Exclusive: Daniel Milner, Unplugged
In 2017, Daniel Milner returned to Australia after two frustrating seasons in America, signed on with KTM, and smoked everyone. In an unprecedented clean-sweep of all 10 rounds of the Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC), the 26-year-old Victorian notched up his second Outright AORC title, plus he won the Hattah Desert Race for good measure.
But with the AORC’s 2016 champ, Daniel Sanders, back from Europe, Pro motocrossers joining the off-road pit paddock, and lots of smack-talk in the lead-up to the 2018 AORC’s kick-off on March 10, how is Daniel “Doogs” Milner feeling about his title defence? How does he go about managing his Type 1 diabetes? What records does he have in his sights? How does he like his race bike to be set up? Why does he feel he’s got unfinished business in America? And is the Dakar Rally on the radar for him?
Well, read on because Daniel Milner speaks candidly about all these questions and more…
TM: There’s a reason you rarely hear ‘endurance athlete’ and ‘diabetes’ in the same sentence. So tell us how you’ve managed the disease.
DM: Unlike Type 2 diabetes, Type 1 diabetes is a disease that people get at a young age and can’t ever be ‘cured’. Your pancreas stops working properly, which means your body doesn’t produce insulin. And without insulin, your body can’t regulate its blood sugar levels. As a result, I need to inject myself with insulin four times a day, and I need to be very careful with what I eat to ensure my sugar levels don’t spike one way or another.
As an athlete, what’s the major risk for you with Type 1 diabetes?
When I was first diagnosed at age 12, my blood sugar level was 45, whereas a normal person is four to five on the same scale. It got to the point where I was almost in a coma. But if I’m down around normal people’s sugar levels, that’s too low for me. I’ve never had a really bad ‘sugar-low’, which is called a “hypo”, but that can cause you to lose consciousness. That’s what they make the Epipen for. The hard thing is maintaining my blood sugar around the six or seven mark, especially when I’m racing. When you’re doing a lot of physical work, you don’t need to give yourself as much insulin because your body’s already burning off energy and sugar. So before a three-hour cross-country race, I try to get my levels up to around 10 to 15, plus I run a really sugary drink – like a Prima Juice – in one of the two bladders I use in my hydration pack, in case my levels drop too low.
How do you know when your blood sugar is dropping too low?
In that 6HD doco video that came out recently, there’s footage of me tapping my arm with a little concealed needle to test my blood sugar levels. That set-up is easier than pricking your finger to test the blood. But in the three-hour races, I now run a more advanced tester. Basically, I insert a tiny needle into the fat stores near my belly button, and that’s got a bluetooth connection to a digital monitor that’s mounted on my bike’s bar pad. This little machine lets me check my levels during a race, plus it’s got arrows to let me know at a glance whether my levels are stable or going up or down. I’ve gotten better at feeling my sugar levels over the years, but if my levels got too low, it was too late; my body was already almost going into shock. And I found it hard to distinguish between being fatigued and having my levels drop too low. So starting to use that little machine was a huge help for me in managing my levels during long races. I first used it a few years ago in America, and it gave me a lot more confidence to focus on my riding, rather that feeling through my body whether my levels were too high or too low.
Sounds like fly-by-wire blood sugar telemetry!
Well, I don’t have live read-outs of my engine oil temps, so I guess you could call it telemetry [laughs]. It’s a pretty cool machine, but it costs about $3000 all up, and I’ve already lost a few of the $900 needle inserts when I’ve crashed.
“I insert a tiny needle into the fat stores near my belly button, and that’s got a bluetooth connection to a digital monitor that’s mounted on my bike’s bar pad and displays my blood sugar levels.”
AORC vs A4DE vs DESERT RACING…
Injuries or racing overseas have meant that you and Toby Price, and you and Daniel Sanders, have not gone head-to-head in the AORC for an entire season for several years. But with Sanders back for 2018, you will be racing a former AORC champion.
That’s right. When I won the AORC in 2013, Toby had the neck injury. Then in 2014, I was leading the AORC after Round 3 until I crashed and busted my ankle while training, and Toby went on to win that one. Then when Price and Daniel Sanders won the AORC in 2015 and 2016, I was racing in America. And last season, Price focused on desert racing and Sanders was racing the World EnduroGP in Europe. So you’re right; there hasn’t been a real showdown of the AORC champ for a few seasons now. Me and Sanders did get to race each other at the 2015 and 2016 Aussie 4-Day Enduro, where I got the better of him. Twice [laughs]!
In 2013, you were the first guy to win the AORC Outright title on a 250. Last year, you were the first to clean-sweep the AORC series. But what would a third Outright AORC title mean for you in 2018?
I actually think it would mean more to me than the first two. Matching AJ Roberts and Toby Price – who are the only guys to win three Outrights at the AORC – would be pretty cool. Plus, it would mean a lot to win with Daniel Sanders back. In fact, there’s been a lot of smack-talk ahead of the season, so that’s always a motivating force for me. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about the ‘triple crown’ – being the first guy to win the E1, E2 and E3 classes at the AORC.
