Having enjoyed a promising debut in 2012 in which he was seventh on the opening stage, he and his bike were on the sidelines the following day with a mechanical. In 2014, he suffered a similar fate on stage four while the following year he had won the opening stage in Argentina – the youngest in the history of the event to do so – only to then crash out.
Meanwhile, in 2013 and 2016, he failed to even make the startline having crashed badly at his final warm-up, breaking his femur on the latter occasion. But on Saturday the curse was finally lifted as the 27-year-old made it to the finish line for the first time in first overall place in the motorbike class, the first Briton in history to ever win the prestigious Dakar. He has long been in thrall to the Dakar. Of his early impressions, he says: “It blew my mind. I was riding through Argentina and there were people 50-deep across both sides of the road for miles and miles. It gets more than four million actual physical spectators – that’s crazy. Everywhere you go, there are people cheering you on.”
Prior to the event, he had said he “fully expected to break my run of bad luck”, saying of his previous forays in the event in South America, “not a very glorious record I admit”.
For 2017, though, it was different. This time around he decided to make Dakar his sole goal for the year, and only did certain world championship rounds in order to prepare for the arduous opening two weeks of this year.
That resulted in second in the Desert Challenge, victory in Qatar and a second place in Morocco. With such a record, his minimum target was to finish at the business end in South America.
Sunderland is no stranger to adversity on two wheels. There were very real fears he might never ride a motorbike again when he crashed heavily riding his 125cc bike over a jump, resulting in him breaking both legs, knees and his pelvis in 2005. Aged just 15, he was confined to a wheelchair for two months and was ordered to stay off the bike for a whole year… but he didn’t listen. His mother Jacki recalled in an interview with the local newspaper in Bournemouth where he grew up: “I really didn’t think he would ride again after months in a wheelchair. It was really scary.
“I couldn’t believe it when he got back on a bike just five months later to win the Weymouth Beach race – it was his comeback. Sam’s just addicted to motocross. I’m glad he went back to it, although I was so worried at first.”
Things raised up a gear four years later when Sunderland moved to Dubai for a change of scenery, got a job with KTM and started racing bikes there “just for fun”.
He steadily climbed up the ranks and started mixing it with the best off-ride bikers on the planet. Despite his run of DNFs and DNSs at Dakar prior to this year, he never lost the belief in his own abilities.
There was, though, one concern. “I know I can ride as fast as anyone else but I didn’t have the experience in terms of navigation and that’s 75% of the job. The Dakar is so hard, there are so many factors. I know how much goes into it.
“The hardest part for me is taking it easy, keeping the tempo down. There’s also the fatigue management. It’s a high speed game of chess.”
It is a high speed game of chess in which he has habitually faltered. This time it was check mate. Of the experience, he says simply: “It’s nuts, I love it.”
Motorbikes have always been his first love but, for a time, there was a sporting rival in football. He trialled with Southampton FC as a youth player and would conceivably have been in the take-up for the academy that year which included Gareth Bale, the Real Madrid star.
But motocross would always come first, Sunderland skipping Sunday matches in favour of being on his bike.
“Maybe I would have been financially better off if I’d stuck with football but I love my life,” he says.
Having broken the Dakar curse, there are no regrets.
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