Dream Racer Interview: Christophe Barriere

MotorcycleUSA Staff | May 14, 2015
Christophe Barriere-Varju has raced the Dakar Rally four times as a privateer, twice in Africa and twice in South America. His journey is the subject of the award-winning film, Dream Racer. The movie won best Sports Film Documentary Award in Los Angeles, the Best Human Values and Sport Award in Barcelona, Mention d’Honneur Award in Italy, and finished runner-up in New Delhi in front of SENNA. Dream Racer documents the almost insurmountable obstacles that were stacked against Christophe. The race wasn’t the only challenge as just getting there came with its own difficulties. The movie demonstrates what heights a driven man can rise to and dares viewers to chase their own dreams. 

After reviewing the movie, we thought what better way to get insight about the African and South American versions of the Dakar Rally than someone who has competed in both? We got a chance to talk to Christophe about differences between the two, about what it is like competing in the epic race, and about the making of Dream Racer. Below is a short synopsis of the movie he provided.

For the first time in a feature length film, Dream Racer shows the legendary Dakar Rally in its purest form – no sponsors, no multi-million dollar team, not even a mechanic – just one rider, a motorbike, a film maker and the world’s most dangerous motor race. Far more than just a motorbike movie, Dream Racer is a call to arms for anyone who has ever dreamt of doing anything – a spine tingling antidote to the fear of life passing you by unfulfilled.

Dream Racer Interview with Christophe Barriere-Varju

MotoUSA: What made you decide to tackle Dakar after your hiatus from riding competitively?

After living in the United States for nine years I moved to Australia for work in late 1999, I think it was the first time in a very long time a motocross bike was not parked in my garage. After a couple of years settling in Australia, I got myself a Honda CR250 and started training and racing local motocross races. But after so many years of racing I couldn’t get excited in racing six laps and waiting “half day” for the next moto so when I started my own consulting business I just did some fun riding with friends. The problem when you are a racer, is that you want to challenge yourself — and I was missing those days. I wanted something harder than racing six laps. In May 2004, on my birthday I set myself a challenge – “I will race the 2005 Dakar Rally” – just like that, without much thought into it. Apart from not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I wanted to make a film but the cost was prohibitive. That year, whilst I was chasing potential sponsors I received an email from ASO (the organization) saying that for the first time in the history of the Dakar Rally they had too many entrants and just three weeks after the entries opened, they closed them, and I was out. I wasn’t sure whether to be upset or happy but I made the most of it and still travelled to Africa and followed some of the stages, talking to as many racers as possible, trying to get as much information as I could to prepare for the following year. In hindsight, it was the smartest thing to do.

MotoUSA: Did you still ride motorcycles (street or recreational) during that time?

Yes, I had my street bike, the mighty V-Max that I brought with me from my early days living in San Diego. That V-Max followed me everywhere (LOL), that bike does not turn or brake very well but that powerful torque is unique.

MotoUSA: Do you still own that V-Max?

Yes I do, there is something with me and motorbikes, I get so emotionally attached to them that I can never sell them. I have not used it in a while but I see it every day, and there is that unspoken connection between us! Just as an aside story, I sold my African Dakar bike a few years ago, the buyer sent me the money and was supposed to come pick it up three weeks later. The Dakar bike was in the living room (where it should be right?), every day she was staring at me almost like saying “are you really sending me to another home?” – A week before the buyer came to pick her up, I called him back and said “Sorry mate, I can’t do it.” I sent him the money back and kept the bike. I raced it again in the 2009 Dakar and now she moved up the ranks and has her own bedroom in the house. Things they make you do hey?

MotoUSA: Which is tougher – the original Dakar or the South American version?

I get asked that question a lot during my speaking engagements. They are both very different animals so I will touch on a few key points and let the readers be the judge.

In South America, the difficulties come from the extreme temperature both hot and cold, as well as the altitude and lack of oxygen. Daylight during that time of the year is longer and you can pretty much see until 9 p.m. The ‘new’ Dakar days are still long days but the road sections are longer, and the stages shorter in distance with slower speed and more slow speed-type terrains. There are people pretty much anywhere to give you a hand and the nearest freeway is never that far away, and they have cold drinks and food. The new Dakar brings with it modern bivouacs, there are toilets, hot showers, concrete facilities most of the time, and now they allow motor homes as the assistance vehicles no longer need to be 4×4. There are good hospitals in South America, not far away.

