2016 Cycle News Riders of the Year

Kit Palmer | December 31, 2016

This year the Cycle News staff changed things up a bit by naming the entire 2016 U.S. World Trophy Team this year’s Cycle News “Riders” of the Year.

Team USA ISDE
(Left to right) Antti Kallonen, Tyalor Robert, Thad DuVall, Kailub Russell and Layne Michael celebrate a historic win.

There’s so much more to winning an International Six Days Enduro Championship than merely riding fast. The U.S. team can now attest to that fact, having won the 2016 event in Navarra, Spain, marking the first time in the events 103-year history, the Americans have come out on top on the world stage. The historic victory marked a turning point in American off-road racing, and also put a capstone on the legacy of the Caselli family—the driving force behind the effort to master the ISDE. Unfortunately neither Kurt nor his father Rich are here to share in the celebration of the U.S. Trophy Team’s historic win, but Taylor Robert, Kailub Russell, Layne Michael and Thad Duvall share their landmark victory with the Casellis, along with the hundreds of volunteers and people behind the scenes who rallied the team effort that led them to the top.

2016 Cycle News Riders of the Year

To read this in Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine, click HERE

By Jean Turner and Kit Palmer

Photography by Jonty Edmunds and Mark Kariya

AMERICA ON TOP

Coming into the final motocross test on day six with a three-and-a-half-minute lead gave the American team a good reason to feel confident and relaxed in their inevitable win. But the team was anything but relaxed as they lined up for the final test of the week.

“We had a comfortable lead going into the last day,” U.S. Team Captain Taylor Robert said. “But every year in the past we’ve always had something happen. Never on the last day, but before that. And it just gets our hopes down before we even think we have a chance. This year we knew we had a chance and we were all just really nervous and didn’t want anything to happen.

Taylor Robert
Taylor Robert was also the top individual rider in Spain.

“Antti [Kallonen, U.S. Team Manager] was just telling us, ‘Just take it easy, all you have to do is finish!’ And then he’s throwing in these nightmares of when Juha Salminen lost the overall for him and the team back in 2008 when he wrecked in the first turn; so we have all these thoughts running through our head and we’re all just super nervous and the motocross track, the first three turns were pavement and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many ways this can go wrong.’ But we all held it together and got it done and it worked out perfect.”

Team manager Antti Kallonen proved to be instrumental to the team’s victory, especially when the 2016 International Six Days Enduro started out with a twist—because of a new rule, the World Trophy team would no longer field six riders with the five top scoring for the team each day. It would be four-rider teams with no throwaways, meaning a single crash or breakdown could doom the whole team. This new challenge meant a new strategy, according to Kallonen, and a very simple one at that: no mistakes.

“We really put the focus on not making any mistakes. We have fast riders. It’s not like we have to coach and teach the riders to go fast. But we really put an emphasis on making sure there’s no mistakes—going fast and following the rules and understanding the format so they don’t make a mistake. Because they don’t regularly race that format.”

U.S. Team Captain Taylor Robert
Image riding well over 100 of tough miles and having to change your tires at the end of the day—every day—and on the clock! Robert hard at work.

Kallonen repeated the strategy ad nauseam throughout the week, pointing out the “dos and don’ts” over and over again, which proved to be effective, if not somewhat annoying to the riders.

“At one point I thought I was too much on their nerves,” Kallonen said with a laugh. “We were at the service area reminding them like, ‘Okay follow the arrows, whatever color arrow—blue today.’ Those are the mistakes that have happened in the past, that riders get fatigued and start following wrong arrows or make a wrong turn and get a penalty. Things like that.”

Bike maintenance was also a major issue throughout the week, as always. Kallonen put great importance on inspecting and maintaining the bikes at every opportunity.

“They wanted to sit in a chair on the out-check and I said, ‘No, get up and start cleaning your bike, checking out your bike,’” Kallonen said. “Maintaining the bikes, that’s really what it came down to. There were quite a few bike problems with other countries that resulted in them dropping out and we just kept going.”

But the approach was working, as evidenced by the other teams who were suffering in the standings due to small (or sometimes big) mistakes. Without throwaway scores, the ISDE proved to be a whole new ballgame, one that the Americans were ready for.

