Nicola Dutto: “Always looking ahead”

Never will he stop trying new things. A horrific crash left Nicola Dutto bound to a wheelchair, but even with that setback in mind, he’s still out to achieve his goals. His next challenge will be kicking off on January 7, 2019. That’s the day he’ll start the Dakar Rally.

© Francesca Gasperi

Certain dates are etched in the mind. A beautiful memory like your wedding day, the birth of a child, or perhaps even the first time you swung a leg over a new motorcycle; your mind archives the day for you, so you can come back to that specific memory on its annual anniversary. Dark days unfortunately follow the same routine. One man that knows all about it, is Nicola Dutto (48). March 20, 2010 is one of those dates; one that will stick by him until the day he dies. On that day fate took a turn for the worse, when he experienced that which all racers fear. It was during that year’s Italian Baja in Pordenone that left Dutto paralyzed from the waist down. “The last thing I remember is kicking the bike up a gear from fourth into fifth. What happened right after, I don’t know. The next thing I remember is opening my eyes, wanting to get back on the bike. But I couldn’t get up.” Spectators quickly gathered round the fallen Italian, in an attempt to help him up. “I told them right away not to touch me, because they were moving in to take my helmet off. I needed medical assistance above all, quick too.” Some of Dutto’s spinal vertebrae could not handle the impact of the crash and cracked as a result. There was no way around it at this stage; the Italian Baja specialist knew pretty quickly he was paralyzed. “But that wasn’t even my main concern at the time, because the doctor that had rushed to the scene pointed out I was still critically hurt, since my heart wasn’t functioning properly and the blow had also reduced my lung capacity to around twenty percent of normal.”

Fourteen weeks of nothing
Nine hours of surgery later, Nicola Dutto spends an additional five days in the ICU. Two weeks later, he’s moved to a rehabilitation clinic near his home town of Beinette. “All the broken bones had to heal, which meant I had fourteen weeks of doing absolutely nothing to look forward to. The staff would lift me off the bed with a sheet, so they could put me in an electric wheelchair.” Because he was basically bedridden at this point, with rehab waiting for him once the broken bones had healed, he had quite a bit of time to ponder the whole situation. “Thinking about it all at the time, it’s really difficult to try and see the light,” he admits in all honesty. “I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t shed a tear. Once I started to figure out what the consequences meant, I cried a lot. It’s like someone pushed a button. The one moment you’re out there racing and the next you’re confined to a bed, without functioning legs.” Dark clouds had been gathering over Nicola’s head, but he was fortunate to have Elena Foi by his side. The couple had met at a party at Scorpion Bay, six months before Nicola’s life-changing accident. “We’d only known each other for a little while at that point, and the first thing Nicola told me when he woke up after surgery was “You don’t have to stay with me.” Naturally I wanted nothing else but to be there for him, even though I didn’t know what was going to happen at all.” Elena lives in Brescia, almost three hours from Turin, where Nicola was treated in the rehab clinic; traveling back and forth as often as she could. “We lived three hundred kilometers apart, so that was problematic, especially since I had a job and two daughters to raise. I lost my job in the end, unfortunately, but my parents couldn’t have been more supportive. It was a tough period, but Nicola’s recovery was going well and after nine months he could return home. After that my daughters and I moved in with Nicola.”

© Francesca Gasperi

The sole Italian
Before his accident, Nicola Dutto earned a living racing professionally. It wasn’t until Dutto was nineteen he started racing, but that did not stop him from building quite a career in a relatively short period of time. After moderate success riding enduros, the Italian shifted his focus to Baja races. Cross-country races with arrowed out routes seemed to be his forte. “A friend of mine pointed out this particular new sort of racing. In Spain the sport had taken flight and I just fell in love with the game. Eventually I moved to Spain and lived there for six years, just to put all my time into the Baja.” Dutto regularly competed with Dakar hotshots like Marc Coma, Isidre Esteve Pujol, and Nani Roma. Back in the day he was something special, being the sole Italian in a field full of Spaniards. In Italy they held only some fast enduro races, but nothing like a ‘real’ Baja. Dutto managed to make a name for himself in the sport, eventually taking the European Baja title in both 2008 and 2009.

Dutto’s beloved sport first came to be on the Mexican Baja California peninsula, and in 2010 he had intended to race the legendary Baja 1000 race there too. Unfortunately, that never happened that year, but – believe it or not – despite his injuries and his time rehabilitating, Dutto’s name was back on the entry list the year after, as a buggy racer this time. “My crash had ruined my chances of racing a motorcycle in Baja, but my rehabilitation gave me time to reconsider my options. In the end I decided on racing the Baja 1000 in the buggy class, together with Elena.” The Italian couple’s adventure ended with them stuck in the Mexican desert, after a transmission belt got fried. “The problem was aggravated because we just couldn’t replace the belt on site. The belt was behind my seat, so it was impossible to get to. We waited for assistance in that riverbed all night. I had made up my mind right then and there; this never again. Four wheels mean trouble. So, I needed to get myself back on two wheels.”

