An MX World Turned Upside Down

Why The MXGP Championship Is The Real Deal

From the August 2015 issue of Dirt Rider Magazine

Photo by Shan Moore

All of a sudden, the World MXGP series just got a lot more interesting.

You can thank Ryan Villopoto for that. After winning four consecutive AMA World Supercross titles, plus two 450cc MX outdoor national titles, the Monster Energy Kawasaki rider—who most consider the best rider in the world—announced he would forgo the 2015 SX season to spend his final year of competition in Europe before retiring. That was a big surprise to many and a huge shock to RV fans across the country.

There’s no doubt that Villopoto’s presence in the MXGP championship has brought a ton of new interest to the series. MX fans all across the Untied States are now checking their phones on the weekends for results from the latest GP somewhere across the globe, something that was fairly unheard of a year ago. But make no mistake, other than a brilliant win in Thailand, RV2 has struggled during three of the first four rounds, including an uncharacteristic loop-out on a straightaway in Italy, which bruised his tailbone and forced him to head home to recover. And at the time we went to print, RV had missed two races due to the injury.

The redheaded Washington native pointed to a big difference in bike setup and unfamiliarity with the tracks for his issues to date. “From turn to turn, the distances are shorter than our tracks at home, and the speeds are slower,” Villopoto explained. “So on most of those first few tracks, my setup was way off. I tend to run a stiffer setup for the faster, harder-packed tracks in America, but over here, it’s way off, mainly because of the difference in speed.”

Did RV set his goals too high when he made this “final year” announcement? Is it even plausible for a rider to win the MXGP series in his very first season? Some of these tracks have been around so long that they’re legendary, and the GP regulars have ridden them dozens of times. According to newly crowned AMA SX champ Ryan Dungey, the lines even develop differently on the GP circuits than they do here in the US. Plus, the MXGP series is a two-day format with a lot more track time than what RV is used to over here in the States. Sure, Danny LaPorte won his 250cc World title in his first year competing in Europe in 1982. But that was a much different time for the sport and in the 250cc class when 500cc two-strokes reigned.

The question now is, does the MXGP series deserve more attention from Americans than it’s been getting? Have the Euros caught up with us, and who are some of these “unknowns” who are beating us yearly at the MXoN—and finishing in front of RV in the MXGP series?

Jeffrey Herlings is already starting to pull a good lead on lap two of the first MX2 (250F) moto in Spain. The KTM rider went on to go 1-3 in Talavera.Photo by Shan Moore

For the past few decades, we’ve proudly proclaimed the United States as the best motocross nation in the world. And that was, for the most part, undisputed. But Villopoto’s results through the first few rounds this year might confirm that the Euros are now on equal footing and should be taken more seriously. After all, our current 450cc outdoor champion is Ken Roczen—a German. The newly crowned East Regional 250SX Supercross champ is Marvin Musquin—from France. And after dominating the Motocross of Nations for two decades, we’ve been thumped the past three years. Would the outcome have been any different had Villopoto or James Stewart been on those teams?

One thing to remember is that Villopoto is coming off of a nasty knee injury and didn’t race last year’s outdoor series at all. And now he’s gone 9-8-1-3-4-4-4-DNF during the first eight motos of the 2015 GP schedule. Granted, he was showing improvement, which backs up his setup theory, but he hasn’t totally dominated either. No one knows for sure who is the fastest at this time, but after seeing a young RV demolish the best in the world at the 2007 Motocross of Nations at Budds Creek—on a 250F, no less—many thought he could surely win the MXGP series in his first year overseas.

Two-time World Champion Trampas Parker believes that if anyone could do it in his first year, it’s RV. “I was hoping he could win the title because to me Villopoto is the best rider in the world,” says Parker, who still gives motocross schools in Oklahoma. “But it’s a different world over there. The tracks are different, the lifestyle’s different, and the atmosphere is different. But out of all the riders over here, I thought Villopoto would be the only rider who could go over there and have a chance of winning in his first year—or at least in his second year.” Perhaps Parker is right. If Villopoto did ride a second year, he might win it all. And from the sound of things, RV might be warming up to the idea of another year.

