Observations: Motocross of Nations

Observations Motocross of Nations

As I sit here in my seat somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean after returning from the annual Motocross des Nations, I’m still thinking of everything that happened and trying to process it all. It seemed there are storylines everywhere you look, drama on and off the track and out of all the MXdN’s I have been to—this was number nine for me—I’ve never been more confused about what to type.

So let’s start with the track. We all know that Maggiora, Italy, looked to be the stuff of what dream motocross tracks are made of. The 1986 MXdN Dream Team showed us that in photos and videos but what you can’t comprehend from those videos is how steep the hills really are. The big downhill is practically straight down! Like jumping into an elevator shaft, one supposes. The prep was typical European where they didn’t do much. Most riders I talked to said it was hard to find a spot to pass and I agree with that. Although, I spoke with Tommy Searle and he thought it was fine.

I would’ve given anything to ride it, just to experience what those hills felt like. They brought small dozers out in-between the motos to fix some spots but once it dried out (it was very muddy on Saturday morning) the track got very good.

And then, somewhere around moto two, it wasn’t as good anymore. After 11 races and practices had been run, the window for traction was gone. Then the Maggiora track that once looked so beautiful, suddenly looked like that person you planned to bring home from the bar until the lights turned on. You couldn’t have paid me to ride a lap on it. It was rutty, choppy, and had rocks that came to the surface. Didn’t look much fun at all. Once ruts get deep and they harden up, it’s too much about trying to dance on a tightrope. Still, when it was good, it was epic.

I already wrote a column about how I thought Team USA was going to win this race and break a four-year drought before I came over. Then after a disastrous Saturday where the U.S. riders crashed five times total, one rider (Jason Anderson) broke a metatarsal bone in his foot and they almost didn’t make the A-Final, I thought that a podium would be a win. Seriously, Saturday was horrendous. It was Beverly Hills Cop 3 bad.

Team USA's poor qualifying results on Saturday left Martin (5) struggling off the start on Sunday.
Team USA's poor qualifying results on Saturday left Martin (5) struggling off the start on Sunday. Ray Archer

So the fact that with a lap and a half left Team USA was going to win the event by two points was simply amazing. And, oh yeah, they were going to do it WITHOUT ONE RIDER. Cooper Webb, Alex Martin, and Anderson had done their part and it was going to be a glorious victory for the red-white-and-blue. The underdogs going in, the write-offs after Saturday were going to win the Motocross des Nations and do what Ryan Dungey, Eli Tomac, and Justin Barcia could not.

I was watching from the FOX hospitality tent (Thanks, Fro!), which had a great view of the track, a video monitor, and audio that was piped in from the announcers tower. So I had a good grasp on lap times and the announcers were informing us of what was going to happen in the team standings. Early in the third moto, the Dutch were going to win the event for the first time ever. Then it was Team USA by one point, then Team USA by two as the Dutchman, Glenn Coldenhoff, started dropping back. France’s Romain Febvre, probably the fastest rider of the weekend, had gotten a terrible start and was all over Webb for fifth. Coop put up a hell of a fight but he didn’t need to beat Febvre for the overall, USA had two points on France so that would’ve been fine had Febvre gotten past. He probably didn’t know that, though.

Then disaster struck Webb when he crashed on the absolute worst part of the track for him. A shorter guy, he crashed on the “elevator shaft” hill but only the part where the track goes halfway up. He slid over hay bales, down the hill, struggled to get back and pick the bike up, struggled to start it and that was it. Febvre would clinch the win for France when he passed Searle on the last lap, stealing the win away from the Dutch. So the Chamberlain Trophy passed through three countries in the last lap and a half. That’s drama!

"One thing that no can have any doubt of is that Anderson rode a hell of a race with a broken foot and the pressure of a country on him."

Did Webb crash because Febvre, a rider that was quicker than him all weekend long, was pushing him too hard? Did Team USA know that it was okay for Febvre to pass? Would Team USA have won if they had electric start on their bike, something they’ve been playing with and Yamaha Europe already has? The crash was certainly not bad, it was something that you’ve done yourself if you raced dirt bikes, but it was in the worse possible place, because the steep hill made it impossible for Webb to save the crash and very hard to get back going. You can play the “what if” game for so much of this race and that’s what was crazy about it.

