Breakdown: The Tables Have Turned

Breakdown The Tables Have Turned

June 3, 2014 10:30am

Welcome to Breakdown. This week I want to discuss a subject that was very apparent to me this weekend at Hangtown. It involves the fundamental difference in riding styles that I witnessed between two of the sport’s brightest stars, Ken Roczen and Justin Barcia. Both riders are extremely talented and are world-class racers. They have both won 250 supercross titles and 250 outdoor races as well as 450 supercross races in their rookie seasons. Now that Roczen has moved to the U.S., their career paths are very similar. Moving forward, however, I think that we are going to see Roczen’s results overshadow Bam Bam. Let me tell you why.

Justin Barcia is Hell’s fury unleashed on a motorcycle. He is constantly revving, scrubbing and doing all things aggressive. From a purely visual standpoint, it looks impossible to go any faster, and I think this style has served Barcia well to this point. Riding a 250 in this fashion usually works because the aggression helps to raise momentum on the smaller bike. It’s not easy to ride a 250 in a lazy fashion and Barcia’s ultra-aggressive approach bridges that deficiency in torque and horsepower. Roczen, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, prefers to ride in a taller gear and much lower in the rpm range. On the 250, I think this was a liability at times. Barcia or Eli Tomac’s aggressive approach just seemed to be preferable on the smaller bike and allowed them to push the pace. Now, though, as everyone has moved to the powerful factory 450s, these differences in theory may be reversing dividends. Roczen is able to ride these taller gears effectively because the 450 (especially with a full factory engine) has an abundance of torque.

Justin Barcia and Ken Roczen battle for the lead in the second moto of the GoPro Hangtown National last Saturday. 
Justin Barcia and Ken Roczen battle for the lead in the second moto of the GoPro Hangtown National last Saturday.  Photo: Simon Cudby

This style difference is important for two reasons. First, Barcia has to expend an overwhelming amount of energy to ride a 450 this way. He is pushing both he and the bike to the limit. He is constantly on the rev limiter and blitzing through bumps and jumps with reckless abandon. There is simply no way to maintain this sprint level of intensity for 35 minutes on a 450. I think that was apparent at Hangtown as he was only able to push that edge for so long, as anyone would expect. This isn’t about being in shape—no one can ride that way for 35 minutes not matter how fit they are. Roczen’s style was much more fluid and efficient. He was certainly trying hard but it didn’t look as taxing and his lap times were much more steady. He was working with the track instead of trying to make it tap out like a UFC match. Secondly, the way that a motorcycle handles is directly related to the rpm of the engine and load it’s under. When the bike is revved high, the shock becomes much less responsive and more “bound up.” It is less free to absorb bumps and therefore transfers that energy into the rider. Barcia is certainly feeling that effect toward the end of the motos, because he’s constantly in a higher rpm range than Roczen and his bike’s handling is proportionately less ideal. Ken’s bike is not under such a great load and has the full range of travel to soak up the nasty outdoor terrain. It is a fundamental difference in approach and is directly resulting in the bike’s characteristics.

As we continue to watch these two leave their mark on the history books, I do feel that Roczen’s style will shine more on the 450 than it did on the 250. Barcia was simply better than Kenny on the 250 at times. His pass at Budds Creek in 2012 was an eye opener as to just how aggressive Barcia was willing to be on the smaller bike and how advantageous it can be. The 450 is a completely different animal, however, and Roczen seems best at taming it. His style is the ideal fit for a 450 and he is beginning to show just that.