The MXGP pits have an organized, efficient feel that seems slightly more regimented than here in the States.Photo by Shan Moore

It’s also important to consider whether Villopoto’s speed is what it was when he last rode the outdoor series. He appears a little heavier than he was during last year’s supercross series, and maybe not training in person day to day with Aldon Baker has something to do with that. Villopoto is the first American in a long while to make the decision to drop everything here at home and move to Europe to compete in the World Championship series, which takes a huge commitment. In fact, the last US rider to win a GP was Zach Osborne in 2009 when he won the MX2 overall in Turkey, during a rather rough season. And few Americans in the past several years have been willing to abandon the comforts of their native country and leave what most consider the world’s most prestigious series to attempt the MXGP schedule.

Don’t forget that in the beginning the World Motocross Championship was the crown jewel of motocross. However, 1982 500cc World Champion Brad Lackey agrees with Parker that times were a lot different back in the early days.

Thomas Covington is another American riding the MXGP MX series, in the MX2 class. The Southern California rider went to Europe straight after Loretta Lynn’s. He’s actually never raced pro in the United States.Photo by Shan Moore

“Villopoto was struggling during the first few races, and I don’t think it’s the tracks; he can adapt,” Lackey says. “I think it’s the scheduling on race day, how they run the practices, and how much riding’s involved, compared to supercross over here. Over here, he goes out there and he does a few laps of practice then he rides six or eight minutes in a heat race and then 18 minutes for the main. So he’s on the track for 25 minutes or so. Over there he’s on the track for a few hours practicing, doing these qualifying rounds… I think it’s just there’s a ton more riding over there than he maybe wasn’t used to over here. That could be part of it.”

“It’s so much different over here, the racing,” adds Thomas Covington, the “other American” currently racing in Europe, in the MX2 class. Covington came straight to Europe out of the amateurs, racing four events last year, and now is in his first full MXGP season. “Here the tracks get so rough and rutted and they don’t prep it as much,” he says. “It is a lot more technical and slow speed. In America, the outdoors are wide open and really intense. So it’s just a different style of riding. And also in the US we’ve got Supercross to help break up the year. So these guys don’t really even have an off-season; they’re just constantly going, going, going. I think as far as outdoors go the Europeans have proven themselves to be the top guys recently. But I think if the top European guys went to the US, they’d also struggle a little bit, just like RV is here. It’s just completely different. It’s really hard to compare the riders because it’s so much different.”

For six years, Antonio Cairoli has been the man to beat in MXGP competition. But in 2015, there are many others who a potential champ will have to contend with to claim the ultimate prize.Photo by Shan Moore

By the time this issue hits the newsstands, we’re hoping that Villopoto is healed and has adjusted to the format and changed his setup and is winning races again. Only time will tell. “It was a bit of a bummer when I crashed at Trentino because I felt like things were going in the right direction,” Villopoto says. “But we’re getting used to things: the two-day racing and qualifying gave me a problem because one of my strong points is being able to learn a track quickly. Back in the States you show up, get 10 minutes of practice, and go racing. I’m good at that. Not knowing the tracks is another thing. Like at home, I know the tracks, I know what to try and what to stay away from, but over here I’m just in the dark, so these guys who have ridden these tracks many times before have the advantage.”

Offering a counter perspective, American MXGP contender LaPorte actually liked the longer format better when he raced the GPs in the ’80s. “I think riding a lot was good for me because I got a chance to learn the tracks,” he tells us. “If you come to America from Europe, you don’t get to ride our tracks all day like you do over there. When Jean-Michel Bayle came over, he actually adapted pretty quickly. He was a quick learner in the summer show, and he dominated everything. It didn’t take him long at all to adapt to our tracks. And at that time I think it was harder because he had to go out and just race the track—show up, and try to do a few laps in practice, and then go race it. As Americans, we got to ride on the same tracks every year, so we had an edge. In Europe today, I think the long format is an advantage for Villopoto because he can go over there and get comfortable with the track and learn it.”

