“I believe you have plans, but then there’s destiny at the end of it.”
CS Santosh. Motorcyclist. Rally-raid competitor. Closet philosopher.
Yes, CS Santosh has plans. He’s travelled for over 30 hours to finally alight at the Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru. On his mind is the thought of his own bed at home, a welcome change from the tents in the Atacama Desert. He’s also thinking of his family and friends who will, no doubt, be relieved to see him once again, greeting him with hugs, smiles and congratulatory slaps on the back, with an accompanying friendly bark from Rocko, his pet dog, adding cheer to his homecoming. At the same time, like any passenger exiting an airport, he’s thinking of the more mundane aspects of travel — whether he’ll get a cab easily and will all his luggage fit in it? This is his usual routine — leave the airport alone, hail a cab alone, head home alone. This time, though, things are different.
He wheels his luggage trolley out of the arrivals gate and spots a banner hanging on a railing. It has a picture of him astride a KTM 450 Rally motorcycle, with the words ‘CS Santosh Dakar Champ’ on it. He smiles and waves out to the people he recognises. Then, he’s met with a loud cheer from what he had assumed was the regular airport crowd. It takes a while to sink in that the people gathered there have showed up for him — all of them. Not just family and friends, but fellow competitors from the past, people from the motorsport community, camera crews and journalists and motorsport fans. He’s overwhelmed. He pauses for a second, leaning against the trolley and looking down at his feet. He scratches his eyebrow with the back of his thumb, shakes his head in disbelief and starts to walk towards the exit. The next thing he knows, he’s in the air, hoisted onto the shoulders of KP Arvind, a fellow motocross rider and dear friend, and that almighty roar continues. He’s their returning hero because on the 4th of January, CS Santosh became the first Indian to ever start the terrifying Dakar Rally. On the 17th of January, he became the first Indian to finish the Dakar Rally. And, no matter what happens in the days to come, no matter what life throws his way, no one can take this away from him. He has, in some sense, fulfilled his destiny. But, it sure as hell hasn’t been easy.
“It was like a tap had been turned on. There was blood everywhere,” Santosh tells me. It happened on the third day of the Dakar Rally, a massively gruelling rally raid that now runs over 9000 kilometres in South America, heading from Argentina through to Chile and Bolivia. It’s 14 days of intense and punishing riding, the route moving from the stony Andes to the disorienting dunes of the Atacama Desert and the stark white stretches of the Salar de Uyuni (the Bolivian salt flats). It’s the sort of rally that breaks the hardiest motorcycle rider — and unfailingly claims lives every single time it runs. Men and women often get lost during the event — some succumb to dehydration, others fall victim to fatigue that leaves them unable to carry on and nearly everyone crashes. In Santosh’s case, that crash, on the third day, with just 15 km left for the day’s stage to end, was a big one. Bent handlebars, twisted navigation system and a knock on the nose that felt like Mike Tyson had decked him good and proper. The bleeding just wouldn’t stop.
For Santosh, it was one of the defining moments of his Dakar debut. The decision was either to try and fix his bleeding nose himself, or to let blood pour down his face, getting soaked up in his helmet liner, and to somehow just make it to the end of the stage. There’d be help at the medical tent at the bivouac. At that moment, all that he had to do was ride hard. It would set the trend for the rest of his rally. The first time, it was a bleeding nose and 15 km to go. The next time, it was a broken toe and 300 km to go. Then it was very nearly swept being away, motorcycle headed to one watery grave and Santosh to another, when a river crossing went almost completely wrong. And, the theme of the Dakar slowly became clearer with each passing instance — the underlying cruelty and fickleness of nature. What also came to light was the fibre that comprises CS Santosh, making him the sort of chap who simply never gives up and constantly displays a resilience of human spirit that is tremendously rare. He’s one part adamantium, one part special ingredient X, and while it might not be polite to pass comment on the size of his cojones, if I had to hazard a guess I’d say bowling balls might develop an inferiority complex.