Like, what if Jason Anderson hadn’t decided to brake hard and ride very slowly across the finish line? The #6 Husqvarna rider had put in a heroes effort to holeshot (remember Team USA had gate #15 after their terrible Saturday qualifying races) and lead every lap of his first MX2/Open moto. This guy had a broken foot for Pete’s sake!

Sure, Jeffrey Herlings caught him and was a bit faster, but Herlings made a mistake and lost the rear end while all over Anderson. Jason won the moto straight-up. But the latest Team USA disaster at this race involved Japanese rider, Chihiro Notsuka, deciding to jump the finish with the checkers waving and landing right on Anderson, knocking him out cold. I can’t even describe the scene right after. It was shock and awe, it was hard to believe it was really happening. I thought it was out of a movie or something.

Anderson was taken to the medic station at the track and I was told they determined he couldn’t race more three after he wasn’t able to remember he had a broken foot. That was all the proof doctors needed to stop him from going back out there. Jason Anderson’s MXdN was over after one thrilling ride. Strange days indeed.

My Twitter account was filled with people about Notsuka’s move and I admit he should get the majority of the “blame pie” (Pulpmx Show trademark) in this incident. There’s also no way, in my opinion, Anderson is blameless in this racing incident.

Fact: It would have been hard for Notsuka to see Anderson rolling over the finish tabletop.

Fact: Notsuka didn’t get the one lap to go flag because he was lapped on the last lap. He did get a two-lap board but perhaps he didn’t see it.

Fact: Pretty much every rider jumped the finish line jump after the finish flag was flying and I’d say 95 percent of riders did clear it in the last moto of the day. After the Anderson incident, as I was watching very closely for this.

Fact: Anderson had just passed Notsuka maybe 100 yards before the finish and slowed VERY dramatically. My first reaction to Anderson’s hard braking was a “Huh?” in my head. He barely made it over the knuckle that was the take off. His front end collapsed dramatically and the mechanic in me was, for a split second, wondering what was up with his bike. He slowed THAT quickly.

Honda Europe boss Roger Harvey brought Notsuka over to apologize to Team USA after the race but that probably didn’t smooth things over too much. In the “blame pie”, I’d put plenty on Notsuka but nowhere near all of it. Anderson’s got to accept some of it in my opinion—let’s go with 35 percent. Whatever you think of this percentage, one thing that no can have any doubt of is that Anderson rode a hell of a race with a broken foot and the pressure of a country on him.

Another “what if?” is what if Herlings gets Anderson and wins the moto? Then there’s a great chance Anderson doesn’t cruise across the line like he did and he lines up for the third moto. But then the Dutch team also has an all-important extra point, and would win all tie-breakers with two moto wins.

Alex Martin rode amazing in the first moto of the day. He took the outside gate pick in both his motos (35th pick) so he was buried to start his motos. He was outside the top 20 in moto one and made it up to eighth and second to MX2 rider Jeremy Van Horebeek (who also rode great). His second moto wasn’t as good as he finished as the third MX2 rider behind Van Horebeek and Jeremy Seweer and had them both in his sights for most of the moto. He had his work cut out for him both motos eating roost and rocks. He also admitted the short time between motos wasn’t ideal as he ate something but threw that up within five laps of his second moto. Martin was second overall in MX2, he beat France [Benoit Paturel] and Holland’s [Brian Bogers] 250F guy and overall was pretty solid for Team USA.

Getting back to Webb, he wasn’t the weak link for the team like some U.S. guys mentioned to me but he definitely wasn’t as good as he was last year, as all weekend long he was a bit off. He took a long time to get going in both of his motos and although he was fast, he wasn’t Cooper Webb fast, y’know? Fourth overall in the MXGP class is nothing to sneeze at but he was never at any point one of the top three fastest guys there which was a bit strange. Last year, remember, he even came back after Febvre in one of the motos and nearly passed him back, and Febvre was at the absolute top of his game and riding in front of home fans back then.

