"And now, the end is near; And so I face the final curtain. My friend, I'll say it clear, I'll state my case, of which I'm certain.
I've lived a life that's full. I've traveled each and ev'ry highway; And more, much more than this, I did it my way."
So sang Frank Sinatra in 1969. And nearly forty years later, at the final Grand Prix of 2006, Stefan Everts probably had this same song in his head. Yes, Stefan did it his way in the end; his own bike graphics design, his own motocross gear design - and the first motocross suit as such - and a fitting tribute from the company whose bike he made so popular, not to mention his own great farewell organized by his countless friends in the paddock. Yamaha's Laurens Klein Koerkamp made it clear that this was their fitting send-off for the King of Motocross and that they would miss him very much.
In the sweltering heat and on the very tacky track, Stefan Everts was clearly determined to make this Grand Prix his after qualifying in less than stellar fashion in fourth behind Mickael Pichon, Josh Coppins and Steve Ramon. Similarly determined was the reigning MX2 champion, Antonio Cairoli. Qualifying in seventh in timed practice after the two qualifying races were cancelled due to bad track conditions, he had every reason to make things very difficult for class leader Christophe Pourcel as he trailed him by 28 points.
The weekend had all the makings of yet another wet Grand Prix and a sour end to the season. Moto Club d'Ernee, the organizers of this final round, pointed out that it had rained for much of the week before the Grand Prix, which had soaked the ground thoroughly. After a brief period of sunshine, the rain started again, leaving some of the paddock in up to a half-inch of water. The teams did the best they could to ensure that their areas stayed dry, and multiple small channels were dug to divert the surface water elsewhere. Riders looked somewhat disappointed considering that they had seen the track before in much better conditions. For some it was the 2005 Motocross des Nations, for others it was a Grand Prix in years past. Things didn't look much better when the heavy ground-moving equipment was brought out to pour the top layer of mud into areas that were not used for spectators or the races.
Saturday dawned in a very dreary fashion. The organizers and Youthstream held meetings, ran the first and second warm-up practices and removed more slop from the track in between. Then the decision was taken to cancel the qualifying races and replace them with a standard qualifying practice. This decision was met with dejected looks by some of the wild card riders. One remarked that this pretty much meant the end of his round here, because his racing usually made up for his lack of a good qualifying time. Sadly he was right; after a last-minute hot lap from one of the regulars; he was relegated from twenty-ninth into second reserve.
Another was more philosophical. "It's the same for everyone, isn't it," he commented wryly, "it's more about learning experience this time round anyway."
Although the weather forecast from the French meteorological service was somewhat grimmer, the fog enveloping much of the countryside lifted in a spectacular fashion. By 10 a.m., the track was steaming in the sun. The track had solidified beautifully overnight, and while it was still muddy in places, it was much improved. The large bank that served as a spectating area filled up slowly with spectators. It would be teeming with over sixteen thousand people once the racing started, not unlike the Des Nations in 2005. The commentator kept the crowd entertained while the riders prepared for the warm-up practices and the races ahead.
Sebastien, the elder of the Pourcel brothers, once again led the MX2 squad in warm-up with a time of 1:58.457, only eight tenths of a second faster than Italian David Philippaerts. Fellow Italian Cairoli trailed him by three tenths of a second, while the red-plated number 377 was just over two-hundredths of a second behind Cairoli; a sure sign of what was to come. In the MX1 class it was Wulfsport Honda's Gordon Crockard who put in the fastest time in the morning's warm-up session, clocking a time one second faster than the elder Pourcel in the MX2 class, and just over four hundredths of a second faster than fastest qualifier, Mickael Pichon. CAS Honda's Josh Coppins was wedged in the middle in second with a time around the 1:59 mark.
Yamaha's unveiling of Everts' last ride was a big affair. Numerous fans had tried to get a sneak peek the night before while the lights burned late behind the drawn canvas blinds, but they were all assembled and crowded around the truck to see it officially unveiled. Cheerleaders started the event off with a slightly American flavor, after which Klein Koerkamp took the microphone and invited the brothers Rinaldi, who were instrumental in making Rinaldi Yamaha a household name in World Motocross, into the limelight to personally unveil the striking design. A special design it was indeed. Based on a checkered flag, the black-and-white design incorporated each and every one of Everts' successes on the World Motocross Grand Prix circuit. While it was hard to believe, there were a total of 100 black squares to commemorate his incredible career. Even the tires were special, although, as Klein Koerkamp pointed out, they were merely painted white, which did not change their composition or characteristic, something very important for a motocross champion.
