Toby Price (or is that Tony Rice?) Unplugged

2 years ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: Kin Marcin/Red Bull Content Pool

Covid restrictions have completely changed Toby Price’s preparation for the 2021 Dakar Rally, which is set to kick off on January 3. But has it made the two-time winner more or less confident about the prospect of a third race win? What’s it like to have fellow Aussie, Daniel “Chucky” Sanders join the KTM rally team this year? What have the boys been doing to let their (mulleted) hair down? What changes have been made to KTM’s rally bike this year? And who the hell is this Tony Rice character who’s featured on one of Pricey’s new helmets?

For answers, we tracked down Toby Price (and Tony Rice) in a dishevelled Dubai hotel room, which has been ‘their’ home base for the past four months…

TM: You’ve been over in Europe with the KTM rally team for several months now, which isn’t how you’ve traditionally prepared for Dakar. Has that full-blown, hands-on Dakar preparation with the team been a good thing?
TP: It’s been a busy four months over here for sure. Trying to jam the last eight or nine months into four has made things quite chaotic. Actually, it’s been crazy … but good at the same time. Spending so much time – especially around Christmas – in Dubai hotels rather than with my friends and family back home, has been tough. But in the back half of January, hopefully something good will come from it and we’ll have something big to celebrate. As you say, it’s been quite different from the way I normally do it – which is having a fun, laidback lifestyle back home and then packing and heading off to Dakar the week before Christmas – but putting a really concentrated effort into the job at hand over here has helped me feel really well-prepared for the race this year.

Watching those Up Front videos that Red Bull has shot with the team suggests you guys have put an enormous amount of effort into fine-tuning the race bike over the past couple of months. Has that allowed you to get it noticeably more dialled this year?
I’ve always had a good base set-up with my rally bike that works in all conditions, but making a few small changes to the bike in recent weeks has definitely made me feel even more comfortable on the thing. For me, it’s all been about playing with suspension set-up to suit different terrain in the past few weeks.

“We had no idea how we’d go on those e-foils cos neither of us are surfers and everyone was telling us how hard it is the first few times. But we both managed to pick it up pretty quickly.”

Hey, this Zoom thing is pretty cool, eh?
It is. We can even look at each other’s ugly mugs, mate [laughs]. To tell you the truth, though, it’s the best way of communicating. Here in Dubai, they block a lot of things. You can’t FaceTime and my phone hardly works here. I’m not very tech-savvy, so I’m amazed I found my way through to dialling in. I’m learning though as it’s my only way to speak with people and ‘show up’ for any media commitments.

After Honda put an end to KTM’s string of 18 Dakar Rally wins back in January, it feels like there’s even more motivation in the orange camp to win the thing back again.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. With so many variables at Dakar – with 12 to 13 days’ racing and something like 10,000km – people generally don’t understand what an achievement it was for KTM to take those 18 consecutive wins. Unfortunately, it just didn’t pan out for us earlier this year, but we’re extra driven to get KTM back in that number-one position.

“Tony Rice was a nickname that first appeared out at the Finke Desert Race. These guys would have “Tony Rice” painted on the back of a couch and hold it up as I flew by them.”

You didn’t speak about it much back in January, but the issue you had with your rear tyre cost you more dearly than many people realised, didn’t it?
It did. I had a tyre roll off the rim and that definitely hindered my plans for a better result than third. But y’know, that was the first time in six Dakars where I’ve had a major drama that was out of my control. You’ve just got to keep moving forward in this race. You have to minimise the mistakes that you make personally, and get a good, flawless run with your race bike and race strategy.

How has it been for you having Daniel Sanders there for the past few months? His pathway into the Dakar has sure been different to yours back in 2015. In fact, he’s had the red carpet treatment by comparison!
It’s been good fun having Chucky [Daniel “Chucky” Sanders] over here and having another Aussie to bounce things off. Yeah, sometimes I reflect on how different our pathways into the Dakar have been. Chucky’s definitely been lucky to have such a strong and successful team in his corner, and to be able to learn from me, Sam Sunderland and Matthias Walkner, who’ve all have all won the race. So there’s definitely plenty of experience for him to draw on. Back when I came into the Dakar, I was picking Marc Coma’s brains because he became a five-time winner that year before he unexpectedly retired. So I feel in a way like I’m sort of re-living that blooding of fast young riders into the team, but hopefully that doesn’t mean I’m close to retirement [laughs]. As Coma and guys like Jordi Viladoms were competing back when I started, it wasn’t easy getting information out of them. Now that Jordi’s role involves managing the team and developing younger riders, it’s definitely a great opportunity for Chucky to fast-track that learning. Actually, I reckon Jordi’s giving away too many of our secrets too quickly [laughs]. Chucky has obviously proven his speed and ability to win on an enduro bike, but he’s smart enough to understand that rally racing is a very different animal. He’s taking everything in like a sponge at the moment and seems to be learning quickly. He’s adapted well to the bike and enjoys everything about rally, from what I can see. And he knows anything’s possible. I never thought that running third at my first Dakar was possible, so it’d be great to think both of us could stand on a step of the podium in January.

