Just before the 2020 AMA Monster Energy Supercross season was turned upside down, Eli Tomac and Ken Roczen were the riders to watch last year. Three points apart in hot pursuit of a career-defining first championship, they seemed destined for an epic title battle before the brakes got slammed on their showdown.
Ten months later, some parallels remain for Roczen and Tomac. The longtime renowned dirt-bike riders are enjoying first-time fatherhood. They are trying to stave off a wave of rookies and rising stars who threaten to supplant their status as perennial championship contenders.
But there also is a notable difference: Tomac broke through for the 2020 Supercross championship with a steadily victorious run through the final seven races in Salt Lake City (where the season ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
That leaves Roczen, the articulate and dapper German known for wearing a full suit and tie to news conferences, as unquestionably the most accomplished active 450 rider (15 event victories) without a crown.
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The Honda rider’s career has been defined by comebacks from illnesses and injuries (he ended a three-year winless streak in 2020 after nearly losing his left arm to amputation). But a championship still looms as the validation needed for being remembered as one of the greats.
“I wonder about Ken Roczen; I feel like this year he has got to get it done,” 48-time Supercross 450 winner and five-time champion Ricky Carmichael said during an NBC Sports segment previewing the 2021 season, which begins Saturday night in Houston. “Otherwise, his best years have passed him by.”
After four victories and a third in the 2020 Supercross points, Roczen, 26, took the Pro Motocross season off to get healthy (he raced through a bout of shingles in Salt Lake City) and await the birth of his son, Griffin, with wife Courtney.
He returns for 2021 with renewed dedication and spirit, having spent the offseason training on a new bike.
“I think this was the best decision for me and the team essentially,” Roczen said. “I just wanted to be around the team and wanted the team to see the work I put in and the progression I’m making. This is definitely what we’ve accomplished. I’ve been super stoked being out here and for the first time in a long time, I just started enjoying what I’m doing again.
“I was able to put in a good amount of work, have some consistent days and felt really comfortable on the bike. I think taking time off for the Outdoors season was definitely the right call. I’m just stoked to be where I’m at and obviously with the little one, being able to race as a dad now is super rad, so I’m looking forward to it.”
His presence also will be welcomed by Tomac, who said he missed lining up next to Roczen at Pro Motocross Outdoors events last summer during a season that served a wakeup call after his Supercross title. Heavily favored to win his fourth consecutive Outdoors championship, Tomac, 28, struggled to third in the points.
But the low-key Colorado native, whose daughter, Lev, was born last April, still enters 2021 without the weight that admittedly affected him in past seasons when championship promise and victories were wiped out by crashes from riding too hard. He became the oldest rider to win his first title in the 450 division of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series.
“For now, I would say less pressure because that was the big carrot I was chasing was the first championship,” Tomac said of his outlook. “That first one was hanging over me for so long, being so close in two or three seasons there. To finally close it out in 2020 was everything for us. This year I have huge motivation to defend it and keep that plate red as long as we can.”
The competition – and not just Roczen — should be especially motivating. Tomac finished the Pro Motocross Outdoors season behind champion Zach Osborne (who won the 2020 Supercross finale) and Adam Cianciarulo. Both riders will return for 450 Supercross, along with Marvin Musquin and two-time 250 champions Chase Sexton and Dylan Ferrandis in a budding group that will make it tougher than ever for the veterans.
“There are a lot of new faces coming into this year that will raise the bar,” Sexton said. “Last year, Adam and I in Outdoors just pushed the older guys more, and I feel the racing was really good. I hope the same for the upcoming season.”
The possible changing of the guard will be the overarching narrative among many storylines in Supercross 2021.
Here are four other things to watch this season:
–COVID-19 adjustments: After testing once prior to the Salt Lake City rounds, Supercross will be ramping up its COVID-19 protocols in 2021. All essential industry personnel (athletes, team members, series staff, media) will be tested at least weekly in each race city.
Houston will have three events in eight days, so a negative test will clear entry for Saturday and Tuesday races with another test mandatory before the next Saturday race. Departing and returning to a host city also will require a negative test to enter the bubble (limited crowds will be permitted at races and in a FanFest area but won’t have access to the paddock where teams are set up).
The more stringent policy should be lauded for helping prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, but it also will be a major worry for teams. Dan Fahie, the team manager for the Monster Energy Kawasakis of Tomac and Cianciarulo, said the COVID-19 testing is “probably our biggest concern” entering the season.
“Normally this time of year, you’re just hoping the guys show up, you’re hoping everybody stays healthy, you’re hoping your bike was good,” Fahie told reporters during a Zoom news conference Monday. “You’re hoping all the decisions you made were good. You’re hoping your guys are feeling good. You hope the mood was right.
“Right now, all I hope is that everybody gets through Thursday when we’re getting tested. It’s a nerve-wracking experience because it’s totally out of our control. There’s no homework we can do other than try to stay clean, but since no one really knows (when they might contract the virus), it’s a tricky deal for us. We’ve taken as many precautions as we can. We’ve isolated ourselves the best we can and still do our work, and we’re going to have to do the best we can when we get to the track.”
Though riders were able to avoid missing any events last year because of the pandemic, at least one rider, Brock Tickle, had COVID-19 during the offseason. Tickle since has recovered. “I’m feeling good,” he said. “I’ve had a good couple of weeks on the bike.”
–Hungry riders: After posting strong Pro Motocross results, Osborne and Cianciarulo are among several riders who seem poised to fulfill championship potential. After missing the 2020 Supercross season with a major knee injury, Musquin (an eight-time winner) is back after racing in Outdoors.
