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It’s that time again, the Olympics of Motocross, otherwise known as the Motocross des Nations (not using the "of"…just not going to do it). This year, the race was held in France, and the atmosphere was, as usual, epic. Maybe some of you Americans have been to the one of the three MXdNs held in America and think you understand what I’m talking about when I use the term "epic." Well, you don't. You have to go to Europe to experience one of these events. It’s amazing and, well, epic.
There were a few GP regulars who told me ahead of time that Ernée wasn’t really an ideal track for a race the magnitude of the MXdN. And you know what? They were right. It really wasn’t a great track, but the hills on each side made for an amazing visual. Having the fans packed tightly on the hillsides was pretty great. But it seemed like the track, which has been there forever, hasn’t grown with the size of modern bikes.
I was talking to the amazing Jean-Michel Bayle (can you believe that the last couple of times I've seen him, he's come up to me to say hi? I wish I could go back in time and tell a 15-year-old Steve Matthes that one day, the JMB was going to go out of his way to say hi to me. That Steve Matthes would’ve put down his Swamp Thing comic books and been pumped), and he said that he raced on this track in the mid-1980s. The track was great in the day of thirty-five-horsepower 125s, but not today, with forty-five-horsepower 250Fs. It wasn't very wide either, and didn’t offer many spots where you could pass someone, because 80 percent of the time you were on a hill and couldn’t really set anyone up.
How tight was it? I asked Dean Baker, the JGR Yamaha engine guy, whether or not Justin Barcia ever got out of third gear, and he said nope—not even up the big hill in the middle of the track. Now, granted, Dean said the team used some different gearing than usual, but think about that—never got out of third on a motocross track. That’s like supercross right there. Don't be all amazed that the MX2 guys had the same, if not faster, lap times than the MX1 dudes. There was one spot where a 450 was a better bike than the 250, and many spots where a 250 was great. It was tight, small, and cramped—and no, those are not the same things. I wasn’t a fan of the track at all, but, again, the atmosphere was amazing.
I thought the track crew on Saturday over-watered it as well, because huge ruts formed everywhere. It turned into a slot-car race where riders couldn't change up their lines. Thankfully, on Sunday, it was a bit better, but I still thought they over-prepped the track.
A lot of the complaints were forgotten when the French fans started losing their minds, as the Team France rode brilliantly and gave them something to cheer about in each moto.
I'll just be blunt here—USA is not the best nation in motocross for the fourth straight year, which is now the longest winless streak since the USA started sending teams back in 1981 (at least in years that the USA did send a team). Before you hurl yourself off the nearest building at this terrible thought, realize that I have my tongue in my cheek when I write this. Losing at this race doesn’t mean anything in terms of who is the best motocross nation, but go ahead and keep hammering those message boards to get your point through.
The home country of France rode terrifically to take its second straight MXdN win. The American guys were underdogs coming in, but going into the third and final moto, they were tied with France once you dropped the worst score, and actually ahead if you didn’t drop a score. There have been so many times since 1981 where this scenario existed, or the USA was trailing going into the last moto, and the stars and stripes would come through to win it.
With that in mind, I stood on a hill overlooking the track expecting that Justin Barcia and Cooper Webb would come through again. I really did. At the last two MXdNs where Team USA won, for example, it was close going into moto three, and the two Americans on 450s grabbed 1-2 starts in the last moto (Ryan Dungey and Andrew Short in 2010, Ryan Villopoto and Dungey in 2011). Barcia won the first moto with a holeshot, and Webb holeshot the second moto. Yeah, Gautier Paulin and Romain Febvre were fast as balls, but starts were huge at this race, and USA was going to get the starts and come through with this win, right? After all, whether it’s Broc Glover, Jeff Ward, Ron Lechien, Jeff Stanton, or Ryan Villopoto, Team USA always gets a hero when they need one, right?
The gate dropped, and, well, that was all she wrote.
Febvre came through in the top three, Paulin was around the top seven, and both USA guys were right outside the top ten. Bingo, bango—that was the race.
Febvre was amazing; he quickly moved into the lead and was never really challenged (although Ben Townley kept him close for a while). And Paulin did his job in moving forward as well. Team USA's riders got starts all weekend long—except when they needed them. Afterward, both Barcia and Webb thought that their reaction time was off, and team manager Roger DeCoster thought it was a combination of that and too much wheel-spin for both guys.