Who’s the smack-talk coming from?
Y’know, same as always [laughs]; you hear stuff around the traps and see it on social media. Seriously though, there are a lot of fast guys, and a lot of guys who are getting faster. It’s going to be a really fun and competitive year. I like the challenge, and I like the fact that KTM is paying me to win, not just to race up near the front.
How do you compare your four A4DE titles with your AORC successes?
They’re two different events and special for different reasons. I am really looking forward to racing the 40th anniversary of the 4-Day back at its birthplace of Cessnock in April. I think that’s shaping up to be a special event. When Mathias Bellino beat me for the 4-Day’s Outright win in 2016 at Mansfield, that put an end to any chance of me equaling Shane Watts’ five A4DE wins in the trot, but I can still match – and hopefully better – Wattsy’s record of six 4-Day wins. That one’s been in my sights for a while. I kinda like records [laughs].
And how did last year’s Hattah Desert Race win rate?
It was my first Hattah win, so it rates right up there for sure. I hadn’t raced Hattah since 2012 because my Yamaha team didn’t include Hattah in their program due to the injury risk. When I joined KTM last year, I knew they were big on desert racing, and I knew they had the best bikes on the market for races such as Hattah and Finke.
Finke is a very different animal; a specialist type of race. So is that on your radar?
Last year, I went out there to check it out and rode up and back to Finke. I really like the whole idea of it – the speeds and the style of the race – because I grew up doing a lot of pig hunting in the Outback and riding very similar terrain. That said, when I pre-ran the track, it wasn’t at race pace. It’s a huge event in Australia and I’d really like to race it. Unfortunately, KTM had already signed two riders for this year’s Finke – Toby Price and David Walsh –who both know pretty much every bump on that track. I’d definitely like to do it some day, but I realise it’d take a big effort to get up to speed and not get my arse kicked.
“Winning my third AORC title would mean more to me than the first two. All the smack-talk ahead of the season has been a motivating force. And I’d like to be the first guy to win the AORC’s E1, E2 and E3 classes.”
Seeing as you’ve raced Japanese bikes for many years, how difficult was it to adapt to the KTM’s PDS shock with no rising-rate linkage?
The biggest thing was actually getting on a whole new bike. I didn’t know what to expect, so I wasn’t only focused on the differences with the shock absorber. I did struggle for the first few weeks on the KTM, but as soon as we moved to the Dunlop tyres – which I’ve always liked the feel of – the bike immediately felt unreal. Because I’d never ridden with a PDS set-up at that stage, I approached it with an open mind; I literally didn’t know how it was going to behave. And to be honest, I didn’t really notice a huge difference with the PDS until I jumped back on a SX-F model, which runs the linkage. That experiment highlighted for me how much better the PDS worked in choppy bumps and sandy whoops; basically, in the sort of terrain you get with enduro. That’s why the boys race with the no-linkage enduro model set-up at Finke. They’ve tested the linkage out there, but ended up back on PDS because it works so well across that variety of terrain and speeds you get at Finke. Then again, I was looking at [American rider] Taylor Roberts’ bike at the ISDE last year, and he was running a 500EXC-F engine with a linkage from a SX-F motocross model. So I guess it comes down to what you’re comfortable with. I’m actually surprised how quickly I felt comfortable on the EXC-F with no linkage. And when we fine-tuned the shock’s settings, it got so good, it hard to fault. When I first got on the bike with the settings used by [former KTM team rider] Tye Simmonds, it felt weird; really stiff and dead because he had it set up with lots of rebound damping so the bike didn’t get kicked around on bumps. I’ve always liked my suspension to feel really lively, with fast rebound settings because that lets me jump off things and skip bumps. That’s just always the way I’ve ridden. So once we moved to the Dunlops and got the rebound settings where I liked them, the bike was brilliant, and so much more manoeuvrable than the Yamaha. I was surprised how little I needed to adapt my style to it after all those years on Japanese bikes, and my confidence was there on the KTM straight away. Before the 2017 race season, back-to-back lap times on tracks I knew well proved that I was faster on the KTM. And I suppose that showed when the season got underway. I wasn’t beaten all year in the AORC.
Speaking of suspension, what about the fork? For 2018, the KTM and Husqvarna enduro teams in Australia have both moved from WP’s super-expensive 52mm factory fork to the 48mm cone-value fork that’s available over the counter, right?
Yep, that’s right. Again, I was amazed how quickly and easily I adapted to WP’s 48mm cone-valve fork in all sorts of conditions. In the past, it wasn’t possible to buy this fork in Australia unless you were well connected in industry circles, but it’s pretty cool that WP’s new distribution set-up means anyone can now buy one over the counter. Which makes sense, as that ‘Ready to Race’ slogan is core to what KTM is all about.
