Ricky Carmichael’s No. 1 tip for a first-time dirt bike ride was pretty simple: Whatever you do, don’t twist the throttle in a panic.
That would cause the bike to shoot out from underneath you, likely leaving you on the dirt and staring up at the sky wondering what just happened.
“If you feel like you’re in a position where you don’t want to be and you’re uncomfortable, just take your hand off the throttle,” Carmichael said. “Got it?”
He said it like five times, so yeah. Got it. No problem.
Except I didn’t get it. In the very first minute I sat on the bike at Angel Stadium, I did the complete opposite of what Carmichael said. I accidentally squeezed the throttle down, gave it way too much gas and almost lost the bike from underneath me.
Fortunately, I didn’t lose total control — barely — and Carmichael was a very patient teacher. And it got much better from there. Only a few minutes later, I was making mini-laps on a 70cc bike that was probably a good fit for a 7-year-old. The GOAT ran alongside my ride like a proud papa watching a kid steer his bicycle for the first time.
Then I graduated to a more respectable 125cc bike that had a clutch (shifting!) and I even got enough speed to feel a breeze in my face — an accomplishment by my standards! (I have to be honest, though: Carmichael still had to shift the bike for me on the fly.)
Anyway, that brief ride (full video here) generated my biggest takeaway from a Monster Energy AMA Supercross immersion experience last weekend at Anaheim 1: Dirt bikes are awesome. Holy crap! I wasn’t even good at it, but I already miss it. In the two nights since I got off the bike, I’ve had dreams about riding — and this was after only 15 total minutes of seat time, in which I probably never touched 20 mph.
No wonder people love this stuff. And I can’t even imagine going all-out on a 450cc bike and getting major air time at full speed over a jump — side-by-side with another rider. Insane.
Supercross is an impressive sport, and though I had been to a couple races previously, this was the first time I really got to spend more than a few hours around it.
Here are a few other things I learned over two full days at Anaheim:
— They keep the 7,000 yards of dirt buried in the parking lot. What!? No joke — at least at Angel Stadium. Supercross Director of Operations Tim Phend said after the two Anaheim races are over, Supercross will stash the dirt in a giant hole behind the stadium, cover it up with a firmer base layer and leave it for 11 months. Angels fans park on top of it all summer, and then Supercross comes back to dig it up in late December. Oh, and they have to buy the Angels a whole new baseball field each year because they destroy the grass by putting all the dirt and equipment on top of it.
— Supercross riders have to be in world-class shape to be successful because of the high cardio stress required during the races. The monitoring devices they wear show heart rates soar into the 190-beats-per-minute range during races and consistently stay at that level through the event. “When we race, you’re red-lined (for maximum heart rate),” rider Cooper Webb said. And that’s mostly due to effort and exertion. Eli Tomac said heart rates increase during a race compared to practice — due to adrenaline and the competition — but that only accounts for an extra 10 beats per minute. Because of the cardio demand, those who aren’t in top shape tend to fade about halfway through the 20-minute main events.
— The riders are insanely tough. Ken Roczen had the spotlight heading into the season — deservedly so — after overcoming 11 surgeries and a potential arm amputation to make it back (and finish fourth on Saturday!) after a year away. But while his story was extreme, the attitude toward injuries is not uncommon among riders. Just look at two-time champion Chad Reed, who broke both ankles last year and was supposedly still two weeks away from being cleared to ride before Anaheim. Reed had only been on the bike three times since getting hurt, and returned to not only make the main event (no sure thing, given his injury), but finish 15th on Saturday. I was also taken aback seeing how many times riders would go down super hard and then hop right back up and finish the race.
— Marvin Musquin looked fantastic on Saturday night, but he’s not the championship favorite just yet. It still figures to be a wide-open season in the wake of the dominant Ryan Dungey’s retirement. After all, it was Tomac (runner-up for the championship last year) who appeared to be cruising toward a win when he crashed all alone and failed to finish at Anaheim. He’ll have plenty of good nights ahead, as will Musquin training partner Jason Anderson (who finished second Saturday) and Roczen. It’s a good bet the points will stay close throughout the spring.
— Even though it has a much smaller audience than NASCAR (Supercross averaged a record 343,000 viewers last year compared to NASCAR’s 4.1 million per race), Supercross may ultimately be better-positioned for the future. Supercross has bite-sized races (six-minute heats and a 20-minute main event) that aren’t long enough to get boring, and it has an extremely desirable demographic making up the bulk of its fan base. There were more people under the age of 25 stuffed into a sold-out Angel Stadium on Saturday than NASCAR might get in a month (and so many kids!). Supercross excels at a comprehensive fan experience from start to finish: The pit party (akin to the fan zone) is stellar; the opening ceremonies, with unique videos for each rider, do a great job of building the hype; and there are mega pyro displays set to current music booming through the sound system. Plus, the racing is not only excellent, but it has natural breaks built in for trips to the concession stands (or checking Snapchat, which shouldn’t be overlooked). NASCAR has taken steps in the right direction — with stage racing, for example — but the races are still way too long and there’s still much work to be done on turning the drivers into stars.
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) January 7, 2018