Dirt

Risk vs. Reward: Is Motocross Too Dangerous for MotoGP Riders?

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66 million years ago, an object somewhere between the size of Mt. Everest and the country of Luxembourg (or the island of Puerto Rico) slammed into what would become the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico at a speed of 20 kilometers per second, or 72,000 km/h.

The impact that an asteroid of that size moving at that speed made was unimaginably vast: scientists estimate that the energy released was around 100 million times that produced by Tsar Bomba, the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever built.

The devastation that impact caused, helped along by wide-scale volcanic eruptions and climate change, killed a large percentage of life on earth, wiping out virtually all land and amphibian species larger than 25kg in body weight.

It could happen again. Objects from outer space hit the earth with alarming regularity. 50,000 years ago, a nickel-iron meteorite 50 meters across struck Arizona, creating the aptly named Meteor Crater.

In 1908, a slightly larger object exploded a few kilometers above the forests of Siberia, near Tunguska, flattening 80 million trees. And in 2013, a 20 meter object lit up the skies above Chelyabinsk in Russia, eventually detonating some 30 kilometers up.

The ensuing explosion and shock wave destroyed windows and damaged buildings in an area a hundred kilometers long and tens of kilometers in length.

These are just a few examples. The University of New Brunswick maintains the Earth Impact Database, containing 190 different impact craters known on earth.

Dozens of those are large enough that the aftermath would have had been large enough to have a global effect on life on earth. Meteor or asteroid impacts pose a real threat to civilization, and indeed all life on Planet Earth.

Impacts the size of the Chicxulub impactor, that wiped out the dinosaurs, occur on average once every 65 million years. The Chicxulub meteor struck the earth 66 million years ago.


Game of Chance

How do we handle a risk like that, a risk with a massive downside but relatively low probability?

NASA, as well as other space agencies around the world, have set up a Planetary Defense Program, the most significant part of which is spent on mapping at least 90% of the objects 140 meters or larger which cross the earth’s orbit.

Over the past 12 years, NASA has spent around $645 million trying to map these objects and devise ways to prevent a collision.

Is $645 million enough, given the risk that life as we know it could be wiped out in an instant? Or is this way too much to invest, given the low probability of a collision actually occurring any time soon? After all, so far, none of the objects over 140 meters identified by NASA will collide with the earth within the next 100 years.

What do meteor impacts and trying to avoid them have to do with motorcycle racing?

The debate on how to handle the risk of a meteor or asteroid slamming into the earth follows the same lines as the debate over whether contracted MotoGP or WorldSBK riders should be allowed to ride motocross as a way to train.

Should a rider on a multi-million dollar contract be allowed to risk injury in what is very obviously a highly dangerous sport? Or is the risk of injury riding MX outweighed by the benefits of fitness and sharpness which MX bikes can bring?


Training Is a Necessity

On one side of the equation, there are the benefits which motocross brings. First, there is simple fitness. “I always ride motocross, also after 2010, because I like it,” Valentino Rossi said at Mugello in 2017, after suffering chest injuries in an MX incident. “I enjoy it a lot and I think it’s the best training, physically and mentally.”

The physical intensity of riding a motocross bike for 20 or 30 minutes is one of the most demanding things you can do. It improves your aerobic fitness, and builds up the muscles you use while riding a motorcycle.

“The unfortunate thing about motocross is it’s going to bite you eventually,” Brad Binder, KTM’s MotoGP rookie told us recently.

“It’s just a matter of time. The thing for me is I’d rather take the risk because for me there’s no better form of training and it’s something I really enjoy. So that’s my go-to if I really want to have a good days training. I find that it makes you work extremely hard and I’ve always loved motocross too. It’s always been the thing for me.”

But it’s not just fitness. JD Beach is one of the most accomplished all-round motorcycle racers currently competing, having raced in both the MotoAmerica Superbikes class and in the American Flat Track series.

Like most racers, Beach is also a keen motocross rider, and has used as both a training method and a way of improving his skills.


Transferable Skills

Beach draws a parallel with other sports. “When college teams are looking to recruit school players (Football, baseball, basketball) they look for kids that have played more than one sport,” he explains.

“Having played more than one sport will help in different areas as far as building skills and help with not getting burned out on the sport you are really focused on.”

