Making of a Master
Jeffrey Herlings’ unforgettable MXGP year. So unforgettable, in fact, that the amazing young motocrosser from the land of sand is our 2018 Cycle News Rider of the Year.
He’s twenty-four years old from Geldrop, Holland; a Red Bull KTM stalwart since making his FIM Motocross World Championship debut as a gangly 15-year-old in 2010; a holder of a podium trophy in just his second grand prix and a win (the first of seven in a row at Valkenswaard on home sand) on his third appearance; a three-time world champion before his 22nd birthday; and the most dominant 250cc motocross racer in the modern era.
By Adam Wheeler
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RAY ARCHER
But there are two more things you should know about Jeffrey Herlings:
First, in 2018 he completed the most emphatic campaign of any rider in all FIM world championship history. From 19 rounds in MXGP stretching from February to September, from Argentina to Asia, he won 17, finished on the podium in all and claimed 33 moto victories from a possible 38 (never dropping out of the top three in the others). Such was Herlings’ prolificacy across the diverse collection of tracks, countries, terrain, cultures and conditions of the MXGP series that he only dropped 17 points from a maximum haul. It sounds easy, but he was pursued by none other than nine-time world champion and eventual runner-up (and KTM teammate) Tony Cairoli. Herlings’ mastery meant that MXGP fell short of being a tight duel but #84 wasn’t able to confirm his first premier-class crown until the penultimate round—memorably at Assen for his home grand prix—such was Cairoli’s persistence.
Second, Herlings is a curious case study as an athlete capable of such an accomplishment.
Fame and attention at such a young age conditioned the teenager that many Dutch media were already calling “the future of Dutch motocross” in the middle of the last decade and as he fizzed through the junior ranks. Herlings was hyped and was supercharged into the spotlight and under the tutelage of former multi world champion and records-holder Stefan Everts before he was legally allowed to vote. The period in MX2 from 2010-2016 brought spoils, rewards, spats and bad decisions as he grew in the public eye.
“In the past you would be happy when he finally got on the bike because it was the least stressful part of the day; he was a handful!” said KTM Team Manager Dirk Gruebel.
His time in MX2 also delivered outstanding scenes; such as his ability to lap the entire 250cc field up to second position in the sand of Lierop in 2012, or ruling 28 from 30 races in 2013. There were serious injuries as well, such as the broken femur (with which he painfully tried to race at the 2014 season-ending Mexican GP and missed a third championship by just eight points), dislocated hip, mangled left little finger and repeatedly bashed collarbone, all in 2015 alone.
By 2017 he was finally ready for the “big boys,” as he called the collective of Cairoli and company in the MXGP division and a group of almost 20 riders with GP-winning experience. A broken right hand and an underestimation of the opposition after another year of harvest in MX2 in 2016 meant a jittery and concerning opening to a rookie term with the Red Bull KTM 450 SX-F. Cairoli prospered early in the season. Herlings—private, slightly shy, surrounded by his trusted small circle of practice mechanic Ruben Tureluren, Gruebel, mechanic Wayne Banks and Team Coordinator Valentina Ragni—had to revaluate. By the middle of 2017 he grasped his first MXGP victory in Latvia. He claimed six of the final seven rounds, and opted to race at the final AMA Pro National at Ironman, adding that “overall” to his list.
Come 2018 and Herlings maintained the run by amassing all of his learning from seven seasons in grand prix. Cairoli was reigning champion and eyeing an Everts-equaling 10th accolade. The Dutchman knew it would take something special to overthrow the Sicilian. Cairoli, nine years Herlings’ senior, had climbed back to the top of the MXGP tree after two injury-perturbed years. At the opening round and through the volcanic earth of Neuquen in Argentina, the duo set about providing a race for the ages. Cairoli claimed the first moto, Herlings the second and thus the overall. It was the manner of the victory that had many wondering if the symbolic torch had been passed from one “great” to another-in-the-making. Herlings closed a nine-second gap in nine laps to overtake the champ on the final circulation to conquer. They would clash in Great Britain and Indonesia later in the year in incidents that caused KTM management to watch through their fingers but that first swashbuckle in Argentina set the tone for Herlings.