In Africa, the moment you left Europe you had to think about everything including the amount of soap and toilet paper you needed to bring with you. Assistance vehicles had to be 4×4 as they mostly travelled on dirt and sand. It was hard work for the crew trying to sleep while bouncing around in the trucks. The stages were long and the liaison was most of the times as difficult as the special stage. The average speeds were faster, the bikes were much bigger, we could go on 600 km without refuel and did not have the mandatory 250 km before refuels. Once you entered the desert in Africa, you really had the feeling of being minuscule, as there was nothing around, a.b.s.o.l.u.t.e.l.y nothing! In comparison, Chile is only 400 miles wide at its widest part so you can’t really get lost. Nights were coming in fast, 6:30 p.m. and it is getting dark. But probably the reason why the new Dakar racers never ventured in Africa was perhaps because the closest good hospital was in Europe…this instills fear in your spine just thinking about it in case you have a bad crash.

Which is hardest, you be the judge!

MotoUSA: How do European/African crowds rate versus the South American’s who seem to openly love and embrace the race?

South Americans are sports fanatics. Kids, parents, grand-parents, great grand-parents, everyone is there, it’s a family affair. It does not matter who you are, whether you are a racer or a crew member, you will feel like a hero in South America and be on a high for two weeks signing autographs on everything, including all kinds of body parts. When you cross a crowded area, you think twice about stopping because before you know it, babies will end up on your lap with the one-toothed grandmother wanting a photo. Once you do that, you will see entire crowds running toward you and you just can’t drive off anymore.

Africa has a different feeling, when we crossed remote villages, you would see these kids’ eyes, many had never seen white people before, let alone a motorbike. These eye contacts are magic. In the bigger towns, kids and adults wanted gifts, t-shirts as mementos. I remembered during the day of rest in Mauritania, some young girls came and asked if they could wash our gears. I grew up in Africa so to me it came naturally to say yes. She took the dirty gears away and my Australian mechanic thought I better say good bye to them. Five hours later they came back, all clean and folded, ready for the second week of racing. Sometimes you have to learn to trust and what’s on TV is not to be taken for granted. Africa is a magic continent and I feel very secure racing there.

MotoUSA: What bike did you compete on specifically? (Was it one of Cyril Despres’ bikes?)

It was not Cyril’s bike, I had his fuel tank though. The bike is very unique and only a dozen were ever made, all hand-built. A true work of art. These bikes were the true factory bikes that the likes of Despres, Casteu, Viladoms and Chris Blais raced while the traditional 660 was sold to other racers. When the new 690 came out, KTM asked each of their factory racers to return their bike, and KTM crushed every single one of them. This one survived somehow. When KTM sold the bike I had reserved, and because I have helped their factory racers out of stages in the past, they let me buy it, including whatever unique parts they still had for this bike. This is the best rally bike I ever sat on, it’s no wonder factory racers make it look so easy on good equipment.

MotoUSA: How come you couldn’t compete on the motorcycle you trained on?

My African Dakar bike was having all sorts of motor issues. This could have been fixed by getting parts from Europe but because everything was last minute, I had no time to ship it from Australia to South America, and doing it by plane there was a small issue — the wallet was empty.

MotoUSA: Serving as your own mechanic after riding all day is insane. How’d you pull it off with so little rest every night?

These are definitely long days. To race the Dakar is difficult enough, but to wrench each night does not leave much time to sleep. You have to be strategic about your maintenance schedule based on the type of terrains, length of days, kilometers travelled, and whether to attack or be more conservative on the bike. You can’t mess up this strategy too much when you go at it all alone, you have to remember the bigger picture, and that is to make it to the finish without too many casualties. During training you need to simulate the lack of sleep, learn to sleep faster and concentrate on that four hours of good sleep. It is not easy when it is hot outside and generators are running all night long.

MotoUSA: Even with your limited physical preparation, you seemed to get stronger as the race went on. What contributed to your resolve?

