Skyler Howes is arguably one of the best rally raid riders currently in rally raid, over the years having taken victories and podiums at the Rallye du Maroc, Sonora, Silk Way and Baja rallies while he took his best Dakar result in 2023 with a third place finish.
Signed up to the Monster Energy Honda Team in time for the Rallye Du Maroc 2023, it didn’t quite go to plan for him so we caught up with the man with the most famous ‘tache in the bivouac and yes, we did find out where the inspiration came for it!
How did it all come about signing up to the team?
The short version is: I am very fortunate. I was in a tough situation with my previous contract and at the end was notified that it would stop. At that time I reached out to Ruben (Monster Energy Honda Team Manager) and was very excited to hear that they were interested to add a bike and position for me on the team. The timing seemed to work just perfectly and the whole process of joining the team went extremely smooth. After my podium at the Dakar it was hard for me to process the situation of my previous contract but as one door closes, another opens and I’m extremely happy that the door was to the Monster Energy Honda team.
What happened in Morocco and has it affected your training in the lead up to the Dakar?
My crash in Morocco was just a racing accident. Sometimes you zig when you should have zagged. In this case I just chose the line that had the deepest part of a hole. A huge bummer for me being my first outing with the team. After a podium at the Dakar, the rest of this year has been a battle with two injuries back to back, I’ve spent more time recovering than training. However, there is some bonus to that. I feel clear mentally, motivated, energised and I’ve had a lot of time to focus, test and get comfortable and on the new bike. I’m spending all of my time now with my trainer and physio to be as fit and recovered and ready to take on the Dakar.
How you got into rally raid and funding your entry into the Dakar as a privateer. It must now seem like all the hard work has paid off?
As early as 16, when I could legally work a job, my sole purpose of making money was to pay for racing. I reached a very low point, going completely broke and unable to find the support to race despite working 14 hours a day and getting some pretty good results at races. But I was very lucky enough to have some important people behind me that kept me going and that led me to entering into the Sonora Rally in 2018 and winning it overall which gave me the Road to Dakar prize and free entry to the 2019 Peru Dakar. That quickly snowballed and I was able to get some good support and after my 9th place finish in 2020 I lost a bit of support and was left with a difficult decision; sell everything I own, work harder than I ever had at fundraising, or stop racing completely. I figured, that I would always wonder for the rest of my what could have been if I would have just tried. So I thought, “it’s just stuff” so I sold everything that I owned, t-shirts, coached riding classes and did an insane amount of fund raising to make it back to the Dakar. When the helmet went on was when I felt the relief of stress and was able to put in a great ride that landed me in the top five overall. A huge gamble that paid off and I landed a spot on my first factory team. That led to a podium and now here to the team I always dreamed of riding for.
In just your fifth Dakar this year you took a third place podium after leading the rally for six consecutive days, just how tough was this year’s event?
2023 was the hardest of all the Dakars that I competed in. It was longer, the weather was unkind, the terrain was unforgiving and there were new rules that added an extra level to the strategy. I figured that if I could stay inside the top three each stage and that I could probably ride fast enough opening the track to collect the opening bonus, that could be a good chance of staying consistent enough to win the rally.
By the rest day the times were really tight but I had the lead and was able to control it until the final days where I had some problems in the dunes of the Empty Quarter. That put me just over a minute behind heading into the last day which was an all out sprint in the slippery mud along a beach to the finish. I knew that gaining over a minute on the other two legends in front of me was going to mean me take some big risks, so I made the decision that I would wait for a mistake from those guys to be gifted the win. It was better for me to land on the podium rather than go home in a helicopter. But at the finish line, the other guys nailed it and I was left with third place, a result that I’m extremely proud of. That level of competition is insane in this sport. Fighting for seconds over the course of 45 hours of racing is hard to fathom, but it just shows how perfect you have to be for almost 8,000 kms and two weeks of rallying. I love it.
The 2024 Dakar 'promises to push man and machine harder than any of the previous ones', just how tough do you think it will be?
Any Dakar is gnarly. For them to add an extra level of challenge to it is even more exciting in my opinion. I don’t think the Dakar would hold such high regard if it wasn’t the hardest event on the planet. It’s why I love this rally and this sport so much. Every year will be different, more challenging, new rules and strategies, it’s exciting! To test yourself and the machine against the unforgiving terrain, weather and roadbook is the most raw form of motor sport in my eyes and if this Dakar is tougher than the last, bring it on!
You join Ricky, Adrien, Pablo, Nacho and Tosha in an impressive and experienced line up, do you think there is anything you can learn from them?
I was fortunate to learn early on that the second you think you have rally all figured out, the desert will slap you right in the face and show you that you definitely don’t. Every singe time I ride with a roadbook or compete in a new event I am learning something new. Every one of my teammates has huge experience that I hope I can learn from. Some are so particular with the navigating, others with the mastery in the dunes, and so on. My entire goal of my career is to learn as much as possible, have a ton of fun and give my 100% to reach the goals of myself and the team. To have all of these guys as teammates is an awesome opportunity to learn and hone my craft.
What are your impressions so far of the Honda CRF450 RALLY and how do you prepare for the World Rally-Raid Championship rounds, as there must be a certain level of physical and mental strength required to get through them?
I’ve always felt at home on a Honda, and the CRF450 RALLY is nothing different. As soon as I swung a leg over the bike and let it rip, I knew that I was right back home. The power is amazing and the comfort is even better. So far my time on the bike has been spent burning laps in the California desert getting as much seat time as possible and new training with roadbooks in Morocco to get the brain firing. The physical strength is one thing for these long days on the bike during rallies, but the mental side is even more demanding. To have to focus on the terrain in front of you and push yourself and your bike to the absolute limit is only a small portion of rally. Then you need to add on the navigation as being fast is one thing but if you fail at the navigation, how hard you just rode and how fast you think you went is right out the window when you are lost. To keep the focus, clarity and motivation over the course of an eight hour day on the bike every day for a week is a hard task. Training for this is not easy as well but the more you can simulate race conditions while training, the more you can improve during the race.
We’ve read that you fly a hot air balloon, how did that interest come about? Ever been tempted by flying one at the famous Cappadocia in Turkey?
My parents actually met while flying. My father has been a pilot for over 35 years so it’s been something that I grew up with all my life. When thinking about it, flying a balloon is a bit boring, just floating around in a giant bubble. But piloting one is very fun for me. It’s very mentally demanding, only being able to control up and down with heat and relying on the invisible force of wind to “steer” you where you want to go. You always have to be focused and be able to adapt to whatever Mother Nature will throw at you. So for me it’s a really nice hobby that is making my brain work hard. For now, my flying has taken a back seat to my rally career but when I have the free time the flying that I like doing is in crazy places, trying to navigate a river or a canyon or fly in an “extreme” environment for a balloon. Turkey seems like a place that would be incredibly fun to fly, to be surrounded by other balloons is magical and to add that terrain to it would be awesome. Turkey is high on my bucket list of places to fly one day.
Where did the inspiration come from for your spectacular moustache?
My grandfather. He had the nickname “frito bandito” while racing down in Mexico. He had a big curly moustache and so ever since I could grow one, I would grow it out any time I went to Baja to race. One year, I was convinced to keep it after I got back home and rocked it at the Dakar. Now I think I need to keep it forever! What better way to honour my grandfather and father, the two that are responsible for getting me started into this amazing sport, than to rock the same moustaches that they always had. For me it’s a little more sentimental rather than just a fun thing. I feel very lucky for this life and if this is a way that I can give credit to my family then I will wear it proudly!