When asked in the Neuquen post-race press conference how he’d managed to shrink the margin to a baffled Cairoli, Herlings replied, “I burned a lot of ‘fuel’ in that second moto, especially trying to get up to second position, but I felt I had more to keep going. I was in a good zone and felt comfortable. I was closing in and got some confidence, closed in again and got some more. It was a good day.”
Cairoli could only remark: “Why don’t you ask me how I lost nine seconds in nine laps?”
By round five in Portugal and after two more wins to Cairoli’s one, Herlings’ KTM crew had fitted a custom-made rpm indicator to the top of the 450 SX-F fender. “He had a bit of a tendency to run away with the revs when all the other bikes were blasting away next to him,” said Gruebel. “This just makes it easier to judge and keep on the right level, instead of missing the right torque that he needs. It seems to have helped him quite a bit.”
Herlings never looked back, or sideways. He dragged his normally stubborn holeshot tally up to eight and was consistently in the top five around the first corner—an asset that was the bedrock of his surge of results. The strongest thrust of which came with eight perfect 1-1s in the last eight GPs and a total of 465 laps led for the year compared with Cairoli’s 201.
It was around that time in Portugal that Herlings also started revealing the depth of his commitment to control MXGP.
Tureluren had spoken of the pivotal moment in junior races, when humbled by future GP peer Max Anstie on 85s, being the catalyst for Herlings to make sure he would not be humbled on equal footing again. (And he rarely has since 2012). He’d fostered a reputation as a hard worker, which he credits to his mother, Alice, as well as the determination not to concede defeat, and, perhaps, Everts, before their relationship cracked to the point of irreparability in the wake of his broken femur in 2014. But 2018 needed fresh levels of submergence.
For the former party boy with an obsession for career stats (to be matched by a growing bank account), dabbling with fast cars and the inevitable attention from girls as well as a penchant for fast food, a crossroads had been reached.
“He decided he wanted it more than anybody else,” says Gruebel. “He is very talented and he has such a big heart. He never gives up. He puts so much effort in, perhaps more than anybody else in terms of riding hours during the week. I don’t know if it is necessary to ride that much…but that is just him.”
Herlings spoke of effort and sacrifice; of living “like a monk.” His rate of practice and training could not be matched by those who tried, like teammate and friend Glenn Coldenhoff, and grand prix rivals who would regularly see the #84 clocking lap after lap.
“When the results are there, then the sacrifice doesn’t matter so much,” Herlings reasoned. “If you are out front then you are happy in your daily life. Last year, when I was struggling at the beginning of the season with injuries, I was not happy and it was tough in my private life. My friends accused me of being grumpy. I was not doing good ‘at work’ and felt it everywhere.
“I’ve done everything I possibly could: I’ve given my life for it this year and to see this result coming back is all I could have asked for,” he beamed at Assen after confirming his number-one status. “It was physically and mentally tough.” His rate of victory created serial success. “[But] the mind switches immediately to the next race and thoughts of: What could be better or improved? Was it something of my performance? My fitness? My starts? Race strategy? I always want to get the best out of myself.”
Cairoli was undoubtedly a target. Number-222 had earned seven premier class titles on the back of his remorseless capacity to rack-up podiums and checkered flags while opponents shined at times but ultimately floundered in comparison. “I knew I’d be facing one guy who is just like me,” Herlings said. “He wants to win badly and is physically good with the same team behind him. I’m racing someone very strong and that makes it hard because in MX2—and I don’t mean this in a bad way—but I was not facing the level of rider that I am now.
“Currently we are the two best racers, at least in Europe and the world championship,” he added. “We try to push our limits and of course I am younger and maybe push it earlier. It definitely won’t be easy next year because Tony is the best and if you look five years ago, I think he is a better rider now. He is also on a very high level and you can see the difference compared to the other guys.
