Every rider is a little rusty in the first race of a season. It has been months since they rode with points on the line or with so many other riders on the track at the same time. And while a 17-race schedule is long, it does not afford an opportunity to make many mistakes. But when a rider comes back after missing an entire season, as is the case for Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin, Round 1 is critical in setting the tone for the rest of the year.
A new season nearly always begins with preconceptions about who will or won’t run well. For the past few years, those preconceptions have been misconceptions in Round 1.
Recently Justin Barcia has been the most pleasant surprise in the season opener – although perhaps that shouldn’t be the case considering he has won the last three, including Saturday night’s kick off in Houston. The last three champions were expected to perform well, but the 2020 title holder Eli Tomac fell twice during the Main and finished 13th. The 2019 champion Cooper Webb barely cracked the top 10 in ninth, while 2018’s Jason Anderson was 15th.
Roczen is not exactly a dark horse.
He finished third in the Supercross championship last year, was fourth in 2019 and has been one of the main title contenders in each of those seasons. What made him an unknown entity on Saturday was the fact that he chose to sit out the entire outdoor season to heal from a physical condition that was eventually diagnosed as shingles.
“Since I didn’t race outdoors, it has been a while, but I’ve done this for 20 seasons so I know what to expect,” Roczen said after Saturday’s round. “It’s really what you do with that mindset, so I didn’t feel that rusty out there.”
Musquin ran the outdoor season, but sat out all of 2020 Supercross with a knee injury. Supercross is markedly different from Motocross. Prior to Saturday night, it had been 623 days since Musquin last raced in these tight confines.
“To be honest I was a little bit nervous because in Supercross you have to be very precise – you’re closer to other guys than outdoors,” Musquin said. “I just wanted to get out there and get the first one done.
“I’m going to get better with more racing, fitness-wise, confidence-wise, everything. So I’m excited to go racing again very soon on a Tuesday.”
The key for both riders was finding an early rhythm that allowed them to control the pace.
In the opening laps, Barcia and Roczen separated from the field.
Roczen chose his strategy and picked his battles. At the halfway point he mounted a determined charge and put his nose inside Barcia on one of the tightest corners in consecutive laps. He might have pressed the issue, but the first round of a season is not the time to do anything rash.
Even casual contact could have put both riders on the ground and allowed the field to catch up.
“There was a lot of madness behind us and it was nice to stay away from that,” Roczen said. “I’ve changed my complete outlook on the whole racing thing, so I just try to race and enjoy myself. I’m really over the moon right now.”
For Musquin, it was important to take what the track gave him. He needed to find a comfortable place to ride – and it took the entire evening to get into that zone.
“The heat race was a little rough; I was not feeling comfortable.” Musquin said. “I felt like it was completely different in practice.
“I was a little mad. I ended up crashing and qualified eighth in the heat. Then you go to the starting line – you have a bad gate pick, and you’re like ‘Man it’s going to be a tough one.’
“But I actually had the gate by the box and I ended up having a great start. I was up front. I got passed right away and fell the third or fourth. Then I got to settle down.”
The great start Musquin references was the hole shot. In some ways, dropping back and then having to pass riders was blessing because that reaffirms his ability to do so.
Most importantly, podium finishes in Round 1 of the Supercross season puts Roczen and Musquin in enviable positions relative to the most recent champions.
Both are chasing their first 450 SX championship. And if either is able to prevail, they will become the fourth consecutive new champion in the past four years. Anderson in 2018, Webb in 2019 and Tomac last year each earned their first titles in recent seasons.
Roczen was in the hunt throughout the past two seasons before scoring a career-best third last year.
Musquin was the runner-up to Anderson in 2018. He finished third in 2017 and 2019.