Sand as far as the eye can see. The same beige colour that extends endlessly, no matter which direction you turn your head. It's disorienting. There's only one solitary object that stands out in the entire landscape. The only splash of colour that sticks out like a mirage in the desert. It's a rider astride his motorcycle. And he's lost. Utterly and completely. The wind has already swept away the tracks that he had made to get up to that spot. A sense of fear grips him. But he knows that there's only one way to get out of this. Twist his wrist. Pin the throttle. And just keep on riding. Just another day in the life of cross country rallyist, CS Santosh, then.
Rewind a decade or more. There's a young lad pedalling away furiously on his bicycle. The only thing that's on his mind is that he needs to take the corner faster. He needs to get over this four-foot jump and then tackle a five-foot jump. He needs to push the limits - both his own and that of his bicycle. The bruises and broken bones along the way simply don't matter.
It all came from my thirst for adventure," says Santosh of the reason he started out with motorcycles and off-road riding. When all he had was a bicycle, he'd go to Palace Grounds in Bangalore and tackle every slope or trail he could find, flying off crests and over slope after slope. Then, when he was given a motorcycle to make the daily commute to college easier, it added some more speed and power to his off-road exploits. He remembers spending weekends looking for dry lake beds, empty grounds, and off-road trails wherever it was that he could find them, all so that he could improve his riding skill. The turning point for Santosh, that moment when it changed from being a hobby to a career path, was probably when he saw a Supercross event at Palace Grounds. The next day in the papers I read all about the rider, Vijay Kumar, who had won the race and it looked like he was going places. And I thought to myself that I'd like to do that too."
Once that decision was made, there was simply no stopping him. A more intense practice routine followed and, with the confidence of youth, he would call the TVS Racing factory every single day, asking if they'd give him a chance. Persistence, as it so often does, paid off. He was informed of a Supercross event in Hyderabad where there would be TVS Racing scouts present, and if he performed adequately well, then he'd possibly get snapped up. At that event of the National Dirt Track Championship, he finished second. Enough to get him noticed. He was then invited down to the TVS factory for a test. We were told to just ride around for two days, no pressure, and they'd evaluate our performance. Of course there was pressure! But I did okay and then started out with the TVS Racing Team."
What's interesting, though, is Santosh's thought process after winning his first championship in 2005. This wasn't enough," that's what went through his mind, which is why he set his sights on racing abroad. The first experience racing abroad was overwhelming, though. It's only when you go there you realise that they're on a whole new level," he says. But other than the feeling of being mildly intimidated, there was this need to go out there and prove himself. He competed in the Asian Motocross Championship in the Philippines, finishing tenth the first time around. The results got better after that, with a best result of fourth place on an off-road Suzuki. But there was still the knowledge that he needed to grow more, learn more and be better.
As luck would have it, TVS brought down an Australian rider to train the team. After something of a friendship struck up between Santosh and the rider, he was invited down to Australia to train with him. The days went by. One day Santosh caught a flight, alighted on Australian soil, and made a telephone call that essentially said, Hey, here I am, you said I could come and train with you." Given that the man he was speaking to was considerably sozzled at the point, owing to the fact that he was at a party, and evidently had no recollection of who Santosh was, things were a little interesting. Six hours later, though, someone came by the airport to get him. It was a further two days before said instructor came by to fetch him from his friend's house, and then put him onto Daniel McCoy. Fortunately for Santosh, it was, the real McCoy, so to speak, and he spent weeks training with him, learning the nuances of off-road riding.
But, if there's one thing we've learned about CS Santosh, his sights always appear to be set on the next thing. The jumps have to get bigger, the falls scarier and the ride just that much more exhilarating. I was always being told that you weren't a true rider if you hadn't done the Raid de Himalaya," he says. And so, in 2012 he decided to get on a bike and tackle the most awe-inspiring rally that we have in the country. I'll never forget the very first stage of the Raid. They flagged us off and I took a right-hander. And then I remember looking to my left and seeing the steepest drop I had ever seen. It was at least one or two kilometres steep and that's when the magnitude of the Raid struck me." He won the event in his very first attempt. The World Cross Country Rally Championship was the next logical step for the rider - he'd tackled dirt trails, he'd tackled the mountains, the treacherous desert sands needed to be tamed too.
I went into the first round with no testing," he says of his first attempt to tackle the dunes. It was May 2013 and he was riding a Suzuki at the grueling race. Things were looking alright, he was slowly gaining an understanding of the art of navigation, of reading the soil conditions, of the sport that is cross country riding. And then he crashed. It was easily the worst crash of his career. Exploding fuel tanks, flames, third-degree burns. It meant he couldn't venture out into the sun for three whole months. Maybe that only made the desire to go out there and win at the Cross Country Rally Championship even stronger.
There's just so much uncertainty in cross country rallying. You're in that moment when you're just responding to that motorcycle. There's nothing else out there and it's beautiful," he says. Needless to say, with that philosophy in mind, the training for 2014 was even more intense and he was going to compete in the event astride a factory-supported KTM. Other than the fact that he believes he has his fitness pretty much under control, from the sheer exercise that off road riding is, to running in the woods and generally ensuring that he has what it takes to be a world class athlete, there was more to do. Four days of just riding in the dunes in Dubai - to help him get a hang of navigation and also so that he could get faster and better at riding on the sand - ensued. It paid off. The first round of the championship at Abu Dhabi saw him finish tenth of 36 competitors. He followed this up with eighth place in Qatar, a rally that is often acknowledged as one of the toughest navigation events in the world. The learning curve has been steep. It wasn't easy. I was riding easily 150km more than everyone else, over those stages that averaged 300km a day, in any case, simply because I was lost. But I slowly understood how it works," says the rider. I learned to get into the rhythm of riding those distances without making mistakes or getting lost."
Santosh then decided to sit out the third round of the WCCRC at Egypt due to political unrest. The fact that his finances didn't permit him to do the following rounds in Italy and Brazil also was something of a blow. But CS Santosh isn't one to be bogged down with negativity. He's training hard for the final round of the championship at Morocco between the 3rd and 9th of October. Everyone who is competing in the Dakar will be at this event, it's sort of a precursor to the Dakar," he declares. Which also points rather obviously to the fact that that's what he's aiming for next. But for now, that's all the information we can get out of him.
There's more than the 30-year old rider has to offer the world of motorcycling though. I wanted to get rid of the fear that people have when riding off-road. I wanted to exorcise those demons," he says. Which is why he started Big Rock Motopark - a mix of trails of varying levels in Kolar near Bangalore. All you have to do, if you want to learn the skills needed for off-road riding, is send Santosh an email and he'll arrange for you to come down to Big Rock and learn all there is to learn, after assessing the your skills as a rider, of course.