Elisabete, please tell us how you came to the idea of riding a motorbike?
Once, Jorge and I were leafing through a motorcycle magazine at a kiosk in Lisbon and asked each other: «Why don’t we get a permit to ride motorbikes?» Why not? We did, and bought a Cagiva Elefantre 125. Therefore, our household got a car and a motorbike. Since Jorge had to wear a tie to go to work, he always took the car, and I took the motorbike … of course! So, it began as a simple way of travelling around town.
I became a member of Clube Todo-o-Terreno, just for fun, and their mailings about rallies started arriving at our home. There was a time when we decided to take part in «Ronda dos Castelos». And that was my first motocross!
How did it go?
Terrible! I didn’t know how to ride on earth and managed only eighty of the expected two hundred kilometres. I had several falls, the radiator opened and lost all the water, so I had to give up the ride. Jorge, who by then had a Honda Dominator, finished the ride alone, though with some difficulties. Our conclusion was that the problem consisted in the fact that the motorbikes were not the right ones for motocross. So we spent a year saving as much money as possible and bought two identical Kawasaki KDX.
How did you go from there to the motocross championship?
At this point, we started our weekend rides. We and a group of friends would go around the country. Until someone challenged me to enter a competition. I didn’t want to. I felt unable, lacking physical conditions … lacking technical skills! But they kept saying the same thing again and again and I started thinking: «Is it possible that they are right? Will I be able?» … and I went! The competition took place in Serra de Grândola and involved crossing several rivers. I fell in one of them and took some time to manage to get the motorbike back on its wheels. The motor was full of water and refused to work any more. However, when I had thought myself incapable of riding 70km, at the moment I had already ridden 270km and was on the brink of finishing the competition! I felt extremely happy, I had a real sense of victory. The sensation was exhilarating. I fell in love with races and motocross. I spent days thinking about it and making plans to get ready to enter the next competitions.
From then on, I have never stopped!
And then came the internationalization …
In 1992 I took part in the first race. Then, for several years, I entered the Campeonato Nacional de Todo-o-Terreno and won the Ladies Cup from 1993 to 1998. Then, one day, I decided to enter Spanish competitions. I remember being unable to sleep when I thought about the 650km of Baja de Aragon at 40ºC. I was afraid of failing to stand those conditions. I remember suffering terribly for the last 200km. All my body ached and the intake of air was not enough for my lungs! My heart went pit-a-pat … Upon arrival at servicing, I complained: «Jorge, I can’t stand any more!» And he answered: «Of course you can! You are doing very well!» I believed him and finished the competition!
And you never thought about giving up?
Of course I did! At every race I decided it was going to be the last … no come back. I remember having told Jorge, after finishing the first Baja de Aragon (in 1994): «If I ask you again to help me in entering anything like this … please say no! I don’t have the physical conditions for this sort of thing!» Ten minutes later, after eating and noticing that a big group of strong men I considered much tougher and better drivers than myself … had stayed behind after all … I changed my mind: «Look … what I said just now … was not to be taken seriously! If I have a chance to come back … do help me!»
Does that mean that Jorge (your husband) was an important factor for you?!
Of course! If it weren’t for him, I would have taken part in two races and then quit. He was always behind my moves!
As a matter of fact, we were together in the two first races, with our twin motorcycles (Suzuki DR 350). Then we noticed we had no money for all that and one of us had to give up. Jorge decided it would be him because he thought it might be easier for me to get sponsors. So, we still shared the same hobby, but he moved to the background. This means he does all the work nobody knows about and therefore nobody takes into consideration but nonetheless is fundamental. In fact, it is thanks to that work that I have been able to finish races. Through all these years he has assumed every job: Team manager, engineer, assistant, responsible for logistics, adviser, masseur, PR … In short … everything I do not do … he does!
Then, how did you come about with the idea of going to the Dakar?
I remember thinking one day that it was time to stop riding motorbikes. Well … I wanted to have children and the biological clock doesn’t stop ticking! At the time, I regretted not having taken part in competitions in Africa. After all, I am a Geography teacher. I teach my pupils how dunes come about and I had never seen them … I figured myself racing in the desert and that made sense in my head. Soon after, I was watching Dakar on TV and thought: «I can ride a big, heavy motorcycle like this … I can ride for all those miles …» and I felt elated … The idea of going to the Dakar grew up in me in such a way that I started organizing it obsessively.
I was absolutely sure that I could do it and nothing made me stop.
For that year I planned the rally in Tunisia and the Atlas Rally to get some experience. For the rally in Tunisia I had to borrow money from a friend but for the Atlas rally I didn´t reach the necessary amount, so I did not go. For Dakar I tried everything I could, however, when it came to paying the last bills … I had no money. The solution was to ask a bank loan; three million Escudos I took four years to pay.
And was it worthwhile?
