On a fine day, many moons ago, we referred to Tanel Leok as “The Estonian Express” in one of his race reports. The moniker was entirely apt, and it stuck. Those that are familiar with Tanel’s relentless bulldogging style on the track, the visual poetry of his charges through the pack, and his never-say-die attitude agree that the nickname is well chosen.
Once a year, he gets the opportunity to do real justice to his nickname when he dons national colours and represents his country at the Motocross of Nations. This event, unique to motocross, brings national teams together on the track and riders fight for national glory. Tanel has been a cornerstone of Estonia’s efforts in the race since way back in 2001 when he was a fresh-faced 16 year old, and the Estonian federation may well start thinking about favouring him with an award for loyal service.
The 2009 event was held at Franciacorta in Italy, and it was tinged with a hint of sadness for Tanel. In the homeland of the Red Bull De Carli Yamaha team,
he would swing a leg across the blue monster for the last time, and he hoped to make a memorable exit from a contract that had brought a good number of highlights. He donned the snazzy team shirt, an entirely modern interpretation of the Estonian blue-black-white, and got stuck into his weekend’s activities.
Over the last few years, Tanel has developed reputation as one of the fastest lap-for lap riders in the world, and during Saturday’s training session, he did this reputation no dishonour, as he blitzed to the fastest lap time. Having established his credentials as far as twisting the throttle is concerned, he lined up for his qualifying race. Thirty six nations entered a team of three riders each, and the first job at hand was to ensure that Estonia would be amongst the 20 nations that would qualify for the main event.
Tanel was nominated by his team to ride in the Open class, and, true to his nature, he took to his job with a great deal of earnest. He had a middling start in the qualifying race, but posted a number of scorching lap times, including the fastest lap time of all 108 riders who rolled onto the track during the course of the day. His quasar speed hoisted him well up in the rankings, and although the relatively short qualifying race left little time for recovery, he worked his way to sixth by race end. He thus contributed the lion’s share of Estonia’s overall result, and the tiny Baltic nation qualified in tenth position, beating out some of the more fancied teams.
Sunday broke sunny and warm, and the tifosi descended on the track in their thousands. Paul Malin, the thousand-word-a-minute TV commentator estimated the crowd at 50 000, and by the way the seething mass of bodies packed the grass banks around the track, we would not argue with the former GP top man’s estimate. Tanel’s first call to arms was in the Open Class/ MX2 race, and didn’t he just surprise friend and foe by getting a remarkably good start in the leading pack. This was all the encouragement he needed, and he again posted the second fastest lap time of the race on his way to fourth.
The day’s grand finale, the Open Class/MX1 combination race, started off like a lead balloon for the home fans. A massive first lap crash, straight out of the beach fighting scenes in World War 2 movies, took Tanel’s Yamaha teammate and Italy’s top hope, Antonio Cairoli, out of the running. As if there were not enough mayhem already, a few corners later there was another epic pile-up, and this time Tanel also got caught up in the carnage. He remounted very near the back of the pack and set his GPS coordinates for the front. He had a huge amount of ground to make up, but dug deep, and hauled himself back from 30th position to 11th.
As has almost inevitably been the case over the years that he has participated in the event, Tanel carried the bulk of his team’s result on his shoulders. When all the dust had figuratively settled and the scores were tallied, the Estonian triumvirate came away with 8th overall on the day, not a shabby result indeed for a team that hails from a nation with scarcely one and a half million citizens.
WIth his season’s work behind him, Tanel bid a fond farewell to team manager Claudio De Carli, his teammate and the team staff. He will return to the fray next year decked out in the red colours of the LS Honda team, but for now, all he contemplates is a few weeks’ worth or R&R in his native Estonia.