Until perhaps the end of 2012, you could hear the phrase – “here are The Best Riders in the World” – from a commentator for an AMA National and, as a European, begrudgingly say, yeah, OK, maybe you do apart from a couple. A Sicilian and a young Dutchman could take on anybody back then but apart from that, with Villopoto, Dungey, Stewart still in action, Chad Reed not really old quite yet, and a strong top ten, the AMAs could genuinely make that claim.
Then came the Motocross of Nations at Lommel. Barcia & Dungey collided, and I personally remember the roar from the Belgian (and widely European) crowd as it really hurt the American cause. New AMA 250 champ Baggett got lapped by Herlings, and nobody got near Cairoli all day. You could say that, ah well, that’s Lommel. Deep sand, that Americans don’t see anymore. They didn’t see it much in 1981 when they started their Nations dominance either, but those were different times. MXGP riders all live in Lommel these days right? Do 40 minute motos in it before breakfast, yeah?
The 2013 Nations was perhaps the biggest turnaround. Teutschenthal in Germany is hard pack, admittedly tighter than your average AMA National circuit, but still good dirt. I remember seeing Dungey struggling against Desalle, De Dycker, Bobryshev, Nagl, Paulin, and Searle, in the lower half of the top ten. Barcia was even further back. Tomac was impressive on a 250, but otherwise it was becoming clear – MXGP suddenly had a stronger roster.
Further proof of that was Ryan Villopoto’s MXGP venture in 2015. He had cleaned up in the AMA and was gonna come over and kick Euro ass. He did so, once, on a scorching hot day in Thailand on a Supercross track. It was a shame that injury robbed us of seeing him through the year but it wasn’t going his way anyway. And further humblings at the Nations, especially in their own back yard, has confirmed that the FIM series runs with most of the best Motocross riders on the planet.
Now, sadly for Motocross purists there is that small thing called money and the number one maker of it for bikes with knobbly tyres – the AMA Supercross series. Don’t get me wrong the racing is regularly brilliant, it’s high drama and great entertainment. Especially in January when there’s naff all going on otherwise in the bike world. It does however, really get in the way when it comes to deciding who are genuinely “The Best Riders in the World” at Motocross, the sport we actually race a full World Championship for.
Well this is a hypothetical run through of the ten riders who I think are currently The Best in the World. I am partially ignoring Supercross for this, as I think this would be the top ten in, let’s say, a perfect computer game simulation of a World Motocross Championship where EVERYBODY took part, maybe half a dozen rounds in the US just to go where the money is, and another 14 rounds smattered around the globe across the best tracks possible. As if Supercross never existed and MXGP truly was the dirty version of MotoGP. It’s a bit of fun, something to chew over in the cold long wintery off-season. Here we go…
- Jeffrey Herlings
Despite a miserable year as defending MXGP Champ, there is no denying that the Bullet is still the fastest man on an off-road bike when all is said and done. He comes back from injury and wins a GP moto with a broken ankle. He then wins the last two MXGPs when still maybe 80% healthy at best, and is clearly the fastest at the Nations, coming through with breath-taking speed from crashes and awful weather. There is simply no-one to match him, and before his MXGP title season he even crossed the Atlantic and annihilated the Americans in their final outdoor race of 2017.
The only guy who seems to be able to beat Jeffrey is himself. The speed and intensity that he not only races, but trains at, means that his already battered body is at extreme risk any time that it might go wrong. Seeing him at full flight is incredible. He skips bumps in sand, climbs banks on the way out of turns, and has the power to make you go “Whoa!” on occasion with his sheer ability. Watching him in practise for the Matterley Nations, I saw him make a set of uphill waves look easy, the bike just sticking to the floor and going forward. Suddenly the amazed voice of Roger Warren blares out with “And Herlings has gone FIVE seconds faster than anybody!”, and it’s no surprise. Just mind-blowing speed.
Numbers 2 & 3 in this list can hold a candle though. Herlings against a full-bore, on-song Tomac has yet to be seen. At the aforementioned Ironman National Eli was wrapping up his first 450 title, and he never started near the front at the Red Bud Nations. It would be a delicious prospect. Plus, Tim Gajser has never been fully-fit and fighting for a title at the same time as Jeffrey. 2018 was as awful for the Slovenian as the starts of 2017 & 2019 were for Herlings, so it might not be a foregone conclusion that Tim can be bested that easily over a season.
Herlings might never get to the title numbers of Everts & Cairoli due to doubts over longevity, but those in the know will put him up there with them for talent. My own father has always put modern racers down with “yeah he’s good but not as good as Joel Robert”. I nearly fell off my chair when Dad said “Herlings is just like Robert!”. 2020 sees Jeffrey going for a fifth title in total, and possibly Everts’ 101 GP win record as well. We are privileged to be able to witness one of his like.