I guess the advantage of having raced for 30 years is that you know your body very well. I also used some specific training techniques I learned from my trainer Jean-Noel Dubus back during my racing days in West Africa and was able to best alternate cardio and weights while ensuring that my body had time to recover. It was an intense single month training for the Dakar but I made sure that I was not depleting myself too much and risking injuries before the actual race. If you pay attention to my physical appearance between the start of my training in Dream Racer and look at me at start of the race, you see a different person, slimmer, more stamina…I wish we could have put all this in Dream Racer but that would be a film in itself. My training continued during the first week of the Dakar, again using the same techniques of ensuring I was not depleting myself. A lot of it has to do with breathing techniques, riding style using very little effort, and mentally maintaining a total focus on the few things one has to do during a race day. In Dream Racer, there is Christophe the laid back, joker person, but you will notice that person is totally different at 3 a.m. when the helmet goes on. You look at those eyes and you know that the racer entered the body, at that time nothing else exists.

MotoUSA: The stage in the dunes almost did you in. Was that the biggest physical and mental challenge of your life?

This was hard and left me with 2 1/2 years of injuries but I might surprise you by saying no, this wasn’t the biggest physical and mental challenge of my life. For me it was in 2006 while racing the Sertoes Rally in Brazil. On Day 2 I ate a piece of bread with some cheese at a petrol station and caught food poisoning. I was unable to eat or drink anything for four days, racing at crazy hot temperature. One of these days I was on the bike for 21 hours vomiting every 30 minutes in my helmet finishing at 2 a.m. having ridden all night without light (never worked). The following day I started to swallow my own tongue and the medical helicopter gave me fluids so that I could go on. I lost 18 pounds in these four days and the doctors nicknamed me the ‘Mutan’ — they could not understand how I managed to get through and continue for another six days … all I wanted was finish the race I started.

MotoUSA: Would you ever do Dakar again?


MotoUSA: After conquering a challenge like Dakar, what’s next? Everest? The Ironman Triathalon? Do you still feel the need to find new life challenges?

We sold the film to Discovery World, Fox, and through the sales of DVDs, Blu-Rays and VOD, Dream Racer awareness has now reached 145 countries in the world! Not too bad for a non-hollywood production. My next challenge is to compete in the 2016 Dakar Rally in a single-seater buggy, without a co-pilot. But I am going to spice it up and try something no one has even attempted before. I want to race and be my own mechanic each night. Someone has to try. This is a bit more complicated than racing a motorbike and I need sponsors and partners to come along Dream Racer II: The Next Adventure. They can contact me through the website and seeing what we have achieved with Dream Racer they should want to be part of this.

MotoUSA: What year was Dream Racer shot (2010 I believe)?

Yes, the story was shot in 2010, but the year is irrelevant, it is not a recap of the 2010 event at all, there are YouTube videos for this. Dream Racer is a timeless story about chasing dreams. The fact that it is the toughest, hardest motorsport event in the world is also irrelevant – it is just the vehicle we used to convey the message “It’s at the edge of who you are that you learn who you can be.” Dream Racer will be there for many years to come having a positive impact on viewers. You have no idea how many messages I have received from people, some of them don’t even like motorbikes, from women, kids…Dream Racer touches you at the human core and leaves you with that question “What is it that you have done in your life that makes you say ‘YES’ I am happy to have lived such a life.” When you think about it, this applies to all of us. It is also the ONLY Dakar related film that has won any award in the entire history of the famous race!

MotoUSA: Do you and Simon still keep in touch?

Yes, we keep in touch. We don’t live in the same cities so we don’t see each other very much, and I know Dream Racer had an impact on Simon as well. Can you imagine, his first-ever film being nominated seven times and winning four awards in Los Angeles, Barcelona, New Delhi, and Barcelona? That’s a big win for him and Adrian Barac, the mad editor that took 300 hours of footage from various different formats and created a seamless 93-minute masterpiece. Let’s not forget the composer Matteo Zingales who created every piece of music from scratch. It was a massive undertaking and they should be very proud of Dream Racer.

MotoUSA: Are you the stubbornest person you know?

That is a tough call, I think my Labrador dog ‘Bisou’ beats me…she seems to always win 😉

(Watch the movie and you’ll understand this question!)

You can watch Dream Racer on Video on Demand for only $6.95 at http://dreamracer.tv/video-on-demand.html
Be sure to read our Dream Racer – Dakar Movie Review, too!