Risky Riders.

This is a Cycle News column I did a while back. Just read it...

So it begins again, the 2009 AMA Supercross series is right around the corner and once again, optimism runs wild. This is the year that so and so rider takes the leap from top ten to top five, a guy goes from top five to top three or even (Gasp!) winning. Never mind that in the last 10 years if your name is not Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael, Chad Reed or James Stewart, chances are you haven’t won a supercross ever. The fact is that in the 161 supercross races that have taken place since 1998, only ten riders (Windham, Larocco, Dowd, Lusk, Ramsey, Tortelli, Vuillemin, Hill, Millsaps and Larry Ward) have won a race other than the aforementioned four.  And four of those riders can only claim a single victory at that (Dowd, Ramsey, Hill and Tortelli.)

It’s tough to win right now and I’d bet that you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would lay their hard earned cash on anyone winning other than Reed or Stewart in 2009. There might be a chance that vunderkid Ryan Villopoto squeezes a victory out along the line, but the chances of RV getting used to a new bike and the new competition fast enough to have him standing on the top step this year are pretty slim. No one knows how he his adjustment period will go, but if one looks into the history books at some other impressive riders, they’ll see that MC and Reed adapted quickly, Stewart was so so and RC struggled. There’s nothing solid to indicate how the multi-time 250F champ will do.

If you go to the test tracks during the week and watch one of the contenders ride, you can see that Andrew Short, Ivan Tedesco and Timmy Ferry have the incredible skill and nerve that it takes to win a supercross. The speed is not the problem, the skills are not in question, the equipment is not the issue so what exactly is it that makes one or two guys capable of winning each and every week?

I think it starts with the commitment that each rider makes with himself in the morning when they wake up. Supercross does not suffer fools, it is a very taxing sport that pushes man and machine to the limits and just to make it a little more foolhardy, and it’s incredibly dangerous. To be the best on Saturday means that you must push yourself the other six days a week, the improvements are measured in tenths of seconds, the difference between those tenths is clipping a back wheel on the downside of a jump or not. When you watch any of these athletes during the week practice, you can see that they can all clear the obstacles and skim the whoops. The real improvements are being aggressive in between the jumps and in the corners, the best just push through the sections, they can’t wait to hit the turn and attack the next obstacle. The aggression, concentration and timing to do this for twenty laps is something to behold, it’s akin to watching a bug skittering on top of water-just all out acceleration, pause, and then do it again. James Stewart and Chad Reed can do this, they are in the mindset and have the skill to somehow to be incredibly risky and yet, incredibly calm in processing all the information that is going on with them at any given moment.

     I can remember Chad’s second year at Yamaha, I was a mechanic there and Reedy had just ripped off a bunch of wins against RC in the second half of the supercoss season, to anyone watching the head to head races you could tell that Reed had the GOAT covered and went into 2004 50/50 on whether he could win the title. When RC hurt his knee, he went to a heavy favorite. Well over the winter Yamaha had signed muti-time SX winner Ezra Lusk and he was going to ride on the support team Mach 1. His bike was virtually the same as the other team guys and early one, Lusk was going faster than Reed at the test track. The twenty two camp resorted to filming Lusk while he pounded laps, trying to see what he had. What he had was us thinking that Lusk was back to his early Y2K form and that Reed might have a battle on his hands. Then a funny thing started happening (not funny if you were Yogi), Ezra started crashing. And then crashing some more. He got to be the human handlebar changing machine real fast. He couldn’t sustain the speed that Chad had and for whatever reason, lost the edge he had for a month or so. He had “it” and relied on his past experience of winning to know that Reeds speed was what he had to go if he wanted to win. It was that simple for him, go that fast and win or crash. History will show us that Lusk was very fast at the Anaheim opener that year but bailed and hurt his foot, then when he came back he was not the same as in the preseason and as a matter of fact, that was his last year in professional racing. Another example I like to point to is MDK’s David Vuillemin in 2007, DV was a former winner that spent some time in the gym in the winter of 2006 and was determined to come out and regain his past glory. The SX series was starting off in Canada at the world rounds and from the first time Vuillemin hit the track, he was fast and he was very close to the big three (RC, Stewart and Reed) in practice times. He looked like the old DV and was impressive in the mains, coming from the back to get a fourth and fifth over the two races. He had new Kawi rider Tim Ferry covered, we would see later on that Ferry would be a podium regular later in the series. Then the big season opener at Anaheim came and David found himself on the ground in the first turn when the twenty lap main event started. He dusted himself off and blazed through the pack for an amazing sixth, his best lap only four tenths off of third place Reed’s time. It may not sound that impressive but if you were there and watched him, it was. The next week the circuit moved to Phoenix, Vuillemin crashed heavily in his heat, knocked himself out and was never the same rider again.

It’s living on the edge and unlike Steven Tyler, not all the riders want to do it. It’s a risky deal, make a mistake and you’re in a cast or worse, in a chair. There’s the typical cry in this electronic age of sports that so and so doesn’t push it or is riding for the money and nothing else. Having been around these guys quite a bit in my 11 year mechanic career I can tell you that they all want “it”. Sure, some guys have bad days and aren’t into it but by and large, they all want to win but I think some just want to win a little bit more y’know? There’s nothing wrong with not taking the risks that I laid out above, after all when you pound yourself into the ground enough it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize when to cry uncle. That makes Reed and Stewart and maybe, just maybe Villopoto all that more impressive and they will be the first to tell us just how incredibly talented their competition is. Maybe we shouldn’t hate the riders that don’t win, maybe we should just appreciate the ones that do because this game is not an easy one and the consequences for making a small mistake are not pretty.


SX who dunit..


very good article my man. Lots of good points. I watched an interview with Warren Ried, former Factory Honda tiddler specialist and he is pissed at what in his mind seems to be apathy among the modern ranks. I see it different. SX in Reids days was simple enough that with my modern bike I could ride like some of the Pros back then were I to be teleported there with it.

You see, bikes and tracks have advanced waaaay further than the human body's ability to deal with the forces a motor nearly twice as powerful exacts, not to mention the do or die track obstacles and one has to be 110% to safely make it around. Once they get even a little tired, discretion becomes the better part of valor. Look at J-Law in Daytona, he was ssssmoking the field but at the 15 lap mark, his Lites class gauge, he tanked but was smart enough to play it cool and get a podium.

I love Bob Hannah but when guys like him start talking shit about the new crew, I pipe up because I have seen the last 4 generations of Pros ride, todays guys are dealing with a more serious set of circumstances.

Road racers too, a bike from a showroom today is faster, quicker and more powerful than the bike that set the land speed record 35 years ago...think about htat for a second.

Kudos on the site,
"Ahl be baack!" (like Ahnuld sez)


Good point, Steve! Grant and Hepler are 2 other examples of athletes who can go very fast but seems unable to hold the focus for an entire series, not even a Lites series. Still, the apparent ease with which many riders regroup after what most people would consider scary crashes is admirable. By the way, talking about wanting "it"...how about GL coming back after curing a tumor??? WOW!

Are you sure?

Look, it's right there. Ha!

haha you are very very

haha you are very very snaeky

you forgot Millsaps and Hill

you forgot Millsaps and Hill as SX winners