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"Dirt", December 1, 2012

BATTLE OF PRIDE

THE DEEP BELGIAN SAND OF LOMMEL PROVED A CHALLENGE FOR THE WORLD’S BEST MOTOCROSS RACERS AND, AT AN EVENT WHERE NATIONAL PRIDE IS ON THE LINE, NO ONE LIKES TO BE BEATEN

STORY SHANE BOOTH

PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOPPENWORLD.COM AND JOSH BALLARD

As soon as Lommel was announced as the venue for the 2012 Monster Energy Motocross of Nations, the question on everyone’s lips was whether or not the USA would be able to continue its seven-year domination of the event.

The deep Belgian sand for which the Lommel circuit is so notoriously known would be a huge hurdle for the Americans to overcome. There are no US Nationals that even come close to the conditions the riders would face at Lommel, whereas their European rivals race on this type of surface several times a year, including a round at Lommel itself.

The venue excited Australia’s potential MXoN team, which most likely would include Chad Reed, Brett Metcalfe or Michael Byrne. Reedy won his first GP in the deep sand of Lierop back in 2001 while Burner and Metty have both had success in sandy conditions. Dean Ferris would also have featured on the shortlist, having lived close to the Lommel circuit and raced in Europe during 2012.

Unfortunately for those guys, injury picked them off one by one during the 2012 racing season, which opened up a huge opportunity for some of Australia’s fastest young talent to step up. Enter Todd Waters, Lawson Bopping and Luke Styke, three in-form riders worthy of the chance to show what they could do, not only on the world stage but on a track that’s as tough as it gets.

QUALIFYING

The first box to tick for the three Aussies was to make it through the qualifying races and get Team Australia into the A finals. On paper they had it covered, no problem, but it’s a different story once you line up for the drop of the gate.

It would be very easy for the guys to succumb to the occasion; there’s so much to take in or block out, depending on how they chose to deal with it. The crowd is unlike anything they would’ve experienced racing in Australia and then there’s the calibre of rider filling the start line. They are professional racers and expected to be able to deal with those factors — but they are also human and this is one big event.

The gate picks for qualifying at the MXoN are determined by a lottery draw. Australia ended up with 19th pick: could be better, could be worse.

When the gates dropped, the Aussie trio each held their own during qualifying, Bopping crossing the line 18th, Styke eighth and Waters sixth. Each country’s two best qualifying results are counted, so Styke’s eighth and Water’s sixth were combined to give Australia 14 points and a qualifying position of 10th place.

All the favourites made it through to the big show, too — not without a few dramas along the way, though. Justin Barcia ran off the track during his qualifier, ending up in a ditch and tangled up in a fence. It just so happened it was right in front of former USA champ Chuck Sun, who then yanked on the fence a few times to help free up the US rider.

Barcia was later disqualified from the heat for receiving outside assistance. Tough call, but rules are rules and the USA qualified on the back of Baggett and Dungey’s results anyway.

MOTO 1 (MX1 + MX2)

Let the sand-riding lesson begin. From the second the gates dropped for moto one, Antonio Cairoli took his position at the front and never looked back. The multi-time world champ instantly put a few seconds between him and the rest of the pack, then just went about increasing his lead lap by lap.

Frenchman Gautier Paulin worked his way into second place while Ryan Dungey held down sixth. Plenty of eyes were on Dungey, waiting for him to get in a groove and work his way forward, but it never happened. In fact he actually lost a place late in the race to finish in seventh position. Blake Baggett never really fired, either, recovering from an early crash to cross the line in 14th.

Aussies Bopping and Styke fought hard in the thick of the field, finishing the moto in 21st and 26th position respectively. Meanwhile, Max Nagl and fellow German Ken Roczen were laying the foundations for the overall win with a third and a fifth place finish. Cairoli would eventually cross the line with a 21-second lead, having lapped all the way up to 14th position.

MOTO 2 (MX2 + OPEN)

This time it was Jeffrey Herling’s turn to show the rest of the world how to ride sand, and what a show it was. The young Dutchman just floated around the track, making the toughest sections look incredibly easy.

Three laps in and he was already dealing with lapped riders and would continue to do so for the entire race, eventually lapping all the way through to sixth place, including both of team USA’s riders.

Barcia had the second fastest lap of the race but then had an issue with his front wheel which forced him to limp home to a 14th place. Roczen and Marcus Schiffer continued the Germans’ solid results with a fourth and seventh, while Aussie Todd Waters turned some heads on the international stage with an impressive eighth-place finish. Styke also improved on Moto one, crossing the line in 20th position.

MOTO 3 (MX1 + OPEN)

This was the Cairoli-versus-Herlings battle everyone was now waiting for. With by far the two fastest sand riders on the planet, this was going to be a battle worth waiting for. Cairoli rounded turn one with the holeshot while Herlings was buried in the pack, rounding lap one in 16th position. Team USA’s chances were skittled when Dungey went down while running second right beside his teammate Barcia.

