Anastasiya Nifontova – As Tough As She Sounds
BY ALDONA JUOZAITYTE-PIEVA
“In Russia I’m the only woman (in bikes, quads, cars, trucks etc) who participated in Dakar rally,” – Anastasiya told me. Saying that, let’s put even more to this – she is the first women to have finished the toughest rally in the world, the Dakar, in the toughest category – Malle Moto, nowadays called Original by Motul. I talked to her before and after the race.
She is 39 years old and she is from Moscow. Anastasiya is a linguist and director of photography by education. She got her first bike (Russian “TULA”) at the age of 16 and rode around her parents’ country house. At 20 years old Nifontova bought her first racing bike. At first it was like a weekend hobby, but later she started to race motocross and started to train with a coach. Her first motocross season back in 2006 was quite successful, as she finished in TOP3 in women’s national championship. In 2008 Anastasiya started to race in Supermoto alongside men (there were no supermoto women in Russia) and by the end of the season finished 3rd in Lite class of the Russian National Championship. In 2012, she returned back to rallies and races till now.
You have participated and finished the Dakar couple of years ago as the first Russian woman. What‘s it like to be the one? What is the feeling and attention you get worldwide and in your own country?
Of course it’s always a pleasure and at the same time big responsibility to be the first one. I don’t think that worldwide attention to me was bigger than to any other Dakar woman but in Russia, for sure I got quite a big “piece of cake”.
What was the biggest impression from your first Dakar? What and why was the most difficult moment? And what was the most amazing reward you got from that experience?
The biggest impression was that it was really really tough race. By that time I already participated in different rallies, including two Africa Eco Race editions which are also not easy at all, but I couldn’t even imagine that Dakar was so tough. The most difficult moment was to get the license for the Dakar and appear on a start ramp because two months earlier I got some doping issues with FIM due to my long lasting medical treatment. Of course the most amazing reward was the finish in Buenos Aires after two weeks of this toughest challenge.
Why did you choose Malle Moto challenge – the legendary approach to the rally?
The main reason was that I wanted to challenge myself to maximum. If I managed to finish this race from the first attempt, then I’d have to find something more interesting afterwards.
How did you prepare for this class? How was it different from the first time you prepared for the Dakar?
Generally my preparation didn’t differ a lot form what I did before. The only thing added – mechanical exercises. I trained a lot with my mechanic to do all necessary work with the bike. I did a lot of stuff myself before, especially in the beginning of my motorcycle career but now I had to learn a lot of new things connected with my rally bike. It was really interesting.
How much and where do you ride and race in general?
Unfortunately in Moscow there is no chance to ride rally bike properly so I only train on a motocross track and that’s it. That’s why my best practice is only during races such as some rounds of Cross-Country Rally World Championship (Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Morocco) or Albania Rally with a smaller bike. Africa Eco Race rally marathon also gave me a lot of precious experience. I like this race very much as it has that true rally spirit.
What motorcycle riders you admire most and why? And what riders are your best friends?
I admire all fast rally riders because in our sport you should combine in yourself a lot of skills and being only a good rider is not enough. You should also be a good navigator, good mechanic, good athlete and know how to deal with tactics. Most riders whom I met during rallies are my friends, we often chat on Facebook or Instagram and we cheer each other up during races.
Please name your perfect ride with a bike. How does it feel and look?
Endless desert with big dunes. Early wake up and start with the first rays of light over the land of sand and me riding all day long with friends making traces on smooth dunes.
What is the greatest decision you have made in your motorcycling career?
To borrow money and go to Abu Dhabi to race in my first ever Cross-Country Rally World Championship race.
You have a physical talent. Is it in your genes, DNA? Why are you so strong and have that perpetuum mobile?
I don’t know what it is, since early childhood I cannot sit for long on one place. Even when I spend holidays with my family I always look around and search for some action.
Is it true, that these kind of rallies became more like sport and less an adventure and fun?
For sure it’s more like sport for me but still it’s also a lot of fun.
Saying that, could you compare the spirit of Africa Eco Race and the Dakar?
These are two absolutely different events. Dakar is more about sport and the idea of surviving. AER is about spirit of old school rally raids.
Why didn’t you participate in the Dakar 2018? Was it related to the doping issue? Could you please tell us more about your Dakar 2017 doping story: what happened?
I didn’t participate in Dakar 2018 because I couldn’t find the funds for it. Since my school years I have health issues connected with strong headaches due to insulin resistance syndrome and for years I undergo special medical treatment that protects my brain from oxidative stress. In January 2016 WADA included Meldonium in the list of prohibited substances and I didn’t know that one of the medication contained this substance (you should be a doctor to know such details) and continued my usual medical treatment. When I sent the request for the new FIM license for 2016 season our national motorcycle federation had to ask and check my medical forms where all my medical story should be recorded, but they didn’t do it and issued the license without any questions so at the end when doping test (it was made in Morocco during the last stage of the cross-country rally world championship) revealed presence of meldonium in my body I was the only one responsible for that. After there were the most terrible two months of my life when I almost didn’t sleep, didn’t eat trying to prove my right to race in my first Dakar. I didn’t have money to hire professional lawyers so I did everything myself with the help of my family and close friends. I got my license back at 5:00 a.m. in the day of administrative checks so when I rode in the Dakar start arch I was the happiest and the most exhausted (physically and mentally) person in the world. I still don’t know how I managed to finish my first Dakar 2017 after such a battle with lawyers and doctors.
