Anybody who has ridden a dirtbike and coped with all the challenges of off-road terrain will know how it hammers stamina and punishes muscle groups that people never realised they had. Actually racing one of these steeds on desert terrain, across supercross jumps, through forest trails and streams or around the closed circuits of motocross is a level of ‘demand’ that is difficult to comprehend. MXGP athletes are not gym-ripped musclemen; instead they are strong, lithe, flexible and trained to cope with heart-bursting cardio strains.
Factory-spec motorcycles weigh around 100kg and racers have to push physical limits and the limits of physics for two 30 minutes + 2 lap motos at twenty rounds across the world from Argentina to Asia. Their Olympian-level fitness not only helps performance and concentration in a motorsport where heightened risk is present every lap and broken bones are almost obligatory but is also part of the measure to try and restrict injury; where reflexes in the half-a-second making an 80ft jump are absolutely crucial.
Heart rates hit 180-190 by the first laps of the race and stay high. The long ruts and bumps of a deep sand track like Lommel in Belgium is perhaps the ultimate test but unbearable humidity in Indonesia, Italian summer sun and deep mud are also part of the diverse pressures of MXGP.
A typical calendar for a top MXGP competitor means a long season of Grands Prix and occasional International or domestic championship meetings from February to September. Testing will finish in the first weeks of October. The Pros take a few weeks of holiday or recuperation and then start a phase of ‘base training’ for the following campaign. This means hardcore cardio and usually involves running, cycling, altitude training, gym work and careful dieting. The Christmas holiday briefly splits the programme but then follows weeks of intense riding and laps of tracks.
By the time a racer has the experience, skill and shape to contend for MXGP Grand Prix wins then will already have an intimate knowledge of what their body needs, what it can take and what activities to avoid, how to rest and how to ensure the right equilibrium between burn and bloom. For these highly motivated and driven athletes the hardest factor is not the quantity of work but sometimes the affirmation that their programme is sculpting them into the best possible condition. The culture of ‘marginal gains’ in an era of MXGP where the gap from prizes-to-just-points is crazily tight means every question has to be asked when it comes to improvement.
This was a quandary that 2015 MXGP World Champion and three times Motocross of Nations winner, Monster Energy Yamaha’s Romain Febvre waded through at the beginning of 2017; a term when the Frenchman suffered a winless period for the first time since his emphatic entry to the premier class.
“Last year between the Argentine and Mexican Grands Prix I went to the U.S. for almost two weeks with Ryan Hughes [former AMA MX and GP rider now trainer],” #461 remembers. “At that time I did not know if the ‘problem’, let’s say, we had was coming from my side or from the technical parts of the bike. So I was trying to change my programme to find some new things and it was good to learn some different techniques and methods. My time with him was very positive and I was able to take what I learned with me.”
Motocrossers, like many Pro sportsmen, have the advantage of knowing the aches, creaks and idiosyncrasies of their bodies far more than the average person on the street. It’s odd that insecurities can sometimes exist about whether they are pushing the right buttons but it is also the very first subject many of them turn towards when results or ‘feeling’ on the bike is not quite working out. To analyse the foundation of their preparation for their sport is sometimes reassuring.
“Fitness is the easiest thing to see some improvement,” Febvre admits. “For technical parts on the bike you really need to have a good team with a good development programme but through your training you can learn so much with some investigation and research and then some trial and error. If you have the motivation, you can do it. I had two trainers when I was in MX2 and I learned a lot from them but when I moved to Yamaha in 2015 I chose to go alone and it has worked out well. The physical part of the job is the simplest [to learn]. It helps to have some experience but it costs nothing to train and people can do it as much as they want.”
A decent percentage of the MXGP gate employ a trainer or specialist to help give some extra direction. Sometimes this outside influence also assists in terms of motivation. Febvre opts to work alone but has weighed-up the virtues of outside assistance. He also points out that it is a very personal and tight alliance and the right chemistry is key. “I have the motivation to train and the advantage of doing it by yourself means that you can adjust your plans at the last moment, you don't need to wait for someone or be some place at a certain time…but I do see the advantages of someone being there,” he says. “The relationship is important because you’ll spend a lot of time with a trainer. It has to be a good fit with the mentality and also the character and this can be difficult to find.”
Trying to find extra slithers of performance ‘gains’ means motocrossers will also experiment. Some top GP guys have been known to try biathlon, rock climbing, boxing training and mountain bike to freshen up their approach. Eagle-eyed viewers of MXGP will have spotted 26 year old Febvre fully kitted-up and next to the start gate crouched and poised to catch a stick dropped by his assistant. “That was is just to ‘open’ my reactions so I’m totally ready for the gatedrop,” he offers, smiling. “I’m open to try things. There are so many ways to train and that's good because you can mix things up. It’s good to make some activities that are close to your sport for obvious reasons. I like my routine also. I think most of us do the same but the recuperation and to be smart about what you are doing is where we differ.”
Many riders will retire or fade away from GP level through injury or exhaustion with the ‘routine’. Training, diet and daily commitment to a cause can take its toll and it is rare to see riders excelling in MXGP past their early 30s. Motocrossers literally suffer for their profession and their ‘art’. “A few years ago on a Monday after a race I’d have pain everywhere!” Febvre admits. “Even when I was doing well, physically I was not on a great level. A race compared to training is always different and you push yourself more; there are different stresses and you cannot put them into training. Monday after the Belgian GP at Lommel is tough. Somewhere like Indonesia is OK, just very hot and when you are riding your head feels like it will pop but after an hour and some fresh air you are OK. These days, on Mondays, I feel good. My muscles say ‘you’ve done something…’ but I’m OK and in good shape. After Arco [Grand Prix of Trentino] for example I was already set for testing on Monday.”
Mentality is another sphere altogether but arguably just as important as limbs that can go the distance and a thumping chest organ that can keep on firing. “Confidence helps a lot. You can still be tired on the bike but it helps to push over it,” Febvre says.
But this is another subject.