So after chronicling Webb’s off weekend, his crash, A-Mart’s day, and Anderson’s disaster, isn’t it amazing that Team USA almost won? It would’ve been one of the more improbable Team USA wins in recent years no doubt about it. I couldn’t believe that even with Anderson out, they were not only set up to win with one and a half lap remaining but they had a two-point cushion! That was amazing. Golf claps to everyone on the team for all they had to fight through and it was a ton.

Chase Stallo here at Racer X says that France’s winning total of 29 points was the highest total ever for a winning country since they started only dropping one score. So that should tell you what kind of day it was.

Febvre showed similar form to last year, propelling France to their third victory in a row.
Febvre showed similar form to last year, propelling France to their third victory in a row. Ray Archer

Scratch my MXdN preview where I said France’s Romain Febvre wasn’t the same guy as last year. I was clearly high or drunk as I think the 2015 MXGP World Champion was the fastest rider on the day. I would’ve loved to see him get a start in the final moto and duke it out with Herlings who was probably 1B to Febvre’s 1A. Romain caught and passed Tony Cairoli in moto one very quickly and then checked out. He was flying out there!

His teammates Gautier Paulin and Benoit Paturel did just enough to bring home the win for France for the third year in a row. Paulin wasn’t his usual stellar self but he was good and his fastest lap of the very last moto was on his last lap. Clearly the team was relaying to him that he needed to get going. It was such an up and down MXdN that outside of Febvre, Herlings, and Cairoli, everything was a mish-mash.

Cairoli had a good day in front of his hometown fans. What a feeling that must be to have everyone chanting your name and freaking out while you ride around. Tony crashed on Saturday while leading the qualifier and said his leg was pretty sore. Sore enough for him to not be able to put weight on it properly out there. At one point he caught a seemingly checked out Herlings in moto three before Jeffrey pulled back out. He went 2-2 in his motos for the MXGP overall and Italy got fifth.

As I said, the Dutch were so close to winning this race. And it wasn’t even in the sand! I had heard that Herlings wasn’t in for this race for sure as it was his first 450 race and he wanted to be ready for his debut, etc., etc., but he had ridden MXdN on a 350 before in the Open Class, so what’s the big deal about this? We’ve seen what he can do. Herlings was amazing at times and other times he was just very good. Like when he got up from a simple fall after chasing Anderson down in moto two, he couldn’t shake Arnaud Tonus and the gang for the rest of the moto. That was weird. Still, he won the Open Class with 2-1 scores so got to give it up to him for that. His teammate Coldenhoff got great starts and if he had 30-minutes plus two in him, Holland would’ve been the champs.

Belgium is always good at this race but fourth was the best they could do after Clement Desalle got hurt at the Glen Helen USGP. It was thought going in that MX2 rider, Brent Van doninck, jumping to Open Class with little notice was going to hurt them, and it did. Brent didn’t have a good day at all. Van Horebeek was very impressive (although he did get the inside gate pick in both of his motos and A-Mart was 35th pick both his motos) as was Kevin Strijbos, who GP journalist Adam Wheeler thought was the most impressive rider of the day as he outperformed what most of us thought he could do. Strijbos worked forward all day and passed some fast guys.

OH CANADA!!! C’mon, guys, admit it: you all had no idea who the heck that #112 guy was on the KTM giving fits to riders like Febvre and Strijbos. But he was none other than Canada’s own Kaven Benoit, who rode superbly all weekend long for sixth overall in MXGP and helped Canada to a 10th, its best finish at an MXdN in over a decade. All of my USA friends just looooovvveee to poke fun at me and at Canada at this event and I admit, it’s deserved. We could/can never get our act together for this race but this year, WE WERE BACK!!!!

Tenth overall is a great finish for my home country and Benoit really opened some eyes with his starts and pace. I’m the biggest Canadian MX fan there is but Kaven surprised the crap out of me with his rides. The other two guys, Tyler Medaglia (in his fifth MXdN for Canada—golf claps for that) and Shawn Maffenbeier were pretty solid for the most part and I’ve always said that Canada should be around 10th or 12th and there they were. Yay for us!

