2016 AMA 450MX National Champion Ken Roczen: INTERVIEW

Steve Cox | December 27, 2016

Ken Roczen knows what it takes to win. He did it all summer, and his plan is to make 2017 a long one for everybody but him.

Ken Roczen
Ken Roczen’s year was hot and cold—started off cold but ended hot.

Normal everyday people often confuse confidence for arrogance or cockiness. They’re not nearly the same things. Cockiness and arrogance are invalid beliefs. If you’re either of those two things, you believe something about yourself that hasn’t been validated. At least not yet. But confidence is based on real events. True confidence comes after you succeed, not before. Confidence is based on knowledge, not belief.

It’s important to make the distinction when speaking to a guy like Ken Roczen. Roczen is only 22 years old, and already he’s won an FIM MX2 World Championship, an AMA West 250SX title, and two AMA 450MX National titles.

His latest championship run came this past summer, when he took his RCH Suzuki RM-Z450 to 20 moto wins in 24 motos on his way to the championship. Fresh off of his second AMA National Championship, he made the switch to Honda. We caught up with Roczen after a day of hitting ramps for fun out at Castillo Ranch in California.

Ken Roczen

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By Steve Cox

Photography by Kit Palmer and Cox

It seems like 2016 didn’t get off to an amazing start for you, but with about a half-dozen rounds left in the Supercross championship, you caught fire. We know you found some settings on your bike. What was it specifically that you found?

Yeah, it was triple clamps and gearing—just a change in sprocket size and it made a huge difference. You could see it in my riding and my results from one weekend to another. The stock triple clamps were a different ratio than what I was racing; it actually moved the front wheel farther out, and it felt good.

The standard triple clamps have more flex to them, too, so that’s why I chose those, and it was better. And depending on which way you go on the gearing, it will change how long your gears are and how abrupt the motor is, but the big thing was depending on which direction you go, it can make the bike (wheelbase) longer or shorter, and that makes a big difference in the handling of the bike as well. Those were a pretty big difference. We can feel quite a bit of stuff, so those were a pretty significant change, and from then on I was doing a lot better.

It’s amazing how much feel you guys have on your motorcycles. I bet you could tell if you have a loose spoke.

Yeah, totally.

Can you try to explain that level of feel that you have to us mortals who have never experienced that?

Well, at that level we’re at, the smallest things make the biggest difference. Also, it depends from rider to rider, and the characteristic of the rider, because some of us are more sensitive than others. Little changes can make a massive difference sometimes. I guess there are probably only a handful of people who can ride on that level, and there’s a reason for that. For a regular person on one of these bikes, it’s really hard to describe what the difference is, but there are a handful who can go that fast, and when you go that speed, you’re on the edge, and little changes make a big difference to make it more comfortable or less comfortable, depending on the changes. Most of us are pretty sensitive to a click difference on a bike, for example, with suspension.

Back in 2009 or so, one of the guys at the GEICO Honda team told me a story about Kevin Windham. Apparently, they were trying to sort out some settings on Kevin’s factory 450, and they had brought out two bikes that were set up exactly the same, but one of the bikes, Windham swore it was doing something different. He said it felt different and that he didn’t like it. During the day, his mechanic was changing a clutch, and one of the guys saw that the bike he was working on had a carbon skid plate, and the other had an aluminum one. So, just to test Kevin, the team occupied him in the box van while the guys switched the skid plates. Then, Kevin went back out, and then came back almost immediately and said, “I don’t get it. Now this one’s doing it!”

Yeah, that’s crazy, because you’d think a skid plate would make no difference in the bike at all, unless you case a jump or whatever, but on the other hand, it’s different material, and it probably vibrates different, or flexes different, and there are all kinds of little things like that that we can feel and probably nobody else could.

This past outdoor season was the most dominant in a long time. The only people who have had more dominant seasons are probably Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart. At what point during the series were you lining up not just believing you had everybody covered, but really knowing you were going to win?

Always. I’m not kidding. I’ve said it before, and I think people think I’m messing around or whatever, but when I have a bike that works the way I want it to work, I mean, obviously you always need a little bit of luck, and sometimes there’s things with injuries and stuff, so there’s always a little bit of luck with it, but there was no doubt in my mind one time that I wasn’t going to win. Yeah, I lost a moto here and there—and one wasn’t my fault—but even lining up in those races, not one time did I doubt myself and say ‘I’m going to finish second.’

Ken Roczen
Once Roczen finally figured out his bike, he dominated the outdoor MX Nationals.

So you’re saying if you get the bike working the way you want it to work, you can beat anybody.


You switched to RCH Suzuki after your 2014 450MX title, and now you switched teams after winning this title. Obviously, it’s coincidental, since you probably signed your contracts months before you won those titles. How long is your contract with Honda?

My deal right now is three years guaranteed, and then there might be two optional years or something like that. It just happened to be that I won the championship, but I made my mind up way before I won those. I think everybody agrees that I took a chance going to RCH, but I was ready for that. That’s what I wanted to do.

