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Shovelling for the Nations

Assen BuildIt’s the build-up week for the biggest event on the Motocross calendar – unless you’re an American factory racing team, but more on that later – the Motocross of Nations, World Cup of Motocross, Olympics of Motocross, unofficial world team championship and the chance for one side of Motocross’ Atlantic divide to stick a middle finger to the other side for the following year… but more on that later. It’s my personal favourite event that in my view should never lose its importance and position as an absolutely massive boost to the profile of World Championship Motocross.

This should be an exciting week – who’s gonna win the team trophy, who’s gonna win individually, will the Americans even be competitive, which small-bike rider is gonna surprise the big boys, how is our country gonna do… these are the usual questions to get us salivating and the best part of all is that it hasn’t been at all predictable since the most recent American domination was ended in 2012. And there will be a blog entry from me on all of that later this week.

The Official MXGP Facebook page’s post at the start of this week, however, met with a response that asked none of those questions. The photo featured two spandex-wearing models (if it ain’t good enough for F1, stuff it we’ll still do it), flanking five people carrying shovels, three of whom were in suit jackets and two of whom had already dropped the charade and picked up the champers which they will clearly be sinking while the real shovellers get stuck in to the work itself. The work itself? Beginning the “creation” of the circuit for this year’s ‘Nations. For almost the first time, a completely artificial circuit will be built directly on top of a road racing circuit to host this prestigious event.

The backlash has been instantaneous, punishing, and constant. All of it blasting the use of this venue when there is a myriad of perfectly good permanent and historically awesome circuits already in place, that need no construction whatsoever besides the normal compulsory prep. One comment has rightfully pointed out the carbon footprint of this enterprise – why pump all this dozer fuel into the air transporting the sand in when other tracks have it there already? And why pump the Euros into a perfectly successful site that enjoys massive income from MotoGP, WSB, and in recent years (and just last week) even BSB, when there are Motocross clubs down the road or across a few borders that are in dire need of a major cash injection to even help them stay open? Is a hard-standing perfect-for-VIPs paddock really worth that much?

It is massively saddening for me to see this response. I love this sport and its history and I want it to thrive, for the world champions to be recognised as the superfit athletes they are, and for the series itself to be as prestigious as ever, especially as we are finally in a time when the GP racers can truthfully go against the best from America and regularly come out on top. For the first time in around 35 years we can honestly say the World Champion is the best in the world, and that is so important for the credibility of the sport. So why is the vast majority of the fanbase absolutely spitting about the state of the sport today?

I have to constantly defend the modern game on social media against comments like “it was real racing in them days, not like the show jumpers we’ve got today”. Or “back when Motocross was awesome”, “they were real men in them days”, and “proper tracks back then”. It drives me crazy. Yes, it was awesome then – but it still is now. Especially the racers themselves. There are many valid reasons to moan about modern Motocross, but leave our current racers alone. As a generation they need to have more physical preparation than ever before, and a level of bike control that stands up against anyone from years gone by.

I will gladly listen to anyone who does moan. I think the governing bodies of the sport need to listen as well. This is the fanbase. In a minority sport that is fighting for attention in an increasingly crowded world full of distractions, we need to look after the traditional fans that will pay to see the best if the show is good and it’s not too pricey. Here are the things that I see as serious negatives from the spectator’s point of view:

