Sun, Jan 04, 2009 - Page 19 News List

Thousands gather ahead of historic Dakar Rally

AP , BUENOS AIRES

KTM rider Marc Coma of Spain smiles during a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday.

PHOTO: AP

Hundreds of thousands of people overwhelmed the center of Buenos Aires on Friday to see the 500 vehicles competing in the first Dakar Rally in South America.

After 80,000 people watched the scrutineering on Thursday, rally organizers expected 500,000 to cram the parade route past the Obelisk in Plaza de Republica and along Avenida 9 de Julio, said to be the world’s widest avenue.

The vehicles headed to a park in Palermo suburb, where the rally will officially begin on Saturday with a 733km stage south to Santa Rosa in the Pampas.

The 30th Dakar — and the first outside Africa — features 177 cars, 217 motorcycles, 81 trucks and 25 quad bikes with drivers from 49 countries.

After 14 stages and 9,574km, it will finish on Jan. 18 back in Buenos Aires.

“I expect to suffer,” said Cyril Despres of France, the defending motorbike champion. “The race is never easy, especially when you want to win it. All the ingredients are there to make this challenge particularly hard: The heat, the length of the stages, and the altitude.”

After crossing the Pampas, the rally heads into Patagonia, arrives at the Andes on Thursday, drives into Chile the following day, cruises up alongside the Pacific for five days including a loop in the Atacama Desert, then heads back to the start.

“There will be surprises every day,” said Stephane Peterhansel, who has won nine Dakars; three in a car, including the last, and six on a motorcycle.

Last year’s race was canceled because of the possibility of terrorist attacks in Mauritania.

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