The Valence International in south-central France, February 22, witnessed typically blustery and wintery conditions for the second major motocross meeting of the European schedule. Five manufacturers entered team David Philippaerts (19) warmed up with a win in Italy. As for the slightly disorganized French event, it was Yamaha Monster Energy Motocross Team's David Philippaerts (19) - the reigning MX1 World Champion - who went 1-1-2 across three damp motos for his second victory in the space of a week.
Philippaerts had owned the opening round of the Italian Championship seven days previously when teammate Josh Coppins had coasted to a halt in the first moto with a technical problem. Both Yamahas were again sharp across the stony, slippery and mainly one-line terrain south of Lyon and when Philippaerts led home the Kiwi 1-2 in the initial moto it seemed the black bikes would take some beating.
News had filtered through before the weekend that Red Bull KTM's sole works entrant in the MX1 class, Max Nagl - winner of the final GP of 2008 in Italy - had possibly broken his hand while landing awkwardly in the process of doing laps for a photoshoot. An exact prognosis was not possible thanks to the elephantine swelling around the luckless German's wrist. With the diminutive Nagl absent the contest for the Valence holeshots was an open affair. Not taking part was Kawasaki's main hope Sebastien Pourcel - older sibling of current East Coast Lites hotshot Christophe - as the Frenchman had sustained a nasty shoulder injury while trying to enjoy a "holiday ride" at the end of 2008 in the Guadeloupian Championship. Pourcel is aiming to be fit for the first Grand Prix on March 29 but has missed a winter and pre-season of preparation and is unlikely to be a runner for the title with such a deficit to rectify.
With a scything wind chilling the bones of a decent crowd Philippaerts escaped on his own in moto one, while he had De Dycker for company in the next two sprints, sharing checkered flags with the factory Suzuki man. Josh Coppins was there or thereabouts but hindered by a mischievous gearbox in Moto3. The Martin Honda duo of Kevin Strijbos and Marc de Reuver were also in the mix and at least two of the three races provided some excellent entertainment in the battle for 3rd-5th positions.
At the end of the afternoon Philippaerts ruled from De Dycker and Coppins with Strijbos (showing off the curious new skin tight race jerseys from Axo) and De Reuver and Steve Ramon filling the top six, respectively. David Vuillemin made his first outdoor European appearance perhaps since the 2001 Motocross of Nations and, although he bemoaned a lack of grip compared to the U.S. venues to which he is accustomed, he still made decent fare of recovering from poor starts to find a place in the mid-top 10, a best finish of fifth in moto one helped to 9th overall.
Only two weeks after the Mantova Starcross in Italy opened the European racing season the meeting in Valence was still very much a shakedown event for five of the factory teams competing. Honda had only taken delivery of their works CRFs (complete with trick new Akrapovic exhaust that curls under the sump-guard) the week beforehand, Yamaha opted not to use its 2009 clutch on Philippaerts' bike, Suzuki - still waiting for 2009 race bikes, due to arrive in the next two weeks - tried new suspension settings and a new exhaust for Ramon after the Belgian was unsatisfied after practice on Saturday and Kawasaki only had MX1 rookie Gareth Swanepoel to provide more data on the set-up of the KX450-F fuel-injection.
One of the most surprising elements was to see the pace of the Aprilia; long the controversial whipping boy of the MX1 class but now ready to puff out its cheeks in Italian pride. Working from within the confines of the JK Racing squad the MXV - for 2009 in the hands of Julien Bill, a former MX3 World Championship runner-up and 2008 works Kawasaki runner Manuel Priem - was not a slouch away from the line. Bill placed the red and black shades inside the top three around the first corner in each moto and pushed the bike onto the fringes of the leaders.
In the MX2 class Red Bull KTM's Shaun Simpson was a street ahead of the rest of the 250cc competition and was only beaten by impressive European Champion Valentin Teillet due to a first moto crash while holding second position behind the lively French teenager who makes his GP debut in 2009 as part of the KTM Junior team. Simpson recovered to 12th, won the second race with ease and more than held his own in the company of the 450s in the last Superfinal race. He lost the overall by just two points and Teillet gave the crowd something to cheer after Supercross ace Marvin Musquin retired with a smashed nose courtesy of one of the many stones littered across the hard terrain.
The French and Italian Championships continue in March while the British series also gets underway. Hawkstone Park in the U.K. hosts the last major international meeting of the pre-season, although the Yamaha Monster Energy team have withdrawn their participation.
Valence International overall MX1 classification:
1. David Philippaerts (Yamaha), 2. Ken De Dycker (Suzuki), 3. Josh Coppins (Yamaha), 4. Kevin Strijbos (Honda), 5. Marc de Reuver (Honda), 6. Steve Ramon (Suzuki), 7. Julien Bill (Aprilia), 8. Julien Vanni (Honda), 9. David Vuillemin (Kawasaki), 10. Manuel Priem (Aprilia).