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The Epic Tale Of A Man, A Motorcycle And A Breast Cancer Bracelet

Courtesy/Luis Belaustegui

Earlier this year, Luis Belaustegui set off on a long, brutal, exotic journey, in an unprecedented way.

Belaustegui is a motorcycle racer from Argentina who lives in Kansas City. His adventures – and misadventures— in Peru, Chile and his native Argentina, come from racing in the Dakar Rally

The race route snakes out across thousands of miles of rugged mountains and desert. Each year contestants die, and only about half the motorbike riders finish the two-week ordeal. And that is usually because of luck and careful planning.

Belaustegui didn’t have either of those, but he did have one distinct advantage.

Motorcycle Adventurer

This wasn't Belaustegui's first rally. Last year a bad crash late in the race broke his hand, tore up his knee and knocked him out late in the competition.

This year he barely made it through the first race day. Last minute modifications hobbled his motorcycle. After a frantic night of retooling, he jumped on his bike and roared off into the desert for the second stage, unaware that his front fender was now rubbing against his radiator hose.

"It broke it. I lost all the coolant," he says.

"When you are riding in the desert you don’t notice. The bike overheated and I blew the engine. Not very promising."

The misfortune got him stuck in the desert, 80 kilometers from the finish.

"So, I thought for a moment that the race was over for me," says Belaustegui.

There he is stranded, under the blazing sun, alone, except for the occasional dune buggy tearing by.

"To my right, big sand dunes, in front of me, bigger sand dunes," he says. 

While stranded, Belaustegui made this video for his family:

Another thing dwarfed by the vast dessert: Belaustegui’s engine. He insists on racing a bike powered by one three or four times smaller than those used by his rivals.

An ecologically-minded motorsport fanatic, Belaustegui is out to prove that an efficient, 150cc bike is up to the race. And, he does it in style.

 "I have pink wheels on my bike, I have the pink ribbon on my jacket, and I have decals on the bike all to remind people about breast cancer," he says.

He’s also got one of those a pink rubber bracelets, but we’ll get to that later.

Still Stranded

Back to the vast desert -  it’s not looking good. It’s 100 degrees plus, and Belaustegui has to attempt major surgery on the bike, by himself.

Oh yeah, and he’s traveling extremely light. He’s carries no spare parts, other than a hand full of zip ties, and a little pocket tool kit; a pitifully small arsenal to take on the big job ahead.

"It is one problem at a time, it keeps you going," says Belaustegui. "If you think of the big picture, you probably quit."

He used his drinking water to fill up the radiator, then the cylinder.

"I thought I was done when I got the calendar free," he says. "I thought it was eventually going to start, but it didn’t, it just didn’t."

It’s now been about three hours since Belaustegui's engine locked up.

"So I take the cylinder head off, and I see that there is no head gasket, it had disintegrated in the heat," he says.

Oh, great.

Belaustegui says up until that point he hadn't even seen the head gasket for the bike he was riding.

"They’re not much to look at," he says. "They’re basically seals between the top and bottom part of an engine, that keep oil and coolant from leaking out, or mixing. They have to work, though."

Of course, Belaustegui is stranded. He can’t go to a mechanic, or even a parts store. He has to improvise.

"I start looking around, my bike, my clothes, everything that I have, to see if I could figure out what to use," he says.

"You think of solutions, and try to remember other people’s problems and how they solved them. And you just look around, and look around and think."

The Big Idea

And then Belaustegui sees his bracelet. That pink, rubber, breast cancer awareness bracelet.

"So I said, 'well, this is my gasket.'"

Belaustegui's sister died around 5 years ago, after a 10-year battle with breast cancer. Since her death he has worn a pink, rubber bracelet.

"I’ve been using them... to remind me of the strength that she had that she had when she fought," he says.

By now, Belaustegui has been standing on the glassy hot dunes for about five hours.

He takes his time, cuts the bracelet and fashions a new bright pink gasket. And, he gets the bike running, but very badly.

"Really bad," he says. "Really, really, bad."

Belaustegui knew that he couldn't face the dunes with his fragile bike, so he pieced together an alternative route across the open desert - one that drove him far out of his way, and ignited a whole new adventure.

Though well after sundown, he managed to sputter across that day’s finish line.

"I come to camp in the opposite direction as everybody else," he laughs. "It was pretty funny. Everybody looked at me and I said, 'I’m here. And this is the last check point, right?'"

A Long Way To Go

The rest of the race didn't go much better for Belaustegui.

"I had problems with everything," he says. "I ended up blowing 4 engines, and broke the frame twice, and all sorts of things happened to the bike. It was one damned thing after another."

He even had to cut into the scrap of pink bracelet, the symbol of his sister’s determination, to fabricate another head gasket.

"One of the things that I figured out much later, is that I put myself through these kinds of races and these kinds of things, to prove to myself that I am a fighter, like she was," he says.

In the end, he made it 5,500 miles across some of the meanest terrain imaginable to cross the finish line. In last place.

"I thought it would bother me to finish last. It didn’t," he says.

Somewhere toward the end of his ordeal, Luis had a revelation about his late sister and his pink bracelet.

"I always felt that she was my model, that I could not do what she could. And to have found the solution to my problem, in what was the symbol of her to me,  it was like -sigh- I’m not alone," says Belaustegui.

"Her experience and her symbol, being able to help me continue fighting, and show that I could find solutions, it was really strong for me."

Credit Courtesy/Luis Belaustegui
Luis Belaustegui between breakdowns at this year's Dakar Rally.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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