Deadly Dakar: Aussie ‘tried to bring him back… but couldn’t’
Toby Price unclasped the blood-soaked helmet strap and placed his hand against the fallen rider's neck.
Price pushed harder.
Still nothing. Paul Goncalves was already dead.
"I knew it wasn't going to be good as soon as I saw him," Price said. "All the blood. There was just so much blood. But I lifted his helmet and put my hand on his neck to check for a pulse. He was unresponsive."
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Almost 300km into the longest stage of the 2020 Dakar Rally and nothing but desert for another 268km, the Australian endurance motorcycle world champion found himself all alone with the bloodied body of Portuguese rider Goncalves.
Price would spend the next eight minutes locked in an already lost battle to save the 40-year-old's life.
"It was tough,'' Price said. "The worst thing I have ever been through for sure. I have lost some of my best mates to the sport but to be there on the scene when it happens is something else.
"I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I still struggle with it now. I tried to bring him back but couldn't. Being there and being able to do nothing about it is a very hard thing to take."
It is only now, 244 days after Goncalves was killed during the seventh stage of the Dakar Rally, that the Australian champion has agreed to talk about the tragedy.
Set to begin training for the 2021 Dakar Rally with a European camp, Price recalled the heartbreak of his darkest day.
Having begun his bid to claim back-to-back Dakar motorbike crowns by winning the first and fifth stage, Price was on track to become Australia's first three-time champion when he arrived in Riyad, Saudi Arabia to start stage seven.
The ninth rider due to go out, Price watched on as the riders were let loose one by one. The reigning champion's turn arrived five minutes after Portuguese veteran Goncalves had begun the 546km Riyad to Wadi ad-Dawasir stage.
Under another flawless Saudi Arabian sky, all blue and not a cloud in sight, Price roared off the line and into the desert to continue the world's toughest, longest and deadliest two-wheeled race. A race he had heroically won the year before with a broken wrist.
No injuries this year - for once everything feeling good - a wake of sand spat from the back of his bike as Price blasted his way across the desert. He hit a top speed of almost 170km/h as he attempted to win the stage and claim the points lead.
The world endurance champion was "wide-open" giving it "full gas" when his GPS alarm went off.
"That's when I knew something was wrong," Price said. The alarm meant there was a hazard on the course. Or worse …
Price looked hard forward. As far as he could. All the way to the heat haze that hovered over the horizon. That's when he saw the two black shapes. He immediately feared the worst. A bike. A body.
Price got back on the throttle and charged. He knew he was the only one who could help.
Price was already numb when he kicked out his stand and jumped off his KTM 450. He ignored the voice in his head that said 'too late … nothing you can do' and rushed toward the fallen rider in the red and white suit. He was on his knees and by Goncalves' side at 10.08am.
"I already knew it was bad from what I could see," Price said.
"I knew I was in for a bad result."
Goncalves was not moving. Sprawled across the sand and on his back, the Portuguese champion was about 15m away from his upturned and still running bike.
"It was a bad sight," Price said.
"Horrible. But I just clicked into it and did what I could to help. The first thing I did was to check for a pulse. It was difficult because of the way he was lying and all the blood. I had to get under his helmet.''
Price placed his hand on the fallen rider's neck and searched for a pulse.
"There was no sign of life," Price said. "I don't think I really processed it at the time. I kind of knew how bad it was before I checked but I had to do it anyway. I had to do whatever I could to assist."
Price jumped on the radio and called for help before going back to attempt CPR.
"I am a motorbike rider, a mechanic and sometimes an electrical engineer,' he said. 'But I never thought I would be needed to perform the role of a paramedic. As I said, I went into that role without thinking about it. I just had to try. Had to do what I could."
Price turned Goncalves onto his side in an attempt to clear his airway. "I couldn't do mouth to mouth. There was just too much blood. There was no chance. But I tried to clear his airways but couldn't because there was too much blood."