“I think we just came out there most prepared,” said Kallonen. “Maybe the others didn’t have as much emphasis on this new rule. They just went on with what they usually do every race since they used to, or they’re used to racing that format. Like we saw, there were many top countries dropping out because of either injury or bike problems, and we just kept going. We really stayed on top since day one. We had some issues along the way, but we had the least amount of issues, which turned out to really make the difference.

The final top team to drop out of the standings was Italy on day five. This left Team USA with over three minutes of breathing room, but as Kallonen quickly pointed out to the riders, that’s when mistakes happen.

“Going into day six for me was just, be smart, get through it and not do anything dumb to break your bike or break you,” said Kailub Russell. “It was definitely a little bit nerve-wracking because on the motocross test the start was really bad and the track was kind of sketchy. We were just focused on keeping it on two wheels and finishing because that’s all we needed to do.”

Kailub Russell
Even a multi-time champ like Kailub Russell has to do all of the work on his bike.

Team USA got a big monkey off their backs by finally getting through all six days without any major misfortunes—a welcome relief after being so close to victory year after year.

“We’ve been on the cusp of winning the event the last three years. It was just the pieces of the puzzle needed to fall together,” Russell said. “That event’s brutal and it takes a toll on your body and your bike and we’re just getting the bad end of the stick every time. It was really nice to hold it together and finally get it done. It was a huge sigh of relief.”

“It’s enduro racing. You never know what’s going to happen,” said Robert. “I was still really nervous. Once the final moto was done, we were just like, ‘Ugh! Thank you so much! I’m so glad that’s done!’ We got it over with and everyone was so emotional. There was tears and hugs; it felt really cool.”

Thad Duvall
DuVall walks his bike into par ferme after another long day on the trail.

INDIVIDUAL HONORS

For Taylor Robert, it was more than a team win—he also took the top individual honors at the ISDE. It marked the second time in history that a U.S. rider had pulled off such a feat, Ryan Sipes being the first American to claim the overall win the year before.

“I want to win personally and I wanted to win for the team, so I was riding this fine line and I didn’t want to end up pushing too hard and wreck and mess it up for the team,” Robert said.

“Last year, Ryan was the first American to win the overall, which was huge,” Robert said. “But it was a little bit different situation because our whole team was out at that point, except for a few of us. So he could just go out there and push as hard as he wanted, and if he ruined it, it was only on him. I had only a 12-second lead and I was riding this fine line between wanting to win for myself and wanting to win for the overall. You don’t really get anything for the win for yourself; it’s more just bragging rights, but it’s still such a cool accomplishment. I really wanted to put the icing on the cake, but it just made everything really nerve-wracking.”

Kallonen says he wasn’t particularly worried about Robert’s individual efforts jeopardizing the chance for the overall win, and didn’t feel the need to rein him in.

“He’s a very solid and reliable rider, so I know he knows his limits. He’s a very smooth rider so I wasn’t expecting him trying to do something crazy,” Kallonen said. “It was a little bit of a shock on day five in the first test when he crashed and the bike was all bent up. I was like, ‘Oh, this could be bad.’ It was a realization that things can happen even to Taylor who’s very smooth and conservative rider. He knows his limits, but that tip-over could have cost [us] the race.”

On the plus side, having two-consecutive American riders overall the event sends a strong message to the rest of the world.

“That just shows that we have the caliber of riders to race and compete on a highest level,” said Kallonen. “This is something that other countries are now seeing, like ‘wow, U.S. has the depth of [talent] and riders who can win. It’s not even the same guy, this year it was a different guy.”

LAST-MINUTE SWITCH

The team actually thought their effort was doomed before the race even began when disaster struck the day before they were supposed to leave for Spain. At the GNCC finale in Ohio, Ryan Sipes, who was the reigning overall ISDE winner, was injured in a crash while warming up for the race.

“Right after the race I got a call from Antti and he said, ‘You gotta come over to the KTM rig we have an emergency,’” said Kudla, who was at the Ohio race. “We went over there and Ryan was in a sling. He broke his arm.

“It was very stressful. It was kind of like, ‘That’s it. We’re done.’ A lot of people felt like, ‘We’re done. We’re screwed.’”