“The overall mindset of winning a championship in the premier class has changed a little bit for me,” Osborne said. “Getting the Outdoors win and just some clutch overalls I needed to make that happen just helped my mindset and goal. That’s the biggest thing is I just checked some of those boxes that needed to be checked, and I can move forward with that in my back pocket.
“I feel really good. I got lucky with a couple of weeks of weather (delays), I could get mellower riding and training. That helped with my mental state. I was just really tired after outdoors. I’m in a good spot. It’s come around. I can put myself in positions to win races and hopefully be in it to win the title at the end.”
Musquin has been training with Osborne and Cooper Webb in Florida after a fourth-place points finish in the Outdoors season that “didn’t finish the way I wanted to. Now that the offseason is over, I’m pretty happy. I’m excited to go racing and see where I’m at, but training and racing are two different things. If you asked me if I was back to 2018 and ’19 speed, I’m close but not quite there. Racing will tell me if I’m back to my full potential.
Past champions Cooper Webb (2019) and Jason Anderson (’18) also seem extra driven this year to prove their titles weren’t flukes.
“I won in 2018 and haven’t won since,” Anderson said plainly when asked if he feels the need to answer critics. “So they’ve got some facts to back that argument. I’m hoping to get back to that level. It’s tough with the younger guys coming up, and the level just keeps getting gnarlier year after year. The competition is deep. I feel better, but there’s a lot of guys firing on all cylinders. I’d like to get back to that level.”
–New vs. old bikes: With the season starting outside Southern California for the first time in a quarter-century, a schedule full of midweek races and multiple stops in the same city has spiked worries about short turnarounds – particularly with those on new equipment for 2021.
In the pre-pandemic era of opening the season at Anaheim and weekly races on Saturdays, riders and teams had ample time to test and tinker with their bikes.
The opening stretch of three Houston races in just over a week will preclude those options. Several riders said they wouldn’t be able to make major adjustments during their extended Texas layover.
“That is going to be hard,” Tomac said. “I’m on the same motorcycle as last year, so that’s nice going into that knowing what I’m working with. That’s huge for me not really guessing and being like I don’t really know if this is going to work in race conditions, so I’ll going with what I know last year.
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“That is a huge deal, though, if you have to make an adjustment, can you adapt to it? That I don’t know yet.”
Osborne, who is carrying over the same Husqvarna from last year, said “it’s huge” to have the same bike. “We’re all used to this ‘go to the first race, see how it goes, we’ll be at the shop and test track and fix whatever we need and rectify any issues,’ ” Osborne said. “This year there is no time for that and probably no resources for that. I think it’s huge to have a bike you know well with no huge changes to it and go on something you feel pretty comfortable with.”
Roczen will be on a new No. 94 Honda CRF450R but said he is “trying not to focus too much or get too wound up on settings.
“We all know that we always go to the races, and there are going to be some changes happening,” he said. “At the same time, I’m just trying to go enjoy what I’m doing and make little changes here and there. I think we had a really good plan in the offseason and getting the bike solid. I’ve been on the same stuff for quite a few weeks now.
“Once we go racing, we’ll know a lot more, but the bike is a lot more consistent. We haven’t tested too much because I was pretty comfortable right away. That means a lot compared to last year I was chasing things a lot more, especially going to different types of dirt and different types of tracks. The bike’s a lot more consistent. I’m looking forward to putting it to the test at the first few rounds.”
Malcolm Stewart, who is moving to his first factory 450 ride with the Star Racing Yamaha team, also is on a new bike but isn’t concerned. His offseason testing has been strong, and “I’ll admit I’m not a guy that changes much (aside) from a couple of clicker settings.
“Everybody’s been like, ‘What are you guys going to do about suspension settings and things like that?’ ” Stewart told NBC Sports. “Well, the cool thing about Star Racing Yamaha is even though we’re in California, and everyone talks about how hard the dirt is there, we put our bike in a lot of different terrains and tested it at different times throughout the day. I got my bike really good in every condition that’s been thrown at it. I feel like we’ve had a pretty good setup going into H1.”
—The rookie class: For the first time in more than a quarter-century, the Supercross Series will have two two-time defending 250 champions moving up as Ferrandis and Sexton lead an impressive group of freshmen. Shane McElrath, who has nine 250 victories, also has been promoted, along with Brandon Hartranft. The biggest challenge will be bike setup, which is more complicated and critical for 450 riders.
The supremely confident Sexton, who vows he immediately can win and finish on the podium, has hired two-time Supercross champion James Stewart as his coach. “It’s not so much pressure, but James does draw a lot of attention, and for me, he’s been a really big help so far,” Sexton said. “I had him in Outdoors, and he helped a lot with bike setup. He’s pretty brutally honest, and he kind of calls it how it is. He knows where these guys are at and has raced most of them.”
Having suffered an injury midway through offseason training, Ferrandis said he’s healthy again but missed a lot of time to get acclimated to his Yamaha. “I rode full time last week and haven’t lost much strength,” he said. “It’s part of the job I have to deal with (injury). I feel good, and the team did a good job making the bike fit me. It’ll be a big challenge, but the season is long, and we’ll take it race by race.
McElrath could miss the opener as he tests his pain threshold recovering from an injury. “The job stays the same, but it’s harder to gauge where myself and the other rookies fall,” he said. “It’s still the same mentality as the 250 class. It’s going to be a big year of just learning. In the 250 class, I could expect to be at the front and get good starts and know I should be good if I stay away from mistakes. In 450, some guys I’ve never raced. I’ve been able to study the class, but it’s a big undertaking to step up.”