This same multidisciplinary approach can pay dividends in road racing too. There are things that can be practiced on an MX track which help out on the asphalt. “I think riding motocross is a great tool to use to improve your skills,” Beach explains.

“How many times have you been at a GP race and hear that a track is hard to pass on? Remember these tracks are super wide, I’ve caught myself saying that before. But when the track is that wide you should be able to change your line up by just inches and make a pass happen.”

That is something you can practice on an MX bike, Beach says. “On a motocross track, they are wide but not as wide as road race tracks, but like road race tracks they have a preferred line, usually a good rut.”

“But when you go out riding and are eating roost of the guy in front of you, running the same ruts as you, you have to either give up and slow down or force yourself to change your line up some and get by them. It’s good to work on that during a time that there is no money or points up for grabs. If you lose time it doesn’t matter.”


Practice Makes Perfect

“Then there is the riding skill side of things. Even though it is dirt and different bikes, they still have the same components (throttle, brakes, clutch, shifter),” Beach explains. That makes it possible to try things out which you can apply to the track.

“When I first got on the Factory 600 team with Yamaha [in MotoAmerica], I took Cameron Beaubier’s spot when he moved to SBK. The first year for me wasn’t great, and the bike was very hard to ride for me because it had been built around how Cameron rode.”

“He was very good at basically overlapping braking into the turn and rolling back onto the gas,” Beach says. “Something that I wasn’t used to, so once we learned that I was struggling there, I could go back and ride motocross, where you do use a lot of front brakes and have front end grip.”

“I could practice this and get that feeling. It took some time and there were crashes on the brakes, but at much lower speeds and not destroying bikes like you would at a test or track day.”

Being able to practice new skills and different techniques is extremely valuable, Beach believes. And the fact that motocross tracks are fairly ubiquitous makes it even more appealing.

“Could you learn that type of thing with different kinds of riding? Probably. But having a motocross bike and finding motocross tracks around the world is pretty simple.”


Keeping the Flame Alive

Riding MX may be risky, but it is still safer than other forms of training. Crash at a circuit, and you risk serious injury because of the speeds involved. “Most of the people that I’ve trained with know that using motocross is a tool to improve their road racing,” Beach explains.

“They want to take risks that are safer, if that makes sense. Knowing your riding skills, you want to push yourself, so on a race weekend you can do that as well, but being smart about it at the same time.”

A key, and perhaps underrated aspect of motocross is that it helps keep riding and training fun. Preventing burnout and the mental fatigue over a long season can be just as important as the physical aspect.

“Also, riding motocross is something really fun for road racers, I think,” Beach points out. “Most racers have been road racing their whole lives. Having at least 15 plus weekends of racing, then testing on top of that, it’s not always fun to get back on your race bike for training during your free time.”

This is where motocross can make the difference. “Being on a motorcycle both during the season and in the off season is very important, I feel. Most riders have a crew of guys they ride and train with, so when you go to your local motocross track it’s a fun, low- or no-pressure time.”

“We all race motorcycles because we love it, but during those tough race weekends with tons of pressure on you, you can lose sight of that love. Those weekday motos and laughs can quickly rekindle that love. Then going into the next race weekend it can come down to the old adage of ‘a happy rider, is a fast rider’.”


Real Risk Lies Elsewhere

Those are the benefits, but what about the risks? What good is improving your fitness and working on your skills if you are laid up at home come the race because you broke your leg in a motocross crash?

Aprilia test rider – and substitute for Andrea Iannone for the start of the 2020 MotoGP season – Bradley Smith, also a fervent motocross rider, offers a counterargument.

“Why do people push to the absolute maximum and risk crashing in qualifying, pushing for their fastest lap, when you don’t get any points?” the Englishman says. “So it’s risk vs. reward there, because is one or two places in starting position going to make any difference to the championship? No. But people do try, and people go all out.”

If there’s an argument that improved grid position might give a rider more options during the race, that’s not the case the rest of the weekend, Smith points out.

“OK, that’s your job, but when there’s no points involved whatsoever, the question is why does anyone push in FP1, FP2, or even in testing. Why at Sepang does everyone go absolutely crazy in testing at 10am, banging in new tires, setting a lap time, and then ride around 2 seconds a lap slower for the rest of the day?”

