Motocross is unquestionably an extreme and dangerous sport, a big part of its appeal and why it attracts so much attention.
And, like every form of motorsport, it involves a vehicle – in this case a small-to-medium-sized engine in a dirt bike frame, almost always under 500cc. And it’s a sport that requires that you go out and go faster than someone (or everyone) else.
The catch comes in the bike. Unlike, for example, a race car, the design of a racing motorcycle has little impact on its operator’s safety in a crash. If you fall off a bike, you’re going to hit something else – usually, but not always, the ground.
Motocross and its stadium-born cousin, Supercross, increase the risk, with their big speeds, close proximity of other bikes and riders and a propensity for bikes to lose contact with the ground and fly through the air in the course of normal competition.
Off-road bike racing is undoubtedly awesome, but you can’t argue that the sport contains a certain amount of risk to go along with offering its adrenalin rush reward.
How do people do this sport and not break bones every five minutes? Has modern technology changed injuries or improved safety? And what does a career racing dirt bikes teach you?
To get a better idea of how motocross riders stay alive, three people from different corners of the moto world were asked for their opinions: American former factory racer Ricky Johnson, who retired due to injury at the ripe old age of 26; Chris Sackett, the vice president of Bell Helmets, the company that invented the purpose-built motorcycle helmet; and Jeremy Appleton, a motorsport specialist for safety-gear manufacturer AlpineStars.
They all viewed motocross a little differently, but each man had two things in common: A love for motorcycles going very fast on dirt, and a desire to see guys do it as safely – and quickly – as possible.
Is there any correlation between talent or experience, and how often a rider falls?
Ricky Johnson, former racer
Ricky Johnson: You fall at much higher frequency in the beginning, because you’re learning. You’re constantly pushing the envelope. But once you get to the pro ranks, you start learning how to conserve yourself. At least some pros do. They’ll have a freak accident or they do crash every now and then, but it’s not on a frequent basis, because they can’t, because any injury takes them out of the championship.
Conserve yourself physically, or also mentally?
RJ: Your job every weekend is to show up. Your next job is to perform. And the ultimate goal is to win. But first thing, you have to be healthy. So you have to make sure that you’re not overtraining, that you’re not taking unnecessary risks, that you’re trying to constantly be faster and better and better. But do it so that you’re not throwing yourself on the ground.
Is it in any way tied to the engine size of the bike? Or is it all the same – if you’re on the beginning of the learning curve, you get hurt, no matter the equipment?
RJ: No, a smaller displacement bike is definitely the way to go. I work with military special forces [training them to ride motorcycles], and all these guys are very strong, very capable, very alpha male. And the first thing they say is, “I want a 450.” And I say no, because when you have a newer rider, he panics, he doesn’t know what to do to save it. And so a lot of times, guys will get hurt on the bigger-displacement bikes because something will happen, they’ll grab a handful of throttle, and the bike takes them either into something that they don’t want, or takes them faster into a section where they were trying to slow down.
Chris Sackett, Bell Helmets
Chris Sackett, Bell Helmets: The sport of motocross is pretty violent, it’s pretty aggressive, but there’s different levels. A guy who’s been doing it for years is going to be jumping further, higher, going faster. They might not crash as often, but when they do, it’s probably more violent.
When you fall in a race environment, is it like on a street bike, where you occasionally have a choice in how your body lands? Or is it just a case of things always moving too quickly – you hit where you hit?
RJ: It depends on the crash. I encourage people to stay on the bike if you can. You have the suspension and linkage and tires and all of this thing that will absorb a lot of the shock, if you, say, jump too far. A lot of times, when a bike goes and they get scared, the beginner seems to want to jump off first. But sometimes things happen so fast, you don’t have a choice. You’re along for the ride.
To the layman, it looks like the safety gear hasn’t changed much over time. That can’t be true.
RJ: Certain elements have changed quite a bit. The two single biggest improvements – one is knee braces, the ones you can buy off the shelf. They can save a severely blown-out knee, an MCL and things like that. And then the foot protection. There’s not a lot of ankle injuries – the boots are so much better than they used to be.
The same thing applies to motorcycles. They run bigger foot pegs than they used to, to give guys more of a platform, and the suspension is so much stronger – but in turn, the guys are jumping ’em further and jumping ’em bigger. So once again, gravity comes back into play! [Laughs] It’s great when you’re goin’ good, but when you crash, you crash.
CS: There’s such a variation in crash energies, and the certification for motorcycle helmets – and when I say certification for helmets, it’s the same certification for all motorcycle helmets, whether it’s a street helmet, or a scooter helmet, or a motocross helmet. They go after the worst accident you could possibly have, the energies you’re going to see and actually possibly survive. And they kind of set the standard around that. So helmets historically have been manufactured to pass this standard that’s pretty high-energy.
There’s now a lot of focus on low-speed energy, protecting the wearer against low-speed crashes, mid-speed crashes. A new system of injuries is rotational, where your brain is actually rotating inside your head. And that can cause connective-tissue tears, which can lead to concussion, brain injury, that sort of thing. So we’re doing more comprehensive testing in a development process. In the end what you get is a product that’s gonna help protect you in a lot more variety of types of crashes.