With less than 24 hours before they were due at the airport, the team faced the seemingly insurmountable task of replacing their top rider.

“They went to every single team member and asked what they thought. Who do you think we should bring?” said Kudla. “It’s not just Antti or me making the decision. It’s a team.”

The team aspect was of utmost importance to Antti who insisted the riders go through the entire preparation process together.

“I was [determined] to find a replacement that could be on the plane with us the next day,” said Kallonen. “Yeah, there were big names thrown out there that they could fly in three days, four days later, join us, but really, the race is half preparation. Then the execution is the other half. Basically I said, “I can’t afford to have someone fly in, not being with the other team members from day one when we arrive because it already sets a little different of level of reception, like, oh, what have you guys been doing? We would have been a step behind.”

The team was realistic in understanding they couldn’t effectively replace their top rider, but someone prepared and available would make the cut.

“We had Ryan’s equipment there so it needed to be a Husky rider, and then actually, there was no better way than getting Ryan’s teammate, Layne Michael,” said Kallonen. “He said, ‘Yeah, I can fly with you guys,’ so Sunday we were working with our travel agent and we got him on the plane. The rest we kind of figured out during that week. He was able to stay with the other three riders the whole time, walking the special tests. The preparation part of the event is huge. You memorize every special test and I didn’t want to sacrifice anything for that.”

Layne Michael
Layne Michael was the unsung hero of the team. He was literally a last-minute replacement for the injured Ryan Sipes.

Michael had some demons to face, however, since he crashed out of the Six Days the year before, breaking his wrist on the first test of the first day.

“We went from our lead rider from someone who didn’t even finish day one last year,” Kudla said. “That was also on him, too. He’s the guy replacing our guy that’s supposed to win. I know Layne, for sure, was really stressed. A lot of weight was on his shoulders.”

“They definitely had a lot of faith to move me straight into the Trophy team as a fill-in,” said Michael. “After last year, it was embarrassing, honestly. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life. I wanted to come back and show everyone I’m capable and I can be consistent and healthy the whole time.”

“The other three team members, they took him under their wing and they didn’t put too much pressure on him,” said Kallonen. “Obviously he was carrying a lot of pressure. We were all saying, ‘Just ride your own pace, your own race and just [stay] mistake-free,’ and that’s what he did. He was good. When we were falling behind on day two, Layne actually stepped it up on day three and day four and started to really clock good times. At first it was like 40th overall, but then as the race went on, he was already getting close to top-20. It really showed he was also able to step it up when it was needed as a team.

“It was for sure a stressful couple days there to get everything sorted but I think it obviously the results speak for themselves. It was the right move in the sense that we were able to win.”

Layne Michael
Michael just kept getting stronger and stronger as the week progressed.

THE CASELLI LEGACY

The ISDE effort is bigger than any one man, but there is one man who rightfully comes to mind: The original Captain America of the U.S. World Trophy team, Kurt Caselli. The Caselli family, starting with Kurt’s dad Rich, was instrumental in setting Team USA down the path toward victory.

“It started out as a three-year plan and it actually ended up taking five years,” said Jon-Erik Burleson, president of KTM North America. “When Kurt passed away it went from a three-year plan to a lifetime obligation that we had to fulfill. We had to make sure every resource was provided to give the team its fair shot.”

The behind-the-scenes support is a tremendous challenge at Six Days, especially for the non-European teams who fly in. Ground support, sponsorship money, volunteers were hard to come by, but year after year, it grew to what it is today—no less than 113 volunteers attended ISDE with the American contingent, with hundreds more behind the team’s effort at home.

“This year you could tell we were there to win,” Kudla said. “We had a super small pit, we lost our lead rider literally the day before we were supposed to leave, and we were still leading by day one. Every check had American flags at it. Volunteers were taking their bags for the riders, taking their times, giving them waters—everybody could tell we were there to win this year.”

The long overdue win was a big weight off everyone’s shoulders, including Burleson’s. “My mission was to make sure the support was there for the guys to get done what we said would get done. We (KTM North America) put hundreds of thousands of dollars into this initiative, countless hours of our staff time and discussions and meetings. It was literally five years to get it to where it is today and we’re finally able to say that what we committed to Kurt to do, the guys made it happen.”