"Yeah, it was a touch late, a touch too aggressive maybe, and a little bit too much spin," said DeCoster. "The gate had this plate on it that was quite slippery. It's hard to hit it just perfect. They did pretty perfect twice, but the third time it was not as perfect."
At one point, Barcia was on the move but made some mistakes and let Webb by him (something the team discussed, as in, "Hey, bro, if your teammate catches you, let him by and don’t fight him like you're in America"), and, at that point, everything seemed to be going downhill for America. Two turns later, Webb stalled his bike; Barcia passed him back and then got on it. It was awesome to watch—it was like Webb getting by was a wake-up call for Bam Bam. He looked like a different guy. I was thinking that we were watching something “Stanton-like,” as he ran down Paulin and Evgeny Bobryshev from a ways back. It was an awesome balls-out Barcia ride, but it wasn't enough.
USA lost by 2 points, so you could say that, with another lap, Barcia would’ve gotten Ben Townley for second, and perhaps Webb would've gotten Paulin as well, but that's just a tie and France would’ve won on the strength of moto wins. In the end, France deserves full marks for the win—they earned it with some great rides. Team USA's starts in the third moto did them in and gave them no chance to try and get an upset win.
So, yeah, for four years now, the USA hasn't been on the top step of the race they once owned year in and year out. Here's the thing, though—I’ve been at every one of these things but one since 2007 (and I was on the team as a mechanic in 2003), and I've left this race underwhelmed at some of the riders' performances during this four-year streak (and even at years when Team USA won, some of the guys didn't ride that well), but this year, the guys rode awesome. All three of them (Barcia, Webb, and Jeremy Martin—the MX2 rep) rode their asses off, and it is what it is. They left it all out there, and the USA's 16-point second-place total would have been a winning number in many years. France's 14-point score was really good, and the riders came through with some great rides—deal with it, bro.
And Belgium's 56(!!) points got them third. Think about that for a bit…. As in, think about how far off they were from the top two countries. You can say that the USA needed some other countries to step up to help them win, but you can also say some other countries would've helped France win by a bigger margin. This year's MXdN was hurt a bit by some big-time riders who were out with injury or passed on it—Antonio Cairoli, Ken Roczen, Ryan Dungey, Jeffrey Herlings, Chad Reed, Clement Desalle.
Anyway, back to the guys that were there. Jeremy Martin went into the last race in America, the Ironman National, virtually tied with Marvin Musquin for the 250 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. At the MXdN, after Marvin's crash in the first moto, Martin finished six seconds behind Musquin, which belies the actual gap between them, because I imagine Martin made a mistake on the second-to-last lap. In the second moto, Musquin got by Jeremy early on and then ended up eight seconds ahead at the finish. In short, they were pretty close (outside of Musquin’s amazing first half, he admitted he was a bit out of control in the first moto) in both of their motos. Jeremy Martin went 5-5 in his two motos, and that’s out of everyone riding both 250s and 450s. Martin rode great!
Cooper Webb was the rookie on the team, and I thought this somewhat surprising pick (remember he doesn’t race a 450 full-time) would either shock the world in a good way or make mistakes and end up struggling. Well, I'm not sure he shocked the world, but he did do well. Romain Febvre has been nearly unbeatable all year, and he proved that again at the MXdN, beating Cooper in both motos. But Webb acquitted himself well. He lost to Febvre by four seconds in Saturday's qualifying race, lost by three seconds in the first moto on Sunday, and then didn't ride as well in the second moto, but was still sixth (Febvre was first, and Webb had that bad start). He had nothing to be ashamed of—he rode great!
The captain of the team, Justin Barcia, won a moto, and then, as I described above, rode amazing in the last moto after a mid-race slump. Barcia rode great!
So, as I said, unlike previous years where I was promising my European journalist friends that the USA riders they saw out there were not the same dudes I saw in America, I can't say anything bad about USA this year. Tip of the visor to the all-Yamaha squad—you guys gave it your all.
Speaking of that, in some years the team hasn’t pitted together, and some people involved with the team haven’t exactly been fans of this. Some years, no matter the bike brand, the whole team worked together. The last few years, the team has pitted with the European teams that ride the same color as them (most other countries do this all the time), so the team wasn’t all together. Not sure how much this off-the-track stuff matters when it comes to winning, but this year, with the team all Yamaha mounted, they were all together under one truck.
