Redux: The Matrix

Redux The Matrix

March 13, 2013 3:15pm
There’s something fun for everyone at Daytona Bike Week. Fans love the massive variety of racing down there. Bikers are cruising Main Street or the backroads. And on the outer perimeter of it all—even if you couldn’t care less about bikes—you’ve got the beach on one side and Disney World on the other. Bring the family down and pawn them off on one of those. Everyone leaves happy.

But for the riders, there wasn’t anything fun about that Daytona Supercross by Honda. That sucker was pure filth. It was only fun in the way climbing a big grade on a road bike is—you might do it for fun, but you’re gritting teeth, not smiling, when you do.

But fun isn’t really on the basic menu at that level. Daytona might be the track that rewards those who put in the most work, but there isn’t a slacker in the bunch right now. Every one of the main eventers worked to the bone preparing for the race, and everyone dug deep during it. Heck, even the fastest rider who didn’t make the main (Bobby Kiniry) certainly put in his best effort. And while Ryan Villopoto took the win, it’s doubtful that he won because he out trained the second place rider, Ryan Dungey. Dungey is in great shape. Same with third-place rider, Justin Barcia, who had four-time Daytona SX winner Jeff Stanton hammering on him for 10 days prior to the event. The gnarliness of Eli Tomac’s stock and program is well known. And Chad Reed was digging late into the race, passing his way from eighth to fifth after a crash—even though he had absolutely nothing to gain from that. Those extra three points aren’t going to matter, because Reed isn’t winning the title this year. I doubt he’s making much bonus money for a top five. He could have packed it in and took eighth. But he’s not programmed to do that.

The part of racing every racer strives for.
Simon Cudby photo

These guys are all just robots, and the effort switch is set to max.

Go back to picturing that road bike ride. You know that feeling when you’re really grinding up that hill, and you’re practically closing your eyes, just trying to block out the pain until you’re at the top? You know how you’ll wear your iPod during a workout, hoping for some level of distraction from the general toughness? That feeling—that head down, this really hurts but I need to just do one more rep and then it’s over feeling—for us, might last to the top of the hill. For a professional motocrosser, it’s the feeling for an entire career.

The Daytona track didn’t offer a chance to rest, anywhere. The 65-foot rutted triple was the easiest part. Every second of that race is a challenge, and it mirrors the life of a top rider. Day to day, there are no moments to rest or relax, because they all know full well that their competitors are charging. And that’s just the racing and training part. Throw in interviews and autograph sessions and travel, and a rider literally has to start scheduling fun time into their life.

That’s why riders throw in the classic, “just trying to have fun” phrase during the litany of podium interviews. Sure, they’re getting paid to win, not have fun. But you have to have fun to win. Motorcycle racing is just too gnarly to be gnarly all the time. You can’t build a career around anger or you’ll be burnt out and gone well before you made all the money you could. And then you’ll really be angry.

Look, professional dirt bike racing makes for a strange matrix. At one point, every one of the riders started riding because dirt bikes are fun. But to excel professionally, a rider must weave in two other elements that are absolutely not a part of the deal when you’re ripping around a field at age five.

First, there’s the training part. Motocross requires training, but it differs from other sports that require it. Road biking, running and weight lifting are training. That’s the reason those activities exist. Getting tired is the appeal. Meanwhile, it would be plenty of fun to rip berms and jumps on a dirt bike even if it didn’t make arms pump and heart rates rise. It just so happens that it does, though. Meanwhile, do you think anyone on earth would ever lift weights if there weren’t a fitness aspect to it? Does simply lifting lead plates off the ground sound fun in and of itself? And if you think running is fun just because it’s fun to run, go take a slow 5 mile walk around your neighborhood—and be careful not to exert yourself at all—and tell me how exhilarating that was.

Endless public speaking engagements are something every rider has to do.
Simon Cudby photo

So somewhere along the way, the kid who just liked to ride must now like to train. Ryan Dungey is the kind of guy who has no problem with this. If the Dunge wasn’t a professional athlete, if he was just working a 9-5 desk job somewhere, you know he’d still show up at 7 a.m. every Saturday in full spandex regalia to join the local hot shots on an epic ride. He actually likes the fitness part, in the same way Mike LaRocco or Jeff Stanton did. Ah, what a joy to actually want to train instead of having to train.

But unfortunately for those hard working dudes, riding and training alone doesn’t complete the puzzle.

I’ve often said that there are two types of racers. Some want to race and happen to become famous, and some happen to race and want to become famous. The likes of Dungey, LaRocco or Stanton didn’t do this to become celebrities. They’d rather be down on the farm, keeping quiet. Endless public speaking engagements are just something they have to do to keep the paychecks (and factory bikes) coming.

There are others that like being showmen. Ricky Johnson, Jeremy McGrath, Jeff Emig and James Stewart were born ready for a camera.

Succeeding at the elite level requires a love for racing, training and that pesky business stuff. Few really love all three. Few athletes anywhere do. When you’re racing in Daytona, you’ll hear a lot of supercross to NASCAR comparisons, and it inevitably drifts into the general media attentiveness of the drivers. But it’s easy to make time for press when you don’t have to—or literally can’t—practice and train all week. Yes, drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin are known for training, but they still can’t practice driving Monday through Thursday, where a top motocrosser knows if he misses one of those days, his competition surely won’t.

In the stick and ball sports, plenty of athletes have a love of the game, a love of the fame and a love of the work. But those are team sports. You can hide a bad game every once in awhile. LeBron doesn’t always score 30 points when his team wins, but if Ryan Villopoto doesn’t finish on the podium, the “what’s wrong with RV?” talk won’t be far behind. It’s almost all on LeBron. It’s entirely, completely, all on a rider, because ultimately, his name goes in the record book, not the team.

Plus, and stick and ball players play for sports teams, not manufacturers. Players don’t have to wear logos and thank sponsors and make appearances on game day. Corporate sponsorship is side money for them, not their main salary. Big difference on the PR front.

The Daytona track didn’t offer a chance to rest, anywhere.
Simon Cudby photo

Add that all up, and every top rider will have to do something he does not like if he wants to succeed. You have to respect those who go out there and do it anyway.

I know Ricky Carmichael liked to ride. I don’t think he liked to train, and he was way too shy to love the public persona part. But he wanted to win and wanted to succeed, so he sucked it up and learned to do the other stuff.

If Ryan Villopoto won the lottery, I don’t think he’d be doing any of the stuff that he’s doing right now. He is working himself to the ground every day only because it’s his job and his golden opportunity. RV obviously had the talent to make it and become a millionaire, and he has done that. He did it by doing the things he didn’t want to do. On race day, you can see RV has engineered some fun into the program, and he seems to smile a lot considering how much pressure is on him. But I really doubt that he would wake up in the morning and train just for fun. I don’t think he yearns for fame. But he was put here to be a racer, he has a chance to make the most of it, and he’s not going to blow it. Respect to him for doing what he has to do, like it or not.

That doesn’t mean it’s fun, though. He’ll have that when it’s over. Right now, its just head down, block out the pain, and keep digging.