CS Santosh: Desert Phoenix

Three years after his near-fatal crash at the Dakar Rally, Bengaluru-based enduro motorcycle racer CS Santosh reflects on his unfinished business with Dakar, the road to recovery and lots more
In frame: CS Santosh
In frame: CS Santosh

Avast expanse of sand as far as the eye can see, and a silence that is only shattered by occasional sounds of motorcycles tearing across the dunes. The Dakar Rally isn’t merely a race; it’s a raw test of survival in the most unforgiving of places. Riders, one with their machines striving to conquer the brutal yet awe-inspiring desert. Motion is their mantra. Stillness is disaster.

Just a few minutes before two fellow Dakar competitors found Bengaluru-based CS Santosh lying unconscious – with no pulse or heartbeat and his motorcycle on its side a few metres away – he had struck a rock, camouflaged by the sand, at high speed. It was stage four of the 2021 Dakar Rally. The then 37-year-old sustained head trauma and a dislocated right shoulder and was kept in a medically induced coma in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, before being flown back to Bengaluru.

Having become the first Indian to finish the Dakar in 2015, 2021 was supposed to be a highlight of the 40-year-old’s career. “It was shaping up to be my best year yet. I’d been training hard, for years, putting in everything I needed to perform at my best. Finally, all that hard work paid off, and I felt ready to hit my goal of being in the top 20 in my field. But, as life would have it, things didn’t go as planned,” reflects Santosh, who, having been on a road to recovery for the past three years, feels he is ready to take on the gruelling race once again.

“The Dakar Rally was more than just a race for me; it was a way to express myself. People have many different ways to express themselves, I find my true expression on a motorcycle. That’s the core reason I’m drawn back to Dakar. Returning to Dakar is not just about the race; it’s about fulfilling a personal vision and continuing a journey that’s deeply meaningful to me. My journey was interrupted in 2021, and my main focus now is to complete it,” he says.

Meanwhile, the accident in 2021 did more than just sideline Santosh from the tracks, stripping him of several years of memories. “The thing is that I was not a human being after the crash. A lot of things which make us human, things we take for granted, like balance or the body’s natural chemical processes, became obstacles I had to overcome,” he shares, adding, “I remember 2015, my first Dakar; I remember that we lost Paulo [Gonçalves in 2020], one of my teammates and an incredible human being. I also remember a lot of memories from the past, but nothing from the last four-five years. Nothing. I don’t remember the crash, I don’t even remember three or four Dakar(s).”

An alumni of St Joseph’s Boys High School, Santosh’s love for motorcycling blossomed during his college days. “Even as a student, I had a thirst for adventure. Back then, I was inspired by what I saw on the Discovery Channel. I aspired to work with the World Wildlife Fund and also harboured ambitions of becoming an airline pilot. Despite these varied interests, adventure was always at the core of what I wanted. However, I never fully realised these potentials until I found a motorcycle in college. That’s when I discovered that my true calling was the adventure that motorcycling offered. It wasn’t about winning or being on the podium; it was about the thrill of the ride,” he shares.

As he prepares for his return to Dakar in 2025, Santosh reflects on the importance of completing his journey. “This completion is my top priority at the moment,” he asserts. “There’s something unspoken, something I still need to share, and once I’ve done that, I can move on to the next chapter of my life.”

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