The Patient Man: Zach Osborne
I hoped this interview would come around one day. I’ve spoken to Zach Osborne on many occasions as the 28 year old made his way through a five season MXGP adventure with hits and hospital visits, Motocross of Nations and ISDE appearances, a ‘lazarus’ style return to AMA racing with some eye-catching Supercross wild-cards, Geico Honda and factory Husqvarna opportunities and lastly, and perhaps most vitally, induction into Aldon Baker’s desirable training programme that would be the platform for his AMA 250SX (East) and 250MX titles in the space of eight months this year.
The father of one and former British Champion (the only previous championship accolade to his name after emerging onto the Pro scene with much hype and reckoning but losing his way due to injury and a lack of guidance) is in Paris for the annual Supercross and to close a 2017 that not only justified all that talent and hard work but wildly inflated a profile that was already sizeable in motorcycle racing. It was time to finally dissect a campaign where everything at last tumbled into place for #16.
On Friday night at the U Arena there was a moment that nicely summed up the type of person Osborne is. Walking back through the paddock area from a small commentary stint for TV – still fully kitted up and sweaty from one of the Sprint races he completed ten minutes beforehand – he stops at the behest from a small group of kids for a signature on shirts and caps. Although he is less than twenty-five minutes from the Main Event, Osborne still makes the youngsters’ evening…and then wanders over for some rapid photos.
The American gained popularity through his stint in Europe thanks to a sharp sense of humour and a humility that easily won fans young and old. That bustling and aggressive riding style, heightened in effect through his comparative lack of height, only added to the mix.
Saturday morning and we meet for a coffee. He’s not a Starbucks fan (we won’t hold that against him) but there are precious few options on a chilly morning in the French capital’s La Defense business district. Over a double espresso and a cereal bar and shortly before he’ll join Baker and Marvin Musquin in the hotel gym for a session as part of a carefully considered training schedule (the duo are in the midst of Baker’s infamous Bootcamp period and this sojourn to France comes as something of a disruption) Osborne is asked about 2017 once more.
More than the ‘good guy makes good’ narrative there are also a few other story strands that are impossible to ignore. His union with Baker has been emphatic to the point where the South African’s immense standing has only ballooned further. Osborne’s realisation of his capability with some tough competition in the 250 division was another hallmark of this year’s story. And 2018 will see him talking 450MX outdoors. Most of all, his penultimate corner, last lap move on Joey Savatgy in Las Vegas to seal the 250 East Coast crown at a round where three riders were divided by one point was a career-defining moment.
There are people around you who maybe hoped for a year like 2017 but feared for timing or injury or some reason it might not happen. Did you harbour the same apprehension?
Yeah, there were some years that maybe could have been this successful or should have been more than they were, but small things held me back, or injuries. More than anything my career has been more of a mental game and being able to believe in myself and really knowing if I could do it or not. This year I made a big step with that and by riding in the winter with Aldon and the guys. I was never the fastest guy and sometimes it was hard to take my knocks; like knowing I was riding pretty good but was not quite fast enough all the time. That kinda pushed me to a new high. Going into the season I knew I would do well…I just didn’t know how well. I knew I was prepared. It was the first year where I thought ‘I really have to make something happen here…’
Your riding style and the way you attack races seems to shout ‘confidence’. I don’t think many would regard you as someone weak in that area…
I wouldn’t say weak…I don’t know; I think it has been a long road to get back to where I think I belong and where I am comfortable in my surroundings. A lot of it is with the team I am on now. It is like a small family and it is what I had here in Europe and something I really missed when I went back to the Geico team. So it has been about getting comfortable and building myself back up. I think that is the biggest difference: my mental attitude and the way I see things.
It seemed there were a lot of changes going on before you found your way to the Baker programme: Grands Prix, moving teams in the U.S., the ClubMX project, becoming a father…
Sure. I was part of the ClubMX thing [a private training facility in South Carolina that he co-backed] for four years and there was too much on me. It was time to either do that or go racing and I chose the latter, which turned out to be the right decision obviously. Things like that tend to weigh on you, and everything about this sport demands that you be 100% committed to your craft everyday. I felt like once I got rid of some of the surrounding distractions and stuff it brought me onto a new high point of my life because I can go riding, do my job and go home and be happy without worrying. Before, I was thinking about the business and this-that-and-the-other and it definitely took something from me. At the top – when you are searching for 1 or 0.5 of a % – and you are already losing it by worrying about something you don’t need to be then it is all for nothing.