Suzuki’s Kevin Strijbos scrubs a big hill on the Spanish circuit.Photo by Shan Moore

For the most part, the European riders are welcoming Villopoto to their series. Six-time World Champ Antonio Cairoli called it a “new challenge,” having Villopoto riding the championship, adding that it was good for the series. “It’s a different kind of riding for Villopoto, and you have to adapt a little bit,” Cairoli confides. “It’s the same if we go racing in America. We have poor results at the first race but then we get better at the second one. You can see that in a long season, but I think now with his injury it will be tough.”

Ryan Villopoto’s bike sits idle in the Monster Energy Kawasaki pits at the Spain MXGP. RV was back in the United States healing an injured tailbone.Photo by Shan Moore

While nobody yet knows how the MXGP season is going to turn out, the bottom line is that the world championship is grabbing more interest from American fans than it has in a long time, and the majority of those American viewers have realized that the MXGP circuit is no joke. While many—perhaps even Villopoto himself—expected RV to dominate, the fact that he has struggled to find his winning ways opens the door to a number of possible outcomes.

Maybe Villopoto will give it another go in 2016 (in a recent interview in Europe, he didn’t rule it out). Or perhaps Villopoto will come back after a few rounds off feeling healthy, hungry, and faster than before. There are even rumors that Villopoto may bail out on the MXGP series completely and return to contest some of the outdoor rounds (RV is no quitter, so we choose not to believe this one).

Max Nagl of Germany leads the point standings after Spain.Photo by Shan Moore

Whatever the final result, the overall attitude of American fans was best summed up by 2015 Monster Energy Supercross Champ Ryan Dungey, who was quick to show his support for Villopoto, despite the fact that the two have spent so much time battling on the track. “The way I can probably best describe it, it’s just different in its own way over there,” Dungey says. “But I hope that Villopoto gets healthy, gets back, and can win a few by the end.”

Antti Pyrhönen, team manager for the very successful IceOne Racing Factory Husqvarna Team, thinks the gap is tightening between American racers and the rest of the world but that it’s also a matter of timing.Photo by Shan Moore

Sidebar

The American View

Brad Lackey, 500cc World Champion (1982)

“Nowadays it’s different. When we went over, there was not a McDonald’s on every corner. There wasn’t anybody speaking English in half the countries. You had to figure stuff out for yourself, and you were on the road and nobody wanted to help you because you didn’t speak their language. It was just a different time then. Now, Villopoto. I’m sure he has a nice motorhome just like everybody else, he flies to all the races, and everybody speaks English. He’s riding for Monster Kawasaki and Monster is sponsoring the series. I don’t really see him having any of those problems that I had. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to go win and beat the other riders; that’s a whole different issue.”

Trampas Parker, 125cc World Champion (1989), 250cc World Champion (1991)

“Back in the day it was a little bit different. You had to go through customs at every border. It would have been nothing when they knew you were coming through for them to keep you in the border for hours just to aggravate you. They’d make you completely unload everything. Then at the races, you had beer bottles thrown at you. You had sticks thrown at you. One year in Belgium in qualifying—and that’s back when they used to do it with a stopwatch before electronic timing—my mechanic finally had to go sit in the timing booth because they were trying to keep me from qualifying because that’s when I was going for the 500 World Championship.”

Danny LaPorte, 250cc World Champion (1982)

“Definitely you ride a little bit more in the World Championships. You’re going to have to be in good shape because you’re riding like an hour and a half on Saturday and then you’re racing another hour, plus the race, and that’s an hour and a half on Sunday. You have to be in a different kind of conditioning a little bit. But I think the more you ride the more comfortable and more relaxed you get. You become more efficient. I think it helps you to relax and you flow better. Can you imagine Villopoto jumping in a race and not being able to ride as much on Saturday and just go race two GPs on Sunday? I think it’s harder. I really believe it’s probably an advantage to have all the riding on Saturday. You get more used to the track and learn all the lines in it. You have more time to learn everything that’s going on. And Ryan’s in good shape. He’s a really good athlete.”

