream, when he looks down at his feet that refuse to go any faster, he tells me that he sees there's just so much more that he can do, that he hasn't been able to achieve yet….

MERZOUGA RALLY 2017Making leaps and bounds in the right direction, is CS Santosh

I'm standing near the Hero MotoSports Team Rally van during the second stage of the 2017 Merzouga Rally, where team manager Wolfgang "Waffy" Fischer waits along with Santosh's mechanic Boy Olieslagers, and the team's Man Friday and roadbook specialist Jordi Grau. Santosh rides into the refuelling area after having tackled the dunes in the Erg Chebbi and having cleared the first checkpoint for the day. After he's refuelled his motorcycle, he has time for a quick word with the team and a drink of water - he's parched thanks to an airlock in his hydration pack that the team's sorted out now - and then it's back out again. This time to tackle even more navigational challenges, tricky terrain and riverbed crossings. He manages to end the stage 15th. When he rides back into the pits, and takes his helmet off, he's smiling. After all, he's just ridden what he says is the best stage of his international rally-raid career. These smiles have been a long time coming.

"After that first stage, I was so worried man!" Santosh says. He ended the 41km-long first stage 16th. "I was like 'Man! That's a fluke! I don't even know how I finished the stage like that, how I rode, and how I navigated.'" But he was more confident after the results of the second stage. After all, he hit upon the one thing that he'd been striving for - "I'm happy that now, at least, I'm learning," he says.

This learning didn't come easy though, because it required tiny little changes to the way he would think. Santosh needed to go from being completely stressed to putting less pressure on himself and enjoying the riding. But most of all it boiled down to this one thing - "The belief that you can improve," he says. "I don't know; I've been told that I could be dyslexic. That I don't learn in a conventional way," he says. Which meant that it took him a long time to come to terms with the all-important roadbook. But it wasn't just the fact that he wasn't learning as fast as he should have been learning that bothered him. "After I did the Dakar in 2015, I'd go to all these rallies, and I'd see a new face and go to say hello. And there'd be people who'd tell me 'Yeah, this is my first rally' and straight off the back, they'd be fast! They'd pick up the navigation and everything." Factors like that, Santosh says, messed with his mind. But now he's managed to come to terms with it. "I've accepted that I learn in my own time, and I process information differently." It's led to some amount of self-assurance, which seems to be holding him in good stead, for he's come to a fairly simple conclusion - "Eventually I will strike and I will achieve the results that I want. I might just take longer than anyone else, but I'll do it," he says.

ETAPE 2 MERZOUGA RALLY 2017 - ETAPE 2  - 08/05/2017    ASO/ @World/ A VIALATTEOn the second stage of the 2017 Merzouga Rally, a stage that Santosh said was the best of his international rally career

Merzouga Rally Feature (1)And there he is smiling after what he describes as his best stage in his international rally-raid career

Santosh has also had to make the switch from going it alone, to working with a team of professionals. It's part and parcel of moving from being a privateer to being a factory rider. It's helped immensely, he says. "As human beings we should share the load. We're not strong enough to do everything ourselves. So this year I have a lot of people helping me, whether it's a mental coach for conditioning, or my training. I've put my trust in different people in different areas of my life and it's made a drastic difference," he says. This includes professional help in terms of the way he trains, a professionally planned diet suited specifically to his body and his needs as a rally-raid rider, and a mental coach who helps him train and condition his mind. From simple types of training that involves a screen with numbers projected on a wall, which he later has to recall as he's doing multiple reps of a particular exercise, to playing cognitive games. And it's the last thing on the list that Santosh feels he really needs to train hard at. He tells me that years ago, back when he was still riding for the TVS Racing outfit, he'd been invited to dinner at Arvind Pangaonkar's house. Apparently, there were a whole bunch of these cognitive games lying around and everyone was taking turns and having fun. "I was dreading my turn. And I failed miserably. Even back then I thought, this isn't working for me," which is why today he places such an emphasis on getting better at it. All these measures, Santosh says, help him improve his short-term memory. Which is key when one is navigating in a rally-raid.