Team USA manager Roger DeCoster was asked at the press conference if he thought that next year Cooper Webb should be on the team no matter what in 2017 when the race is at Glen Helen, California (oops!) as a chance to redeem himself, I guess. DeCoster said yeah, he thought so.

Will Webb get a redemption ride in Matterly Basin for the 2017 MXoN?
Will Webb get a redemption ride in Matterly Basin for the 2017 MXoN? Ray Archer

Of course, Webb might just make the team on his own merit, he’s that good. But with Dungey and Tomac both at their peaks and Webb a 450 rookie, one could see Cooper not being selected. Unless you wanted to put him on a 250 and forego the top U.S. 250 motocross rider which I would be fine with but DeCoster hasn’t used this strategy (unwisely in my opinion) since 1988. You know what though? If it’s me, and Webb is anywhere close to Tomac and Dungey (and I think he will be) then I would pass over one of those USA stars and indeed put Webb on. He jumped up to a 450 for last year’s race, he was the captain of the team this year and after Dungey has declined to go two years in a row and Tomac one year, the thought of them jumping up to go when the race is going to be “easier” in terms of travel and effort needed shouldn’t be rewarded. Put Coop on the team, Roger!

WE (YOU GUYS) WANT COOP!!!!

[Now all bets are off on all the top dudes racing again now that the race is no longer going to Glen Helen.]

I’ve written this before but I can’t believe that with all the time, money, and effort put into getting a team to the Motocross des Nations, the starting position for the first qualifiers is determined by a ping pong ball! Like, what? Really? If you’re a country on the edge of the A-Final and you’re at a track that heavily favors the inside gates (not Maggiora, fortunately, but pretty much every other track we’ve been to for this race) then a ping pong ball draw (what is this, the local bingo hall?) holds your fate in its hands. No matter how fast you are in practice, if some hot Monster chick draws out #35, you’re heading to the outside gate.

Then what happens is you get bad starts in your qualifier because of the drastically unfair start gate/first turn and maybe you don’t make the A-Final. Thanks for coming! Team USA had #30 and none of their guys got great starts which led to the first turn crash of Anderson and whatever. This jacked their Saturday results and those gate picks are locked in for all three motos on Sunday. I’m not saying this hurt USA, Anderson managed a holeshot with gate 15, but the whole process is still a joke. Can’t we go off the previous year’s results or, how about this—maybe practice times? Weird, right? Anyways, this should be changed immediately. And I’ve written this/talked about this even when Team USA was winning this race. It’s ridiculous.

And don’t get me started on the fact that there are riders that DO NOT belong out of the track with the world’s best. Like, it’s scary how much faster the great riders are than some of the dudes that no doubt have full-time jobs and gather two buddies to rep their country at this race. It’s flat out dangerous and can hurt someone out there. Yeah, by Sunday everyone is pretty legit because you have the A motos with only the top 20 teams, but practice and qualifier races on Saturday? I find myself cringing at some of the guys that appear to have trouble clearing the simplest jumps.

The top-four country results from the MXdN over the years are:

Year 1st Place 2nd Place 3rd Place 4th Place
2016 France Netherlands USA Belgium
2015 France USA Belgium Estonia
2014 France Belgium USA Great Britain
2013 Belgium USA Italy Australia
2012 Germany Belgium USA Netherlands
2011 USA France Australia Great Britain
2010 USA Belgium Germany Great Britain
2009 USA France Belgium Germany
2008 USA France Belgium Great Britain
2007 USA France Belgium Italy
2006 USA Belgium New Zealand Italy
2005 USA France Belgium New Zealand
2004 Belgium Netherlands France Estonia

So if you use reverse Olympic scoring (4 points for first, 3 points for second, etc. You can’t give a team a lower score for not racing or not cracking the top four) for this race the overall country leader for the MXdN for the last 12 years is…Team USA with 40 points, Belgium with 31, France with 29. So, yeah, no win this year, but TEAM USA IS YOUR OVERALL TWELVE-YEAR MXdN CHAMPION!!!!!! (Cue the Queen song.)

Thanks for reading, email me at matthes@racerxonline.com if you want to chat about this or anything else really.