Not a single person—not one—who was present in the Grand Prix paddock in 2003 and saw the scrawny, stuttering, and shy Sicilian buzzing around on a pit bike would have guessed that this individual would become one of the sport’s greatest athletes. Antonio Cairoli barely qualified for an FIM Motocross World Championship round that season, though he wowed fans and media in the Italian National series. In 2004, he secured a place as understudy to GP winner Claudio Federici on Claudio De Carli’s Yamaha race team and rocketed to the peak of motocross, where he has stayed for 14 years. Now 31, Cairoli is leading the 2017 MXGP points and bidding for a ninth title with another year to go on his Red Bull KTM contract.
Looking back through Cairoli’s Grand Prix career, there is a parallel to be drawn with another sizeable entity of the entertainment business: the Beatles. The musical quartet from Liverpool waggled heads, screamed, and rocked their way through vibrant early years before quickly diversifying and expanding their musical techniques, tastes, and repertoire. They advanced quickly and emphatically, all the while in the public eye and under scrutiny to deliver the next great slice of pop art. Cairoli was also electric back in 2004: a force of holeshots, whips, flamboyance, and aesthetic brilliance aboard a 250. He progressed to the point of winning two MX2 titles in four seasons, moved up to a 450 in 2009, and kept up the standard by becoming the premier class’ first rookie champion.
Along the way, Cairoli morphed from arguably the most exciting Grand Prix rider to one who mixed mental strength and technical ability to win from practically any scenario. Good start, bad start, race duel, broken spokes—you name it, he could overcome it. He also shocked the establishment by becoming possibly the best sand rider in the world; consider the results sheet from Lommel, Belgium, for the 2012 Motocross of Nations and five straight years of success at Valkenswaard, Holland, for vindication.
However, unlike the Beatles, Cairoli mastered longevity. His injuries along the way—knee ligament (’08), broken arm (’15), and nerve damage from a preseason rib break (’16)—were blips on the radar. He has also weathered a manufacturer change (Yamaha’s own “Decca Records moment” when they released De Carli’s setup from their racing framework and KTM happily stepped in) and intense personal bereavement to still wear the largest target in Grand Prix racing. Perhaps in this sense, Cairoli has become more of a Rolling Stone: he is the oldest contender for the MXGP title and the biggest draw.
What’s the key? Having pocketed eight championship bonuses and more than 80 GP wins—not to mention being a factory employee since 2010—Cairoli does not need to work and is comfortably Italy’s most successful motocrosser ever. He is also within two titles and 20 race wins of Stefan Everts’ once seemingly untouchable GP records (10 world titles, 101 GP wins). For nearly a decade, he has faced questions about motivation, especially at the end of seasons such as 2012, where he recovered from a freak double DNF in Sweden to win 13 of the next 14 motos without challenge. His answers haven’t varied greatly and tend to hinge on one concept: enjoyment. He has very rarely spoken of records (in contrast to current 22-year-old teammate Jeffrey Herlings) and instead hints at racing, training, and competition as a lifestyle he still relishes.