His resilience, said Potgieter in an interview with News24, is all due to “brain training”.
“The mind is an unbelievably strong tool,” he said, explaining that as a teenager, he had swapped his rugby jersey for bikes after realising he wanted to “to push the boundaries”.
With sports like rugby, Potgieter said, he felt there was always an option that if you were injured or had had enough, you could walk off the pitch.
“In our sport, when you are sitting in the Sahara desert, there is only one way out and you have to go. That really pushes your mental fitness.”
Potgieter, who was born in Franschhoek and grew up on a farm where there were always motorbikes around, began taking part in rallies around South Africa from the age of 18.
However, everything came to a devastating halt when during a cross country rally in Australia in 2009, his bike broke in half while he was travelling at over 130km/h. Potgieter was thrown from his bike and then ridden over by another contestant, who had not seen the crash amidst all the desert dust.
His pelvis, neck, vertebrae and fingers were broken. “I was really in a mess”.
‘I have to push through’
After spending eight weeks in hospital in Australia, he was airlifted to South Africa, where he spent a further three months in treatment. In all, it took 18 months to fully recover, including having to learn to walk again.
Potgieter said that at first after the accident, he felt his sporting days were over. “I said, ‘this is not a sport, it’s a suicide mission’.”
However, he began to realise that racing was his great love and he could not simply leave it behind. “This is what has given me the motivation. If you give up on all these obstacles, then you give up in general. So I said, ‘no, I have to push through’.”
By 2011, he was not just back on his bike, but came second in his category at a world cup rally in Morocco.
“It was an amazing feeling. It showed that if you put effort into it, you can really do it. It gave me the encouragement to carry on and tackle the next challenge.”
Potgieter, who then moved to Dubai for a while, carried on competing in various rallies around the world, including in Qatar, Turkey, the Himalayas and Egypt.
However, the Dakar rally always remained the ultimate prize in Potgieter’s eyes. The race was founded by Frenchman Thierry Sabine in 1977, after he got lost in the Libyan Desert during the Abidjan-Nice rally and decided the desert would be a perfect setting for a race.
“The big draw has always been the Dakar. It is the ultimate in [motorcycle] endurance racing,” said Potgieter.
According to the rally’s official website, this year, 664 competitors representing 54 nationalities took part in the rally. Next year is expected to draw the same energetic level of participation across the route that spans Argentina and Bolivia.
The rally will run from January 3 to 16.
Potgieter will be taking part as one of the four-man, Netherlands-based Bas Trucking team.
He is currently involved in endurance training to prepare for the eight to 10 hours he will be on the bike each day during the two-week rally. He is also undergoing altitude training to help him cope with the conditions in terrain that, at times, could rise to 1 000m above sea level.
An additional twelve-strong team of personnel will travel with the drivers, including truck drivers, mechanics and even a chef.
Freedom, soul searching
“It’s a buzz,” said the adrenaline junkie, who described himself as “49 years young”.
He said he loved the experience of meeting people from all over the world through his sport, and also loved to share his knowledge about racing with anyone who shows an interest.
“That keeps you young and motivated and makes you feel like a superstar – even though I am not one,” he said with a laugh.
Potgieter, a naval architect by profession, said there was something very special about the desert setting. “The desert is about freedom and soul searching, finding new ideas. As I’m going down a salt pan, my mind drifts… You come back inspired.”