Leok Returns to Competition

March 31, 2008 8:29am

30 MARCH 2008

The weeks leading up the the first GP of the 2008 motocross world championship season have been agonizingly frustrating for Tanel Leok. The Estonian Express was on a mental high coming into the season, and his speed was right where it left off at the end of 2007, which means blazingly fast. A thundering crash at the international event in Valence left him with a shoulder injury, sidelining him for more than a month. Tanel then had to play the fine balancing act known to sportsmen (and particularly so motorcycle racers) the world over. On the one hand the injury has to heal and loading the shoulder too early could aggravate the situation, on the other hand he has to achieve race fitness before the first world championship event.

After a few tentative training sessions, Tanel got back up to full speed, and finally decided to give the nod to participation in the first Belgian Championship event in Beervelde. The event was substantially curtailed due to the plentiful rain that fell the week before, and the organisers moved heaven and (mostly) earth to ensure that the 3 top classes could still race, whilst the support classes were cancelled.

Tanel and Factory Kawasaki teammate Manuel Priem were both in attendance, as was fellow Kawasaki rider Kevin Strijbos and a host of other top class riders, including reigning world champion Steve Ramon. Tanel is never one to be fazed by illustrious racing company, but he was still taking it easy in the training session and posted the 6th fastest qualifying time.

Steve Ramon pulled the gang into the first corner in race 1, and Tanel rounded the turn in 10th position. In the shortest time, he worked his way to 8th position, and for the major part of the rest of the race, he spent his time trying to find a way around Belgian Marvin Van Daele, who has found a definite burst of speed in the last few races. The track was rough and rutted beyond the power of words to describe it, and in the end, Tanel opted for the safe option rather than risk a passing maneuver on a dangerous spot, and crossed the line in seventh position.

Tanel was lurking with intent in 7th position at the start of race 2. The inordinately heavy track and the well known punishing style of the rider conspired to make the bike steam in protest, but the Kawasaki held out and moved ever forward. Tanel moved by David Philippaerts, and on the very last lap overtook teammate Priem, who has settled onto the factory Kawasaki with great finesse. The net result was a fifth place for the Estonian.

With his girlfriend Karoliin and young son Sebastian looking on, Tanel saved his best effort of the day for the last race in the afternoon chill. He started off in 8th position, but this time did not waste any time in getting the better of riders like former MX3 world Champion Sven Breugelmans. The track was claiming victims left, right and centre, with holes and ruts big enough to swallow entire armies. A few more leading riders, including Strijbos, came into Tanel's gun sights, and as the race wound down, the commentators went into a frenzy as Tanel hauled in world champion Ramon at a rate of knots. Ken de Dijcker was safely placed for the win, but the charge for second was very exciting as Tanel gobbled up around 3 seconds out of Ramon's lead per lap. In the end it was just not enough, and he ended in third position, just shading the world champ.

If the intention was to give the shoulder a thorough work-out and gain race rhythm, the day was an unqualified success. Tanel finished fifth overall for the day, and he was happy that the shoulder had healed properly. "I' happy with how the shoulder healed," he said. "I had good movement and little discomfort, and I think it should be ready for Valkenswaard."

The factory Kawasaki team heads for Valkenswaard on its doorstep next for the GP season kick-off.