Photos: Ishaan Bhataiya, Justin Coffey, Rally Zone
THE ROAD TO DAKAR
We first met Skyler Howes back in 2018 while he was on course to win the Baja Rally. Since then, Skyler has made quite a name for himself in the world of Rally Raid and is currently preparing for his third consecutive Dakar. We caught up with Skyler to find out more about what he has been up to.
Upshift: We met you in the fall of 2018 at the Baja Rally. A lot has happened in your Rally career since then. Can you give us a bit of an update?
Skyler Howes: Yeah, my first rally ever was the 2018 Sonora Rally. I had only ridden a couple of road books up to then. Winning Sonora gave me free entry to Dakar, and I needed to practice more. So I signed up for Baja Rally. I struggled a bit but was able to win which was pretty cool. That was kind of the start of everything that led to Dakar 2019 in Peru.
I landed in Lima with the flu. I couldn’t go out or do anything for the first three days of the rally. I was really weak and my mind was just not in it. I made a ton of mistakes. Then on day three, as soon as I started feeling better, I was on the liaison and a kid turned in front of me on a scooter. Basically, to avoid hitting him, I hit the brakes and slammed into the ground, separating my shoulder. I was able to pop it back in and head into the bivouac. They said nothing was broken, so I was able to continue. I made it all the way until day six. Actually, the next two days were my best finishes. I almost won a stage with the separated shoulder. On day six, I had another little crash in the dunes that re-separated it, and this time it wouldn’t go back in. I tried to ride the first 50 kilometers of the stage one-handed but the dunes were so big. I got to a dune that literally the top pros weren’t able to make it up. They were sitting there trying to make it up this dune three or four different times. I was like, yeah, there’s no way I’m going to do that one-armed. So on day six I had to retire. I was super bummed out about that because in my mind I thought that was going to be the only opportunity I ever had to race Dakar.
Luckily, Garrett Poucher saw some potential there, so he really put some support behind me. In 2019, I did Sonora again, finishing second behind Ricky Brabec. Then I entered all of the Best in Desert events including Vegas to Reno. I raced all of them solo and won the open pro championship.
Last year I went to the Morocco Desert Challenge and was able to win there. That was an eight-day rally through Africa and my first World Rally win. I flew over to Greece to race in the Serres Rally. I was competing against Stefan Svitko. We had a pretty intense battle going on, so the pace was super high. We had a lot of rain and I swung it wide around a corner, fell into a rain rut, and had a pretty severe crash. I knew immediately that I had broken my neck.
I worked my way out of the mountains and went down to the hospital. They told me, “Yeah, yeah, it’s no problem. Yeah, your neck is broken, but it’s a stable fracture. You’re going to be fine, just wear your neck brace and don’t do anything stupid.” I was like, okay, cool. A week and a half goes by, and I get back to the States and I go to my doctor who said I needed new scans. Within a couple hours of getting the scans, he sent me a text, and said, “Hey, don’t move! You need to go see this spine specialist right away.” That’s never a good thing to hear.
My doctor told me that my C6 was missing a few pieces. Basically, my vertebrae was just sitting there floating on the disk. There was nothing actually stabilizing the vertebrae in place. Knowing that spine surgery is a pretty hard recovery, I asked, “What can I do to avoid surgery?” He said, “No matter what you do, those bones are displaced. It’s going to be physically impossible for you to heal and for that vertebrae to ever be solid in there again. You could literally have a small get-off or get rear-ended, and then it’s game over.”
This was at the end of September. The doctor asked me when I could have surgery. I had to get this done, I had Dakar in January. The doctor set it up for 9:00am the next day. They fused my C5, C6, and C7 with a plate and six screws. This was three months before Dakar. I spent pretty much all three months not doing anything, just fully recovering, doing a bunch of hyperbaric chamber therapy, trying to heal as quickly as possible. After three months off, I had one week of riding and training and boarded a flight to Saudi Arabia. Yeah. It was pretty wild.
Upshift: How did Dakar 2020 go?
Skyler Howes: We worked with Klymciw Racing again. A team out of the Czech Republic. I didn’t know them, but Angelo Vlcek had worked with them in the past. He actually messaged me on Facebook and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you have anyone that you’re using for support, but use Klymciw. They have a proper rally bike, spare parts, the mechanic is good, and a solid truck.”
Upshift: Right. You did 2019 with that Klymciw Racing as well?
Skyler Howes: Yeah, ‘19 and ‘20 both with Klymciw. Also, Greece and Morocco Desert Challenge. The Klymciw bike was a properly built rally bike but not like the factory bikes. It was a production bike straight off the showroom floor kitted out and my graphics installed. It still had the plastic protection on the cases. I only had about 20 minutes on the bike for shakedown. I made a few clicker adjustments, but I didn’t really know enough about the bike or the way it’s supposed to feel to make the changes needed.