- Eli Tomac
The strongman wearing number three (or #1 as well earnt) has three-peated; while we’re talking American let’s use the phrasing at least! He’s the first man to do that outdoors on entirely 450F machinery, and the first since the GOATIA (Greatest Of All Time In America), Ricky Carmichael. On his day he makes the mighty green machine fly, taking huge lumps of time out of people, especially towards the end of a race on a full-on charge. Many thought this ability would lead to a tasty showdown at the Red Bud Nations with his MXGP counterpart Herlings. However, he was having the sort of day that makes me question even his number two ranking in this list. A really bad one. This happens to Eli just a bit too often and has certainly cost him one or two indoor titles so far.
Over the course of a whole season this can seriously cost him against consistent opposition. Herlings, Gajser, and Cairoli can go through an 18 to 20 GP season with 1 or 2 of these days at the most. Tomac will have more than that in a 12-round series, and Dungey, Anderson, and Webb have all exploited this to deny Eli of the indoor crown he wants more than anything.
In a full-on fantasy world championship with everybody in, I think Tomac would take GP wins and on occasion make the rest look silly. He has hinted at “extending” his career to come over and kick Euro butt one year. I say bring it on, that would be thrilling to see. He is without doubt the fastest rider with an American passport right now, and he deserves a Supercross crown as well in 2020.
- Tim Gajser
Several years ago my ex-World Champ uncle stated to me that an influx of eastern European riders would take over Motocross at the top, simply because they had the hunger and drive and just had to work harder for it. The number 243 has come the closest to doing that, and the first rider from Slovenia to do anything of note in this sport has now claimed three world titles for Honda across the two classes in the last five years. That puts him up there with the likes of Friedrichs, Malherbe, Thorpe, & Albertyn. And he deserves it.
Gajser is a legitimate champion, those who say he only won due to others’ injuries are ignoring the fact that he could have said that in 2018. His pre-season crash in Italy was a killer, facial surgery that hindered his ability to even eat properly could have left him in a deep dark place. It was vital to the series that he returned strong this year, and his battles with Cairoli were spectacular to behold. Especially at Arco in Italy, where his red-and-yellow clad supporters made it more of a home atmosphere for him than for any Italian in the race! It was a decisive blow that set the stage for a great title run. Once the title was won he wasn’t quite the same force, but his individual Nations win was a nice reminder to everyone of who the champ actually is.
He’s no stranger to a crash or two, and the Honda’s unforgiving chassis can dump him on the ground when maybe a KTM would wobble straight. It is something he will have to watch for as he pushes next year for the big challenge of defending the crown. That challenge of course will be the return of Herlings for a full season in 2020, if both stay injury-free. That hasn’t happened in MXGP yet, and with the title on the line Gajser will be working hard to try and match the Dutchman’s pace if they are both fighting for the title. I’d love it if the FIM made the champ wear number 1 like they do in the AMA, and if it was me I would do it. He has certainly earnt it.
- Antonio Cairoli
In an eerie echo of the MotoGP series, where a veteran Italian is one of the most popular riders ever but has been overtaken by a punishing young upstart wearing orange, TC222 is finding it almost as tough as VR46 to keep punching at the top table. After an injury-cut 2019, it is uncertain if the now 34-year-old superstar can still take it to the title winners of the previous years. Earlier in the year though he was right up there and without that injury he might still have reeled Gajser in.
His life outside of the sport has always been perfectly balanced, the team is still centred around him and he is now a Papa, so as always his platform is amongst the best in the sport. The effects of having his protégé Senor Prado up in the big class with him will be interesting to watch. He has been vocal in his support and the benefits of having the teenage Spaniard training with him, so will this cosy relationship continue now they could be clashing on the track itself? For sure he wouldn’t be lining up if he didn’t think he could win, and in the twilight of his career he will certainly still have the speed and class to back it up.
- Ken Roczen
It’s tough to know if the KR94 of 2016 would be higher up this list if he hadn’t bust both arms in consecutive years. It’s incredible that Kenny has returned to the highest level after suffering enough damage to be part of medical studies during his recovery. The self-dubbed “K-Rex” then missed a Supercross win by the narrowest of margins back in February, and never got that close again, but his outdoor form was bettered only by Tomac with 5 wins and 17 podiums from the 24 motos.
Strange health issues prevented him from pushing for the National title, but you can be sure that he will be threatening indoors come January and continue to challenge outdoors if healthy. He continues to encourage many European fans to buy their online subscriptions as he strives to become the first Euro since Bayle to take the most lucrative prize in the sport.
- Jorge Prado
Your humble writer tipped the youngest man on this list to shock the world by winning his class in the Nations, and while he didn’t quite get there in that boggy glorified Beach Race, he certainly showed that the startline prowess will transfer to the bigger bike. So the first half of his devastatingly effective double-MX2-title-winning formula will be there. Whether or not the second half of the formula, check out and disappear into the distance, will be possible remains to be seen. The age limit has weakened the smaller class but even so, the most dominant 250F champion yet is a completely legitimate contender.
