It’s a testament to just how fantastic of a rider Jeffrey Herlings is that a truly world-class rider like Tim Gajser only just now got his first Grand Prix win at Arco di Trento in Italy over the weekend. Gajser, a Slovenian who rides for Gariboldi Honda, was able to climb through to a relatively distant second in the first MX2 moto and then stretch an early lead in the second moto to a distance just safe enough to hold the late-charging Herlings off.
Gajser’s first overall win set off a wild celebration amongst one corner of the tiny Arco di Trento circuit where his yellow-clad Slovenian neighbors and fans stood all weekend long, and when he stopped after the finish to celebrate with them, Herlings and reigning MX2 World Champion Jordi Tixier stopped as well, to salute the winner as well as his fans. It was a pretty cool moment for all three riders, not to mention Honda’s first MX2 win in half a dozen years.
Admittedly, I don’t know much about Gajser, except that he’s 18 years old (two years younger than Herlings) and looks and rides a bit like a young Eli Tomac, right down to a familiar red #243 bike. He never wavered as Herlings reeled him in during the frantic last laps, but besides Jeffrey, he was clearly a step faster than everyone else in the field of young European riders. Tim Gajser is a name we should all familiarize ourselves with, because we will likely be seeing him at the front for years to come, wherever he ends up.
As for Herlings, we’re all very familiar with him—he’s already won more GPs in this class than anyone else ever will—and he arguably can stay down in MX2 for a couple more years as he will remain under the 23-year-old max through, what, 2018?
Herlings has been through a lot. He’s been on the international radar ever since he turned pro in September 2009 at age 15 and raced the Motocross of Nations in Italy for his native Netherlands. He is considered the fastest sand rider in the world, with maybe only Tony Cairoli able to make a case otherwise. But Herlings is much, much more than just a sand rider, and on the slick, rough, and rocky Arco di Trento, his lap times were faster than anyone’s (on Saturday in the qualifying race), including Cairoli and both race winners Gajser and Max Nagl (MXGP). He’s nearing fifty GP wins, most of which did not come on sand tracks, and he’s the obvious heir-apparent to Cairoli as king of the Grand Prix scene whenever Tony finally makes his exit. (And, like Cairoli, he’ll likely spend his entire career in Europe, racing motocross full-time rather than trying to learn supercross now.)
But back to the end-of-race celebration on Sunday. There was a time not too long ago where Herlings was considered the bad boy of this class, as provocative as he was professional while growing up in the spotlight. After both his MX2 World Champion predecessors Marvin Musquin and Ken Roczen left for America, he’s had little in the ways of true competition, other than himself—big crashes, unfortunate comments, great expectations—so his humility seemed to be lacking. Breaking his femur last August seems to have changed all that. The personal challenge he faced in the pain of coming back (too soon, as it turned out) seems to have changed #84 and he’s grown up a lot. Herlings giving Gajser that pat on the back was something we might not have seen a couple of years ago, and it’s something I think we will be seeing more of in the future…
Just not at Valkenswaard this coming weekend. That’s his home race, in the sand, and rather than a little corner of Slovenians cheering for Tim Gasjer, it will be a full circuit of rabid Herlings fans hoping for revenge. Expect Jeffrey to win big, as well as for his lap times to be faster once again than anyone else out there in either class.