“It is an honor, actually, to race with him,” he continued, alluding to the frequent sight of the two KTMs at the front of MXGP. They finished 1-2 a total of 11 times and gathered 33 podium finishes between them. “He is a nine-times world champion for a reason. To beat him is a nice feeling, a good feeling. It was a nice battle let’s say. I was a big fan of Tony’s back in 2005 and then he won in Lierop [Cairoli’s first MX2 world title] and I thought, ‘one day I want to be like those guys,’ and here we are 14 years later fighting the biggest racers in the world and I have won the biggest championship I could possibly win.”
Cairoli had to deal with small knee, thumb and hand complaints but was gracious in defeat. “I think this is one of my best years… apart from the last part of the series where I was struggling with some injuries,” he admitted. “The speed was unbelievable and when we were close we pulled each other and always made a good gap over the rest. It means we are riding very fast, so I’m happy with that but not so much about my condition through the whole moto with Jeffrey, and this is the only point I need to work on a little bit. I don’t think I’ve had such a strong competitor, and the age difference is quite big, so it was difficult. He pushed the level a bit higher, and at this age, it is difficult to make these little clicks all the time to keep up with the new guy. I tried to stay as close as possible and mostly it worked and we were matching. I need to work a little bit harder on the total race.”
Herlings showed he had the punch from the first ring of the bell. He was also claiming to be “ring smart” and said that he “can accept to lose,” but there was little evidence. In Spain, for round three, Cairoli’s starts helped towards the only 1-1 for the champion over his teammate. Then in Russia three races later, Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Clement Desalle became one of just two GP winners on Japanese machinery in both classes and from 40 opportunities: amazing, and a powerful verification for KTM and the Red Bull setup that Motorsports Director Pit Beirer felt urged to describe as “almost the perfect team.” Herlings certainly claimed his 450 SX-F was virtually a “perfect bike” on more than one occasion.
Did Herlings push the limit to excel so strongly? The collision with Cairoli for round nine of 20 in Great Britain that left the latter on the floor in the battle for the lead (with a tweaked knee) and saw him soundly beaten in the second moto was a flashpoint that KTM managed to contain. Cairoli was aggrieved, and the metaphysical wall in the team solidified a little further. Herlings brushed it off as a racing incident rather than a take-out.
Two rounds later and Herlings was gone. His feverish intensity finally bit back and a broken collarbone in a crash while training caused him to miss the GP of Lombardia. Cairoli seized the initiative to go 1-1 again and cut a slowly extending deficit to a despondent Herlings down to 10 points. The championship leader would later call it “devastating” to sit at home recuperating from surgery and watch his advantage in the series rapidly erode.
There was urgency to return, and that void of panic and uncertainty brought back painful memories of 2014 and 2015. Herlings was back in the saddle a little over two weeks after an operation to re-insert a plate into his upper torso. He diced with Cairoli (who picked up his first hand injury in what was one of the key moments of 2018 as the pendulum swung back in Herlings’ favor) in Indonesia and prevailed. From that moment on, he would remain unbeaten.
“For the first event back after injury, I thought he took a little too much risk,” Gruebel said in an article on KTM’s Blog page www.blog.ktm.com. “Okay, he saw the win, but he could have paid a high price for it. He took a risk, but so did Tony, and he got the short end of the stick when he hurt his thumb and, in the end, it worked out for Jeffrey. In my opinion it was not necessary to put that pressure on himself to again be winning so soon after the surgery.”
Herlings triumphed in the second Indonesian fixture the following week then the Czech Republic, Belgium, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Turkey, Holland and lastly Italy. By the time of the Motocross of Nations at RedBud (where Herlings owned his class for the third year in a row) rival factory teams were using terms like “beating Jeffrey” rather than “winning GPs” when talking of 2019. The benchmark had been well and truly set.
Before the story was finished the two most common questions in MXGP were: “How do we stop Herlings?” and, “How does he do it?”
“He works so hard,” offered Tureluren in a response to the latter. “He has a very strong commitment and desire to win. I’ve never see anyone else like that.”
“He is never satisfied and if there is something to be improved then we go riding again and we test. He has a good eye for lines and is not scared to go for something,” asserts Gruebel.
