Thanks to a stellar ride by one of their own, the U.S. riders finished on the podium at the 2014 Motocross of Nations.
Story and photos by Jeff Kardas
The 2014 FIM Motocross of Nations was one of regret for the U.S. riders.
In a weekend full of drama and excitement -- and spiked with a fair bit of bad luck -- the U.S. team narrowly pulled off another podium finish against a field of MXGP racers that by all accounts is getting faster every year.
With cool, overcast weather, a rough, sandy track and 60,000+ screaming international fans, the stage was set for epic racing in Latvia. After qualifying eighth the day before, the U.S. team was quietly optimistic despite having their MX2 rider Jeremy Martin competing with an injured foot and/or toe that was broken in a crash the day before. While this was no doubt a factor in the results, Martin toughed it out and put in his best effort in both his on-track appearances.
Race 1: MXGP and MX2
Ryan Dungey and Jeremy Martin kicked it off for the U.S. team, and after Dungey rounded the first turn in the top five, things were looking up. Of course, the big question mark was Martin and how well he’d be able to go with his fresh injuries. As it turns out he did very well, toughing it out for an 11th overall on his 250 in a field that was half made up of 450s. Dungey floated back and forth between second and fourth, as the riders around him either went down, past him, or fell back. It was France’s Gautier Paulin who went by first as he hunted down race leader Aleksandr Tonkov from Russia, who had set the early pace. Following Paulin through the pack was Germany’s Max Nagl. Dungey finished with an outstanding second place, putting the Americans second in team points behind France.
Ryan Dungey (4) and Jeremy Martin (5) were up first in the combined MXGP and MX2 moto.
France's impressive Gautier Paulin took the win in the first moto.
Race 2: MX2 and Open
Up next was Eli Tomac in the Open class, joining Martin who just 30 minutes prior had completed his first 40-minute moto. Things started off decently for Tomac, whose race was uneventful and he ended up roughly where he began -- in sixth position. Martin struggled a bit and was able to muster 13th which, ultimately, was the score that would be dropped by the team in the overall points tally. Belgium’s Kevin Strijbos ran away with the relatively unchallenged win, followed by Team France’s Steven Frossard and the duo of Dean Wilson and Tommy Searle from Great Britain. The outstanding performance by Wilson and Searle catapulted the British team into second behind France, while the U.S. dropped to fourth heading into the finale.
Eli Tomac, who struggled a bit early on with the sand track, finished sixth in his first moto.
Race 3: MXGP and Open
Sitting behind the eight ball, the U.S. team knew it was do or die for them heading into the final showdown. France had a seemingly unsurmountable 10-point lead, while Britain and Belgium were not giving an inch either. As the field rounded the first turn, it left Eli Tomac behind and on the ground while Dungey sat in decent position toward the front of the group. As Tomac re-mounted, he was in last place; the only positive was his bike did not stall. Coming around for the end of lap one, however, the crowd was shocked to see that Dungey was actually behind Tomac. After being center-punched by another rider on the track, Dungey had gone down and now had more ground to make up than Tomac. That’s when it became apparent that all eyes needed to be on the No. 6 U.S. rider, as he attacked the track. Slicing and dicing his way through the best the rest of the world had to offer, Tomac reached an almost unbelievable third place with a few laps to go, leaving only the venerable Paulin and Belgium’s Jeremy Van Horebeek left to catch. After a small mistake with two laps remaining, it marked the end of Tomac’s charge and he settled into a third-place finish. Dungey made it to 11th.
This is how Tomac's final moto started. Thankfully for the U.S. team's podium's chances, it ended much differently.
Tomac charged through the pack to finish third.
Belgium's Jeremy Van Horebeek wore the No. 1 plate for the defending world champions.
France’s Paulin, Frossard and Dylan Ferrandis were victorious. The final points tally was France with 17, Belgium a distance second with 27, and the U.S. and Great Britain teams tied for third with 33. The U.S. gained the victory due to their dropped score being better than Britain’s.
The U.S. riders and Roger DeCoster had plenty to say about the race following the awards, but mostly they expressed their respect for the teams that beat them.
“First of all, I’d like to congratulate Team France and Team Belgium,” said U.S. Team Manager DeCoster. "They both were very impressive with their rides today and especially Paulin, who was just amazing… It’s hard for me to go back to the U.S. and not have the Chamberlain Cup yet again, but after the way our team toughed it out and put in their best efforts especially with Jeremy’s injury, it makes it easier."
Team Captain Dungey agreed, and when asked how he felt about the weekend he was humble: "Tough weekend. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and it’s tougher than usual, but life goes on and we gave it our best and I think bottom line is... we know we all want to win, but sometimes it doesn’t always work out. We’ll learn from this and come back stronger next year.”
U.S. Team Captain Ryan Dungey spoke highly of the skill of the European riders.
As far as a home field advantage for the Grand Prix regulars and if the United States is at a disadvantage, Dungey noted that it’s "nothing worth making an excuse about.
I think European riders have gotten better. They have a unique style that works for them and they’re better on certain tracks and our style is better on other types of tracks.”
All of the riders agreed that their counterparts in the GP series have gotten faster, particularly the Europeans.
Team France celebrates a well-deserved victory.
"I think these guys are getting faster for sure, but not like five to 10 years ago in the Carmichael and Stewart era, those two guys were on a different level. But times have changed,” Tomac said.
Eli did say that if the U.S. national series “still had a sandy race in the series, we would have been much better here.” He noted that bike settings for sandier surfaces at race pace are tough to replicate, so they came into the race a bit blind in that regard.
"For me [what made it possible to charge so hard in the second moto] was getting comfortable on the bike," Tomac said. "We put another fork on it, an older one, and it was way better. That was part of my mistake is not doing that sooner,” and if there was a similar national in the U.S., the race settings would have been ready to go in Latvia.
Regarding Martin’s game-changing injury, the diagnosis was “I broke my big toe, and broke my foot in two places," Martin said. "Now I gotta go home and get some surgery on it and hopefully I’ll be back in no time.”
Even France’s Paulin was impressed with Martin’s gutting out and riding and was happy to hear he wasn’t more seriously injured: “I am very sad that Jeremy Martin was injured, but am glad to hear it’s not that bad.”
U.S. fans are already looking forward to next year's Motocross of Nations.