AND SUDDENLY THERE WERE NO RACES ANYMORE…
What has the COVID-19 virus outbreak meant for elite-level MXGP racers? Three Red Bull KTM Factory Racing stars share their worries, experiences and plans.
Few motorcycle disciplines require a higher level of fitness and saddle time than motocross. It is not only the volume of races (20 MXGPs, several pre-season Internationals which are used as ‘tests’, and national fixtures that often mean a 30 weekend calendar) but the incessant training and practice mileage for athletes to stay in peak physical shape, tackle various terrain from hard-pack to deep sand and the preservation of ‘feeling’ so they can react in milliseconds to ever changing track conditions.
This year the FIM Motocross World Championship screeched to a halt after just two rounds. The third Grand Prix in Argentina was postponed and then MXGP joined the rest of international sport in an immediate freeze. Regulations and ‘lockdown’ restrictions had a seismic effect on the day-to-day existence of everybody, even motocrossers. For some the #stayhome requirement limited their exercise options as gyms and access to bicycle/running routes were shut. For almost all riders the practice bike had to be parked, either due to the closure of practice tracks or the importance of avoiding injury (and thus requiring medical resources).
Typically, a Grand Prix rider will take a two-week break at the end of a normal season. It will be followed by a winter of base-training, riding and tests before the next pre-season begins with the first chilly events in Europe. Other than this phase a racer will only leave the dirtbike to one side when dealing with injury.
Coping with a five-month hiatus (from the Grand Prix of the Netherlands in early March until ‘round three’ in Russia in early August) is practically unheard of for individuals that have dedicated their lives to a sport from puberty. ‘Disorientation’ is perhaps one way to describe the situation. Especially as the calendar continually changes – Russia was supposed to take place in July – and they need to know when to push up to a peak of preparation for what is likely to be a short and condensed championship this autumn and winter.
“We cannot do much or plan much because we are not in control of the schedule,” says nine-times world champion Tony Cairoli; the second-most experienced rider in the premier class. “That’s pretty strange as a rider, but we’re talking about a problem that is much bigger than our sport. We’ll just have to wait for local authorities…but the difficulty comes through not being able to plan the training: you don’t want to be ready too early or too late and that can get a bit stressful. I have some experience now! So, I take the situation how it is and judge when will be the best time to be ready again.”
The five-man Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team – an outfit that has owned both categories in the same year seven times since 2010 – ranges from the legendary statistics of a rider like Cairoli and the force of Jeffrey Herlings (almost equal for GP wins) to the record-breaking achievements of Jorge Prado and 18 year old rookies like Tom Vialle and Rene Hofer.
Each have their own story. Cairoli (shoulder and knee) and Prado (a broken leg femur sustained in December) have been grateful for the pause to further rehab and work on their physical setbacks. Herlings and Vialle hold the MXGP and MX2 red plates respectively as championship leaders so their progress has been frustratingly halted, while Hofer has seen his Grand Prix debut season education disrupted.
The thick mystery in planning for competition has not stopped each racer from doing their best to keep prepared. “In one way it is good because I could improve my knee a lot,” says Cairoli. “The shoulder is a bit complicated and is a very long injury that will take time. It’s slowly recovering and I think I will be more prepared than what I was at the first round.”
“We should be racing more or less every weekend right now, so this is a weird time; especially not even being able to ride,” says Prado, a double MX2 World Champion despite only three years in Grand Prix. “The leg is far from 100% but we are getting closer. The femur is not really the problem, I had a big impact to my knee in the crash so I’m trying to improve that because I always felt a bit uncomfortable with it, and it was painful sometimes. Then also some power-training to get more muscle which I lost in the recovery phase. I couldn’t have a proper winter training, so I’m pretty much doing this right now.”
“In the first two rounds there was a ‘Jorge’ that was very far from 100%…so I want to get there and be in the mix with the guys,” he adds.
Prado has been living in his old family home of Belgium compared to his base in Rome that served well for 2018 and 2019 and the run-up to 2020. “I’m spending time with my family, which is not something I really had time for in the last two-three years. We are always together. In Italy I would be doing the same as I am here…but I look forward to getting there soon and back on our team home track.”
Vialle has also been in Belgium. The 18-year-old is in his second Grand Prix term and by holding the red plate is underlining his credentials as a title contender. “I was really motivated after Valkenswaard but then Argentina was postponed, and the calendar kept changing: it meant our next race was a long time away and that was really strange because we’d prepared the whole winter for a particular plan,” the Frenchman admits. “We decided to take two weeks holiday and then started training again for a month – like the winter, with a lot of bicycle and mountain bike – up until the point where we can now think about riding with the bike. It’s still hard to know.”
Vialle has the expertise and wisdom of Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Motorcross Sports Director Joel Smets as a guiding force, but even the five-time champion was somewhat ‘thrown’ by the circumstances. “This is just my second season in GPs but I’ve never had anything like this, I think it was also very hard for Joel in planning the week and the work,” Vialle describes. “It was new for him as well! Anyway, we worked together a lot in the past two months and time has gone quickly and we were not too bored, even though it was hard without the bike and the competition.”
The riders themselves do not talk of their fear of COVID-19. As young, fiercely fit athletes they are in a very low-risk group – even the asthmatic Cairoli – but there is acute awareness of the highly contagious nature of the virus that has drastically affected global societies. “It is a tough, worldwide situation and you need to be very careful,” asserts Prado. “Even if we could still go outside from the first moment here in Belgium – something that the rest of my family could not do in Spain – we have been very careful and cautious. I think some people still don’t appreciate how serious this is…but it is also quite easy to follow the guidelines.”
“Of course, there is a lot of worry,” comments Vialle. “I have been lucky in that all my family have been OK. We have really respected the rules. That was very important. I think I was also lucky to be in Belgium because the lockdown in France would have been very complicated for training. Here I could run and cycle and get outside.”
“Things are starting to re-open slowly here in Italy and we’ll start to see the result of this and whether this problem can be solved or which way it will go,” remarks Cairoli. “I’d like to be back on the bike as much as possible though.”
Training is not only about professionalism. The riders’ words hint towards the addiction of two-wheels; an essential characteristic that helps on the tricky path to the top. “Of course, it is not easy to stay away from the bike and racing for so long…we can’t wait to be back on track and fight for podiums and wins: that’s always the goal,” says the ever-green Cairoli, now 34 and part of Grand Prix since 2003.
“There were a lot of questions in my head: would I be able to ride at that level again straightaway? To stop after two GPs for two months is a long time,” reflects Vialle. “I was a bit afraid but once I rode again I felt really good, and like I hadn’t stopped after Valkenswaard. I was really happy that day. I know if the next GP was in one-or-two weeks time, I would be able to race at my level and that meant a lot to me.”
Like many the riders have otherwise filled their time (Vialle: “I’ve done some videos and Instagram with KTM, MXGP and Red Bull. I think a lot of riders have been doing the same. It’s been fun. I did one live broadcast with Marvin Musquin that I enjoyed.”). If anything, the forced time away from their profession, obsession and passion has helped to ‘re-stoke the fire’. “When you restart you just want to ride every day,” Vialle smiles.
“I just want to get back racing because it’s what I love to do and what the team needs to do,” says Prado.
“For sure I think it will be a boost to get back racing,” says Cairoli. “There are a lot of people interested in the sport – whether that’s GPs or amateur level – and I think there will be a lot of enthusiasm to get riding again. You miss the adrenaline and the racing. You can still sweat and train individually, but the motorcycle is something else.”