I wasn't around Team USA that much over the course of the weekend, but whenever I was over there under the tent, everyone seemed like they were happy and in good moods. Star Racing Yamaha, with Webb and Martin, were obviously working well with each other, and the JGR guys run a top-notch program. I had a Team USA guy who's been on a ton of USA teams tell me that the atmosphere and egos all worked and it was better than in years past. Just an outside observation.
However, every time I saw Coy Gibbs over there, he was more interested in talking about his JGR T-shirt booth sales than what was going on with the team, but that’s Coy being awesome.
One last note on Team USA…. There was some grumbling that France got to practice at Ernée a few times a couple of weeks before the race, and, yes, that probably helped them a bit, but in 2017, when this race is at Glen Helen (assuming Youthstream doesn’t get a load of money from some other country's government to hold this race in a rice field somewhere), guess who’s going to have a ton of laps on that track?
Marvin Musquin is going through a tough time right now. His brother Mickael crashed a couple of months ago and can’t move his arms or legs, and it's obviously bad news for Marv. On top of this, he’s dealing with a wrist/arm injury that caused him to DNF the second moto at the MXGP of USA. So it’s with that information that we look at Musquin's MXdN and realize how amazing it was. In the first moto, he had an almost-two-seconds-faster lap than the next-best guy (Barcia), and he hunted Justin down and passed him. The crowd was going absolutely nuts at this point.
He tipped over in some ruts after Barcia got back by him(Justin said that Marvin had a couple of great lines that he switched to), but he did his job out there for France. Marv's great at a track like High Point, where throttle control and lines are important, like off-camber stuff, and this track was perfect for that. Musquin's had some poor rides at the MXdN over the years (he was even somehow left off the team a couple of times, which was weird), and it was nice to see him come through huge for his country with all that he’s been through the last month or so. Afterward he said this was the greatest win of his career.
Gautier Paulin was the hero for France last year in Latvia, and he even won a moto a couple of years ago at Saint-Jean-d'Angély. Paulin has been money at the MXdN, but after years on Kawasaki he switched to Honda this year and hasn’t been the same rider. Sure, he finished second in the MXGP class of the FIM World Motocross Championship, but that was more because of injuries to others than his great rides. Even the big boss at Honda, Roger Harvey, admitted that it’s been an adjustment on both sides with Paulin. This year he did just enough for France to win, but he wasn’t as good as we've seen before. After the race I talked to him for a while, and he said that he thinks he's going to need knee surgery, which would knock him out of the Monster Energy Cup, Lille-Bercy SX, and more. He won the MXdN last year for France, and this year, with two new teammates, they came through for him. Paulin will always be remembered in French motocross history as a top performer whether he wins a world title or not.
Romain Febvre is really something special. We'll wait to decide if this is the start of a glorious career until everyone is back at full strength in the GPs, but for now, what a season it was for Febvre! A world title and now an MXdN title—this is a guy who had won just one MX2 Grand Prix coming into the year. It’s amazing, really. Besides being ridiculously fast in the turns, he’s in great shape as well. His 1-1-1 rides (counting Saturday's qualifying race) were the stories of the weekend. Man, it must have been cool to be Romain Febvre this past Sunday.
Another huge surprise was Ben Townley. The Kiwi came into the race basically retired from racing, and when I saw him and Cody Cooper on the team, I asked manager Josh Coppins why he didn't ride, because it looked like a team flashback. To my surprise, Coppins said they actually did ask him to suit up, but he declined.
Anyway, Townley—yeah, he was great. He looked to be a bit winded in race one, as he slipped from second to sixth after a crash, but in his second moto he rode awesome to get second behind Febvre. Remember Townley pressured Ricky Carmichael at this race in 2005, but after the race he told me that it’s not a special track to him at all. And, also, that race shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone because he was, I guess, always looked at as an equal to RC. Oooookkkkkayyy….
Some people were a little surprised and shocked that Ben, after leading Saturday's qualifying race and eventually finishing second, came by the mechanic’s area after the checkers and threw his bike down celebrating. There were hugs everywhere and a big celebration, I guess (I didn't see it), which was weird to some people from other countries, because it was just a qualifying race that he didn’t even win, but whatever. Clearly BT and his countrymen were pumped on life.
When it comes to the MXdN, never, ever, ever count out Team Belgium. The small country just produces amazing riders year in and year out. This year, they came in with their two best riders injured (Clement Desalle and Kevin Strijbos), and really, only Jeremy Van Horebeek was at 100 percent. MXGP rider Ken de Dycker has been hurt all year, and had only been on a bike for three weeks before the MXdN, and Julien Lieber had a torn groin from the USGP the week prior. And, yeah, they were way off the top two teams, but they got third because THEY'RE BELGIUM AND THAT'S WHAT THEY DO. I think Belgium could send Mario and Luigi with their hammers and still eek out a podium.