The first year was a struggle, then we turned it around, obviously. I was looking for something different, and I feel like, with Honda, I’m with the right team, and I’ve been really happy with what we’ve been doing. Obviously you never know, but I can see myself growing old with them, you know what I mean?

So it’s possible this will be the last team you race for.

Exactly, yes.

Ken Roczen
Knowing he was going to make a team change at the end of the season, Roczen gave the RCH Suzuki squad a championship before he left.

Comfort in general is nothing if not a good thing. If you’re comfortable with your team and your bike and your surroundings, there’s probably not a lot more to want. We know you want to win more races and titles, so that’s obvious, but what else should we expect from you?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this over the last few months, and I’d say I’m more focused than ever because I got another smell of glory, you know what I mean? You get a title, and it’s just really motivating.

That makes me want more, so I’m as focused as I’ve ever been, and I’m with the best team out there, period. I’ve gone to different teams, and I’ve been on different bikes, and when I say that I’m with the best team, I mean it. I don’t just say it because I’m riding with the team. Truly, it doesn’t really matter what other people think, but in my mind, if I know I’m on the best team there is, that also makes a difference for me, you know? And those are my thoughts on it.

We’re going to come into the season really strong. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, physically, mentally, with my bike, I think that’s a big bonus, but at the same time, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I’m going to come in to the season super focused and I’m not going to take anything on the easy shoulder by any means. So, I’ll be coming in confident and I just want to be smart. And healthy!

Ken Roczen
Roczen seems to know how to balance fun and serious when it comes to racing.

The “healthy” part is the real bitch in motocross. It’s amazing how often you guys are nursing a sore wrist or ankle or whatever, and you just don’t tell anybody.

It almost never stops. Things can happen so quick, without even crashing or anything. It’s tough.

Before the start of the 2015 MX Nationals, you had that fracture in your spine. I understand you still have it. Is that something that still bothers you? Or something you can get fixed if you find some down time?

Yeah, that fracture that I have, it can’t get worse, and it won’t heal, so there’s no risk there. There are some muscles that protect it, and my training is very back-specific, and sometimes it’ll flare up a little bit, but it’s all manageable. And when I train, we’re all about having the right posture, and doing things the right way so that it’ll help with my back and in general on my body. When I’m retired, or whatever, yeah, it can be fixed. They say people can live with it their entire lives [with it], but it can also definitely be fixed.

Speaking of training, this past outdoor season might have been the first time that one of Aldon Baker’s guys lost a title straight up. Ryan Dungey did drop out with an injury, but it’s not like he was beating you before that, so it seems like that streak Aldon had is over now. You worked with Aldon Baker before Dungey did. Now that you’ve had a couple of years with someone else, what do you think about Aldon as a trainer?

I don’t think he’s the best trainer at all. It starts with it being his way or the highway, and he treats every single person on the program the exact same, so I don’t know how that can work because Adam [Cianciarulo] is different from me, and I’m different from Dungey, and Marvin [Musquin] is different from [Jason] Anderson.

Over the last couple of years I’ve learned a lot, and I know how legit training actually works. It’s easy to do a lot—or too much. It’s easy to go on a three-hour bicycle ride, or to get stuck in doing the same things every single day, and stick to it all damned year and do the same shit and fall into the same routine. I think it’s not very smart, but that’s their thing, not my thing. I’m doing different shit from everybody else, and that’s how I want it.

Ken Roczen
Once Roczen found his confidence—that was it. He rose to a new and nearly unbeatable level.

What is the advantage, then, of working with a guy like Aldon?

If anything, it’s a mental thing for those guys to say, ‘Oh, I’m with Aldon, and I’m automatically going to be good,’ but Dungey’s always been fit. Before he went to Aldon Baker, people called him Diesel because he was always there. It just so happens to be that he got on that program, and they got a new bike that turned out to be decent—at least for him; I don’t know about other people.

Ken Roczen
Roczen’s Supercross season didn’t go smoothly—not until the last few rounds, when he finally found the magic bike setup.

One other racer I talked to who doesn’t ride for KTM said he believes that the factory bike is built really great for Supercross but maybe not so great for outdoors.

Yeah, I don’t know. People say they think the bike is really great, and maybe it is, but the guys over in Europe aren’t doing too crisp on it, except for maybe [Jeffrey] Herlings. So, I guess it depends on how you look at it. There are races where they’ll be good, for sure, but things have gone wrong there, too, like in 2015 when Eli [Tomac] was putting a minute on those guys, and I was hurt. Unfortunately for Eli he got hurt, and Ryan was there. We’ll see what happens at Anaheim.

What are you expecting from those guys in 2017?

Truth is, I’m not focusing on those guys at all. I’m just answering what you asked me about. But yeah, I don’t know. I know what I’m planning to do, so I guess we’ll see once we all line up in January.CN


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Steve Cox