Price was performing chest compressions when Stefan Svitko arrived on scene. The Slovak rider had begun the stage five minutes after Price. "He got down with me and helped," Price said.
"But all we could do was the chest compressions. We had no medical equipment and he was bleeding a lot. We couldn't stop the blood. We had no chance of getting him back but I just kept on doing whatever I could until the medical team arrived."
Price was still performing CPR when the rescue helicopter arrived at 10.16am. It had been the longest eight minutes of his life.
"I suppose it didn't set in that he wasn't coming back until they arrived. I was hoping they could get a result that I couldn't."
Price stayed by Goncalves' side for the next 80 minutes. He passed bandages and held up drips. "I also helped assist carrying him to the helicopter. I was first at his side and wanted to be the last to leave."
Price was shattered. He thought he had failed. "The doctor told me even if there was a team of 15 doctors on scene instead of just me that it would have been the same result.
"That made me feel a little better but I had someone's life in my hands and he died. I tried to do everything but I couldn't do a thing."
There was nothing more Price could have done. "The organisers received an alert at 10:08 and dispatched a medical helicopter that reached the biker at 10:16 and found him unconscious after going into cardiac arrest," the official statement said.
"Following resuscitation efforts in situ, the competitor was taken by helicopter to Layla Hospital, where he was sadly pronounced dead."
It was later revealed the crash had killed Gonclaves instantly.
"I can't even remember getting back on the bike and finishing the stage," Price said.
Price wore race goggles to hide his tears when the riders assembled at the day's end.
"It's all a blur," Price said. "All I remember is sitting back at the end of the day and hoping it was all a dream. Unfortunately, I woke up the next day and it was real."
The rally continued after Goncalves' death. So did Price, although he no longer cared about defending his title.
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"I'm dehydrated from tears," Price said at the time. "At the moment I'm not even worried about the result, I couldn't care. We are human and this is nothing but just a race, I would give up all my wins to have any of my fellow racing mates back with us."
The heartbreak continued just days later when there was another death. In a double tragedy, Dutch rider Edwin Straver was killed in a low speed crash on stage 11.
Somehow Price managed to not only continue but almost win. He finished just 24 minutes behind winner Ricky Brabec to claim his fifth Dakar podium in seven starts.
"I'm going to just go home and think these things over," Price said after finishing third. "And come back hopefully bigger and stronger next year."
Price admits he is still struggling to come to terms with Gonclaves death.
"It is still tough," Price said.
"Still hard to swallow. I hope no one has to go through anything like it. I am still getting over it and only feeling normal on the bike now."
Price knew Dakar was deadly long before Gonclaves death. The race had claimed 28 competitors before the year's double tragedy. But seeing it made it real.
"I definitely had to ask myself if it was all worth it," Price said.
"And If you told me I had to line-up and race Dakar again straight after that event it would have been a tall order. But at the end of the day I had to get back out on the bike. It is only on my bike that I feel free from the world and all of my problems. There is no feeling like that and it is the reason why I continue to ride."
Price claims dealing with Gonclaves' death was worse than any injury he has sustained. Even the broken neck that should have ended his career before it started. Price famously wore a halo on a plane trip from Los Angeles to Sydney in 2013 after US surgeons refused to operate on three fractures in his neck unless he came up with $500,000.
"I have had plenty of injuries," Price said. "But this was worse."
He won his first Dakar Rally in 2016, just three years after being told he would never walk again.
Price will arrive in Spain this week to start preparing for his seventh Dakar Rally.
Coming back from a broken neck and winning Dakar with a broken wrist, the Hunter-raised star has spent his entire life overcoming adversity.
Price will also have to deal with a preparation like no other with COVID limiting him to just two local races this year.
"We need to get some time on the bike and prepare the best we can. It is a different time for us all and we are trying to fit the last eight months into the rest of the year."
Originally published as Deadly Dakar: Aussie 'tried to bring him back… but couldn't'