Herlings began to rip through the field and by lap six was in second and reeling in Cairoli. The two then become locked in a game of cat and mouse but Herlings never really had a solid opportunity to pass Cairoli, who would eventually take the win by just over three seconds.

The Aussie duo of Waters and Bopping both finished inside the top 20, their 15th-and 19th-place finishes good enough to earn the rookie team 10th overall — an enormous effort at their first-ever attempt. Barcia and Dungey bagged third and ninth respectively, which was good enough to keep the USA on the bottom step of the podium. Ken de Dycker and Clement Desalle cemented Belgium’s position on the podium, finishing the moto in fifth and seventh

Max Nagl handled the pressure of a nation, finishing off Germany’s solid day of racing with a sixth backed up by Schiffer’s 14th: good enough results to earn Team Germany their first ever Motocross of Nations victory.

BLAKE BAGGETT

“THE ONLY PLACE IN THE USA WITH SAND LIKE THIS IS ON PUBLIC BEACHES. I’VE NEVER RIDDEN ON ANYTHING LIKE THIS BEFORE. AND HATS OFF TO GERMANY AND BELGIUM AND CAIROLI AND HERLINGS — THOSE GUYS ARE ANIMALS.”

ROGER DECOSTER

“THANKS TO TONY CAIROLI AND JEFFREY HERLINGS FOR THE RIDING LESSONS. AND CONGRATULATIONS TO TEAM GERMANY AND BELGIUM.”

KEN ROCZEN

“YEAH, IT’S ABSOLUTELY AMAZING WHAT ALL THREE OF US DID. WE KNEW IT WASN’T GOING TO BE EASY. THERE ARE A LOT OF TEAMS OUT THERE THAT CAN RIDE IN THE SAND. BUT THAT IT REALLY WAS GOING TO BE US ON THAT TOP STEP AT THE END WAS A REALLY GOOD FEELING AND YEAH, HISTORY FOR GERMANY, OF COURSE. AND I’M REALLY HAPPY WITH WHAT I DID WINNING THE THIRD TIME IN THE ROW FOR MX2.”

ANTONIO CAIROLI

“I’M NOT A BELGIAN OR A DUTCH RIDER. I’M NOT BORN IN THE SAND SO I JUST DO MY BEST. I TRAIN A LOT HERE, I STEP UP MY CONDITION AND MY TECHNIQUE. SO TODAY I WAS THE FASTEST AND THE STRONGEST AND THE BEST SAND RIDER, SO I THINK IT’S JUST AMAZING THAT I CAN EVEN STEP IT UP MORE, NOT SO MUCH FOR ITALY BUT WITH MYSELF I’M REALLY HAPPY. WE’RE HAPPY THAT WE FINISHED TOP FIVE; IT’S NOT A BAD RESULT. I THINK NEXT YEAR WE CAN PROVE OUR WORTH AND THE MEDIA WILL CONSIDER US A TEAM THAT CAN BE ON TOP.”

RYAN DUNGEY

“WE LEARNED QUITE A BIT AND WE REALISED WHAT A DEMANDING AND TOUGH TRACK THIS IS. YOU KNOW, IT’S ABOUT LEARNING. WE DIDN’T RIDE TERRIBLY TODAY; WE GAVE IT OUR BEST EFFORT AND YOU DON’T ALWAYS WIN. IT’S TOUGH BECAUSE THAT’S THE GOAL IN THE STATES AND OVER HERE. YOU DON’T REALLY WANT TO ACCEPT ANYTHING BUT A WIN. THE OLDER YOU GET AND THE MORE YOU WIN, THE HARDER IT GETS TO LOSE, BUT AT THE SAME TIME WE DID WELL. WE’VE GIVEN 100 PER CENT AND THAT’S ALL YOU CAN ASK.”

JUSTIN BARCIA

“THE TRACK WAS REALLY DIFFICULT AND HARSH; WE DON’T HAVE A TRACK LIKE THIS IN THE USA, SO IT WAS REALLY CHALLENGING. THE GUYS AT THE FRONT RODE REALLY WELL. WE ALL DID OUR BEST AS A TEAM AND ALTHOUGH I’M DISAPPOINTED, THOSE GUYS ARE REALLY GOOD ON THE SAND, SO IT WASN’T A BAD FINISH. BUT OBVIOUSLY WE WANTED TO WIN. IT WAS A CRAZY EXPERIENCE AND I HOPE I GET SELECTED TO RACE IT AGAIN.”

LAWSON BOPPING

“THIS EVENT WAS EVEN BIGGER THAN I EXPECTED. IT FELT LIKE WE WERE AT A MUSIC FESTIVAL THAT HAD A MOTOCROSS TRACK IN THE MIDDLE. THE CROWD WAS CRAZY. NO ONE WAS SLOW AND THE TRACK WAS JUST LIKE RACING ON THE BEACH.”

JOSH COPPINS

“IT WAS A TOUGH TRACK BUT IT REMINDED ME THERE IS NO CHANCE OF ANOTHER COMEBACK. AFTER THAT SECOND RACE I WAS SO TIRED I WAS THINKING, ‘NO, NEVER AGAIN!’”

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