  1. Jumps – The most spectacular thing a dirt bike can do that no others can is leave the ground, look amazing, and stay in control. It captures the public imagination – have you ever seen a Freestyle show at a fairground or amongst any crowd that hasn’t seen a bike in the air before? I did at the Bath & West Show this year. The reaction was pure astonishment. Eyes on stalks. Wows were heard! Hardened Motocross fans still have favourite memories of the best in the air – Stewart at Larocco’s Leap, Paulin at Lommel, Jobe at Hawkstone, Geboers at Namur, Noyce into the sandpit. However, a track full of them? Every time? Limiting the racing and the ability to switch lines, as well as necessitating the withdrawl of the fans to a safer distance, are all hitting the traditional fan in the guts. As well as the obvious danger that finds a lot of the world’s best on the injured list and reducing the competition at the very top through to the grassroots of the sport where Dads just won’t let their kids kill themselves over ridiculous and ill-prepared stunt ramps.
  2. The moving back of the fans – Take a look at most old Motocross GP photos, especially the 500s in the continent, and the track is lined with fans a dozen deep at least. You even get that brilliant “wave” of fans sweeping from one side of the track to the next to follow the action. We just don’t see it anymore. The jump factor is part of it, increasing insurance costs surely another. But this year at Loket we saw people hanging over the fences, and a mega-crowd of Slovenian maniacs cheering on Gajser at Arco di Trento made for the best atmosphere of the year, that simply leapt out of the screen. Crowd numbers will naturally have dwindled because there is more out there for people to do these days. But if we are allowed in then please let us get next to the track and feel the roost bouncing off of us.
  3. Advertising boards – I get that we need sponsors’ income, more than ever, but seeing the word “Monster” emblazoned on 15 boards down each side of the hills at Ernee adds nothing to either the spectacle, or my likelihood of buying a can of Monster Energy. A crowd of crazy French fans pumping their fists would add so much more. When you are physically at the race these boards make it impossible to see the corners in a lot of places. Did he pass him? I don’t know, they both disappeared behind a giant orange board with KTM on it! How did he crash? I don’t know, I’ll have to see it on telly later! Absolutely ridiculous…
  4. Track preparation – this is where we started. Artificial circuits, or artificially groomed circuits, are killing the racing at the highest level. How can we get exciting, line-switching racing at every corner when there are only three ruts, at best, to choose from in the corners? Same for multiple tramlines along straights and going off jumps. I understand the need for watering and the fight against dust. Surely, however, we can scrape the ruts, remove these needless obstacles and let the guys race harder?

So there it is – what I think are the big issues that are hitting the traditional fans and driving them away from the sport. Not just at GP level but at British Championships and downwards as well. I confess to not having much knowledge of the AMA series in this department. From what I can see the Nationals have amazing circuits and the racing is better. Perhaps there is more space over there to be used or the tracks are done better. I would be happy to hear from anybody with their thoughts on any of the above.

I hope that the Assen MXoN delivers some great racing. The saving grace is that sand tracks normally do, and the Nations in general normally does too. The three “artificial” circuits like it that hosted the Nations – Jerez in ’95, Zolder in ’03, and Donington in ’08 – still made for great spectacles. Grandstands full of screaming Dutch fans who finally have a team that should win will help. So of course I will still be tuning in as an excited little fan. I just hope that many more look past the venue, and all the current issues, and just enjoy the racing as well. More on the positive side later this week. Cheers!

 

B.

Once Invincible…

Misano 2019 Rossi v MarquezMainstream popular culture, especially if seen from national broadcasters in the UK, likes to link the perceived black-leather-clad world of motorcycling with the black t-shirt-wearing world of rock and heavy metal.  How many times “Born To Be Wild” has been used to backdrop a preview of the Weston-Super-Mare Beach Race on local news, for example, cannot easily be counted.  So, I may be bowing to a tired old tradition a little here, but there is a more 2019-inspired link between those two worlds that just can’t be ignored by someone with their waders firmly in both swamps.

This is a bike-based blog but I will explain the title line a little first as it will be the most obscure.  Anyone knowing of aggressive guitar-based music made since the 1990s will know of a massively-selling but little-known band called Tool.  If you don’t, then think maybe Radiohead, or even Pink Floyd, with the guitars heavier and the vocalist a little growlier, and you’re pretty much there.  Personally, I think they’re absolutely amazing.  And in 2019 fans such as myself have been treated to their first new album for 13 years.  It’s called Fear Inoculum, but seriously if they are new to you then find their old stuff first.  It’s well worth it.

So, on to the link with the two-wheeled world that is the whole point of this blog. On the new Tool album is a song called Invincible.  The opening lines grabbed me immediately on this morning of the Misano MotoGP.  The morning after the latest spat between Signor Valentino Rossi and his replacement as the alpha male of the series, Senor Marc Marquez. 

“Long in tooth and soul, longing for another win…”  Remind you of anyone?  “Once Invincible, now the armour’s wearing thin…”  Getting even more poignant now.  “Warrior… struggling.. to remain… relevant…”  Now, this could well be a personal note from the singer of a band whose best work was done nearly twenty years ago, which yet again links it so strongly for me with the man who is by far the most globally famous racing motorcyclist there ever has been.  Now the heckles will be rising beneath the bright yellow shirts of his fearsome fanbase so I must soften this by saying I am in awe of this legend of the sport.  What he’s done for the sport is incredible.  Not just the success, but the personality which has let him enjoy both the success of Michael Schumacher and the popularity of… well there isn’t even a four-wheeled comparison there.  Who can compare from anywhere?  Muhammad Ali?  Well, not even my Grandad liked him!