So I didn’t really change anything and hopped right into the first stage of Dakar on a completely stock bike. For 2020, I was starting 59th. It was super dusty, had a ton of people in front of me, and that day I ended up finishing 18th then just kind of kept going up from there. Went from 18th to 11th, 11th into the top 10. Technically, I only had one top 10 stage finish because right when I was finishing the best is when I started having mechanical issues.
I broke the swingarm pivot bolt twice. That normally never happens. Where the swingarm slides in between the frame and the motor, I guess the swingarm was a little too narrow and when the pivot bolt was torqued to spec, it flexed the frame adding a ton of extra tension. On top of that, the suspension was so soft that when I launched off of dunes or took any big hits, the stress would just sheer off the ends of the bolt, then it would back out.
Luckily, the first one happened towards the end of the stage. I had to ride less than 100 kilometers, so it wasn’t terrible. But the next one happened around 100 kilometers into the stage, which isn’t even halfway to the gas check. That was a long day. It was our biggest dune day, and that was the longest, toughest day at Dakar for me. It was pretty brutal. I had a pretty bad crash because of it. It flexed so much that it broke all of the motor mounts. The only thing actually holding the motor in the bike was the exhaust bolts and the air filter boot. I had hit a dune hard enough that it flexed the motor and shut the bike off. It caused a pretty serious crash that day. It was pretty challenging.
Upshift: I’m sure getting to meet the team and spend time with those guys helps a lot, too.
Skyler Howes: Yeah, exactly. To kind of get warmed up before you come into a stressful race or whatever is really nice. We know better how to communicate with each other and how to work together. It was really beneficial to go over there and do that and learn from everyone. We operate super well together. Bart is an amazing dude and Luke, his main mechanic and partner who helps out with everything is awesome. Their team is a tight, well oiled program. I’m super excited for it.
Upshift: And Dakar is January this year?
Skyler Howes: Yeah. This year, everyone is required to do a two day quarantine as soon as they get to Saudi Arabia. The biggest problem for me is there’s no direct flights. I think I’m going to have to leave just before Christmas. I’ll fly to Dubai first, then I’ll go to Saudi Arabia. I’ll get tested for COVID before I get on the flight. Once I get into Saudi Arabia I have to do a two day quarantine then immediately go take another test. You have to have both those tests negative before they’ll let you in.
Upshift: Can you tell us about the challenges of putting a Dakar program together, especially for an American rider?
Skyler Howes: Yeah. It’s especially tough for Americans in general. Because it’s not something that’s a popular sport yet in the U.S. which I’m hoping is changing, because it’s so fun to watch, and it’s really fun to race. I hope a lot more people get involved and start competing or at least just race rally because it’s so much fun. American companies really don’t know about Dakar so trying to find support from sponsors is super difficult because the American companies just don’t really know the reach Dakar has. Trying to get helmets or graphics or logo spots and all that kind of stuff filled, in return for actual funding, which is paying the bills type of thing, is really very difficult.
Getting sponsors has been tough. I was selling T-shirts and selling spots, basically if people were donating money, I’d put their first and last name on my race bike. It’s pretty small, but just to kind of keep everyone involved. They can see their actual name on the race bike and things like that. That’s one thing I did differently that helped a lot this year, people got pretty excited about that stuff. Then I did two different fundraisers. I did a raffle and a silent auction with kind of a ride day.
Then I did another adventure ride of 500 miles on the high desert in California over to Pahrump, Nevada and back, which was really fun. Between all of that, I was able to come up with a good bit of money. After all that I started crunching all the numbers and I still had to sell every bike I own. I was able to get my rally bike after Peru shipped over to the States to sell. I have four Hondas saved from our rally and Baja racing.
Basically sell everything I own besides my trials bike and my mountain bike. Luckily, Bart was able to introduce me to a couple companies out there in Holland that has stepped up, so the Bas Truck Company stepped up, they’re my title sponsor this year, which is super helpful. I have a handful of sponsors that have been able to step up financially. But no matter what I still have to sell EVERYTHING when I come home.
Upshift: That’s gnarly, man.
Skyler Howes: Yeah. I kept wondering, okay, I didn’t get any factory support. I’m literally selling everything I own to do it. Is it all worth it? Every single person I’ve talked to is like, dude, you can’t stop now. You’re this close. It’s one of those things, you don’t ever want to look back and say, what if I didn’t keep going? What could’ve happened?
I’ve come this far, I have to give it everything I possibly have. I am training as hard as I can, but I’m also still working and handling all of my preparation by myself. Luckily, I’m paying for the service that handles all of my logistics which there’s no way I’d be able to do all of that and race on my own.
Upshift: Were you able to get that fixed and finish the stage?
Skyler Howes: Yeah. I had to ride all the way in with it broken, but I got it back into the bivouac. The Factory KTM mechanics came over and looked the bike over. I told them it was the second time in two days this had happened and I was lucky to have even finished. They did me a solid and went through everything, replaced all the parts that needed to be replaced and really took care of me and made sure I was able to finish.
