Team USA riders Cole Seely, Thomas Covington and Zach Osborne have a huge weight of responsibility resting on their collective shoulders.
They know the American tradition for winning at the Motocross of Nations is a tough cross to bear and the hopes and dreams of so many fans will rise or fall on what happens at Matterley Basin, in south-western England, in a week’s time, with Osborne (pictured above, in action for Team Puerto Rico at Donington Park, in England, in 2008) the only one of this year’s US team with previous MXoN experience.
Seely (MXGP) and Covington (MX2) are making their debut MXoN appearances this season and the pressure on them will be, as always, quite high.
Again managed by expatriate Belgian and motocross legend Roger DeCoster – who has lived in the United States for many years and managed nearly every US team since 1981 – the American trio have not won since France in 2011 and they are determined to bounce back from their recent humbling defeats.
They were beaten in the deep sand of Belgium in 2012, the off-cambers of Germany in 2013, in Latvia in 2014, in France in 2015 and then again in Italy last year.
After a joyous run of seven consecutive wins from 2005 until 2011, consecutive losses over the past five seasons have been bitter pills to swallow for the Americans.
In 2012 it was the three men from Germany who instead won the main prize (the Chamberlain Trophy) and Belgium finished runners-up with the Americans forced to settle for an unaccustomed third place. In Germany in 2013 it was the trio from Belgium who took the main prize and Team USA had to accept the runner-up spot.
Then, in Latvia in 2014, the Americans were again humbled, this time by the trio from France taking the main prize, the Belgians finishing runners-up and the Americans left to settle for third.
It happened again in Ernee, in France, in 2015, with the American trio close but yet so far away from taking back the crown, forced to settle for runners-up spot behind the host French.
In Italy last year, the Americans committed two rookie mistakes and it cost them dearly.
American Husqvarna rider Jason Anderson won the Open Class/MX2 race, finishing six seconds ahead of Dutch KTM hero Jeffery Herlings.
But, instead of sailing over the finish line jump – as he had for every one of his previous laps – Anderson slowed to instead roll slowly over the line and Japan’s MX2 rider, Chihiro Notsuka, jumped high – just as he had done for every one of his previous laps – and landed on Anderson’s upper body in a bone-jarring collision.
Some would argue that Notsuka should not have jumped, although it has always been advised that riders should race to the very end and also not switch lines or significantly change their actions while being lapped.
It could also be argued that Anderson should have jumped, then landed and ridden off the track safely, to enjoy the acclaim of his fans and team supporters.
Once committed to the jump, Notsuka had nowhere to go.
Fortunately the injury to Anderson was not as serious as it might have been, although it did mean he was unfit to line up for the third and deciding race of the weekend, greatly handicapping his team.
Then, in the final race of the weekend, the MXGP and Open class riders on the track together, US Yamaha rider Cooper Webb was well-placed in fifth with just two laps remaining and Team USA was in prime position to win the MXoN, even without the injured Anderson racing in that final foray.
But, in his determination to move ahead, he attempted a pass on Britain’s Tommy Searle on a steep hillside switch-back corner, lost traction and tumbled from his bike. He recovered himself to finish the race in 10th but it wasn’t enough and Team USA had to settle for third overall, albeit just four points behind eventual outright winners Team France.
With Webb dropping from fifth to 10th, it cost Team USA five points, absolutely crucial in the big scheme of things.
With a record 22 MXoN crowns to their credit over the past 30 years, there’s no reason to suggest the men in the stars and stripes colours won’t be among the favourites in the UK this time around, but the pressure to perform will be on Seely, Covington and Osborne as they seek to restore honour.
Team USA won its first Motocross of Nations title in 1981 and, from that moment on, made it a bit of a winning tradition.
That first US team of Donnie Hansen, Danny LaPorte, Johnny O’Mara and Chuck Sun (the teams comprised four riders in those days) was regarded as one of the greatest in history, but who can forget the winning American trio in Italy in 1986?
The 1986 team of David Bailey, Ricky Johnson and Johnny O’Mara finished 1-2 in each of the three races at Maggiora, in Italy, and that instantly wrote their names in the history books with an unbeaten team performance that has never been repeated.
Many American riders have threatened to stamp their individual authority over the years and we all remember the two race wins by Ricky Carmichael in France in 2005; the outstanding double win by (MX2 class rider) Ryan Villopoto at Budd’s Creek, Maryland, in 2007 and the pair of wins by Ryan Dungey in Denver, Colorado, in 2010.
But then there has been total dominance shown too by other riders – such as by Belgium’s Stefan Everts in Lierop, in The Netherlands, in 2004 and again at Winchester, in England, in 2006.
Italian Antonio Cairoli bagged two wins for himself at the MXoN in Lommel, in Belgium, in 2012 and again at Teutschenthal, in Germany, in 2013.
French riders Gautier Paulin and Romain Febvre have spearheaded their country to overall trophy wins in 2014, 2015 and 2016, Paulin winning his two races at the MXoN in Latvia three years ago and Febvre winning two races in France in 2015 and one race in Italy last year.
The European countries, and even Australia and New Zealand, have stepped up the pace in recent years and now regularly threaten the American stranglehold, so outright dominance by the Americans seems less likely these days.
But anything can happen in motocross.
Even New Zealand has celebrated race wins at the MXoN, with Ben Townley taking the chequered flag in one race at Ernee, in France, in 2005 (with Team New Zealand that year eventually finishing just one point off the podium) and again he tasted victory in one race at Denver, in Colorado, in 2010.
Regardless of the individual race results in the UK this time around, Team USA will still be hoping for outright victory No.23.
The Motocross of Nations finals race features teams from the 20 countries that qualify, with each rider competing in two heats for a combined score to determine the overall championship-winning nation. The event emerged in post-war Europe in 1947 and has run uninterrupted since.
With 22 wins, the United States is the all-time leader in the Motocross of Nations. Great Britain is second with 16 and Belgium third with 15.
© Words and colour photos by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com
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Individual race wins at the MXoN over the past 12 years:
2004 – Stefan Everts (2), Mickael Pichon
2005 – Ricky Carmichael (2), Ben Townley (NZ)
2006 – Stefan Everts (2), Antonio Cairoli
2007 – Ryan Villopoto (2), Ricky Carmichael
2008 – James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto, Sebastian Pourcel
2009 – Antonio Cairoli, Gautier Paulin, Ryan Dungey
2010 – Ryan Dungey (2), Ben Townley (NZ)
2011 – Gautier Paulin, Chad Reed, Ryan Villopoto
2012 – Antonio Cairoli (2), Jeffrey Herlings
2013 – Antonio Cairoli (2), Ken Roczen
2014 – Gautier Paulin (2), Kevin Strijbos
2015 – Romain Febvre (2), Justin Barcia
2016 – Romain Febvre, Jeffery Herlings, Jason Anderson