For any passionate motocross fan and any professional racer, the annual Motocross of Nations (MXoN) signifies the pinnacle of what the sport is all about. This event is our Olympics, our World Cup, and we’re lucky enough to witness the spectacle every year. It’s the one time each season in which the entire motocross world converges in one place, at one time, to see who is the best of the best. What’s not to love about that?
I was extremely fortunate to not just be a part of the MXoN for many years as a member of Team USA, but also contribute to the United States’ incredible legacy in this event. In total, the U.S. has hoisted the Chamberlain Trophy a record 22 times. I was a part of three of those triumphant efforts and accepted the invitation to represent my country a total of six times. Those experiences are some of the most influential of not just my career, but also my life in general, and none of them were more significant than my first visit in 2009 in Italy.
With aspirations of a professional career, I was always in awe of the MXoN. The energy, the atmosphere, the way each and every rider stepped up on behalf of their country. It was easy to grasp how unique and special it is. I watched the U.S. become a dominant force, led by riders I looked up to like Ricky Carmichael, James Stewart, and Ryan Villopoto. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to stand up there atop the podium in front of the most passionate fans in the world, draped in the American flag and representing your country in victory. I dreamed to one day be a part of that same celebration.
Those dreams became a goal once I got to witness the MXoN for myself in 2007 at Budds Creek. I was fresh off my rookie season as a pro, where I learned a ton about what it takes to compete at the highest level, and I knew I had to be there to watch RC compete one last time and partake in the MXoN experience. I thought I understood how big and important the race was from afar, but to be there in person and watch RC, RV and Tim Ferry dominate in front of their home country, it changed me. Nothing was going to stop me from representing my country against the best riders on the planet.
The journey to get to the top of the 250cc division wasn’t easy, but 2009 brought me the success and accolades I had worked so hard to achieve. I earned the regional championship in Supercross and emerged with the Pro Motocross title that summer. As the season progressed Roger DeCoster approached me about being a part of the MXoN team. While I knew my results warranted the opportunity, I still had to pinch myself to know that my dream was going to become a reality. It was humbling to hear someone of Roger’s stature, even though I’d known him for so long, recognize the effort and reward my success with this invitation.
The 2009 MXoN in Italy will forever be one of my most vivid memories. Everything about that journey was just so unexpected, with one thing after another. First, I suggested that I step up to take one of the two 450 spots. After all, my time aboard a 250 had ended, and I really just felt more comfortable aboard the bigger bike as it was better suited for my style. Little did I know that Roger would eventually decide to name me Team Captain and put me in the stacked MX1 class. It seems like he had more belief in my ability than even I had in myself, but that wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time that dynamic with Roger played out.
Shortly after the season ended during my initial supercross testing on the 450, mere weeks before the MXoN, I had a pretty big crash that left me with a significant hit to the head and a grade 3 shoulder separation. Suddenly, my ability to even make the trip to Italy was put into serious doubt, and it certainly meant I’d have zero preparation on the new bike heading into MXoN. I knew I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from racing and after testing my own strength and pain tolerance I decided I was going to give it a go. Was it the most uncertain plane flight I’ve ever taken? Certainly, and I had lots of time to think about the challenge I was about to undertake. As far as I was concerned, whatever pain I’d endure was worth the potential of bringing home a win for my country.
As if there wasn’t enough to deal with already, there was also chatter about the lineup of myself, Ivan Tedesco, and Jake Weimer being the United States’ “B Team.” I suppose my role in MX1 as an unproven 450 rider making my first trip and Jake’s MXoN debut was enough for critics to cast doubt, but it conveniently ignored the fact that Ivan was a two-time winner in his own right. Nevertheless, given that the U.S. was in the midst of a four-year win streak, I’d chalk it up to our competitors and opposing media grasping at optimism that our reign would end. I guess it was a compliment to the team’s success. Frankly, it wasn’t anything any of us really knew about, nor was it something we cared about either. However, the moment we arrived in Italy it seemed to be the talk of the pits so we had no choice but to answer the seemingly endless questions that came our way.