Dakar 2015 wasn’t the first time Santosh’s mettle had been tested. Every single day, since he decided to live life full throttle, a new challenge had cropped up. From the first time he watched a supercross race in Bengaluru (and decided that was exactly what he’d like to do for the rest of his life) to the struggle in getting into the TVS Racing Factory Team to catching a flight to Australia, unaware of what lay on the other side. He’d gone simply because a rider he’d once met had said, “If you’re ever in Australia, let me know and I’ll teach you a thing or two about motocross.” But, there comes a time in everyone’s life when they reach a tipping point, the time when they need to decide whether all the pain is worth it, whether they can justify to themselves their reasons for getting back in the saddle, broken bones, bruised egos, highs and lows included. For Santosh, this turning point came when he made the transition to the World Cross Country Rally Championship in 2013. In the first round of the championship, in Abu Dhabi, he crashed in the desert, the fuel tank on his KTM exploded and the motorcycle caught fire — as did Santosh. Third-degree burns meant he had to sit out the rest of the season, but the thought of quitting never occurred to him. There was just the thought of getting better, getting back on the motorcycle and getting to the Dakar.
Maybe it was the challenge of getting to the Dakar that was nearly as great as the challenge of completing the event itself. Santosh had to deal with motorcycle manufacturers who wouldn’t back him, even if they stood to benefit immensely from it. He met sponsors who simply could not wrap their heads around the concept of the Dakar — “Ride around in the desert? What for?” And, he had to contend with the fact that his parents, once they had grasped the magnitude of the Dakar, were more than a little shocked. “You really don’t have to do it,” his father had told him. But, he did indeed have to do it. Sponsorship from Red Bull materialised, along with a factory-supported ride with Heinz Kinigadner was his. The journey thereon has already been entered in Indian motorsport’s book of history with some sand from the Atacama and salt from the Salar alongside it.
When he’s not riding cross-country on his motorcycle, or training people to do the seemingly impossible astride a motorcycle at his Big Rock Motopark, in Kolar, Santosh is your regular Bengaluru boy. ‘CS’, in true South Indian style, stands for Chunchunguppe Shivashankar, which is the name on his passport and thus the name that appeared on the official Dakar entry list. “My dad wasn’t thinking when he named me,” Santosh quips. His parents, once they understood that their son was dead serious about being a professional motorcycle racer, supported him. His sister, a tennis player, “worries about me, but not to the point that it gets annoying”. Santosh, in turn, helps out with the family’s essential oil business. That’s not to say that there isn’t a typical red-blooded male side to him. There’s a picture doing the rounds on Twitter of Santosh, evidently feeling like roadkill at the end of a stage, checking out a pretty girl who’d called out to him. “You have to see it to believe it,” he tells me. “Along the liaison stages, for hundreds of kilometres, you see so many beautiful people. And, the women in Argentina are very, very beautiful. I had to give some of them a second look,” he says with a wicked grin. Oh, yes, he’s also single and not displeased that we’re about to broadcast that fact. “It’s all good in the hood,” he chuckles.
What’s next for him? Another year at the World Cross Country Rally Championship, another crack at the Dakar, improving upon his 36th place and achieving a top-10 finish, he hopes. He isn’t the sort to rest on his laurels — in fact, he doesn’t even hang onto his trophies, giving them away to friends or to anyone he believes will appreciate them. Yes, even the Dakar bedouin. He says it’s going to someone very special — but he won’t say who. Santosh’s philosophical side surfaces when we speak of the future. He’s said to me before that he believes off-road riding is an apt metaphor for life itself because you need to make your own way through, create your own path and figure things out for yourself. And, in this business, in which he risks absolutely everything for his passion, “I need to believe in some sort of higher power, need something to put my faith into, need to believe that someone up there is looking out for me because that’s the only way to keep going.” Even with all the uncertainty. And, it’s this that he looks forward to, he says. The challenge of the unknown — exactly like the challenge of dreaded events such as the Dakar and exactly like the challenge of life itself.