The shocking moment of the Denver Supercross will never be forgotten, but it will sting a little less. Eli Tomac lost a nearly-sure Monster Energy Supercross Championship with an injury while leading his home race. That’s terrible, but when news quickly spread that he had torn his Achilles tendon, most left the stadium thinking this was probably the last race of Tomac’s legendary career.
Turns out Tomac is coming back, because he says he didn't want his career to end that way. Good for him and good for fans of Monster Energy Supercross. We won't tell Eli that he actually looked heroic even while riding off the track with his injured leg dangling off the foot peg. We're used to athletes writhing in pain with a torn Achilles. Eli was stoic as always.
He brushes such a story aside. We used to ask Eli about his classic Beast Mode charges at the end of the race, and he said he simply just keeps going the same speed when everyone else slows down. As for looking so tough in Denver?
"Well, I mean, it's when you're in that moment, I feel like it's just the adrenaline's running so high," he says, downplaying it all. "It's easier to be the ironman in that moment, it's not easy, but for us, there's so much going on in your head and you're just like, you can't believe this is real, but you still want to try to do it. You want to see if you can stay out there. You try to have a never-say-die attitude, but sometimes you have no choice but to go off track."
That was it. Eli rode to the Alpinestars Medic Unit looking heroic even in defeat. Then the decision was all his. Would that be his last race?
It would not. Better, he’s indicated throughout this off-season that the injury hasn’t diminished him much, as far as he can tell. He says he won't know for sure until he "tests it in a race environment" but each time we’ve been able to check in with him, his prognosis has been optimistic. He’s been ahead of schedule, able to resume training without major setbacks, he got back on the bike and felt good, quickly.
We saw Eli again last week during media days at Angel Stadium, and he had multiple conversations with myself and Kellen Brauer. Eli explained that, while getting hurt at his home race certainly wasn’t nice, it was fortunate to at least be in Colorado, so he could get up to Vail an into surgery quickly. Eli got the Achilles surgically repaired on Sunday. It’s rare for a racer to get into a world-class surgery center that quickly, and he believes that helped him get a jump on recovery.
“It was a consistent healing process and never really had any hiccups with it,” he says. “I was on my motorcycle like the first or second week of October. So it was good. Did motocross for three weeks or so, then early November we hopped on the supercross track. Yeah, it's been good, here we are.”
We asked Eli if there have been any weak spots, any sections of the track that maybe felt odd due to weakness in his leg. He told us that when he first started riding, he actually was getting sore on his good side, because he was using the good leg to compensate too much. Once that “evened out” he really hasn’t had any problems at all. His supercross laps have felt normal. No problems with whoops or on-offs of any other moments when the track gets physical.
“I don't know, it was just like a consistent process of just getting a little bit better and better,” he says. “It felt really normal and hasn't been that bad. We’ve heard the horror stories [of Achilles recovery], but you can for sure come back from it, that's for sure. “
There are more of those horror stories lately because the injury appears to be more common now, both in this sport and others. Vince Friese and Justin Rodbell missed all of supercross with Achilles injuries, Carson Mumford was on the verge of one with calf issues. In the NFL, Aaron Rodgers has taken a lot of headlines for tearing his in the first game of the season.
“For some reason, they are becoming more common and I don't know what that is,” says Tomac. “I think we're all kind of questioning that and, with that being said, as soon as you get in your thirties and I guess that that's when you're at higher risk, right? So maybe it's the old guys that are having this happen. I don't know. But one thing for sure is that now, , with the right physical therapy and the right team you surround yourself with and the right doctors, it's possible to come back.”
That’s all fans wanted to hear: the legendary Tomac will not only be back, he’ll also be back, conceivably, as he was before. This won’t be a diminished version of the seven-time AMA National Champion. The major reason for all of this is pride. Tomac, facing a major injury at age 30, could have called it quits that night in Denver. He didn’t want it to end that way.
“Just not feeling like I was done, straight up, and not wanting to leave the track, you know, limping off of the field,” he says. “So that was it, not feeling satisfied with, if that was the end, that’s how that was going to end? I was like, ‘This isn't gonna happen.’”
With Eli possibly the same as he ever was, the differences might come from those around him. The 2024 field is not what we saw in 2023. Chase Sexton is now the Monster Energy Supercross Champion, and races for Red Bull KTM. Jett and Hunter Lawrence have now entered the class. And Cooper Webb, who split supercross titles with Tomac over the four-year span from 2019-2022, is now Tomac’s teammate [it’s also worth noting that Tomac and Webb were again 1-2 in SX points, ahead of Sexton, before they both went out with injury late in the campaign]. Keep going, and there are so many more stories and changes.
The Lawrence brothers impending move is probably the biggest, because it sets up a next generation [Jett] against previous generation [Eli] battle we thought we might never see. We've seen Sexton and Webb versus Tomac, but never Jett and Hunter.
Eli said that he, like most injured riders, couldn’t bear to watch the races for a few weeks after he got hurt. Then he added that after he heard Jett had won 12 motos in a row to start the season, he realized he better start to tune in and see what the guy was doing!
[Eli was laughing as he said this. Today's Tomac is so bright, so happy, so light, compared to the stoic Eli of just a few years ago.]
“I'm excited to race him because it is new, it's just newness to the field, right?” Eli says. “And Jett, he's obviously had such an incredible start to his career. I mean, everyone knows about the perfect season. So, I'm excited to get out there with him on the track and as well with Hunter, you know, he had a great 250 career also. Thinking back, yeah, I totally know what those guys are feeling. I remember lining up with James [Stewart] and Chad [Reed] and it was like I was racing my idol. So it was kind of crazy. It was crazy feeling.”
Lining up with Webb now as a teammate could create some fun storylines, but there’s not much smoke or fire there.
“I don't know, like, so far it's been no problem,” Tomac says. “It would be harder for me if I was training with him daily. But we’re living separate lives right now. I'm in Colorado. He's in Florida. I mean, I go down there occasionally and do like a test or something but it'd be a lot harder to be training with your main competition like that [every day]. For me, it's not a big deal because our team structure hasn't really changed at all and, and everything's kind of the same and we're in the separate environment. So it's just like another day.”
Tomac does say he expects that the team will share data from both he and Webb for bike setup. He’s okay with that.
“I find something, I know that they're gonna test it with him or vice versa,” he says. “But that's just part of being a part of the team. And with that, our team is very open to allowing different setups for the riders. So the likelihood of us actually riding the same bike is not very likely.”
One teammate Eli has done some riding with is 250 rider Haiden Deegan, who spent about two weeks at Tomac’s ranch in Colorado.
“It's fun, right? With 250 guys, you know, they've got the energy. Just having someone out there for me, like, I don't like having all the guys out there all at once, all the time, I don't think I can handle that but to have a training partner here and there is good.”
For Tomac, the timing was exceptional because when Deegan showed up he was just getting back into supercross, so having another good rider helped him gauge his progress. He says Deegan did a good job considering he was on a 250 at elevation. Deegan is the perfect partner for Tomac, because they will likely never race each other. Well, probably not. When we asked Eli about his long-term plans, he just said he’s racing on a one-year deal, but does not know, at this time, if this year is the last year. He could extend his deal through Pro Motocross and SMX if he wants, and he’s also not billing supercross in 2024 as a last hurrah or farewell tour. It could be his last campaign, but he is leaving the door open. If he still feels he has more to give, he’ll keep on racing.
That, in the end, is the best news of all. Eli’s moment in Denver was a bad one, but it wasn’t his last one.