Back to the Merzouga. I'm standing on top of a hill that overlooks a vast expanse of nothing. In the distance I can see trails of dust being thrown up as the riders make their way across the barren landscape, the motorcycles slowly coming into view. They seem to be taking a rather circuitous path, obviously chasing their next way point, before cutting across the vast tract of land, coming all the way to a small ridge, which, once crossed, will allow them to begin the climb up the rather steep and rocky hill. A few riders go past including Santosh's team-mate, the skilled Portuguese rider Joaquim 'JRod' Rodrigues, with a problem to the motorcycle's cooling system that miraculously doesn't lead to the engine seizing. Then comes a pack of three riders, barrelling across the vast plain. They encounter the ridge, aren't confident of making the jump over it, and so go around. And then they begin their climb up the mountain. Santosh goes whooshing past standing on the footpegs of his Hero Speedbrain 450. And then, he's gone, having disappeared over the other side of the hill.

Later he explains to me that over such a course, he keeps repeating the note from the roadbook out loud in his head. "For example, I keep saying Cap 270 out loud in my helmet." He says he does this for every note, to ensure that he remembers what he's meant to be doing without having to refer to the roadbook multiple times, thus minimising riding mistakes. He's even started paying extra attention to his roadbook. He says that winging it in the past only got him so far, and now to reach the potential that he believes he has, he's been forced to take a more structured approach. "I'm a little rebellious, and I've always disliked the system, but I know that if I want to get to the next level, I need to embrace a systematic approach." In terms of the roadbook, this translates to applying himself to it, and, even though he initially didn't want to do things the way the other chaps did, following the system the guys at the front use - "Not always putting two and two together myself, lots of colour on the roadbook, and a whole lot of information being conveyed to me all at once." It's proven to work so far. At the end of the third stage, even though he's had issues with the remote that controls his roadbook in the first half of the stage, and despite having to contend with a massive sandstorm during the second half of the stage, he's ended 17th. It's put him, for the time being, 15th overall, one position ahead of JRod.

Merzouga Rally Feature (8)Having a team-mate as skilled as motocross and supercross star Joaquim 'JRod' Rodrigues pushes Santosh to do even better, he says

Merzouga Rally Feature (9)Working with a team he likes, this includes team manager Wolfgang Fischer and his mechanic Boy Olieslagers, has made a difference

The improvement that Santosh has managed to make has ensured that he's regularly running with the top 15 or 20 riders. "It's a good place to be, because right now I'm at the tail end of the fast guys," he says. "Those fast guys usually also set good tracks. If you're a little further behind, it can be bad, because the riders after that usually get confused even if there are trails ahead of them, and then they get lost, so there are multiple trails going all over the place." A part of the reason that Santosh believes he's improved is because any rally-raid rider can make massive amounts of gains in terms of both fitness and navigation skills. Natural speed, he says, is something that can't be acquired or improved upon beyond a certain point. But that doesn't daunt him. He cites the example of Juan Carlos "El Chavo" Salvatierra. "Look at Chavo! He rode top 10 at the Dakar. He's not the fastest guy out there, but he still did top 10," Santosh says.

Which brings us to the question of how much the mind controls one's performance during a rally-raid. "It's definitely a mind game," Santosh acknowledges. "Any top athlete will say that winning starts in the mind." He pauses for a little bit. And then the closet philosopher, the part that Santosh says doesn't usually reveal itself unless he's really asked questions, surfaces. "It's so true that you are what your thoughts are. That's really who you are as a person..." he trails off.

Santosh, as anyone who's spoken to him long enough will attest, is a thinking man's racer. He's certainly not the "meathead" (his word, not mine) he'd like one to believe he is. Perhaps cerebral is the word I'm looking for. As I am to discover, this moves far beyond just what he says, to what he does on the motorcycle. And I see this real-world application of what I can only say is a rather analytical mind during the fourth stage of the rally. This time I'm standing atop another steep hill. Instead of a single track that heads straight up, there's a curving path that winds along the incline. It's one of the tougher parts of the stage. So tough in fact that there are experienced Dakar riders, like five-time World Enduro Champion Giovanni Sala, stationed at this part of the track in order to help and encourage amateur riders who might get stuck or take a tumble down the hill. The front of the pack makes it through cleanly. JRod chooses not to go the long way around, instead just pins the throttle and powers straight up the hill, cutting across all the paths, leaving spectators gaping in awe. More motorcycles arrive, more riders begin to falter and fall down. The track is dug up pretty badly, which means the following riders are having a harder and harder time climbing the hill.