Of course it was. But that Dakar involved a lot of problems. There were aspects related to preparing the motorcycle which were faulty and problems arose from there. Every day my giving up was news on TV. Until one day I did have an electrical problem I was unable to solve and then I ascertained I had to give up for real. That was a very tough moment. One of the toughest I have ever experienced. I was sure I would never be able to take part in motorcycle races again, having to work all the time to pay my debt … therefore, my dream of «Dakar» was ruined and nobody would trust me ever again.
But after all you did come back!
Yes. That’s life. There are times when everything seems lost and it isn’t!
In fact, I went back the year after, sponsored by Trifen 200 and very well prepared. Everything was going well until, going through dunes made up of very soft sand, I broke the motor of the KTM. Once again, I was coming home earlier because of mechanical problems, so I kept sure I was a «Superwoman» and might get to the end of the Dakar.
That was in 1999, right? But then you tried again!
That year I learnt there are no «Supermen» in that race. Drivers form teams of 2 to help each other. Therefore, I got organized, reinforced the team and did the Dakar with another driver, Mário Brás. The race was spectacular and everything went well. I only lost some time once to help Mário, who was without petrol, and I had very good results in some specials. It was super. I not only finished the race, I also won the Ladies Cup. Everybody applauded. I felt very happy. It was a dream come true.
But that was not enough for you, and you decided to go back in 2001!?
You know, Dakar in 2000 was shorter in four days because there were terrorist threats. In spite of my outstanding achievement, people patted me on the back but kept saying: « … you were lucky Dakar this year was four days shorter! …» I swallowed and felt furious. I was sure they didn´t believe I would have finished the Dakar if it had had all the usual days. I myself started having doubts. Therefore, when Jorge suggested to put an end to our sports activities I was strongly against: «I want to go back! I want to make a full Dakar!» After discussing it vibrantly, we started the preparations for yet another try. I made a team with Pedro Machado and had a car to assist me. Everything was well organized. I took the best two mechanics in the country: Rui Pôrelo in the car and João Santos flying to the three stages it was possible to do so. I was very well prepared and stronger than ever …
But you had problems?
Yes! The luck factor failed!
The car to assist me stepped on a mine on the border between Morocco and Mauritania. The front of the car exploded and all the people inside had to be evacuated to a hospital in the Canary Islands. I was left alone, without a mechanic, without assistance, without anything … I only had the equipment I was wearing … I was sure I would have to give up once again! … That was the moment when I took a very strong decision: «I’ll give up the moment I fall and can’t get up again. Zé Ribeiro deserves my commitment and for him I’ll test my limits!»
That was the Dakar where I found out the limit is in fact in ourselves!
I fell a million times and I million times I got up and proceeded! I got to the end!
It was a Dakar full of suffering!
Even the course was very tough. Particularly slow, with plenty of dunes, rocks and grass … When we finished a streak, we had to do everything, for there was noone to help us: organize camping, care for the mechanical condition of the motorbikes, prepare navigation for next day … At the end of the day, we didn’t have many hours to sleep. There were nights when we slept for no more than four hours! It is not enough when you are riding a motorcycle! … the day after, I was too tired and fell even more, spent more time, finished later … rested less …
I finished with a lot of lesions, several broken bones … and when I reached the finishing line, having completed a whole Dakar, the toughest in recent years, and having done so without the necessary conditions … instead of joy I felt deeply sad!
My participation was very worthy, much more than in the previous year! … but I didn’t bring back a title … therefore nobody thought about it as valuable!
Was that the reason why you decided to stop motorcycle racing?
… I confess it was a kind of frustration that made me stop. I mean, to go back to Dakar, it would have to be to get a good result. Just to get to the end was no longer enough for me … and I didn’t manage to create the necessary conditions to get better results. I would have to train riding the motorcycle several times a week, and that would prevent me from going on with my work. Besides, I would need someone to train with, because you don’t progress by yourself. I was unable to get enough money to enter the races I considered adequate … and couldn’t get the money necessary to go back to the Dakar …
I was angry and said: «I’m not doing anything more!», at a time I thought I still had skills to develop!
Then you decided to race with trucks!?
Yes … you see, I didn’t feel the time had come for me to give up racing. I had learnt a lot over those years and I thought it was the right moment to put all that learning to good use.
Taking part in a Dakar with a motorbike was the toughest thing I had ever done. After such an experience, I felt I could dare anything. Why not racing with a truck?!
And why not with a car?
Don’t forget my problem consisted in getting the necessary financial conditions to be able to train and progress. I needed something brilliant enough to guarantee sponsors would have some return on their investments.
But you did take part in car races?!
For two years I entered the Copa Jimny and some world cup races, in a Toyota, but only as a transition from motorcycle to truck. It mustn’t be forgotten that for many years I only rode motorcycles and needed to get the perception of four wheels.
However, to get a license to drive trucks in October and going to the Dakar in January wasn’t a bit mad?
I agree … but carefully thought over!
