We can’t resist the hype and excitement surrounding Anaheim 1. But right now, 14 races in 14 weekends later, you can really see the difference. The Monster Energy Supercross landscape is completely different than it was when the season began. Many of the dramas and bench-racing controversies have leveled off, and what was once a wide-open championship fight has become procedural—it’s a matter of when, not if, Ryan Villopoto wins this title again.
We’ll get caught up in it again next year, but it’s key to compare the racing now and back in January to remind us of how long the season really is. In January, riders function on a normal endurance athlete’s schedule—they train for months to be ready for one event. Once the weekly grind begins, though, there’s a constant push and pull between the type of training that helps build fitness, strength, endurance or speed, and the type of training that will help a rider be ready every Saturday. Those two elements are basically in direct contrast. So while every rider peppers his podium interviews with the standard “working hard” clichés, just about every conversation I have with a trainer circles back the other way. These guys are always talking about holding their guys back, preventing fatigue, keeping their man healthy. You think “I just need to give it up to my team” gets tiring from podium speeches? If I had a dollar for every “most of the time I just have to hold him back” quote from a trainer, I wouldn’t have to bother writing this column anymore.
In general, the line is so thin that just a small percentage increase in one area or a decrease in another can ruin the whole process. A little less sleep. A few too many miles on the road bike. A few too many laps out in the heat. It’s enough to ruin a race the next Saturday.
Only a handful of racers get to experience this type of load, because only a few riders garner enough support to make the full 450SX schedule, and then make it through the weeks healthy. Out of the top 25 in 450SX points, we’re looking at nine riders who haven’t missed a night show due to injuries—Ryan Villopoto, James Stewart, Ryan Dungey, Ken Roczen, Andrew Short, Mike Alessi, Nick Wey, Chris Blose and Nick Schmidt. Jimmy Albertson and Weston Peick came close to making that list, they’ve been to all the races but each pulled out of the show on a Saturday afternoon due to a big injury. Of that group, only the first six have raced every main event. For all, the grind is especially challenging because they’ve gotten zero time off, have surely dealt with a nagging injury of some sort, and now most are switching into outdoor motocross mode, which means mixing training, testing and long motos into the already difficult supercross grind.
They do get next weekend off, and you’re going to see a lot of posts about relaxing over social media.
The signs of wear are there. Ken Roczen is in the midst of his first full 450 season, and he no longer seems as sharp as he was at the beginning of the season. He’s gone from great to good, or at least outstanding to great. At times, Kenny will let on to the long season getting to him. After Toronto the word was that his legs were tired from a hard week of training. He was back for a podium in Houston, but this was far off from Atlanta, where he shadowed Villopoto and then got around to take the win. Remember when everyone predicted the Villopoto/Roczen training situation would come tumbling down? When Kenny might be pushing RV come Vegas? Such thoughts are but a distant memory now. Ryan wasn’t worried because he understands the long season better than most of us—he knows that even being close in points in Atlanta doesn’t mean the title is going to come down to the last race of the season.
Andrew Short had his best race of the season in Detroit, where he finished a strong fourth. But Shorty got too pumped up and really put in some work during the week after, and basically flattened himself out for the next two races. His trainer, Coach Seiji, told me the difference was actually quite small. Seiji had a problem with his road bike one day, so Andrew went out on a ride alone. Fired up from his Detroit ride, he decided to keep pushing and rode about twice the standard distance. Combine that with a few travel issues that left him with less sleep leading up to the race, and suddenly the same rider who finished fourth one week was left clinging to the top ten over the next two weeks. That’s how thin the line is between doing it and overdoing it.
Ryan Dungey is certainly one of the best about playing the long game, and while other riders get on top during the season long cycle of peaks and valleys, Dunge is one of the few that’s always still standing at the final event of the season, both indoors and out. He’s found a nice fit with trainer Robb Beams now, who tries to flatten out the long season so much that he approaches it all like a machine. “I tell my riders that I don’t live in a world of emotion,” explains Beams. “We use the heart rate monitor to strip the emotion out of it.”
For example, what Beams does is use resting heart rate as a baseline for how hard the work should be instead of last Saturday’s results. If a rider’s rate is a little higher than usual, it’s time for more recovery. If it’s low, they can go harder. This is novice stuff to a trainer, but it’s tempting for a rider to want to push harder to make up for bad race on Saturday. That’s where the trainers come in—with orders to back the rider down.
A glance at the calendar doesn’t really show you how long the season is. If you’re working a normal job, what you were doing the first week in January and what you’re doing today are probably not much different. But think of some moments that have come and gone this season: Chad Reed’s rise, followed by a similar run by James Stewart, and subsequent title hopes for both; Justin Brayton’s near-win in Phoenix; Roczen’s challenge to RV; #AngryDunge; Barcia being arguably the fastest rider at A1, and on it goes. It seems like forever ago for a lot of these things, and for the riders out there, it probably feels like forever, too.