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Mirjam Pol rode the Dakar no less than 10 times. Twice in Africa, five times in South America and in January she will be at the start in Saudi Arabia for the third time. In doing so, she is the only lady in the world who has managed to finish the rally on a motorcycle on all three continents. In this interview we take a look at her 10 years of participation in the Dakar.
Q1) What almost no one knows is that the Dakar rally always starts with "the letter''. Would you like to explain that and can you remember your first one?
"Yes, traditionally the registration opened on June 1 and not registering immediately that day - in 2006 it was still just filling out papers manually and sending them by registered mail, now of course by mail - then you were already too late. Because Dakar Participation is a selection.
Back then, I thought it was 'first come, first served'. Now you really have to meet all kinds of requirements and also demonstrate a certain 'driving level' before the organization will consider your admission. There has always been a limited number of places, varying from year to year, but you are never 100% sure of your participation and admission until you receive 'the letter'.
And that first letter I really remember very well. I was studying and living in rooms in Groningen at the time and I got a call asking if I had received 'the letter'. Almost everyone on my team had already received it. At that moment there was nobody at home in Borne and I had to know if the letter was on my doormat. It was Thursday and on Friday I would go home again anyway, but still I couldn't wait that one day. I got in the car at about eight in the evening and drove home (2 hour drive). And ... I had "the letter! And I had been admitted! I turned around after 15 minutes and drove back to Groningen because I had class the next day. In the evening I called my brother and mother and of course my team. I have been accepted, I am going to DAKAR. My adrenaline level was so high that I didn't sleep a wink that night."
And then now? Of course, I have so much more experience now and have become so much more mature and professional. But I still learn new things every year! It doesn't matter how long you have been competing as long as you are open to it.
But completing the Dakar is not something that can be taken for granted. Dakar has its own laws and you still need that last, little bit of luck. When you go full throttle over a small hill and the rear end just skims past a rock. Or when you see that one small ditch in time. And I could list a thousand and one more examples.
The biggest difference between then and now is; back then no one expected me to finish it, now everyone expects me to finish it. And sometimes that bothers me. Then I think 'hey, I can just drop out too'.
Someone once said: 'Your bad luck is that you always do well and that it looks easy to you. Sometimes you get off your bike after an 800 kilometer ride and then it looks like you have just ridden for an hour. That gives a distorted picture and therefore a lot of people don't see how difficult it really is'. I am 'expected' to finish Dakar just like that every year.
The biggest difference between then and now is; in 2006 and 2007 I came for the adventure, now I come for the achievement. I prefer to ride a very boring rally from start to finish, in which I experience nothing special. Because then I have a very good Dakar. But like it or not, you always get the adventure."
Q2) In 2006 you drove your first Dakar in Africa, then you drove several editions in South America and today the rally is organized in Saudi Arabia. 2023 will be your tenth participation, it's almost incomparable but can you remember how you entered your first Dakar and how you entered the rally today?
"Haha, yes that's really no comparison. That wonderful open-mindedness in 2006. I had really prepared super well in my own way, but the fact is, you really have no idea what all awaits you. How long the days can be. How big the desert is. How dark the night. And how tired the body is.
But, I fell in love with the rally and the desert; That challenge. That exhaustion. Asking the utmost of yourself. Meeting yourself a hundred times in one day. No idea where to go or for how long. But you see tracks and it's not dark yet, so just 'keep driving stupidly'. It automatically ends somewhere.
One of my most special memories from my first Dakar in 2006 is "the flashing light. These days I don't have to deal with it, but my first Dakar....
At the finish of the special, the organization always puts up a meter-high pole topped by an orange flashing light. And then when, in the dark, after 14, 16, or even more than 18 hours of driving, you get that light in sight, that's a feeling, I can't explain it....
Q3) What achievement are you personally most proud of?
"Here you might expect the following answer; that I am the first Dutch lady ever to ride the Dakar by motorcycle and at my first participation I was only 22 years old and just graduated. And that I am the only lady in the world who has participated by motorcycle on all three continents (Africa, South America and Asia) and managed to finish the rally. These are accomplishments that are written about with some regularity and are seen as something special.
But for me personally it is not so much those achievements. Every Dakar special things happen that I can look back on 'successfully or not' with pride. Good placings, helping other riders along the way, crossing a dune where at first you think 'this can never be done', driving an almost faultless rally, finishing a rally with a lot of setbacks, and so on. The 'everyday' Dakar stuff so to speak."
Q4) Okay, but if you have to pick out one specific achievement? What do you personally see as your greatest achievement?
"In that case; that I'm still there after so many years, and also at this level. Every year it goes 'a step harder and every year I can keep up with that. It's really not so much one specific achievement, but more the whole process. The development I've gone through. I have literally and figuratively grown up in Dakar. Not only as an athlete, but also as a human being. And that's definitely something I'm proud of. I know that when it really matters I will be there.
As Allard Kalff once beautifully put it, 'that girl from 2006 has become a tough woman that many men can relate to'. I'm proud of that."
Q5) Do you regret anything where the Dakar is concerned?