At the end of the day, each member of Team USA was coming off the best Pro Motocross season of our career up to that point. We had all the confidence in the world. We knew we were the best of what the country had to offer, and we were prepared to go out there, do our best, and hopefully take care of business. If we were in fact a subpar team, then whatever pressure we may have felt as the defending champions was certainly minimized. If anything, we were underdogs in the eyes of many, which meant proving them wrong would feel that much better.
With that being said, it’s not hard to get lost in everything going on around you at the MXoN. It’s loud, it’s fanatical. It’s an environment unlike anything I had ever experienced, in the best way possible. All the various elements, both on and off the track, can be overwhelming, capable of taking anyone off their game, or they can be turned into an asset. We were lucky to have a veteran to lean on in Ivan. He knew exactly what it took to win at the MXoN, and that mentoring role was invaluable in keeping myself and Jake focused on the task at hand.
As we inched closer to our first time out on track I started to see another, often unseen element that makes the MXoN special - teamwork and camaraderie. In a sport defined by individual achievement, where the idea of teammates is used pretty loosely, the MXoN unifies a collection of support for three different riders into one operation with a common goal. I had never seen anything like it, and I was so impressed with how effectively we came together. As the weekend progressed this teamwork continued to get stronger and our communication made for an effective strategy as we dialed in bike setups. By the time the motos came around we felt like we had developed an extremely strong collective effort.
I didn’t watch much MXGP racing prior to my first MXoN, and that was probably a good thing. I had certainly heard of Antonio Cairoli, Marvin Musquin, and Ken Roczen, but I wasn’t aware of how talented they truly were and all the success they had achieved. I think that lack of knowledge kept my mind clear on the starting gate. My shoulder was nowhere near 100%, but I was ready to perform for myself, my team, and my country. I had no reason to think I couldn’t compete up front.
Admittedly, I was shocked at how well I rode in that first moto and how uneventful it was considering two classes were racing together. I settled in behind Cairoli and Chad Reed and tried to learn from them, bringing home a solid third-place finish. With Jake not far behind in eighth, Team USA was off to a stellar start. Ivan and Jake unfortunately found themselves on different ends of the results sheet in the second moto, which meant we needed to step up for that final gate drop. There was drama right out of the gate in that final race, collecting both Cairoli and Reed. I came away unsctahed with a top-five start and looked to make passes. It wasn’t long before I found myself in control of the lead out front. At that point I just focused on bringing it home, recognizing the value of a win. I had no idea how things were unfolding overall and the track was so rough I never got much of a good look at the pit board. I kept my head down and captured my first win on a 450, but the moment I crossed the line I was only concerned with Ivan.
I remember asking the first person I saw at the finish if we had won. A crowd had gathered around me. There was a lot of emotion and a lot of confusion in the moment, but I remember being told that we had indeed pulled it off. At that moment I just couldn’t wait for Ivan to cross the finish. After all, he still needed to finish in order to lock in our score.
When Ivan came over the finish he immediately ghost rode his bike, ran towards me and attacked me with the biggest, most celebratory embrace. To this day, it remains one of the coolest memories I ever had in my career. It was such a significant moment. We had done it. We had proved to everyone that the “B Team” was better than they gave us credit for. We came together as a team and got the job done. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing on top of that podium alongside Ivan, Jake, and Roger. It was a goal I had set just two years earlier at Budds Creek, and I honestly was still trying to come to grips with the realization of what we just accomplished.
Personally, I experienced considerable growth through that entire MXoN journey. There was so much to overcome and we all managed to defy the odds. First and foremost, I had to fight through the pain of my shoulder. On top of that, I was expected to rise to the occasion as Team Captain. When we needed it most, we rallied together as a team to bring home a victory. To top it all off, I found a surprising level of comfort my first time out on the big bike. The lessons I learned, the experiences I had, they built a solid foundation of confidence that carried me through that 2010 rookie season in the 450 class.
Without the MXoN there is no way I could have accomplished what I did in 2010, and to a larger extent, the opportunities to represent Team USA continued to contribute to my career successes in both Supercross and Pro Motocross. It’s a big reason why I kept coming back for more and was always proud to wear the red, white, and blue.
All images courtesy of Sarah Gutierrez - Racer X.