And after Chucky won that final day of the Andalucia Rally in Spain a couple of months back, it suggests he’s got the potential to be a podium guy at Dakar, right?
That was a good performance by Chucky in what was his first ever rally. We all knew he’s got the outright speed to be able to do that, but I think Chucky would be the first to admit that that stage-win doesn’t mean much for Dakar. The Andalucia Rally was put together at the last minute. The organisers did the best they could in the circumstances, but it really wasn’t very good preparation for Dakar because the terrain and navigation there was so different to what we’ll get in Saudi Arabia in January. Unlike Dakar, the Andalucia Rally had no off-track, off-piste navigation. That said, man it was just good to be back racing and doing something other than worrying about a global pandemic. And I think Chucky showed enough with his navigation skills to indicate he’ll post some strong results at Dakar within the next three years.

So, what’s domestic life look like over there for you at the moment?
Mate, she’s a high-rise hotel room in Dubai. Got a slab of Red Bull on the table. Riding gear lying around everywhere. A bit of a bloody mess to tell the truth, which is why I’ve got the screen’s camera pointed at the ceiling [laughs]. Not a bad view out the window either. It kind of feels like hotel quarantine, which is what I’ve got to look forward to when I get home to Australia in January, I guess. If I can get home to Australia. I’ve been doing hotels here for four months now, so the two weeks quarantine at home will feel like nothing.

“I embraced the piss-take that is Tony Rice because it’s a reminder that I’m just an average bloke. It helps keep me grounded when I’m away from my mates.”

It hasn’t been all lock-down and temperature checks though. We saw some Insta posts where you and Chucky have been rolling like rockstars – y’know, chaperoned in helicopters, riding electric-powered foil boards!
Yeah, we’ve had some fun. Those foil boards were called Flight Boards, which I’ve since found out are an Aussie company. We had no idea how we’d go on those e-foils cos neither of us are surfers and everyone was telling us how hard it is the first few times. But we both managed to pick it up pretty quickly. It was a weird, quiet, floating-on-air feeling. You have this trigger-throttle in your hand, which gives you a power setting of 1 through to 20. I’m a pretty big guy, but it only took setting 6 to get me up out of the water and going fast, so there’s no way I was going to wick her up to 20 [laughs]. I’ve heard heaps of stories about guys falling off and getting sliced by their foils, so with the Dakar just a few weeks away, we were both taking things pretty cautiously.

Tell us a little about the two new helmets you’ve had painted for Dakar – one with “Speedy” in honour of the late Portuguese rider, Paulo “Speedy” Goncalves, and the other with “Tony Rice”.
During this four-month stint over here, we took a training trip to Portugal and had some people turn up at the track where we were testing. When I spoke to them, they were saying how appreciative they were about what we did at the race [the 2020 Dakar Rally, where Paolo died as a result of a crash, and Toby was the first rider on the scene]. They gave me a few gifts and offered to look after me any time I came back to Portugal. Super-nice people. That got me thinking about the idea of incorporating “Speedy” and the Portuguese flag into the helmet design, even though I wasn’t initially sure how that was going to be received. I wanted the helmet to be a way to say thank you to the Portuguese people who showed me so much support after what was a really tough experience for me. Paulo’s death was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to overcome in my racing career; way harder than most injuries. Anyway, shortly after I posted a pic of the helmet, a bunch of news reports in Portugal picked up on it, plus I’ve had such a big positive response about it. I’m a full-blown Aussie, but it’s also cool to be kind of adopted by another country.

It’s an awesome gesture, mate. And the ‘Tony Rice’ lid?
Well, that’s the fun, take-the-piss helmet, which is in total contrast to the ‘Speedy’ one. Tony Rice was a nickname that first appeared out at the Finke Desert Race. These guys would have “Tony Rice” painted on the back of a couch and hold it up as I flew by them. Along with a bunch of my mates back home, I embraced the piss-take that is Tony Rice because it’s a reminder that I’m just an average bloke. It helps keep me grounded when I’m away from my mates; guys who treat me like I’m nothing special and don’t know anything about some dude called Toby Price [laughs].

Is there something in that? Does seeing yourself as a no-name nobody help detach you from the pressure that obviously comes with the territory for you?
You know what; it actually does. I’ve been the same person since I was four years old; just a bloke who likes to have fun and ride his bike. Don’t get me wrong, because it’s special to me that I have so many people follow my career and support me. And I feel very lucky to be able to race motorcycles all over the world. But at the end of the day, I see myself as a country kid who’s no different from anyone else and who doesn’t get wrapped up in being well known in motorcycle circles. So I guess I do use ‘Tony Rice’ sometimes as a reminder of that, and the fact you’ve gotta have a laugh at yourself to keep things in perspective. Speaking of laughing at yourself, that’s what kicked off the mullet hair-do.

Hair-do? Or is that a hair-don’t?
Exactly [laughs].

It’s been great to speak, Toby. Best of luck for early January, mate.
Thanks. It can’t come soon enough. I’m ready.

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