What Goes 95 Miles Per Hour for 17 Days Straight?
Credit: Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

What I am about to do has been denounced by the Vatican as "a vulgar display of power and wealth," drawn the ire and fire of Islamic terrorists, stranded European royalty and thrill-seeking riffraff in the Sahara, cost hundreds of millions in damages, and claimed the lives of more than 30 people. Likened to "blood sport from a science fiction novel," it's been judged the world's most dangerous legally sanctioned sporting event. Seventeen years ago Sports Illustrated decreed that with "any luck, or common sense," it would never happen again; yet it did, and has every year since.

Most commonly it is called the Paris-Dakar Rally, though Paris has been just a flickering presence in recent years. More accurately it's called the Dakar Rally, and it's a bone-crushing, will-killing off-road race from Europe to the African city of Dakar, in which cars, motorcycles, and trucks slog 5,500-plus miles through the deepest orange undulations of the Sahara, with its biblical sandstorms and locust swarms and arid empty vastness, to the beautiful blue sea-spray of the Senegalese coast. Half my fellow competitors, revving their engines in the starting lineup, won't see that blue beauty – for every one that finishes, another will fall prey to injury or exhaustion or mechanical failure, and the race will leave them behind. More darkly, the odds say that at least one of us will not return alive; on average, in the Dakar Rally's 27-year history more than one competitor has died at each running.

This time, however, when it's all finished, at least five people will lie dead, including a legendary Italian racer, a five-year-old Senegalese girl, and a jovial Spanish motorcyclist who shared my team's support truck. A suspected Al Qaeda operative will be arrested and charged with "plotting to kill as many participants as possible." Spain's Green Party will demand that the Spanish government extract itself from the rally, while a French lawmaker will plead with his prime minister to ban the race altogether. The rally's major motorcycle sponsor, KTM, will publicly admit misgivings about the race, wondering, as many have before, if death in the desert outweighs the bright glory of a Dakar victory.

At this moment, however, as my partner and I watch the line official count down the start of our first stage with his fingers, five, then four, three…the truth is, at this moment, I have no fucking clue what I'm about to do.