"No, strangely enough not, looking back I can only conclude what a lucky person I am that I ever ended up in this world. The only thing I do find and have always found difficult is that eternal feeling that I am selling so many people in my immediate circle. Dakar requires not only a lot of time and energy from me, but also from a lot of people around me. My family, friends, trainer, sponsors, everyone who helps me with advice and support, contribute in their own way to my achievement and I always have the idea that I can't do enough for them in return and therefore fall short. That may not be a 'regret,' but it is the first thing that comes to mind here."
Q6) People sometimes wonder: do you know where your boundary is? And have you encountered it, do you think?
"Oy, that's a good one. I don't know that actually, if I've already encountered it? I don't think so yet actually. I've never had to give up. In 2010 I did get pulled out of the rally by a doctor, but even then I wasn't done with it myself - but just to be clear, sometimes you need to be protected from yourself too - I do understand his decision, even though I didn't agree with it. So no, I don't think I know where that line is and I'd rather not know. As far as I'm concerned; let it all work out, then I don't have to encounter that boundary either."
Q7) What do you find most difficult when it comes to participating in Dakar?
"Getting to the start. That eternal struggle to get to the start and that always comes at the expense of your performance in the end. I am as good as the preconditions I can create for myself.
I am very, very grateful to everything and everyone around me who supports me in any way. I always say, when I'm at the start of Dakar I've had the hardest part, then all I have to do is ride it out."
Q8) Where do you still get that drive? How do you manage to keep this up for so long?
"Oh that's very easy. I do love a sporting challenge and Dakar is of course my great passion. I get up with it and go to bed with it. I am very aware that there are very few people who know how to create the opportunity for themselves to be able and allowed to be at the start line in Dakar.
And my first Dakar in Africa, it ended up being so magical. I entered every day in the dark, every day with damage, every day last of my team. And none of that mattered to me, because hey, I was there again, right? I had just made it through another day. Ticked off and on to the next one. What an experience that was. When I look back at how I rode then and how I ride now, I often wonder how I was able to finish the Dakar at all. I didn't have the driving skills or experience to do that. But... 'I was living the dream' and flew through the Dakar on a big pink cloud. And that is still not much different now. Of course I am very different, but I still realize how special it is at this level, with the best in the world, to be able to take on this challenge, the toughest rally in the world.
What also motivates me is the question 'how can I do even better?' Day in and day out I am working on that. I am convinced that you are never 'done' learning and developing yourself and the material. And despite all my experience - or maybe because of it - that mindset still makes me better every year.
And when things really take a turn for the worse, because of course it's never all roses, I always have all these great people around me who know how to help and motivate me."
Q9) According to yourself, what is your biggest weakness? And your strongest point?
"Phoe, I do have more of those shortcomings. But I only get to choose one thing out of both? And it has to be about Dakar right?
Then I still go for my sales skills, or lack thereof. Now I hear people thinking 'what does that have to do with Dakar?' Well, a lot, because I depend on sponsors.
I have had teammates who could sell themselves as world champions and couldn't make a dent in a packet of butter. But they did manage to get people loyal that way and also got their budget, and more, much faster. I am perhaps too modest in this respect. Literally and figuratively a 'too' down-to-earth Tukker. I don't think what I do is special, I don't promise golden mountains and certainly not things I can't deliver. All I can say is; just look at my past. That still doesn't guarantee the future but it shows a very good and strong pattern.
My strongest point is my mental disposition. I have great perseverance and relativity and can keep calm where necessary, all super qualities for Dakar. And I know by now that when I have a hard time on the road that my competitors have an even harder time. Nevertheless, I have sometimes been in situations where I thought 'this is impossible' or 'this is not going to work out'. But you have to be able to deal with that.
I prefer my days to be as hard and difficult as possible. There are a lot of riders who can ride motorcycles just fine, but how do you perform when you don't know where you sit anymore? Your competitor is hounding you all day? You get a technical problem? You are in a dune section that seems to have no end? You forgot something important like refueling, food or warm clothes due to fatigue? Under pressure or when you are in trouble, do you still make the right decisions and choices? That's my thing and that's what I'm strong at. And I can guarantee you, in Dakar everything always goes a little differently than you think and would like.
The days where the wheat is separated from the chaff, those are my days. If it's easy, anyone can do it."
Q10) And, last but not least, what's next?
"Yeah, huh huh, so I like that question! More and more I get the question: when do I think of quitting? And then I think; why quit?
I feel like I'm just getting started. Last year I became World Champion for the first time, so in that respect I am a late bloomer. But I've really just managed to make great strides in the last few years. I'm so much better now than, say, 5 years ago and I'm still getting better and stronger every year.
Of course I have the next Dakar back on my sights in January 2023. In addition, I am now still in the middle of the World Cup Baja season where I am the defending champion. The final of this will be run in Dubai in December. And even in the World Cross-Country Rally Championship I still have a chance to win the world title.
So... I'm far from done with it and hope to keep you guys entertained with my Dakar adventures for many more years as well while you're glued to the tube!"