Every year begins with dreams of close, unpredictable racing, and many years do deliver varied winners through the first few rounds. This season has gone a step further, though, with the laps playing out with a different cadence than I’ve seen in a long time. This season, the difference is the racing strategy. No one rider has been able to consistently burn the field for all 20 laps. Races are being won at the end instead of the beginning. I’m not sure what you can see and determine from watching on TV (on TV, once a rider is about two seconds behind, he’s out of the picture, making the race look less exciting than it actually is) but from a perch high up in the stadium press box, the mix has changed. The lead pack is staying tight the entire way, so the races are turning into strategic games, with wins turning on who makes his run at the right time and avoids mistakes.
I’ll let the two veterans explain it. Here’s what Chad Reed told me two weeks ago when I asked him if the sport keeps evolving, and if he’s, in turn, riding better now that ever:
“I feel like I’m better, but, it’s hard to say this, I don’t feel like the pace is any different than when I raced Ricky [Carmichael],” said Reed. “I really don’t. I don’t think that we have progressed any. I think the racetracks have become way easier than when we used to race. I believe the level of people as far as now there’s seven or eight of us that potentially could win on any given weekend, where before it obviously was only James or Ricky or I. So I think that the amount of people [that can win] has come up. And I’m unsure if that’s because they’re all that good or if the tracks are just that easy and the bikes are that good. That’s my opinion, and it probably won’t be liked by some people as a good comment, but that’s just what I see.”
And here’s what James Stewart said to our Steve Matthes a few months back:
“Obviously I think things changed,” said James in December. “I just think bikes and teams have gotten better. I think when you have that obviously it raises the level of the riders and all that stuff. So it really comes down to when they left two-strokes I think it took a lot of talent out, and I think the more these bikes get better and better … obviously everybody that races has talent. The guys that are winning, both Ryans, all of these guys, but I think you really have to rely on teams and the bike setup. If you don’t have 100 percent faith in your bike or you’re not feeling good or if it’s personal, you’re not going to win no matter if you’ve got talent or not. I think that’s the thing. So for me, can I do all the same things I did in 2007, 2008? Yeah. I would say as a racer I’m probably a lot smarter and know more things—know when to go and do whatever I feel like whenever I need to.
“But I would say the way the bikes have caught up and all that technology it’s like talent alone can’t win now. It has to be a full team compared to back in the day it was like, “You know what, the bikes are good but they’re not that great. I’m still talented enough to jump this. I’m still talented enough to override it,” where now everybody’s going so fast it makes it tough. I think that’s what happened with Chad [Reed]. And Chad’s always been that way. Even back when him and me raced, with Ricky, when we all three raced. He would be like winning one weekend, battling with us, and the next weekend he would come out and be 30 seconds back and be barely making podiums. He’s always been that guy like if the bike setup’s not there he’s not going to push it. I think with him this year what happened is he’s still probably the same guy that he was back in 2007 when things weren’t going right. He’s probably that same guy, but then everybody else’s bikes got better and they got better. So instead of finishing third riding around at 50 percent, you go around at 50 percent and you only finish about 20th. So I believe that’s what happened. We’ll see the difference this year.”
We have seen that difference. Tiny changes in bike setup have made the difference between a winner and off the podium in consecutive weeks. While you’ll still hear riders harp on starts and sprint laps, the races are being won and lost down the stretch. Like a marathon instead of a sprint, the first ten laps see the lead group set a pace and prepare to charge for the win in the end. It’s been twenty-some years since Jeremy McGrath’s patented holeshot/sprint-for-eight-laps/cruise-to-the-win that we’ve seen races work like this.
Look closely at this season’s races and you’ll note how hard it is to determine who “the fastest guy” was each night. During the mains, each rider will have moments where he’s fastest. At Anaheim 1, Chad Reed at one point looked like he was faster than Ken Roczen and Ryan Dungey, but later in the race, he tightened up and they were faster than him. James Stewart wasn’t a factor early, but in the second half of the race he put the hammer down and did some damage. All four riders (and heck, Ryan Villopoto and Justin Barcia) could leave A1 thinking “Yup, had the speed.” Ultimately, the raced pivoted on Stewart’s charge and then crash, both of which happened in the second half of the race.
It’s gone on like that weekly. Chad Reed circulated in contention for most of Anaheim 2 before striking late and seizing the moment. He and Roczen were at war for most of Anaheim 3, additionally with Villopoto in tow, and the three were closely matched in all-out speed. But Villopoto didn’t have it down the stretch, and Roczen wasn’t quite as good as Reed in the final laps. That sealed it for Reed. This weekend in San Diego, Villopoto was all over Stewart, but Stewart put in his best laps late to seal the deal.
Villopoto’s two wins in Phoenix and Oakland were more old-school, more dominant. In Phoenix he didn’t even have a good start but just mowed the field down from ninth to win. But even there, Justin Brayton kept RV honest all the way to the end. In Oakland, Villopoto got away early and an also-fast Stewart didn’t have time to catch him. Out of six races this year, Oakland is the only one where the start and opening laps had an impact that couldn’t be overcome.
But two dominant performances by Villopoto just supports this new style of racing. Twice, the champ has been untouchable. In the other four races, he was not. We’re not used to seeing that type of week-to-week change. Usually, a ninth-to-first charge like Phoenix would indicate more beat downs are coming, but seven days later, Roczen or Reed rode away from RV.
Each weekend, you’ll hear riders talk about their night changing based on a setup change or something relatively small. A different tire choice. Finding a better line. Stewart and Brayton both made bike changes before Anaheim 3, and both struggled. They went in another direction for San Diego, and both rode much better—Stewart was like a totally different rider because of a setup change. Setup, setup, setup. Everything is so closely matched right now, and everything and anything can change based on subtle, unpredictable factors.
Talk to the guys who have been there before, and they can’t tell for sure if it’s tracks, bikes or just more talent across the board. But you can’t argue against it being fun to watch.