I had to be sure I could drive a lorry in the toughest race in the world, but the first experience is always complicated. It is unlikely that everything goes well. So, I grabbed a chance and entered for the first time without investing too much. The truck I drove was very old and very heavy because it was full of stuff to assist other teams.
And then I learnt a lot, getting the notion that the Dakar was something I could achieve if I had a good truck and a good team. I even got the idea that I would be more competitive than with the motorbike.
After the first experience you returned with a Renault Kerax.
With the Renault Kerax we set in motion a very interesting project, we made an Iberian team. The truck and the team were Spanish. Trifene 200 and I, Portuguese.
I learnt everything with that truck. This means we started a sports project virtually from scratch in terms of knowledge. The challenge was simply to finish the Dakar with a truck. I did it and in the meantime i learnt how to race with a truck, I found out which were the weak and the strong points of this kind of vehicle, what is necessary for evolving it. I learnt how to manage weight matters and all the aspects of driving. Our main problem was that of suspensions. We suffered a lot of bounces and were unable to move fast. We worked a lot on this particular subject, and the truck was already with a good pace in the last Dakar (2006) I entered with it. We had achieved a good tuning and reliability.
And how is it to take part in races driving a truck?
A truck is a particularly difficult vehicle. Let us say it was not made to enter races, which complicates everything. We have to be perfectly aware of its capacities and limitations, and we must drive it with perfection. No mistakes may be made, because we pay dearly for them. But perfection is something we do really strive for when we are in competition. That is why this game of trying to drive better and better, and to obtain the best possible results, enthuses and gives me incentives.
Then there is the technical part of developing and preparing the vehicle too. At first we knew absolutely nothing about this subject. Now I am proud to say that several parts of our truck are made in Portugal, following our specifications, and have proved their quality. This is one of our greatest achievements.
But to take part in races with a truck also means to be able to work in a team. With a motorcycle the team was very small. To compete with a truck implied learning to be with other people in all sorts of situations. To coordinate and work in a team is one of the most difficult things to achieve. This was something i had to learn, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences sports gave me. At present I am proud to say I have an excellent team.
And what about the experience with MAN M2000?
Well … that was another important stage in my career. It was the time to show how skillful I had become. Having learnt with Renault Kerax, with man m2000 I wanted to prove what I could achieve. I loved driving that truck, which was a sort of toy. It was very well conceived, perfectly balanced, with quality in everything it could do, and it helped me to progress. For the Dakar 2008 (which did not take place) and 2009 I was already prepared to have good results, but luck was not on my side. I had to give up at the fifth streak of the latter rally.
Because inside one of the many dust clouds, where sight was completely obliterated, I crashed into the rear of Ivan Muller’s buggy, which had stopped on the track. He had slowed down because he too had been unable to see, and then he could not move. Due to the characteristics of the terrain, we all had to race on the same track, where deep ruts formed. I bumped into the buggy, but only managed to see its features when I tried to revert for the second time, and then it was already aflame. The lorry stuck to the rear of the buggy, and we were unable to free it. The three hundred liters of petrol the buggy carried did not give any chance to our fire extinguishers.
Now you are about to start a new phase in your sports life, since you are going to use a new truck for the first time: man TGS. What has been your experience with it so far?
It is still racing with a truck out of the production line, but this time the engine e stronger, therefore with more power and more exacting when driving. However, its bigger cylinder capacity allows me to drive much faster and to reach very good results. At present i am a candidate to a podium position in every race I enter. We have been intent on improving several technical aspects, rendering it more competitive. For example, we made it lighter, with a new cargo box, managing to get a weight slightly inferior to ten tons. We invested in shock absorbers, but there is still room for improvement at that level. We built brackets for the steering shock absorbers and simultaneously adapted a competition steering axle. We sent the engine to Germany and now we have 830 hp to help us climbing sand slopes and progressing on the soft sand ergs of Mauritania.
We understand the team has changed a lot at image level. What do you think of this change?
I consider this new brand, which is the image of the all team, means our work and our goals are strong. Let us say that the new brand is Bio-Ritmo, a food supply to help give more energy to those who need it, therefore contributing to lessen the physical and intellectual tiredness. Red is in itself a strong color, transmitting strength and energy, and that is precisely our state of mind at present. As it appears now, man has a very strong presence… and this is important when we wish to make a stand.
We are a strong team, full of determination… but our resources are limited, therefore we have moments of tiredness and exhaustion. In spite of all that, and as Bio-Ritmo, we do not break and are determined to be always better and fight for victory.
Elisabete, after so many years racing, there is an inescapable question: “what keeps you still doing it?”
Enjoying going to the limit and then more. The fact that I feel to be doing things I was incapable of doing in the past.
Practicing sports has been very good for me. I am stronger, feel more sure of myself, am capable of more … have a vision of the world more adapted to the reality!
I enjoy the certainty that we can go wherever we want to, that limits are within ourselves … and the key to success is “willpower!”