For most of the team who knew Kurt well, it was an emotional victory.
“It meant a lot to me,” Taylor said. “I kind of followed in Kurt’s footsteps through the WORCS races and then going to Six Days. He took me under his wing and told me what to do and I listened as best I could and kept working on it. To do this in my lifetime and the fact that I was so close to Kurt and it was something that he wanted so bad, it felt really cool in so many ways.”

“It really hit right after we won,” Kallonen said. “The first two minutes of quiet when I was walking from the awards ceremony back to the container, it really hit that really this is what Kurt started. I wouldn’t be here doing this if Kurt hadn’t come that one day to KTM to have a meeting with myself and Jon-Erik to say, ‘Hey, I have this dream with ISDE.’ The brainstorming started from that meeting. I’m so grateful for what we’ve overcome since then.”

“It was heavy on everybody,” Kudla agreed. “Before, he was pushing us to do it. Now, everybody’s pushing to do it for him. And they did it. It was huge. It was awesome.”

kailub russell isde
Russell was our solo rider of the year last year, too.

2017 AND BEYOND

The next step is defending it.

The U.S. World Trophy team is already talking about their title defense in 2017. As tough as it was to earn the championship, the team are bracing for an even tougher battle defending it.

“Now it’s a new challenge,” Kallonen said. “We have the bulls-eye on our back and now we have to back it up. They always say it’s easier to win the first one. Well it was pretty hard! But I know it’s going to be harder now, especially next year in France.”

One thing really going for the American team after the historic win is a renewed interested in Six Days from fans and sponsors alike.

“The off-road community, the way it reacted to the U.S. team winning, was bigger than expected,” Burleson said. “At first it was just a weight lifted off our shoulders, and then all of a sudden it became an energizing thing for the off-road community.”

“Winning is getting momentum across the whole United States,” agreed Kudla. “People care now. We don’t care if we don’t win and now that we’ve won, everybody is interested in what’s happening. I think this win is going to bring ISDE back to light and revitalize it for our riders.”

As for KTM North America, they are hungrier than ever for the ISDE and have extended their support for another three years. “I just informed the AMA that KTM is allowing me to do another three years,” Kallonen said. “We’re hoping to bring the championship back here again. There wouldn’t be any greater way to show what we have than to back it up with another win. We’re already getting prepared for next year and our eyes are on the prize.”

Team USA ISDE
Team USA hopes this scene is repeated more than once. They’re hungry for more.

Jeff Fredette

Only one other rider in the history of the ISDE has as many ISDE starts as legendary off-road racer Jeff Fredette, aka “Mr. Six Days.” He has competed in 34 ISDEs and has finished all of them—except his final one in Argentina in 2014. But he’s not upset by that at all, instead he finds humor in it: “Hey, it means I’ve done it all—I’ve have gold medals [11 of them], silver medals, bronze medals, 34 starts, 33 finishes and one DNF.”

As you can image, he was thrilled to see Team USA get its first ISDE team gold medal.

“The first thing I think about is all of the time and effort—not just this year—but all along that went into trying to win the Six Days,” says Fredette who was a member of the U.S. World Trophy team “three or four” times in his career. “It’s been a dream for guys back in the ‘70s to win the Six Days. It meant so much to guys like Jack Penton and guys back over the generations. I don’t think a lot of people who have never been to the Six Days really understand what goes into [competing at] the Six Days.”

“We’ve had a lot of close calls of winning, so we were on pins and needles all week [this year],” says Fredette who still travels to the ISDE with the team to assist. “I always thought we could win the Six Days, especially when KTM and Antti got involved. I really appreciate what they did.

“Bottom-line, I never gave up hope.”

Rick “Gunny” Claypoole

Rick Claypoole, better known simply as “Gunny,” used his experience in the Marine Corps to lead the U.S. World Trophy team at the ISDE longer than anyone else. He was the U.S. team captain from 1987 through 2012, missing only two events—one due to his commitments to the Marines and the other due to a knee injury. He’s been to 32 ISDEs in all and was one of the happiest of all to hear that this year’s team had held on to win.

