The virus slows down the most faithful Dakarian
It was last December 28, the day of the Holy Innocents. Jose Luis Criado (Arjona, 1957) was rushing a long day of work at the notary’s office, closing pending issues, when he received notification of his positive for Covid. Just a few hours later he had to catch the plane in Barcelona that would take him to Saudi Arabia to contest what was to be his thirty-second Dakar, again as co-pilot of his inseparable Jordi Juvanteny in the Man 6×6 truck of the KH7 Epsilon Team. Only his character prevented that moment from ending in tragedy. «The world fell on me, and the first thing I did was call Jordi. He didn’t believe it, of course. I thought I was playing a joke on him. It was a situation of total crisis.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t go to the Dakar, it’s that the whole team could stay out, “he tells ABC.
Fortunately, the complicity between the two adventurers and their experience in overcoming difficult situations worked in their favor. Within minutes they contacted and convinced Fina Romanian, another experienced Dakarian, to take over from José Luis. «We needed someone with a valid truck license, because our third crew member, Jordi Ballbé, does not have it. I don’t know how Fina got organized, but the next day she had everything in order to take my place. It was a relief”.
It was later, after that tension was overcome, when Criado had the worst time, finally aware of what he was missing. “If a week ago someone asked me how I was the same, I would even bite him,” he says with humor. «Today I am much calmer, although it still hurts not to be there. At the end you are a year preparing for the test with great enthusiasm and I have not felt bad either. It was like a bad dream.
With half a race already contested, it is still not too clear if it is the Dakar who misses Criado the most or vice versa. The Andalusian, settled in the Barcelona municipality of La Roca del Vallés since shortly after passing the examinations for notaries, is a beloved and respected character in the caravan. He, for his part, defines himself as a cheerful guy who likes to look for the good in others. And he says he finds in the desert the disconnection and peace of mind that others seek by going to the beach or the mountains. The Dakar is his period of catharsis. Putting on the jumpsuit, experiencing the tension of the competition and enjoying a unique coexistence will revitalize you for the rest of the year. “Now I have to settle for following him on the internet and on television, but I talk to my colleagues every day and that makes me feel closer to them.”
Criado says that his love affair with the Dakar began when he was still living in Jaén, listening to the connections that José María García made with Juan Porcar or Salvador Cañellas, some of the Spanish raid pioneers. There he also organized trips through the mountains where orientation played a fundamental role. The final touch of destiny came shortly after settling in La Roca. David Oliveras and José Montaño, two pilots with several Dakar behind their backs, attended his notary’s office, to whom he offered without hesitation. A few months later, he contested with them his first Dakar by truck, the Paris-Tripoli-Dakar 1990. A year later, during an early morning in the middle of the Tenerife desert, he met Juvanteny, with whom he started sharing a truck in 1995. And until today. “Jordi says he misses me a lot,” concedes Criado. «It is a relationship of many years and we know each other perfectly. Just by the tone of voice I already know how it is. I always say it, we have gotten used to being his eyes and he being my hands.
As a co-pilot, Criado has gotten used to doing everything. He drives on the connecting sections, repairs breakdowns and sings the ‘roadbook’, a task in which the Andalusian squanders a complete catalog of wisdom: «Intuition plays a lot in favor of a good navigator. You cannot be swayed by your pilot’s impatience. Sometimes there are moments of great tension, with screaming inside the cabin because you do not know where you are or how to get to the next checkpoint. But you must be sure and impose yourself on him. You have to have a lot of attention and a lot of concentration. Also a lot of security ».
The streak cut by the pandemic, 31 consecutive editions, is the longest among Spanish participants. Just a legend like Stephane Peterhansel is ahead globally. In so many years Criado has lived adventures of all colors: he was kidnapped for six hours by the Tuaregs in the Elephant Pass, in Mauritania; suffered a spectacular accident when the truck overturned in the dunes of Ica, in Peru; and they even offered him a huge wad of bills in Jeddah for towing the car of some South Africans stranded in the sand, money he did not accept. However, none has marked him as much as what he experienced in 1992, a terrifying edition that crossed up to ten African countries until it reached Cape Town. “I was co-driver with Xavi Foj and we had a very bad time, it was an absolute test of endurance.” His car, which was traveling in convoy through Chad, lost its lights at night and was lost in the middle of the desert of a country at war. Several days later, after crossing Nigeria and Cameroon, they managed to re-engage in the race just in time to embark for Angola.
Today he keeps all those stories burned into his memory, so he is clear that the virus will not stop his relationship with the Dakar. Next year, no matter how much land he swallows or how many hours he doesn’t sleep, he will come back even more eager.