Jeremy Appleton, Alpinestars
Jeremy Appleton, Alpinestars: Safety’s kept pace with the development in technology with bikes and tracks, every bit of the way. With body armour – because motocross is such a physical activity, either taking place inside a stadium, which is hot, or outdoors, in the summer months – riders have been reluctant to wear a lot of close-body protection. Simply because it increases the physical stress. It’s hot and heavy.
So with the advent of improved materials and better design and production techniques, we have much lighter, but improved, body protection. So riders are now able to wear protective impact shields under their jerseys. In the past, you might have seen riders just wearing a basic plastic protector on top of their jersey. It just prevented them from being bruised heavily, from all the stones and dirt fired out from the bike they were following.
That seems like a remarkable amount of nothing, in terms of protection.
JA: Things have changed, particularly in the United States. With the advent of these huge aerial Supercross tracks, we’ve also introduced neck protection, because we’re seeing increasingly – and unfortunately – catastrophic neck injuries. Paralysations.
Is the increase in paralyzing crashes attributable to anything specific?
JA: The [faster] bikes and the jumps have undoubtedly contributed, simply because riders are travelling quicker, flying higher, and the margin of error is coming down. Because speed and height are more difficult to control.
But the biggest single issue has been in either landing badly or losing control, and then being pitched off the bike as the result of getting a jump wrong. Seeing riders being launched into the ground head-first with their bodies following their heads – it’s like a falling spear. And the human neck is just not designed to take massive compressive forces.
For a long time, helmet manufacturers didn’t publicise safety claims, either because the public didn’t care, or fear of litigation. So helmets didn’t evolve, or at least didn’t seem to.
CS: All the way back to 1954, when Bell invented the first motorcycle helmet – it was a composite shell with an EPS liner. Until the last few years, everyone’s been using that. Now, the liner got thicker, and the standards got harder to pass, but other than that, there hasn’t been any change.
A lot of it had to do with, since the ’90s, litigation just got out of control in the United States. In the early ’90s, there were 25 helmet companies, and it got whittled down to, like, five, just from litigation. Some rightfully so – some companies were putting crap onto the market, and people were getting hurt. But the reality is, when you have ambulance chasers, no one wants to talk about safety, or what their helmets do to protect the rider, because it’s just going to get you into legal hot water.
JA: I’m afraid all that we can do is be entirely honest. To say, look, we’ve designed this to the maximum capability of what we believe is currently possible. Be that with materials or the construction or the design and the sheer performance, if you like, of the product. But we cannot guarantee that any piece will do the job completely.
Motorcycling, in whatever form you enjoy it, has risks associated with it. You can mitigate the risk by wearing good levels of protection and good product, but you can’t remove the risk entirely. It’s an unfortunate fact of life.
CS: We and many other large companies have stayed away from safety being the focus on [marketing]. It doesn’t mean that we weren’t developing and designing helmets, because that’s the sad thing – in the last five or ten years, we’ve actually made a lot of progress in the composites we use, the way we mould foams, etc. We’ve been able to mold foams in different densities [for different impact speeds], in different layers, for the last ten years. But if we dared talk about that, or gave the consumer the perceived notion that it would make them safer, we’d have problems down the road.
It’s very easy, when we haven’t been telling the story of helmet evolution, for companies to come in and go, “Look at this shiny object! We’ve put these smoke and mirrors in this helmet, and it’s different!” Quite frankly, we’ve put a lot of these smaller helmets to the test, and they test horribly. But long story short, [we decided to] jump in very carefully. We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on testing, and getting a little more daring with our claims, and backing it up with science.
With gear, are most of these components designed to work together, or can they all be paired individually?
JA: Alpinestars, obviously, we build body protection – chest protection, knee braces, back protection – and then the neck support. When it comes to the helmet, it’s a slightly different thing, because you’re introducing a product that’s being created by a different manufacturer.
What we did, given that the relationship between the helmet and our neck support system is so critical, we made a conscious effort to go and see the key helmet manufacturers, to explain our research and the design we had come up with. Just so they could understand how significant the design of the base of the helmet is, it helps getting the load away from the neck and onto the neck support. Which is a rigid device that fits below the helmet.
So in that respect, we’ve made a conscious effort to try and make sure that, even though we are not in control of design of helmets, our technology could work with other products on the market. But in other respects, it’s hard, because we design our body protection systems to work with our neck support – there’s a cut-out on the chest and on the back to allow the neck support to fit properly with the upper-body protection. But if you buy a product from a different company, it doesn’t necessarily go together.
Do a lot of riders change their riding styles with age, maybe focus more on safety?
RJ: Me personally, my style didn’t change a lot – I just kept honing, just minimizing mistakes. But I got injured at a young age – I had to retire [at 26], after another rider landed on me. Just a freak accident. Before that, it was all about winning. It’s like Days of Thunder: “I’m more worried about bein’ nothin’ than I am about bein’ hurt.”
But it doesn’t have to be a national pro. You talk to a kid in the 9-to-11 intermediate class, they’re there to win, and they’ll go through a burning wall to do it. In motocross, just like in wrestling and MMA and special forces, you find a lot of alpha males that want to be The Guy. And they’re willing to put up with the pain and take the chances to do it.
Words by Sam Smith, Wired magazine
© Main photo by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com
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