Usually, number 13 is a scary one. Why have you chosen this number as yours?
This number was given to me at my first ever race back in 1999. Since then it’s my number.
Now finishing Malle Moto as a woman you are “the first” again. What is that finish taste?
Actually right after the race I was too tired to understand what had happened. I just felt happy and a bit empty to finish one more Dakar, so only too much interest from the mass media let me understand that I did something out of the ordinary. Moreover in a week after my comeback to Moscow I started to prepare for Russian Baja The Northern Forest with my Toyota LC200 and completely switched to the new tasks.
How was this edition different from your first Dakar?
I was more prepared for the race, first of all physically and second mentally. But due to this new “original” challenge it was more difficult for me. I had less time to rest, I had higher responsibility for my bike and for the race in general. This time support from my fans, friends and a lot of people all over the world was epic so I didn’t have the right to fail and on the one hand this energy helped me a lot and on the other hand it was a bit of a mental pressure.
You were two women participating in this class. How did you feel when after 3rd stage Sara Garcia was out of the game?
Sara is a very brave woman (actually, like every woman participating in Dakar) and she is a very nice person so of course I felt sorry for her that she quit the race so early because of some bike problems. That day she came to me and said: “Now you should do it for us both!” That was inspiring.
Normally, a rally racer falls down (a lot). Did you? And in what circumstances mostly?
First days it happened one or two times during the special stages, but later when I was already out of power I could fall down dozens of times and at very easy parts just because I couldn’t use the throttle properly. It was funny and irritating at the same time.
Were there any problems with your motorcycle, what did you change/ check daily?
My bike was perfectly prepared by my mechanic before the race so fortunately I didn’t have any major problems during the Dakar. Every day I did all the necessary service works like changing filters, checking all liquids, changing oil, changing tyres (once in three days). Sometimes I had to fix some cracks in the bike’s fairing and once I changed rear fender and installed new rear stop lamps that were broken when a car drove over my bike in the desert. Few days before the finish I changed the front sprocket. I guess that’s it.
How did your day look like from morning to the night time?
Usually I woke up around 5 o’clock, had breakfast, then dressed up, packed my stuff and tent to give it to the organizers service truck. After I started the liasons and special stages. Average time I spent on the bike daily was about 11 hours where special stages usually took around 7-8 hours. During day one, I didn’t have the chance to eat properly, only energy bars and gels – that’s why I tried to eat as much as I could in the evening before going to sleep. Traditional rider’s meal was pasta with meat. After every day’s finish at the bivouac first I had to ride to the nearest petrol station to get some fuel for the next day (sometimes it was 30km away and took time), then minimum two hours for servicing the bike.
What was “the most” in this Dakar: the most amazing/breathtaking; the scariest/dangerous; the funniest/cheerful?
The most amazing in this Dakar were the landscapes. Huge sand dunes and magnificent ocean that you could see from the top. That was super beautiful. The most scariest moment was on the special stage 8 when I fell over the dune and the following second, a huge racing truck almost hit my bike and me. There was a second that I said farewell to the world but luckily nobody suffered. The most cheerful thing about this Dakar is that a lot of people all over the world supported and cheered me on during the race. That’s unbelievable.
Were you all alone in the race?
I was not so all alone at the Dakar. My husband was always somewhere around as he worked as a press car driver during the race and for sure mentally it helped me a lot, but according to the rules he didn’t have the right to help me with anything so he just hugged me sometimes and cheered. There were also some friends of mine (from different previous races) who also participated in the Original by Motul class this year so I didn’t feel lonely.
Could you please tell us some of other’s Malle Moto riders’ stories you know from this Dakar?
Oh, I don’t know any details about other participants. Maybe just the story of Sara Garcia and her boyfriend as they were that one romantic original couple in the race and until Sara was in the game they raced together during the special stages helping each other. That was very nice.
Regarding all this, you are also a mother, a wife and a boss. How does your ordinary day look like from the morning to the evening? Are there any days without your motorbike? What are your hobbies or things you like?
Unfortunately besides training I have so many things to do so a day with motorbike is a holiday for me. I wake up, have breakfast with my kids, then walk with my 6 year old son to his kindergarten, go to work to our family’s small motorcycle shop, work there with the computer, sometimes I write articles for motorcycles magazines or sometimes I work the whole day as an author and host for TV programs. I also used to work as a radio host once a week. When I have free time during the day I spend 2 hours for functional training and during riding season (in Moscow it starts in April and ends in mid October) I try to go riding but as it usually takes the whole day, if I have three riding days a week it’s super cool. Usually not more than two. In the evening, dinner with the family, time with kids, shower and bed. I used to be a professional mountain skier when I was at school so skiing is my favorite hobby now. I also like jet ski, kite surfing, diving, photography.
Being a women rider in a men’s dominated field, did you encounter any inappropriate behavior from men or women regarding to your talent and passion in all 20 years of your motorcycle career?
For years I’ve never noticed any bad attitude towards me because I’m a woman doing some men’s stuff or because of anything else. In rally raid world most people are of high quality and I like being a woman here.
You told me earlier that if you finish Malle Moto in your first attempt, you would have to find something more interesting. So, what’s next?
I’m thinking about the Silkway Rally on a bike and… maybe Dakar in a car in T2 category? We’ll see. But definitely it’s not the end it’s just the beginning of something new and interesting.