Overall, with all these problems, I lost about an hour and a half of time, which would’ve put me really close to the top six. The broken swingarm bolts actually took me from 8th place back down to 9th place. I had a pretty solid spot in 8th. Then with losing all that time, it dropped me back down to 9th.
My top speed was super limited. I couldn’t go very fast. The bike was falling apart. There was a stage where I lost 15 minutes, I think. I was slower than the fastest guy just because my bike didn’t go fast enough. It had nothing to do with navigation or skill because it was just fully lake beds the whole time, just valleys. I was pretty frustrated. I was just behind Toby Price when we came into a gas check. I was barely able to pull 145 kilometers an hour. I asked Toby, “Dude, what was your top speed?” He clicked through and said, “It was 182.” That’s the difference, Toby hitting 182 and me hitting 145; roughly a 40 kilometer an hour difference.
The last stage was a pretty short one, and I was pushing it really hard and focusing too much on the tracks in front of me rather than navigating. All the split times had me leading the stage. I wasn’t paying attention to my compass heading, and the tracks I was following missed a waypoint, so I had to go back and get it. This all gave me a lot more confidence. I know I have what it takes to go out and win stages and race properly.
That was the last stage, so I finished 9th overall. First overall privateer, first place in the amateur division and the super production divisions. I think the next privateer was in 13th place. I think it was Rodney from Australia. But yeah, definitely the only privateer in the top 10.
Since then, I’ve been struggling with finding support. I thought, yeah get a top 10 overall at Dakar and I’m going to get factory support. It will happen now, every other American that’s done this has had factory support behind them. Now’s the time!
After Dakar people said, “Yeah, you need to talk to this person and this person.” I tried to email them and made phone calls and left messages and never got a response from anyone. It was just kind of a gut check after doing so well. I thought this might be my last hope with getting any type of factory support. The Honda team was full and KTM had a full roster. Yamaha was the only team that kind of had a spot open. I’m sitting there trying to get a hold of everyone I can, just to get my foot in the door. Then I see the Yamaha press release announcing Andrew Short and Ross Branch. I’m like, man, this is it. There’s nothing for me. I was pretty bummed out, and kind of down on myself.
Then Bart Van Der Velden, from Holland who owns the Bas Dakar KTM team called me about 2021 and was like, “Hey man, having you on our team shows that even though we’re providing a service, the service is good enough to win stages and finish top 10 overall.” I was like, “Okay yeah. But at the end of the day, I’m really proud of the 9th that I got but I don’t want to go back and do the same thing. In order to do that, I just want to make sure I’m on proper equipment.”
Speed won’t be such a huge deal this year. I know they’re trying to slow down the pace a lot. The motor wasn’t a huge deal. But the biggest thing was suspension and parts failing. I told Bart, I don’t want to go back if it’s going to be on a stock rental bike again. He’s like, “No, we can make sure we build proper suspension for you.” And they’ve figured out a lot of the other stuff so parts failures can come down to a minimum.
I was lucky enough to be able to get over to Spain during the pandemic. It wasn’t really good testing, no dunes and not really in the desert. It’s mostly just farm roads. But to get on the bike and be able to hit some ditches, realize what the bike is going to do at speed and get comfortable on it. After a week of racing, I got to train with Jordi Viladoms up near Barcelona for a week at his Viladoms Rally Station School. After that, we drove back to Holland, and I got to ride for a week in Holland on the rally bike. I got almost a full month of training on the setup that I’ll be racing at Dakar which is a huge bonus.
Upshift: With Ricky Brabec and Casey Currie doing well at Dakar, did that seem like it helped at all for US based racers?
Skyler Howes: It definitely helped with individual people. I sold a ton of T-shirts and had a ton of support on my own with fundraising. One small business recently helped me out. This guy Will who I met in Greece owns a little coffee shop in New York. He made this coffee and he called it the Skyler Howes Full Tilt Roast. He only sent me a couple bags of it just to be like, “Here you go, here’s something cool.”
When I posted it on my site he got a ton of phone calls, “Hey where do we buy this?” He’s only been doing his own online sales since March with about 100 orders. In the last few days, he’s shipped close to 60 bags of the Skyler Howes Full Tilt Roast. That’s the type of support that I’m getting. With Casey Currie and Ricky Brabec winning, it’s brought more attention to Dakar and reaching enthusiasts that are getting really excited about the race. It’s been kind of incredible, the people that have given me money.
Now to see my own finishes and to get on TV to do an interview, rather than just riding is a big plus. People are able to kind of put a face to it and be involved, and that’s a big reason why I put everyone’s name on the bike is to keep everyone involved. Yeah. I think individual people in general are way more excited, rather than companies at this point.
Upshift: It’s such an inspiring story. Kudos to you for putting it all out there on the line for this. It’s pretty gnarly.
Skyler Howes: Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely been a lot of work, for sure. But like I said, I can’t stop. I’ve got to keep going.