Team Australia had three good riders with Michael Byrne co-managing them (although, I have to admit, I really only saw Byrner in the Alpinestars hospitality eating or drinking, so I'm not sure what he did. I’m kidding…kind of), and if Dean Ferris hadn’t crashed on the last lap of the last moto, they would've gotten a fourth overall. As it was, they were seventh with Todd Waters, Luke Clout, and Ferris.
"The guys gave it everything they had, but a few costly mistakes kept them out of the top five. But that's the MXdN," Byrner told me. "You could have a perfect year and go to that race, and everything could go wrong. Ferris had coolant all over him after his first crash, couldn't grip the bike, and crashed on that last lap."
A Few Other News and Notes:
- Attention American media members: I know Team USA has lost the last four MXdNs, but that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel on going to this race. Maybe Team USA drew the line at only eighty-five people getting Team USA clothing, so some media guys stayed home. But, seriously, I was one of four full-time media guys there from the USA, and the other three guys were photographers. So that meant I was the only writer/interviewer there for all of USA. I don’t type this to chide my colleagues, but it's shocking to me that there weren’t more people there. What’s happened here? There used to be a lot of guys from other magazines/websites, but this year, it was just me—and to say I’m a "journalist" is pushing it. Weird deal…. Come back, USA!
- I've been to Europe more than a few times now in my life, and I enjoy it every time. It's amazing how much history is there. On Thursday after I landed, JT and I headed to the beaches of Normandy. Staring out there at the water and knowing that not that long ago thousands and thousands of kids died is sobering, as is seeing all the crosses in the cemetery. The individual soldier stories in the memorial were heartbreaking.
We stopped on the way there in some town to eat lunch, and we were remarking that the pizza place we were in could have been Nazi headquarters or something back in the day. That is what is so amazing about Europe.
You want to know what’s not amazing though? There are four things I consistently see in Europe that needs to stop ASAP. Please view my photos below…
This is never acceptable, people. No one should ever eat a pizza with egg on it. And if you have to put a stupid egg on your pizza, then I get it if it's some sort of chopped-up hard-boiled egg like on a chef's salad. You cannot put a sunny-side-up runny-ass yolk egg on a pizza. It's not cool, and I know you say that I don’t have to eat it so who cares, but it's also gross when someone is mowing this down at the table next to me. Stop it, Europe—just stop it.
What’s the harm in making a set of shower doors go all the way across a tub, Europe? You can put a glass panel that goes halfway, but just can’t find the budget to make it go the whole way across? Whenever I see this, I can't believe that someone, somewhere, believes that this is acceptable. Almost without fail, the sink is right next to the tub and water goes all over your toiletry bag. And, oh, yeah, ALL OVER THE FLOOR AS WELL. What's the sense in this? WHY??? WHY???? WHY????? You went halfway, Europe—finish the job.
I know that you have old-ass buildings that are small, Europe. I get it, and, like I said, the history part is cool. But when two grown men get a room together in Europe, they DO NOT WANT TO SLEEP THIS CLOSE TO ONE ANOTHER. When you reserve a room with two beds, is it not too much to ask that you have at least six inches between you and your friend? No room for a small nightstand, Europe? This is a one-bed room that they just wedged two single beds in, and THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. Where is the World Hotel Association when you need it? Oh, there is no such organization? Well, there should be. This is ridiculous.
You see these things everywhere over in Europe, even in very busy downtown cores. No one wants to see the back of some dude and know that he's relieving himself right there. Hey, Europe, little girls walking by don't need to see a man doing this. I was forced to use one of these this weekend, and it felt super creepy. How is this acceptable in society over there? Why not just use the Porta-Potty and call it a day? This is gross, Europe.
- The MXdN is always so weird for colors and numbers, but it's a good time to check out the different riders from all over the world (or, in the case of the dude on the RM-Z250 from Israel, wonder how he got into this race), and one of the more underrated looks was Fabio Santos from Brazil. Besides being named Fabio, this was a nice look on a Yamaha. Great job, Brazil!
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed my recap of the one of the best races of the year. Please try to get to an MXdN in Europe at some point if you're a motocross fan—it's worth it. Hit me up at email@example.com if you want to chat.