As already noted, Spain’s best-ever Motocrosser has benefitted massively from being amongst the Latin section of the dominant Red Bull KTM set up and training with Cairoli. Whether or not TC will continue to share absolutely all of his advice is debatable, but the strength of Prado will possibly keep that section of the team running when the Sicilian does finally call it a day. He could have had a career in MotoGP but loved the dirty stuff too much. We are fortunate to be enjoying his presence off-road and I am certain that moto wins, maybe even a medal, will come in his debut 450 season.
- Marvin Musquin
2020 will mark a full decade since the man from La Reole defended his #1 plate in the MX2 world championship and left for America. One of the most unlikely-looking Motocrossers on the planet, the skinny kid has matured to be a title candidate each year in the States since he went there, but he hasn’t delivered anything more than a regional 250F Supercross crown and is still not the favourite to clinch one either outdoors or in.
Turning 30 just before Christmas, his physical condition as part of the Bakersville militia is never in doubt. The psychological blow of losing the Supercross crown to a very much Junior team member last year, and still falling well shy of Tomac outdoors, must leave Marvin wondering if this winter’s hard work will finally see him deliver that big-bike championship that his talent surely deserves. His consistency needs to get him onto the podium, preferably the top step, much more if he is to do that.
- Glenn Coldenhoff
The man with the coolest (Coldest?) name in World Motocross backed up his Red Bud Nations win with a flurry of MXGP-winning form in the second half of the season. Injury did hold him back earlier in the year, and his YouTube viral training crash really was massive. Once fully healthy though he was a revelation, and gets onto this list instead of Jeremy Seewer because of those wins that pushed him into the bronze medal position at the very last GP. His Nations success continued to help the Dutch to a historic first win at home, and getting a full-factory KTM with Gas Gas branding should see him on a machine worthy of those achievements.
Entitled to wear the number 3 next year, the second-fastest #259 in history will be out to try and mix it with the fully-healthy contenders listed above from the outset. If he can do that then we can expect a retention of his ranking, perhaps even better if misfortune befalls some of his peers. Very much a dark horse for the world title if all goes well.
- Cooper Webb
OK so I did say this was in a non-Supercross world, but it’s hard to ignore the stocky man from North Carolina who probably made more money than anyone else on this list in the last 12 months. Webb kept strong and consistent through the indoor season, always in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of the best bike in the series to deliver a well-earned and largely unpredicted title.
His outdoor season saw him where he was originally expected to be in Supercross, apart from a corking double win at Spring Creek, and injury cut it short two rounds early. The smirk that thanks God in every interview yet still says “screw you” to all of his opposition should return indoors if the knee heals well, but he needs to be consistently stronger outdoors to be a serious contender for that crown, as well as to begrudgingly make me move him higher up this list next year.
- Romain Febvre
This top 10 position is largely dependent on the French former MXGP champ returning strong, both from injury and onto a new bike for 2020. Again, he gets the nod from Seewer because he has won races, the only one from the once-dominant Rinaldi Yamaha team to do so in recent years. It is scary how Febvre constantly suffers a massive crash just when he is looking like being a contender again. In 2015 he was the man, albeit with many injuries around him, but to keep up with the KTMs and Gajser since then he has regularly pushed past the limit.
He is still one of the most exciting riders to see at full flight, and his injury surely cost the French a good shot at retaining their Nations title. I hope he brings the green machine to the forefront in 2020 because that is a quality team that deserves a title shot. I hope he invests in a decent crash helmet though because he can’t take many more big hits like he has of late. A crucial year.
Zach Osbourne – One of the hardest working riders in the sport, Zach never gives in and is another God-botherer with a ruthless streak. I can’t see him breaking past Eli & co to a 450 crown, but stranger things have happened and it would be a very popular result.
Adam Cianciarulo – The mercurial talent of this smart kid from Florida finally bore fruit with the outdoor 250 AMA title, and the Monster Energy Cup win shows that he could be right in the mix on a big bike. His Supercross title loss leaves question marks over his composure under pressure, but for sure he will be in there next year.
Jeremy Seewer – Finally we mention the runner-up in the 2019 MXGP championship! One of the most consistent men in the series, he collected his third silver medal in four years and justified the factory Yamaha berth with a solid season. Can he progress to GP wins and even titles? In this company I can’t see it, but the ultra-professional Swiss will always be there or thereabouts, especially if injuries deplete the field again.
Max Anstie – Gotta be mentioned, purely because he has been the best that Britain has produced in the last few years. Able to run with the very best when he’s at his very best, that is sadly too few and far between to challenge for a world title, and next year he migrates to the States again to try his hand there. Outdoors on a 450 he could well spring some surprises. In a short championship, and without the drain of a full Supercross season due to doing a 250 series, I am predicting a top five championship finish if he stays healthy. That is not overestimating his talent, especially when it comes to the softer circuits. Watch him go at Southwick boys! There will be a few Brits subscribing to the online coverage if he does start to get up there. Go Max!
So hey, let me know what you think of my list. There will be regional passions ignited and insulted for sure, but I am more than open to hearing your opinions during the bench-racing season. Roll on January and that pesky indoor series when we can watch the wheels turn again!
Thank you for reading.