Anaheim 1 shows promise for Yamaha’s Justin Barcia, Aaron Plessinger

Anaheim 1 is often the tone-setter for how the Supercross season will unfold, at least in terms of who is fast.

So what did we learn from Saturday night, when veteran Justin Barcia broke through for his first 450SX win in nearly six years?

It’s tempting to say “not much,” thanks to a persistent rain that created muddy conditions and made for a slick track. Riders like defending Supercross champion Jason Anderson (14th place) and 2018 runner-up Marvin Musquin (eighth) had surprisingly disappointing races — which surely won’t be the norm this season.

On the other hand, Barcia was fast before it rained, too. And the riders who joined him on the podium — Ken Roczen and Eli Tomac — aren’t exactly flukes.

“Shoot, I probably could have told you (Barcia) was going to win this thing two weeks ago,” Barcia’s Yamaha Factory Racing teammate Aaron Plessinger said after the race. “He’s been on the gas at the test track.”

Barcia ran a patient main event and passed Dean Wilson with roughly five minutes remaining on the clock. After that, he was never challenged.

So how much can we read into Barcia’s performance given the weather?

“It wasn’t like an insane mud race,” Barcia said. “It was slippery, but we were able to do all the jumps. I think this is a good sign for the rest of the year.”

If that’s the case, Anaheim could be the start of a dream season for Barcia. In 2018, Tomac had the early lead in an Anaheim 1 main event that ultimately saw a 1-2 finish from Musquin and Anderson. Those three fastest riders of the night went on to sweep the top three spots in the point standings — though not in that order.

Even if Barcia doesn’t win another round, he still has a fantastic story. The 26-year-old wasn’t sure he would be able to continue in Supercross at the end of 2017, but was selected for fill-in duty for the first six races of 2018 when Yamaha’s Davi Millsaps got hurt.

But after Barcia podiumed in three of his first four starts, Yamaha gave him a shot for more races and set him up for a season that would revitalize his career — that is, until he injured his hand and required surgery.

Nevertheless, the team signed Barcia to a two-year deal in the offseason and he now enters 2019 as the lead rider alongside Plessinger, a rookie.

“I’ve been through a lot the past couple years, with injuries and being in a difficult place with motorcycles,” Barcia said. “I wasn’t having fun with racing. I got the opportunity last year, made the best of that. More than anything, I’m just super grateful for the opportunity to be here racing; I know it could have went a different direction.”

If you’re looking for even more signs about how the season will go after Anaheim, Barcia’s teammate happens to be another good one. Plessinger finished sixth, the best among a strong rookie class that is expected to quickly compete with the veterans.

The charismatic 22-year-old grinned while talking about competing against the likes of Tomac and Roczen.

“I’ve watched them for years now — before I went pro,” Plessinger said. “Racing them now, it’s like, ‘Oh my God. I’m out here. I’m really doing this.’’

He shook his head for a moment, reflecting on the race, then laughed.

“I’m still in a ‘Holy shit’ moment,” he said. “To get sixth against world-class Supercross racers is a good night for me, I’ll tell you that.”

It’s easy to see why people love Supercross so much

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.

Anaheim 1 set to serve up unpredictable Supercross opener

No matter what form of motorsport you’re talking about, the best racing is always the most unpredictable.

That’s why I’m stoked for the AMA Monster Energy Supercross opener tonight in Anaheim (10 p.m. ET/FS1). The fans, media and riders themselves all don’t know what to expect, and the race tonight — as well as the championship — seems the most wide open in years.

Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto had combined to win the last eight titles, but they’re both retired now (Dungey retired in the offseason after three straight championships). The only past champion left in the field is Chad Reed, but he hasn’t won since 2008, has two still-healing broken ankles and is now a privateer instead of racing for a factory team.

So that leaves Eli Tomac — who came oh-so-close to the title last year, Marvin Musquin, Jason Anderson and — oh yeah, Ken Roczen.

Roczen, in case you haven’t heard, is an early candidate for Best Comeback Story in all of sports for this year. After winning Anaheim 1 last year, he shattered his left arm in the second Anaheim race.

He’s had 11 surgeries since then. Eleven! It would have been an accomplishment for him to ever hold a pencil again, let alone get back on a bike and race.

But there he was Friday, sitting in the annual preseason press conference with a suit and tie and proclaiming himself ready to not only compete — but contend.

Could Roczen actually go out tonight and win the season opener?

“My arm, if it would be fragile and I could barely do a pushup or put any weight on it, I feel like I wouldn’t really sit up here,” he said. “The people my team and I have hired to go through (physical therapy) for months and months, they did a pretty phenomenal job.

“It’s never going to be the same, but it’s definitely good enough to race dirt bikes and, in my eyes, have good strength to handle the bike and do whatever with it.”

That said, Roczen said he will ride with a wrist brace tonight. So how competitive he’ll be is a giant unknown.

Asked about Roczen, the other riders offered restrained praise on Friday. They seem happy for the guy they call “Kenny” to return, but they also aren’t anxious to see him win.

After all, the door is wide open for Tomac to claim his first title, but Musquin and Anderson should be right there as well.

But if Roczen’s arm is truly fixed enough, all of them might be chasing the German on his comeback tour.