“Personally I could not handle what he does; I would be sick every week,” said Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Thomas Covington. “He just does motos day after day, week after week. He goes home and cycles and is then back in the gym in the morning, I remember racing Zwarte Cross [Dutch Championship] and we had qualifying on Saturday and on his way home that day he stopped at a practice track and did another moto and yet more starts. The next morning I saw he was on the rowing machine, turned up and won both motos and the Dutch title, and then went home again. I was like ‘woah.’
“I was sitting eating my dinner and looking at Instagram stories and he was out practicing starts somewhere and I thought ‘what am I doing?!’ I did ride a little bit with Jeffrey. At one point during the season, he was like ‘yeah, come with me and do what I do.’ So I did it for one week and it was really good for me for a short period of time, but there is no way I could keep that up all year. Maybe it’s because he has done it for so long that he has a tolerance to it.”
Herlings is the most envied and arguably one of the most well-known riders in MXGP but not one of the most public. He is a moderate social media user (non-existent on Twitter) and he keeps to himself at the circuits. The veil of protection and support of his team cannot be understated in the elixir that was mixed in 2018.
“I’ve been working with the same group for a very long time and we all know our jobs and what to do and what to expect from each other,” he says. “Yeah, we all have different and difficult times, personal issues and moments when the motivation or results are not there. The dynamic of a team sometimes means it is tough to keep all faces in the right direction with the same goal. At the end of the day, I know I can really count on the group I have and they can count on me.”
At Imola for the Grand Prix of Italy and the 2018 finale, Herlings was already running the #1 with #84 side plates. The #1 had not been seen in the premier class since the inception of the current four-stroke formula in 2004. The enormity of his achievement and (fittingly) stretching his career win count to 84 was hitting home as he confessed that a repeat in 2019 would be hard to replicate. Can Herlings continue to operate on the same level? The roulette wheel of motocross odds when it comes to injury is weighted against him. He broke a bone in 2018 but escaped quite lightly. Will the rate of effort and sacrifice be too much to crank out again? Is burnout an issue? There is genuine concern that Herlings could join the “27 club” and be like Carmichael, Villopoto, Dungey, even MotoGP legend Casey Stoner and call timeout at an early stage.
“It is hard to say,” Gruebel admitted towards the end of the season. “It’s not predictable. He is the strongest now but overnight things can change. The human body can be a strange element and can play tricks on you. He really trains a lot but then other people did before him, as well, and they were okay in their particular sport.
“I think, next year, we can expect the same Jeffrey again,” he adds. “He is still hungry and eager to win. Some guys do have that big goal and then they take a step back or fall into that hole, but I don’t think that will happen with him. He is keen to have another title and I think we’ll continue to see the best of him in 2019.”
“I still think Jeffrey is ‘growing’ and hasn’t reached his full potential,” said KTM VP of off-road Robert Jonas, somewhat worryingly for the rest of the MXGP gate.
“I think Jeffrey is now in the best shape I have ever seen, and we have been racing through our careers together since we were on 65s,” said 2016 champion and HRC rider Tim Gajser who negotiated the long lasting effects of a nasty preseason crash throughout most of ‘18. “He is really fast right now, and for sure, all the moto wins, race wins and GPs give you more confidence. He knows when he comes to the races then he will win, and that’s the mental side. He is definitely strong in the head.”
Set for life, a multi champion, on a KTM for another two years (possibly three due to the binds of his contract) the best Dutch rider in the history of the sport—and Dutch motorcycling in general—Herlings still has one big fat carrot dangling ahead. He needs another 17 grand prix wins to surpass Everts’ standing as the most prolific rider ever. It is a tantalizing and realistic goal.
For 2018 he has the knowledge that he is the fastest dirt bike rider in the world and the most decorated champion in the FIM cannon. “Thinking like that can give you a lot of confidence,” he pondered to us this year. “But [it’s] also not that good sometimes because it brings a lot of pressure. You feel like you have to prove it day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out and sometimes you don’t feel it. It’s tough because there are some days where I’m tired or carrying a small injury. I feel that I don’t need to win every race…as long as I can try and win the ones where I am feeling good then that’s okay for me.”CN
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