Matthias Walkner should have spent January in Saudi Arabia contending for his second Dakar Rally victory. He was instead in a hospital back in Austria after suffering a severe leg fracture while testing in December. After two months and six surgeries totalling thirty-three hours, he was finally discharged on Friday and to begin rehabilitation.
The accident occurred while testing with his fellow World Rally-Raid Championship colleagues Sam Sunderland, reigning champion Luciano Benavides, and Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team-mates Kevin Benavides and Toby Price in Palm Springs, California. Walkner, riding at 60 km/h, missed a five-metre hole due to the dust and slammed into it, launching him off his bike. Not only did he fracture his left tibia and fibula fracture on impact, but the ankle basically exploded into over thirty different pieces, rendering it little more than a powder.
“On the second day, we were actually not going fast at all,” he recalled in an interview with Sport am Sonntag. “We were just doing this test lap, but as is often the case in sports, when all the factors somehow fit together and work together so that the sun is in the right position and those in front of me were producing so much dust, it was really easy to overlook the edges in the riverbed. I jumped about six meters onto the opposite slope.
“I think it was my worst fall (of my career) by far. This is the worst case as a rider that somehow you overlook it.”
His peers stayed with him until medical help arrived. After getting airlifted to a hospital in Palm Springs, he underwent his first surgery during which doctors discovered the arteries in his foot were almost severed; fears of amputation were put to rest when they concluded it was not at risk of being infected.
He was eventually transferred to intensive care at University Hospital Graz in Austria, where his treatment was led by Dr. Michael Plecko. The pain was excruciating; the swelling continued despite efforts to stymie it and the wound remained open, forcing doctors to graft tissue from his thigh while bone from his pelvis was used to rebuild the ankle and foot. One operation took fifteen hours to complete after he suffered an intestinal infection due to his weakened immune system. Once the reconstruction was completed, he found himself constantly hurting over the next two weeks, for which he received morphine.
Now out of the hospital, Walkner will continue recuperating in Tobelbad with assistance from the Allgemeine Unfallversicherungsanstalt (Austrian Workers’ Compensation Board). The process will be lengthy, effectively rendering him unable to run most of the 2024 W2RC. Of course, such a severe injury raises questions on if he would be able to resume his career at all.
“I haven’t given much thought to whether I’ll race again. Now I have completely different priorities,” Walkner told Kleine Zeitung. “At the very beginning, when I was still in America, I said: ‘No, I’m definitely not going to do this shit to myself anymore.’ Of course, we’re further from that now. Now, I’m thinking again that it would be cool to race again and be with my team, but I only want to compete again when I’m competitive. Nobody knows at the moment whether this will succeed. I’ll definitely ride a motorcycle again, but we’ll see whether it’s good enough for racing.”
Walkner, the 2018 Dakar Rally winner, struggled with injuries during the 2023 season. He hurt his spine at that year’s Dakar Rally, which sidelined him from the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. He returned at the Sonora Rally and finished fourth among points-earning riders, but retired from the next round in Argentina after giving up parts from his bike to help Price. His season finale in Morocco was cut short by a crash.