Then Everts made his appearance. Acerbis-manufactured, his suit was a beautiful white and gold creation based on his own ideas and concept, something that Acerbis was only too happy to bring to reality. Even Sidi, his boot sponsor, had been happy to oblige with a pair of custom-painted boots in a white and gold motif. His Lazer helmet, also in a similar white and gold design, sported a cartoon-style representation of himself as a guitar-playing king with the words "that's all folks", on the side. Posing happily for the press and countless fans, doing what he was asked to do in various poses and with various gestures, he clearly enjoyed this last opportunity with his fans from across the globe.
Behind the scenes though, things weren't all that happy. The Rinaldi brothers were, understandably so, not happy to see Stefan go. It had been an incredible ride in the previous six years, and ultimately, they had become a closely-knit family. In vain they tried to hide their moist eyes, and there were all too many people behind the beautiful canvas drop to bear witness to this. Finally, the photo call was over. Everts was excused to prepare himself mentally for this final pair of races. Journalists, photographers and fans alike drifted off to do other things, while others, who had not been able to get a glimpse of the bike yet, got their opportunity, albeit without the rider.
At high noon it was time for the first showdown of the day. The protagonists were ultimately France's Christophe Pourcel and Italy's Antonio Cairoli. Both were confident in their abilities. Both were hoping to win. Both wanted to give the fans an incredible show. The start was flawless. Cairoli tore around the first corner, hotly chased by Nicholas Aubin. While Cairoli checked out in front, Aubin was forced to choose between the fence and backing off, and had to let the trio of Philippaerts, the younger Pourcel and Carl Nunn through. Fired up by the commentator, the crowds roared their approval at the dogfight between Philippaerts and Pourcel. They went absolutely crazy when Pourcel was able to pass for second place, and then set his sights on the rapidly disappearing Italian in the front. As the race went on, the times stretched between the trio in front, and Nunn and Aubin, who had been joined by the Belgian Patrick Caps. And such was the top five in the end; Cairoli in first, then Pourcel, Philippaerts, Nunn, Caps and Aubin.
The first MX1 race went to the line and it was Jonathan Barragan who was the first to the first corner. Unfortunately for him he ran wide, leaving the path wide open for the white-clad Everts to take advantage. As Barragan recovered, he crowded Josh Coppins into Mickael Pichon, who had nowhere to go. Pichon piled wide-open into the side of the second jump, went over the bars and was out cold. He ended the day, and his chance at being part of the 2006 French Des Nations team, by being carried off with a very nasty concussion and a smashed nose.
Out front the story was slightly different. Barragan was the sole rider to be any competition to Everts, shadowing him closely with only a three-second difference at the checkered flag. Dutch rider Bas Verhoeven had followed Barragan into the first corner, and was right with him on the first two laps, but MX3 World Champion Yves Demaria was no slouch. He passed Verhoeven in the second lap for third, and remained there until passes by Strijbos and Leok relegated him to fifth and then a technical problem with the bike required him to enter the pit lane for good. Josh Coppins, usually right on the ball and hot on the chase, suffered multiple mishaps in the first race. After the incident that cost Pichon dearly, Coppins had to work his way back up, only to crash again twice, although only one of those incidents was of his own doing. This first race may not have been his finest, but his performance possibly was. Pushing your way up from the back of the pack twice on a tough track like Ernée and end in sixth is no mean feat.
Coppins' teammate Ken de Dycker, who struggled with his endurance towards the end of the British and the World Championships, gave it his all at this event, with much success. Starting in sixteenth, he made a steady ascent to the front and ended in fifth, wedged with three seconds on either side between Leok and Coppins. Brian Jorgensen, who announced his retirement from the motocross scene at the end of this season in an emotional farewell at the penultimate round in Lierop, was ninth, a testament that he was not quite done yet. He flirted with a fifth place in the second half of the race, only to have it snatched from him by de Dycker, Coppins and Ramon.