Ryan Dungey, US Supercross and Motocross Champion

“The Motocross of Nations have been tough, but I think there’s just been a lot of it on my part, maybe some mistakes that I’ve made that haven’t been so good. Last year we were running really well. We got second the first moto at the MXoN and then ran into some carnage there the second moto. But with Villopoto, it’s hard as well because he’s coming off an injury. He just went racing. It’s never easy to be sitting out almost a full year and then come racing. I think he was racing his way back into that competitiveness but unfortunately made one little mistake. It just happens.”

The Euro Reaction

Antonio Cairoli (Italy), Six-time World Champion

“I thing it’s great for the championship to have the best rider from America to ride the GP series. It brings so much more attention to the series. It brings much more interest to this sport, and this is, after all, the championship of the world.”

Max Nagl (Germany), MXGP Point Leader After Six Rounds

“I think it’s good that Villopoto has chosen to come to MXGP. And because of the success of myself and Ken Roczen in the US, it’s important for our sport because like in Germany, motocross is not really famous. In normal TV or news it’s never anything. It helps to get the sport a bit popular.”

Gautier Paulin (France), Team HRC Honda

“It’s great to have a US champion coming over to Europe. To critics it’s a little easy and I’m a sport man and to see Ryan, four-time US champ, he has the success, he has the glory, he has all he needs, a good contract. To come in Europe just for proper sport I really respect his choice for that. Definitely people can critique like he thinks it was too easy and he thinks it will be much more hard or whatever, but in both championships we are strong. It’s not like you go US Supercross; you can [see] Roczen does good in Supercross and came from Europe. You can see Musquin also. But I’m sure you can see Ryan if he comes here, he is fighting also for the lead. There is not a better championship I think. But I think Ryan is a great athlete, and it’s great that he came here for proper sport. I respect a lot his choice.”

Jeffrey Herlings (Netherlands), Two-time MX2 World Champion

“I think a lot of American fans and riders underestimate the competition we’ve got here in Europe. Obviously they send the best American at the moment, which is Ryan Villopoto, and he is also struggling here. I mean, he is the best of the best of the best you could possibly have, and he won a lot of American outdoor titles as well as supercross titles and he is having a tough time. Of course it’s a different thing here. We’ve got different tracks, different lifestyles, and different languages everywhere, so for sure it’s tough, but racing is racing and he is also struggling. I think Americans really underestimate our series over here, and they obviously think we are really slow, but we’ve proven now again that we’ve got some great riders here in Europe. I’m not saying Villopoto is bad—he is still one of the fastest guys out here as well—but it’s not as easy as everyone thinks it is.”

Antti Pyrhönen (Finland), Team manager, IceOne Factory Husqvarna

“I think when you have good riders in Europe or you have good riders in America, they are all top of the game and top-level athletes so it’s not really easy to say that the Europeans are better or Americans are better. I think it’s just a matter of which country, which continent has always more good riders. Sometimes Americans might have two, three, four, and sometimes the Europeans. So it’s a matter of timing, let’s say.”

Tom Tremayne (United Kingdom), Team HRC Honda

“For someone like Ryan, everything about the European series is so totally different to the way it works in the States. So I would say that for someone like him it’s more of a difference even though obviously he’s won countless times in the States. If you’re more used to the European style, I think it’s probably less of a step. Herlings will be an interesting example when he steps up to MXGP as a guy who’s wiping the floor in MX2. And I think when he steps up to MXGP it will be really interesting. There’ll be many people watching him to see what he can do. He’s probably the most likely if anyone’s going to win in that first year stepping up to the big class.”