© Francesca Gasperi

Spanish connection
Three-time AMA motocross national champ Doug Henry inspired Dutto to follow in his footsteps. After the Italian saw the roll cage Henry had used on his bike, he started to work on building his own version. “Motorcycle racing is the pivot point of my life, although getting back on a motorcycle after my crash had seemed impossible until then. I had thought about trying my hand as a race organizer, because it was still the world I wanted to be a part of. Riding bikes again myself? No, that had never crossed my mind in the beginning.” After seeing Doug Henry all that changed, and the Italian was back on a bike soon after. Thinking about that day immediately puts a smile on Dutto’s face. “I felt like such an idiot getting back on a bike again. I was terrified too. We had mounted sort of like training wheels to the bike and at first I went completely pale at the thought of actually riding it. What had I gotten myself into. But a few hundred meters in, I found my balance again. I was certain then I was going to ride again.” After those first tentative steps back on a bike, Dutto enrolled in a Baja race. Just four months down the road, Dutto scored a 24th place in the Baja Aragon. “I had really intended for it to be a fun ride with friends. Just cruising through the mountains, but I couldn’t deny I wanted to get back in the sport. I needed to get in touch with some of my Spanish friends.”

With motorcycle racing back on the cards, the Dakar Rally soon came up for Dutto, too. “Before my accident Bajas had been my main focus, but since it, I’ve been seeing new opportunities everywhere I look. Like the Dakar. It was never a dream for me like it is for most, but to me racing the Dakar is like taking part in the Olympics. Three years ago, while watching the race on TV, I thought to myself why not do the Dakar?”

© Francesca Gasperi

How adversaries became ghost riders
Despite his handicap, Nicola Dutto is no different than other potential contestants, in that he has to qualify to be allowed to take part in the world’s toughest race. He did so last year when he finished the OliLibya Rally. Every competitor needs a team to even have a shot at finishing a race, but for the Italian having capable people around him is beyond crucial. During rally raids the KTM rider is accompanied by so-called ghost riders. These ghost riders go by the name of Pablo Toral, Victor Rivera, and Julian Villarrubia. “We will start the Dakar Rally as a four-person team. One rider will ride in front, because I can’t just stop to have a look around, to see where I’m supposed to be going. He guides me onto the right trails up a dune for instance. He’s also the one to ‘catch’ me when I have to stop for fuel or when I reach the finish line. The other two riders follow in my wake. In case something goes wrong, they’ll be there to pick me up. As I’m tied to the motorcycle it’s important having the two of them, because it’s not just the bike they’re picking up, but the roll cage and myself with it. For me it is even more important than it is for ‘normal’ riders to have a team I can rely on; it has to feel like a family. I am fortunate to have three incredible ghost riders – guys I’ve known for a very long time. They used to be my adversaries in the Spanish Bajas!”

© Francesca Gasperi

Since Dutto is paralyzed from the waist down, he needs more than just his three ghost riders with him; the bike needed quite a bit of work as well. His KTM 450 EXC-F has undergone a transformation to allow the Italian to be comfortable on the bike. Dutto uses an electronically controlled shifter as well as an automatic Rekluse clutch. The rear brake master cylinder has been moved to the handlebars, too. His legs are secured and guarded by a framework. Other important parts on Dutto’s unique KTM are the Vicair seat and back support with a three-point harness attached. “Comparing my current Dakar bike to the bike I first built to get back on two wheels, you could say a lot has changed. On the old bike the roll cage was pretty big and bulky, where on my new bike it’s brought back to a very minimalist design. It allowed us to shed quite a bit of weight from the bike, which helps controlling the motorcycle. It’s also worth noting the engine of the KTM enduro is a lot better, too. Engine characteristics and the fact it has a six-speed gearbox is perfect for me.” Obviously, Nicola had to adapt his riding to the new situation. In his own words, it now feels like normal riding without using his legs. “It’s pretty difficult explaining how I have to ride a bike now. It is a very involved manner of riding, and it has taken a lot of time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Working on getting the suspension to work for me was interesting, because I’m unable to stand up to take the blows anymore.”

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© Francesca Gasperi

The best example
The paraplegia has led Nicola Dutto through a deep and dark place, but his eyes were always on the light shimmering on the horizon. He couldn´t be happier he decided to approach his rehabilitation as only a professional athlete would. “I put in the hours of training, with the clinic staff telling me I was mad. Instead of going for just an hour of required physical therapy, I pushed on. If I could, I would try two or even three hours. That sped up progress drastically. I still felt like a professional athlete, even without functioning legs. Preparing for the Dakar Rally I’m back in that zone again.”

His entry in the Dakar Rally is the best example of Dutto’s will to enjoy life – especially since he can combine life with motorsports again. “I consider myself a happy man, not just because I’m still alive, but also because there’s still so many projects left to do for me. In 2013 my good friend Kurt Caselli lost his life. That was hard to swallow, but at the same time it made me more determined in making the most out of life. Look, the accident left me with two options. I could’ve looked back, thinking about the time when I could still walk, but that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. I decided to take the second option, because when I’m on a bike or when I’m skiing – another passion of mine – I’m always looking ahead. And that is how I’m living life with my paraplegia, too.”

© Francesca Gasperi

Want to follow Nicola Dutto during the upcoming Dakar Rally? Check out his social media pages:

Photos: Francesca Gasperi