Picture this if you will.  It’s 1997.  Dominant champion mighty Mick Doohan has taken his fourth straight 500cc World Crown and is far from finished.  3rd in this series, amongst the supporting factory Hondas of Tady Okada and Alex Criville, and ahead of the older two Aoki brothers, is the legend Kenny Roberts – Senior.  His son campaigned the Modenas this year but on the factory Yamaha that made his name, King Kenny gets third in the 1997 series, his 19th year in the championship.  

OK, so it was actually Nobuatsu Aoki who got bronze that year.  Luca Cadalora was top Yamaha in a lowly 7th. KRSR retired 14 years before this series.  However, if Roberts had lasted as long as Rossi has in the top flight, that would have been the story to parallel Rossi’s 2018 bronze medal in MotoGP.  Can you imagine?

Giacomo Agostini racing with Eddie Lawson.  Barry Sheene racing with Doohan & Schwantz.  Wayne Rainey racing with Nicky Hayden & Rossi himself.  Ideas reserved for pub discussion and fantasy video games.  It’s incredible to witness. Although what we are seeing now is a legend who hasn’t made way for the next generation, as most have before.  Roberts’ last year in GPs was a mere six years after his debut, when he was involved in a titanic tussle with the next American great, Fast Freddie Spencer.  Kenny very nearly took back his crown even then.  It was one of the few times where we have been treated to an overlap of legends, where the cruelness of injury hasn’t intervened and the old invincible did battle with the next top dog.  The 80s were brilliant for the battles amongst many of the very best coming all at once, where even an animal like Randy Mamola had to go without a title. 

Injury to Doohan meant that we never saw him against Rossi.  What a fight that could have been!  Can you imagine the stern Aussie’s reaction to the flamboyant cartoon character if the #46 had carved up the Repsol Honda #1 once or twice?  Valentino had relatively weak opposition in his early 500 years, partially due to machine superiority but also down to his sheer genius, and was able to establish his sunshine yellow brand with barely a mark on it until he tried to mix it with Ducati red.

The sheer speed of Casey Stoner and the up-yours mentality of Jorge Lorenzo got their world titles, but the circus element of MotoGP contributed towards shortening the #27’s career to a mere 7 years. Somehow people are surprised that 12th-year veteran Lorenzo seems a little shy right now of being thrown skywards by his machinery for the umpteenth time. The incredible talent of Dani Pedrosa was even denied a title in 13 hard years of heartache and pain.  This is a very tough sport even now.  The riders may not have to contend with hair-trigger two-strokes that shattered bones with depressing regularity, but they do ride 50% more races than 35 years ago, with infinitely more travelling involved thanks to over twice the number of races outside Europe than even 30 years ago.

So the “Warrior” wearing 46 “struggling to stay relevant” has lasted an incredible amount of time, and that has to be applauded as a mark of his sheer ability on a motorcycle.  And he could still take a win in this crazy 2019 season.  It has to be acknowledged though that his best years have gone.  All those highlight reel races against Lorenzo, Stoner, Biaggi and Gibernau are over ten or even fifteen years old.  He tried similar tricks with Marquez and it exploded in his face.   The end of 2015 permanently scarred his image in this writer’s opinion.

The armour’s wearing thin, time to put the heavy shield down.  His continued presence on the grid, and the animosity towards Marquez in particular, could very well be doing more harm than good to the sport.  The Spanish sensation is Rossi’s natural heir – pushing the sport forward with his technique and style, showing incredible ability in all circumstances, and doing it with a genuine demeanour, a winning smile, and plenty of charisma to get behind.  My wife-to-be started watching MotoGP when we got together in 2015, and she is a genuine fan of the incumbent champ.  Yes, he is aggressive and there is arrogance there, but name me a champion without at least a faint streak of all that.  To hear boos for this incredible racer is unbelievable in the light of how hard he works and what he can do on a bike.  This is how the football-hooligan mentality that Rossi has brought to the sport is becoming a very negative influence.

It is now regular for even Marquez to be the oldest on the podium.  Yamaha have kept Rossi on, when in years gone by Johann Zarco would have been brought up to the factory team and moved all of them forward.  Instead I believe that Rossi is dragging Vinales, and the M1 itself, back from where they both should be.  I hope that this year’s results convince Yamaha to not waste the good fortune of a second fast Frenchman being available from the satellite team, and that Fabio Quartararo gets to join Vinales in a factory team that could surely take on the dominance of the number 93, whose bike really isn’t as good as he is making it look.

As for Rossi, it’s time to say Ciao.  His academy and team will definitely continue, and we do need a non-Spanish counterbalance in the paddock. Make way on the track for those who are ready to move the sport on again, and even help them to do so from a strong position on the sidelines.