“In the laws of motorbikes, it doesn’t really make any sense, because what actually matters is where you are on Sunday after 25 laps. What you do leading up to that point is kind of pointless, because it certainly brings no points to the table.”

Of course there is a reason why people push so hard in free practice and testing. But, Smith points out, exactly the same justification applies to riding an MX bike. “So if we treat Friday and Saturday a little bit like motocross, it’s just preparation. It’s preparation so that when you arrive on Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock, that you’re ready to go.”

“Whether that’s sharpening your skills, waking up your senses, feeling better, mental clarity, a bit of adrenaline going; whatever it is that puts you up for a better position on Sunday, surely that’s the best way to go about it.”


Banged Up at Buriram

There is a very recent example of riders taking extreme risks during qualifying, Smith points out. “I remember watching Thailand from home last year, seeing Marc, Fabio, and Rossi, throw it away.”

“There’s that fast left and then into that next tight left on the bump, Turn 5, quite a few of them threw it down on the bump and crashed there. The question is, why? You’re going to start on the front row anyway? But it is worth it, whether that’s from an ego point of view or just because a racer is wired up that way.”

That crash turned out to be a costly one for Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider dislocated his shoulder on the day before his first shot at wrapping up the 2019 MotoGP title.

Though Márquez got the job done the next day, pipping Fabio Quartararo at the post and clinching the championship with a victory, the injury was bad enough to warrant surgery at the end of the season, immediately after the Jerez MotoGP test.

This is in line with the broader point Smith is trying to make. “I don’t want to go into the specifics of motocross or dirt track or supermoto or minibikes or something like that, because I don’t think this is about specifics,” the Aprilia rider says.

“Everyone needs to look at the bigger scheme of things. Whatever a rider deems beneficial to help them arrive better on Sunday, then that’s what they have to do. And on their head be it, if you’re one of those guys who is willing to throw it down because you want to be the fastest guy, but you risk crashing and hurting yourself.”


Lucky Bounce

Luck plays a part here, Smith believes, luck in physical resistance to injury and the ability to absorb crashes. “At the end of the day, if Marc crashed and hurt himself every time he’d fallen in MotoGP, he wouldn’t be world champion at the moment,” Smith says.

“I think he’s fortunate in that position, because someone like Dani [Pedrosa] has crashed and hurt himself every time that he’s crashed. So does that mean that Dani can’t push until the race, because if does crash and hurt himself it’s over? It just ends up in that Catch 22.”

Success, or a lack of it, colors perception, Smith believes. “Marc could have easily hurt himself in free practice, and at the moment everyone calls him a genius. Because they say, ‘oh yeah, Marc finds the limit in practice and qualifying and then he tidies it up for the race’. Well, not all of us are that lucky!”

“Not all of us are that lucky to crash 25 times in one season and carry on and get up with no injuries and so on. Some of us hit the ground less than ten times a year, and end up with two nasty injuries or tweaks of something or whatever, and that affects you for the next three races.”

Márquez would be viewed differently if he didn’t bounce so well, Smith believes. “If Marc had hurt himself in even 25% of those crashes per season, and then not been able to ride on Sunday or struggled outside of the top ten, would people ask, why is Marc taking unnecessary risks on weekends?”


No News Is Good News

The other factor, according to Bradley Smith, is that the outside world only hears about racers riding motocross when someone gets injured, and this skews their perception of risk.

“People only have a negative outlook on it when it has a negative effect, but if you knew how many times guys were riding motocross, or dirt track or supermoto or something like that, which I think social media is starting to tell how many people are doing it, but it’s a low number in terms of amount of laps ridden and amount of problems had,” Smith points out.

“Yes, there’s a common denominator in terms of, wow, a lot of guys are saying when they ride motocross they get injuries. Yeah, because motocross seems to be the common denominator in terms of what people are riding.”

Not riding motocross would not necessarily reduce the numbers of injuries, however. Marc Márquez has injured himself crashing a mountain bike, and broken a hand in a flat track crash.

It is common for fanatical cyclists like Cal Crutchlow and Aleix Espargaro to turn up with scabs on knees, arms, and elbows having fallen off their bicycles. Crutchlow managed to take a chunk out of his hand using a cheese wire, and Valentino Rossi suffered cuts when he fell on a glass table at home.