The second MX2 race at 3 p.m. looked to be as spectacular as the first. With clouds building on the horizon, the fears of a rainy second half were thankfully not realized. Cairoli once again took charge early, followed by Marc de Reuver. The tall Dutchman kept pace in third after a quick pass by the younger Pourcel was welcomed with cheers from the crowd. Pourcel then made a pass on Cairoli and it appeared that the young Frenchman would be the Grand Prix winner, but Cairoli had other plans.
He summoned more strength and power from somewhere, and three laps later passed Pourcel back in a fantastic move. That was to last only for four laps though, as Pourcel, determined not to let Cairoli get away with it, made yet another pass, accompanied by the inevitable roar from the crowds. However, a small glitch was to be Pourcel's downfall. A small misstep near the top of the serpentine sent him to the ground, and Cairoli, along with riders de Reuver, Philippaerts and Nunn, slipped past. By the time Pourcel had restarted the bike, the gap between him and Cairoli was too large even for a rider as fast as Pourcel.
Nunn was the only rider to succumb to Pourcel's onslaught as the time ran out. Philippaerts had been next on the agenda, but a desperate last-corner attempt at the top of the final stretch was unsuccessful, and Pourcel's dream of winning his own home Grand Prix was shattered. He had to make do with a third place. The resulting podium was somewhat muted, although the two Italians were not shy in congratulating each other with hugs and handshakes. A visibly dejected and upset Pourcel did not feel like celebrating even though he had achieved his dream of a world championship. At least the obligatory champagne shower showed a glimpse of the joy Pourcel felt as he first sprayed Cairoli and then poured the remainder of the champagne over himself to celebrate.
The pomp and circumstance of crowning a French world champion at home almost overshadowed the start of the second MX1 race. Multiple photographers who were stranded near the podium had to get physical with overzealous security in order to get to their chosen spots for the inevitable start shots. This time Coppins was out of the gate like a rocket. First into the first corner he tried to gain as much of a lead as possible on the white-clad number 72; Everts however wouldn't have it. After passing Coppins, he made it his prime prerogative to win that last Grand Prix of his career. Coppins' strength was tested to its limits; he closed on Everts multiple times, braking late and going into the corners hot, but even those attempts to save time and maintain speed had merely kept Everts from running away with it as always. Only eight and a half seconds were to separate the two in the end.
Strijbos, Leok and Ramon completed the phalanx in front; Ramon however fell victim to a very determined Barragan in the last lap and was relegated to sixth by less than two seconds. Verhoeven, twenty-first in the first race, bettered his results in the second. Having maintained a sixth position around the track for much of the race, he was eventually successively forced back by Barragan, de Dycker and Kurz Suzuki's stealth rider, Kornel Nemeth. He ended just outside the top ten.
As the counter slipped to zero, MX2 riders, family members and friends congregated near the pit lane entrance. They started unfurling a banner, which had been kept a secret from Everts. It was a tribute to his popularity, a send-off worthy of a man of his stature. And as he began his last lap to the roars of the crowd, the Rinaldis also began their preparations for Yamaha's send-off.
And then, finally... The gold glittered at the top of the track. Everts slowed down and gave thanks to those nearest to the finish. Like a maestro at the end of an opera performance, he bowed as the bike rolled down and across the finish line. The white banner unfurled, held by Cairoli and Rattray.
"The End... But the legend stays. Thank you Stefan, we will miss you!" it said.
The Yamaha banner waited at the end of the pit lane, and a throng of people welcomed Everts home. And in the middle of the hubbub, two champions, a father and a son, shared an emotional moment with tears in their eyes. A flagpole was thrust at Everts and he remounted his bike to go around the track that final time. The crowds cheered in thanks. The podium was equally joyful. Everts joined Leok and Strijbos on the podium, and all three congratulated each other on their great races that day. Even the obligatory helmet toss was not forgotten, and a scuffle broke out between those who believed that they had the rights to it.
The podium was then invaded by those wishing Everts goodbye, the white banner was unfurled yet again, this time the crowd was swelled by those MX1 riders who joined this celebration. As the crowd around the podium swelled, the hillsides emptied just as quickly. By the time the podium pomp was over, the valley was empty; only rubbish littered the hillside as a testament to the amount of people who had stood there a mere 30 minutes earlier.
And then later in the evening, as the paddock was dismantled, a soft veil of rain descended as the heavens wept quietly in mourning; a fitting end to the championship, a fitting end to 2006, a fitting end to an era.