“The no-linkage PDS shock works better in choppy bumps and sandy whoops; basically, in the sort of terrain you get with enduro. That’s why the boys race with the no-linkage enduro model set-up at Finke.”
RACING IN AUSTRALIA VS OVERSEAS…
You struggled during those two seasons in America, in 2015 and 2016 – with injuries, the team and bike set-up – but you’re still talking about having unfinished business over there. Why?
There’s no plan to be racing in America next year. And after I performed pretty badly during those two years in America, I might have made it hard for myself to get a decent ride there in the future. It’s just that I feel like I didn’t show what I had over in America, and feel like I need to get back there at some stage to have a crack at winning the GNCC title. I mean, I was set to win the Sprint Series title over there in 2016, but then I went and broke my bloody leg. I feel like I’m not at my peak yet, and that I owe it to myself to go over there with a team I gel with and give it another go. I’m only 26, and guys like Chris Hollis and Glenn Kearney have proved that you can be competitive well into your 30s as an enduro racer.
Would it matter where the offer came from?
Well, if the Yamaha team I rode for in 2015 and 2016 offered me another ride again, there’s no chance I’d take it up. We clashed a lot. Nothing worked with that team – not for me, anyway – and things snowballed in a negative way as a result. One of the cool things about KTM is the fact they have such strong, well-run teams in many countries around the world, meaning the opportunity to race in America is more likely to come with KTM – or their sister company, Husqvarna – than with any other manufacturer.
Given how well you’ve done at the ISDE in Europe in the past few years – especially in 2013 and 2015, where you ran second Outright – why focus on racing the GNCC in America rather than the EnduroGP World Championship?
For 2017, I had an awesome deal with the Outsiders Yamaha team to race the EnduroGP World Championship, but I had to knock the offer back. Unfortunately, my old man was diagnosed with cancer at the time, so I decided to stay at home to be there for him. Since then, the EnduroGP scene in Europe has become more fragmented and a lot of riders aren’t even racing it in 2018. With the powerhouse KTM and Husqvarna teams pulling out of that EnduroGP to race the new World Enduro Super Series (WESS), I think it undermines the World Championship. The GNCC series in America, on the other hand, is getting stronger and stronger, and the Americans are now starting to be one of the lead nations on the international stage. Plus, there’s really good prize money in America. Obviously, it would be cool to be crowned a world champion, but I’d rather be involved with a super-competitive series than a world championship that’s missing a heap of the top riders. And, as I said, I feel like I need to get back to America to finish what I started and try and get a title win.
What about the prospect of the Dakar Rally? Something to consider in your 30s?
Maybe. I’ve never ridden a rally-style bike and I’d have to figure out whether a race that long and gruelling is something I could manage with my diabetes. But, never say never. Guys like Antoine Meo and Toby Price have adapted their enduro speed really well to the Dakar, and I think that being in their 30s has helped give them the experience and race smarts you need for a race like the Dakar.
“I’d rather be involved with the super-competitive GNCC series in America than an EnduroGP World Championship that’s missing a heap of the top riders.”
DEFENDING THE AORC TITLE IN 2018…
You’ve got a Transmoto 12-Hour ‘title’ to defend this weekend, just a week ahead of the AORC season opener in Gympie. Who do you think will be you main rivals this year? At the AORC, that is!
Yeah, the 12-Hour will be a great shakedown for me and the team ahead of the AORC. So we might even take it a bit more seriously than we usually do [laughs]. Let’s hope the track and the conditions are as epic as they were last year. In terms of my main rivals for 2018, there are several guys. I think my teammate, Lyndon Snodgrass, will be fast. He had a slightly longer off-season than me because he had to let his busted wrist heal, but he’s been training really hard and looking fast on the 450 four-stroke. And the testing we’ve both done with the bikes puts us well ahead of where we were this time last year. Then there’s Josh Green and Lachlan Stanford, who are always right up there as title contenders. Plus you’ve got the 2016 AORC champ, Daniel Sanders, who’s coming back from a tough year in Europe. It’ll be also interesting to see how a few of new guys on the scene do – former MX rider, Luke Styke, and some young guys stepping up from the Juniors.
If they’re going to be an AORC frontrunner, what’s the biggest challenge for the young and/or former motocross guys?
I think their biggest challenge will be the mental strength you need, especially for the three-hour cross-country races, and managing their expectations of themselves. They need to take it one race at a time and make sure they progress each weekend without getting injured. When I raced a round of the MX Nats last year, it was really tough to adapt to that level of intensity. So, like anything, it’s just a matter of finding your rhythm for each discipline.
Thanks for your time, champ. See you for a beer and some jelly babies at the 12-Hour.
A beer? What do you mean? I’m an athlete, mate!
“For young riders and the former MX guys, the biggest challenge will be the mental strength you need, especially for the three-hour cross-country races.”