All this means that people who aren’t racers are failing to see the big picture, of how the risk is inherent in training, rather than in motocross. “Because so many guys do motocross, it seems to be the recurring thing of, oh, someone’s hurt themselves doing motocross,” Smith says.

“But if tennis was the sport of choice, and people were doing tennis, I think we’d also see a guy out with, I don’t know, a pulled groin or a twisted or sprained ankle or a shoulder injury or something like that. I just think it’s by chance. Because people are doing motocross, they get injured doing motocross.”

Quick Recovery

Are the rewards of motocross worth the risks? The question has been brought to the forefront once again by Andrea Dovizioso breaking a collarbone in a round of a regional MX championship two weeks ago.

Dovizioso told Ducati he wanted to take part in a motocross race, because the adrenaline of a real race situation sharpened the senses in a way which is impossible to simulate while training. But could the decision to race and the subsequent crash have cost him the 2020 championship?

Although it’s still too early to say definitively, that seems highly unlikely. Dovizioso’s injury was a clean fracture that the doctors quickly plated. Riders tend to come back quickly after breaking their collarbones and race without too much ill effect.

Who can forget Jorge Lorenzo breaking his collarbone during free practice on Thursday at Assen in 2013, flying to Barcelona to get the collarbone plated, then returning to race on the Saturday, and finishing fifth?


Ten Years Worth of Risk

That was a crash on a race weekend. When was the last time a training accident had an outcome on the MotoGP title? You would have to go back a decade, to Valentino Rossi crashing while riding a modified MX bike in the disused quarry he used to train at.

He badly injured his shoulder in the crash, which took place after the opening round of MotoGP at Qatar in 2010, and after the second race of the season, at Motegi, had been rescheduled for October due to the eruption of the Eyjafallajökull volcano on Iceland, which threw vast quantities of ash into the atmosphere and brought air travel in Europe almost to a standstill.

Rossi was already facing a severe challenge from his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, who had pushed him hard for the title in 2009 and was mounting an even stronger charge in 2010.

Rossi’s weakened shoulder from the training crash put him at a disadvantage throughout the first half of the season, and forcing him to push perhaps harder than he felt comfortable doing. As a result, Rossi had a huge crash at Mugello, breaking his leg and forcing him to miss four races.

The broken leg may have cost Valentino Rossi the 2010 championship, but a case can be made that he only found himself in that situation because of the shoulder injury sustained in training.

From that perspective, the risk of riding motocross, or any other form of training on a motorcycle, seems acceptable. Injuries happen, but they have far less of an impact on the championship than injuries sustained while actually participating in races or practice.

Just ask Dani Pedrosa. Or Jorge Lorenzo, who probably lost the 2013 championship because of that crash in Assen.

Or Loris Capirossi, whose huge smash in the first corner at Barcelona in 2006 put him out of the title chase that season. Or Casey Stoner, who lost his chance of defending his title in 2012 when he destroyed his ankle during practice at Indianapolis.


Calculated Risk

So sure, training on a motocross bike is a risky business. It is possible to bang yourself up so badly that you miss races, or are forced to ride hurt and make mistakes. But the chances of serious injury are low enough that it is worth the risks, and there are ways of reducing the risk even further.

“I always find I never try to really push on too hard with motocross,” Brad Binder says. “I just try to maybe ride around at 80% and just use it more for the training benefits.”

That is how riding motocross is like choosing not to blow most of NASA’s budget pursuing every possible option to locate and destroy asteroids and meteors which could cause significant damage to planet earth.

Yes, there is a risk of something terrible happening which could prove to be very costly indeed. But when you look at the odds involved, the risk is worth it. You do what you can to mitigate the risks, and hope it works out.

In the case of NASA, that means spending a smaller amount cataloging objects in space which might be a threat. In the case of MotoGP riders, that means making sure to take only calculated risks on a motocross bike. So far, that gamble has paid off.

Photo: MotoGP

David Emmett

One of MotoGP's most respected journalists, David Emmett is the proprietor of the esteemed MotoMatters. We are very grateful to republish David's work here on A&R...though dread the day we ever again get in a car with him.

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