ETAPE 3 MERZOUGA RALLY 2017 - ETAPE 3  - 09/05/2017 ASO/ @World/ A VIALATTEHere's Yamaha's Xavier de Soultrait who leapt to victory at the 2017 Merzouga Rally. It's going to be a while before the two Hero riders can challenge him. For now, JRod's a lot closer to it than Santosh is

Merzouga Rally Feature (7)CS says he needs Arjuna's focus and determination in order to get where he wants to go. Hence he's got him on his helmet too!

When Santosh arrives, he pauses, sees the motorcycle ahead of him struggling up the hill. And stops for a moment to think. "When I saw him getting stuck there, I just knew that he must be doing something wrong. And to get stuck there is a waste of energy and it upsets the rhythm you have going," he says. "I thought it's better to see what he's doing and not do that!" Santosh makes it up the side of the hill, sticking to the trail, without getting stuck once. At the top of the hill, he sees Jordi and shakes his head at him in disbelief as if to say "Can you believe they just made us climb that?" and then continues right on riding. He ends the stage, despite a navigational error immediately after that hill climb that costs him 20 minutes, in 20th position.

The marathon stage of every rally really is the hardest part. It means that riders need to service their motorcycles themselves at the marathon bivouac. At the Merzouga, riders had to deal with a sandstorm that blew their tents away, which meant they needed to sleep in the catering tents. For Santosh there's been the added challenge of having to deal with a broken swingarm bolt, which team-mate JRod, and Honda rider Mena Oriol help him fix. He ends the stage 39th, which puts him 18th overall. But the bike's home safe, and all set for the final 50km motocross-style dash to the finish. And it's bringing the bike back home safe to the team that puts so much faith in him that's also quite important.

The faith that the Hero MotoSports Team Rally outfit has in Santosh helps him ride the way he wants to. He says that Hero MotoCorp's chief technical officer, Dr Markus Braunsperger, keeps telling him that there's no pressure on him at all. "Wolfgang says the same thing. I sense that he'd like me to get to the next level, but they still never put pressure on me. I put the pressure on my own shoulders," he laughs. But he's also quick to admit that perhaps pushing himself too hard, the wrong way, led to poor performances, the likes of which he's hoping to avoid this year. It helps that he likes the team he's working with now. "Waffy is one of the best team managers in the world, and I keep thinking that I need to make him proud. Even on the stages I kept telling myself, 'You need to finish this stage. At least on one stage you need to make him proud.'"

Merzouga Rally Feature (3)Here's a rather tame photo of JRod making his way over some dunes. At other stages in the rally, he fearlessly pinned the throttle and climbed terrifyingly steep inclines all in one go. He's quietly confident that he's going to be able to make his mark in the world of off-road racing. But his first aim, he says, is to always just finish

It's a far cry from the time that Santosh just rode for himself, and by himself. Back when he was a privateer, when he first came up with the tagline "Chasing rainbows". It's what he says he called chasing after dreams where there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But he did it anyway. "Although I felt miserable and hopeless that the scene wasn't going anywhere in India, I knew somewhere deep inside that I'd be the guy to do something about it," he says. I'm slightly surprised by how sure he is of himself when he says this. It's unlike the quieter, soft-spoken version of CS that we encounter so often. "I knew somewhere, that I'd do something worth remembering. I knew that much," he repeats.