B.

15th Sep. 2019

MotoXwords – Welcome to the blog!

MotoXword Me In Kit

MotoXwords is starting out as a business venture, making Crosswords for Motorcycle publications of all varieties.  I am hoping, however, that making this blog and keeping a good online presence will also kick off the “words” part of the business title, as writing features and articles for those magazines is also an aim for my business. Hopefully I can get good enough at it to get enough work to quit the day job!

So! Who am I to be putting out my opinions and views on the motorcycle world?  Well, my name is Ben Rumbold, and I was only born because of motorbikes! An Army motorcycle ace called Norman Rumbold became Manager of Bristol-based dealership Westbury Motorcycles in the 1950s. Competing in local Grass Track races and Scrambles he became friends with the Hudson family from South Bristol. Brian Hudson was a solid scrambler himself, and with similarly-aged offspring the two families became good friends, the Hudson boys Neil and Garry racing with Norman’s son David through the 1970s.  The eldest Hudson child, their daughter Liese (pronounced Lisa, the spelling an homage to the family’s Scandinavian roots), clapped eyes on David’s blue Y-front-clad backside whilst he was getting ready to race, and the rest is history! 

Just as Dave was “getting the message” as Grandad Norm put it (starting to win), he was sideswiped by a drunk driver on the way back from the Hudson homestead to the central Bristol Rumbold residence, and left in a crumpled heap in the road.  There followed an entire year of hospital care to repair leg injuries comparable to Barry Sheene’s, as well as facing a life-changing destruction of the right elbow joint that would leave the arm permanently stuck at a near-right angle.  Despite this, my amazing Dad continued to race at Motocross (with a Norm-adapted half-Harley handlebar set-up), and then go on to be a British Championship level Enduro man and ultimately a Classic Bike road racer of national championship level pace.  Together with Mum running the official Club merchandise stand, those years of road racing were the best they enjoyed, and it was a great paddock for a little bike-mad kid!

The Hudson boys of course became much more famous.  Garry reached National Championship level and has had a long career working for Yamaha. Neil was world class almost from the moment he could race with the men.  On one occasion, he borrowed Dad’s lovingly-sprayed white goggles (they were all a dull plastic grey in those days).  At the end of the race he looked rather odd, with the paint wind-blasted off and what was left of it hanging in tatters to the frame all around his face!  He was so fast, fourth in his first Grand Prix race, and eventually the winner of 7 Grands Prix and the 1981 World 250cc Championship, defeating all-time great Georges Jobe in the process.  With the factory Yamaha he took the British 500cc Championship in 1982 and finished 3rd in the world in his first go at the 500c world title.  His rivalry with Graham Noyce re-lit the fire under British Motocross and with Japanese factory interest surrounding the domestic series a young Dave Thorpe got serious support from a young age and got set on the path to his awesome career.  In short, my uncle Nellie is one of the best riders this island has ever produced.

I grew up around the paddocks of the British Championship (apparently able to name the whole top 35 at the age of six or seven), and as soon as Dad packed in the road racing I started begging for a bike.  Naturally I was going to emulate my famous uncle and carry on the dynasty just as my new favourite rider Stefan Everts was doing during my first year of racing in 1991.  OK, so I got as far as the AMCA Championship, getting top tens in my only go at it in 1999. The money ran out however, and I realised that I was never gonna “do a Nellie”.  I was just never fast enough, and anything less was just not of interest!  I packed it in rather than lead myself and my folks to financial ruin chasing a dream I was never going to achieve.

I’ve had a few more bites at it, racing AMCA Experts between 2006 and 2009 before thieves took my lovely Suzuki on the same day that I lost my job!  Then at the age of 38 I had another couple of years at it until a disastrous go at the AMCA Vets Championship in 2018 …  3 races attended, a broken collarbone at Norley, a massive prang at Hawkstone, and a blown motor at Brookthorpe!  A total of about 8 laps for the year, no finishes, zero points!  So from here on in I might do the odd race for fun, but my awesome fiancée Sam, this fledgling business and a new baby boy have to take priority over the need for this old fart to get his kicks on a scrambles track. 

I love this sport of Motocross, and the world of MotoGP and road racing is a very close second.  All things two-wheeled grab my attention, it’s in my blood and I want it to move forward and capture the imaginations of every kid who experiences it, just as it did for me.  So this blog and this business has one agenda – sharing the love of motorcycles and pushing it forward, as well as the small concern of paying for the roof over my family’s head.

15 second board’s up! Eyes on the gate, two fingers on the clutch. Let’s go!

B.