“I was following it all week long, and we kept getting better and better as the week went on,” says Gunny who is now fully retired and enjoying life in his home state of Oregon. “I was pretty sure we had it, then, what really got me was, they called me from Spain—Jay Hall [AMA Assistant Manager], Fredette—and said, ‘We did it, we did it!’ That was awesome. I sent my congratulations to the team. I am so proud of everyone involved [with the team].

“I always felt that we would win one day; we always had the speed, we just needed a little bit of luck.”

Randy Hawkins

Randy Hawkins—you’ve probably heard of him. He’s a seven-time AMA National Enduro Champion and has many times been a member of the U.S. World Trophy team, racking up 13 gold medals between 1987 and 2004. He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Frame in 2009 and currently manages the Am-Pro Racing Team for Yamaha.

“I was very excited,” Hawkins said of Team USA winning for the first time. “It’s been a passion and goal to win the Six Days for so many years, it goes back to before they [the 2016 U.S. Team] were born, and my hat is off to those guys [Russell, Michael, Duvall and Robert]. The Six-Days spirit never died, and these guys did it—it’s great for the U.S. It makes me proud to be an ISDE participant. I’ve told my guys [Am-Pro Team riders] that they have to ride the ISDE at least once; it needs to be on their bucket list.

GNCC star Thad DuVall
GNCC star Thad DuVall was a catalyst of the team. He was fast, strong and consistent all week.

“I always thought we had the potential to do well in the past; we had the riding skills, the trail, enduro skills, but lacked the grass-track experience. But our races are evolving into more ISDE-style racing—no time-keeping, faster GNCCs, more moto-like, so our younger guys are more used to that [ISDE] kind of conditions. I’m excited about our future.”

Dick Burleson

No rider has more AMA National Enduro Championships than Dick Burleson. He’s got eight of them—and all in a row, too. From 1974 to 1981 Burleson was the king of the woods, which led to his knick name “King Richard.” He was also a pretty darn good ISDE rider, earning eight gold medals out of 12 tries, and that was during an era of unreliable motorcycles and when emphasis was more on technical trails than grass tracks. He retired from professional racing in 1981 but still rides.

“I have mixed emotions,” Burleson says of America’s first ISDE win. “Back in the day, it was six guys, the motorcycles weren’t as good, so there was more emphasis on being a mechanic and in endurance. It was just different than what it is today; it has evolved more into grass-track special tests. But on the other hand, that’s just how it is now and I’m stoked for them [the 2016 U.S. team]. It’s awesome.

“The Six Days was something in its day, then it seemed to kind of lose its mojo, but it came back, which had a lot to do with Kurt [Caselli]. He helped bring it back and got these guys to bond again. He meant a lot to the Six Days [in the U.S.].”

Caselli
You know he’s happy right now.

Dave Bertram

From the mid 1980s to the early ‘90s Dave Bertram was an integral part of Team USA and the Six Days effort. Not only did he compete in eight ISDEs, earning five gold medals and earning “Top American” status in 1987 in Poland, he devoted much of his own time and effort raising funds and doing whatever he could to put together the strongest U.S. World Trophy Team as humanly possible. In 1985, he teamed up with Randy Hawkins to form Ride To Win, an organization designed to help send the U.S. Team to the Six Days, which he continued to run after he retired from racing in 1991. So, as you can image, he was also thrilled to see everything finally come together this year.

“I always felt we had the best off-road riders—wish special tests were held in the woods back then—but we just couldn’t prove it with a win,” Bertram says. “But when guys like Ty Davis and Rodney Smith came in from the moto side, they were just incredible; I was expecting it [an eventual U.S. win]. I knew it was coming; it was just a matter of time.

“Those guys winning the ISDE this year definitely made me proud as an American to win and finally show that we have the best riders.” CN

USA World Trophy FIM ISDE 2016 Navarra
(Left to right) Michael, Russell, Robert and DuVall: Ready to get it done.

 

 

To read this in Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine, click HERE

 

For more ISDE news, click HERE

 

Kit Palmer | Editor Kit Palmer started his career at Cycle News in 1984 and he’s been testing dirt and streetbikes ever since – plus covering any event that uses some form of a knobby tire. He’s also our resident motorcycle mileage man with a commute of 120 miles a day.