In that sense he's proven to be a positive person? "Yes, I'd say I am a positive person. But I need to be more positive," Santosh tells me. "I need to focus on what I want to do and not on what I don't want to do." He gives me a quick example. If he goes out into a rally thinking, "Oh god, I hope I navigate well, and I don't crash," then he's likely to crash. Instead he's made a subtle change to the way he thinks. "Now I go out thinking, I hope I ride fast and navigate well," eliminating all negativity. It's leading to better results.
But humble chap that he is, Santosh also believes that he's been incredibly lucky. The opportunities that he has today, getting to be a factory rider with Hero MotoSports Team Rally, he says "have been manufactured purely because I've been at the right place at the right time". But isn't it more to do with his intense self-belief? The same self-belief that caused him to go put his money where his mouth was and contest two Dakars as a privateer? He half agrees. "Luck is just luck if you don't take advantage of it," Santosh says, admitting that he's made the most of every opportunity that's come his way. But, like he's told me before, CS Santosh has always believed in something higher. A little something called destiny. "I've always told people that I believe in fate. I believe in destiny. And I believe that life gives you signs. It's what I've used to convince my parents over the years. I'd always tell them 'I believe that I'm destined to do something with my life and to be somebody.'" Once again I bring up the fact that more than destiny, it's probably his grit and determination that's done it. "Yeah, but it's also signs from the Universe," he says. "I get signs from the Universe every day." He tells me that on the very last stage of the rally, when he had a "huuuuuuuge crash", the only reason that things didn't end right there for him was simply because it wasn't his time. "I walked away from it. It was a sign," he says.

At the end of the 2017 Merzouga Rally, mad dash to the finish line, spectacular crash aside, Santosh manages to finish the rally 17th. He's happy with his progress. The team's happy to have both motorcycles finish the event, with JRod making it to the top 10 thanks to a ninth-place finish.

After the rally, and after a 30-odd-hour journey home, Santosh's just caught up on some sleep before talking to me. Now that the rally's behind him, he is philosophical. "Life is what you make of it," he tells me. "It's really as simple as that." And it's what he's learned in a very long career in motorsport. Given where Santosh began (bicycling up and down trails near his house many years ago) to being the only Indian to complete the Dakar Rally (twice that too), it's hard to argue with him. He's made his own trails, followed his own path, and reached, somewhere close to where he intends to be. And he's done it keeping in mind the three things that are the most important to him in life. The first, he says, is passion. "It's important to have a passion for life, and for living. To do the things that excite you." The second, he says, is to surround yourself with good people. "As athletes we can be oblivious to the way the world works. But as a person first, and then as an athlete, it's important to know how the world works. So I surround myself with people who know a lot more than I do. It's always been my philosophy in life to be able to learn as much as I can from anybody." The third, he says, is a good challenge. "Challenge yourself, because life is far too short not to." Three rather sound principles to live by, then.

MERZOUGA RALLY 2017Here Santosh is seen dealing with the all-important roadbook. It's taken him a while, but he's getting there

Santosh goes on to tell me that for him life boils down to finding a reason to live and making use of your talents. "If I'd been born in the 17th century, I'd probably have been an explorer of some sort," he laughs. It's at this point that he lets me in on who his heroes really are. "I love history. I read a lot about it. So like Alexander the Great and Ashoka the Great, I want to try and leave my name behind in stone," he says. It's for this reason that he's got Arjuna painted onto his helmet - the focus and determination of Arjuna is what he believes he needs in order to make use of his talents fully. He also tells me that life, at its very essence, is an eternal quest to change for the better. "Life is about evolving. About being the best version of yourself. If my best version is top 20 in the Dakar, then that's all that I want to achieve." And what happens once he achieves that? He paraphrases Abhinav Bindra saying, "When you're at the summit, you can see other peaks." Closet philosopher. I told you.

But there's another dream. "In Muhammad Ali's autobiography, he talks about a recurring dream that he had. And in this dream he was always able to fly." Santosh stops for a little bit. And then says, "In order to achieve some greatness like those guys did…." His voice trails off. He doesn't finish that sentence. But I get the sense that everything that Santosh does today is in order to ensure that those legs that won't move in his own dream will transform into the wings of flight from Ali's dream. There's no better way to go chasing rainbows. And maybe, just maybe, there's a pot of gold waiting for him on the other side of that rainbow after all.

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