It was getting on for the downhill side of 2000 and the sun was beaming its last gifts of summer from azure skies that hung over St Jean D’Angely, France. It was Motocross of Nations time, and the crowd was packed on the hillsides and all along the track, drinking in the sights, smells and sounds. The history of the day was being engraved indelibly in their minds, for this was a Motocross Des Nations event, and one of the all time classics, at that. Amongst the throng was a fresh-faced 14 year old, just at the end of his first international season. He stared in wide-eyed wonderment at the magnificence of it all, and the respect oozed out of him as he basked in the company of the South African team, two members of which had distinguished themselves with motocross world titles.
Eleven years on, the wheel had turned near full circle, and that selfsame teenager of many year before was now himself the object of admiration of droves of fans, young and old. Tyla Rattray now had a world title to his credit as well, and, having achieved that goal, he had spread his net in the land of opportunity, the USA, and come agonizingly close to clinching American titles as well, two years in succession. Title or not, Tyla had developed into one of the most respected riders in world motocross, and it was natural of course that he would yet again be the cornerstone of South Africa’s effort in the Motocross of Nations, as the event is now known.
The Motocross of Nations is the pinnacle of each year’s motocross season. Whereas riders normally bump and barge and race and grit it out for individual glory, the Motocross of Nations is all about a team effort. The participating countries enter three riders, one each in the MX1-, MX2 – and Open Class categories. The event result is determined over the course of three races, each of which lump two categories together. In practical terms it means that the MX1 – and MX2 classes race together first, then the MX2 – and Open Classes, and finally the MX1 – and Open Classes. The scoring system is quite simple – a rider gets one point for a win, 2 points for second, etc. At the end of the event, the team with the least points in total are allowed the honour of hoisting the Chamberlain trophy high.
Tyla occupied the MX1 perch, and the triumvirate was completed by Gareth Swanepoel on the Open Class machine and youngest team member Shannon Terreblanche on the MX2 bike. It is interesting to note that all three riders are Vangani Racing alumni, having been given their first international wings by the South African – managed team. A team that has aspirations of doing well at the Motocross of Nations must rely heavily on the contributions of all three riders. Even if the top rider rides the stars from the sky with top results, it will all come to naught if his teammates pile up the points like troubled nations pile on foreign debt. With only one throwaway result out of the six races competed in by the three riders, the pressure is on for good, solid performances by all team members.
Motocross of Nations events are always special, but when they are held in France, there always seems to be an extra zing to it. The French fans understand and love the sport, and descend upon the battlefield in huge numbers. The sport is always colourful, but when national teams are involved, even this is upped a notch, with riders and bikes adorned in special colours to convey their nationalities to the world. And it is not just on the track, either. There is a sea of vibrant, colourful life all around the track, and national standards are proudly borne and waved about as the fans support their riders. With France touted as potential winners of the 2011 edition of the event, there was scarcely room for the proverbial mouse next to the track once the event got going.
The first order of business for every team is to make it through the qualifying formalities on Saturday first. With close on 40 nations entered for the event, and only 20 making the qualifying cut, the pressure is on to produce the goods on Saturday to ensure participation in Sunday’s main event. All three South African rider have ample international experience. Tyla has won numerous Grands Prix and AMA American championship events, and Gareth has felt the podium wood under his boots on both sides of the pond as well. Shannon, although the junior member of the team, has a couple of years’ GP experience under the belt, with a top 10 GP result to his credit. On paper, the South African team looked like they could waltz into the final, but the races are conducted on the track, and not on paper, so there was a fair bit of butterfly tingling in the stomachs as the moment drew near.
The free practice sessions gave the riders their first feel of the track, and results seemed promising enough, with Tyla posting the 6th fastest time in his class, Gareth the 8th fastest in his, and Shannon clocking the 24th time in the MX2 category, despite some bike problems, which will feature again in our tale presently. Tyla set the team off on a good footing with a solid ride on the 450cc machine, qualifying 5th in the MX1 class. This was pretty much a familiarization ride for him, as he has been racing on smaller 250cc machines all his career. Shannon had been struggling all morning with a recalcitrant bike, and just as his qualifying race started, the bike began spluttering like an errant husband that had been caught in flagrante delicto. With his bike unable to make it up St Jean’s steep hills, he was forced to retire form the race, and now the pressure was really on Gareth to bring the South African team onto the start line. He did what was required of him, and after a solid ride, he brought his bike home in 6th position, bringing South Africa to sixth in the final qualification standings.
With the announcer whipping the crowd into a frenzy, the first race, the combined MX1 – MX2 class, blasted off the line. Tyla, as was his wont, took his place in the front pews on his Kawasaki, and though he was not yet flicking the 450 about like a fly swatter, was getting pretty handy on the bigger bike. He held his own in amongst some established 450cc riders and crossed the line in fifth position. Shannon meanwhile, with precious little track time to his credit, was getting used to conditions as well as the luxury of a bike that actually revved. His start left him at the tail end of proceedings and a heap of work to do. It was a heavy burden now resting on his shoulders. He had to make up as many positions as possible, whilst not erring on the stupid side of the equation and sending his team’s chances up in a puff of smoke. He rode steadily on his Honda and got his teeth into the job of getting the better of a number of GP level riders. He rode sensibly, yet with determination, to make up nearly ten positions and cross the line in 24th position.
Race two gave Gareth the opportunity to report for duty for the first time on race day. His cause was aided substantially by a good start, and he rode his 450cc Yamaha like a seasoned veteran. He kept the plot upright all along, and crossed the line in sixth position. Shannon, having had precious little time to rest and recover between his two races, produced a virtual carbon copy of his first race. Whereas his more experienced team mates had to rake in the top end results, his job was to anchor the effort with consistent finishes. Consistent he certainly was, finishing 24th again on his 250cc machine in the joint class, half of which was occupied by more powerful 450cc bikes.
With matters looking quite rosy for the South African equipe, it was incumbent on Tyla and Gareth to keep the fire burning the day’s final race, the joint MX1 – Open Class event. The Rattray Rocket, having spent some good time on the 450cc bike, was now fully primed, and Tyla blasted off the line with the leaders. Perching comfortably in fifth position off the start, he made his move from half race distance, and soon found himself in third position. The only riders heading him now were the Ryan duo, Villopoto and Dungey, who had tiffed it out for the US title all season long. No small fry then. Tyla was not overawed by the occasion, though, and with his trademark doggedness stuck to his job. When the chequered flag came out after a day of hectic racing, he was third, only 5 second behind the US strong man. Gareth had to recover from a troubled start, and rode for all his life to bring his Yamaha up to 18th position.
The scoring software quickly tallied up all that had gone down during the day. The American team were once again declared winners, beating down a French team that at one stage looked as if they would gift their home fans a week-long hangover. A cheer went up in the South African camp when the results were posted. Tyla’s world class efforts netted him second overall in the MX1 class. Despite his seemingly average results, Shannon was credited with seventh overall in the MX2 class, which again underscores the point at what a disadvantage the MX2 machines were against the more powerful 450cc machines on a track with hills that resemble Jacob’s ladder. Gareth snagged the eighth position in the Open class, giving the South African crew a string of results in the top 10. This meant that a good overall result would be inevitable, and with sixth overall, there was ample reason for the celebratory biltong to be carved and South African brews to be cracked.
With a result just two points adrift of a much more fancied Belgian team, the South Africans could be forgiven for smiling broadly. The event had been a success for the team, and all the hard work of the team members and everyone that had worked hard behind the scenes to make it all a reality, had paid off handsomely.