Did it gnaw at you that people saw you as the ‘nearly’ man or the old man of the class that kept missing out?
I didn’t care, and a lot of people were getting bent out of shape about it. This year is the first time that I’ve had a 450 opportunity and even when you win a championship there is no guarantee that an opportunity like that will come along. It is a big step and not many people can really cut the mustard in the 450 class…and maybe I won’t, I don’t know. I feel like I am a pretty good 450 rider but the Supercross scene is a big step. I was pretty prepared for it for 2018 but Husqvarna wanted me to stay in the 250 class. I don’t care what people say about that – they don’t pay my bills and Husqvarna do!
The 450: casting the mind back and a qualifying heat win back at the 2009 Motocross of Nations showed some potential…
Yeah, there have been some ‘moments’ on the 450 and we’re ten years removed from that now! People might say: “yeah, you were younger then” and I get it…but I have a point to prove with the 450 deal. Stuff like the Paris Supercross [Osborne would go 2-4 on both days] gives me a bit of confidence what I can do and shows my skills on the bigger bike, even if I don’t have that much time on it. I still think I can do some damage.
Wins and podiums have come over the years but you were a rookie in terms of putting a championship together and this year – 2010 British title excluded – it happened twice. Was there a part of you stressing and thinking ‘let’s just bring this home…’?
Yeah, but with the first one [250SX] there was not much time for that because the racing was so hard. It was maybe the most stressful way to win your first title! I think I slept for like four days after Las Vegas because I was just so emotionally and physically drained from the events that took place. It was a big adjustment for me, not just the racing aspect but also the other obligations like media and social media. It seems like it is never-ending, and every time I pick up my phone it seems there is something else to add to the basket. Being ‘that guy’ was probably the biggest thing to get my head around. At times it was tougher off the track than it was on it because people wanted to know. I was the big story this year…it was a bit strange for a while.
But you are no stranger to interviews…
No, and I don’t mind them and I enjoy telling my side of things but there are just so many! After Vegas I must have done thirty in a week. It was a change. The other big thing was going to a race every time and instead of thinking ‘hey, maybe we can be on the podium’ to ‘hey, we’re going to win…or maybe not!’ Last year we would have been stoked with one and now we were chasing a sixth and we were like ‘come on, let’s do this!’
What does that feel like? That’s championship pressure…
It really was. I can kinda revert back to my British Championship days where I was fighting for a title there but at the same time it is a whole other level of pressure and another level of money on the line for all involved. It is a big effort for a lot of people and at the end of the day the buck stops with you. If you don’t win then it’s not ‘on’ anyone else. In Supercross it was a big deal: I was suddenly a winner and with a twenty point lead after four rounds and then it was all gone in a flash [in Detroit a pile-up caused a damaged front wheel and he finished 18th]. Outdoors was a new series and I managed it far better and it was far less stressful. There were a few shady moments but it was 10% the stress of Supercross!
Once you bagged it in Vegas and had days to digest that achievement then attempting another one outdoors must have felt ‘familiar’ or ‘fresh’?
For sure, and it was almost a relief in a way when we went to Hangtown because I cared…but was not nearly as anxious about winning or anything. I felt that the championship…well, didn’t validate my career, but did lift a great weight. I wasn’t searching any more for that one big thing to hang my hat on. I’ve had a great career even if I didn’t win any championships but you don’t start all this by not envisaging to win.
I imagine social media has its pitfalls for being a public figure but for a racer like you with such an international and wide profile across motorcycle racing then it must have been a good way for people to show their appreciation…
Yeah, of course, although with social media it always feels like 50-50! It is hard to read some of the stuff because people don’t really understand what is on the line from the athlete’s standpoint. I’m not a social media fan and I don’t do it a lot; I probably get in trouble for not doing it enough! I think it gives anyone and everyone a pretty big voice and platform and comments can just spider web out. I guess that was the intention at the beginning. It is tough for me and if it was not something I was contractually obligated to do then I probably wouldn’t have it. I enjoy Instagram and I enjoy looking at my friend’s photos but at the same time it is not worth the headache of seeing the negativity or positivity. The negative kinda outweighs the positive because you feel the need to fight it but when you do that it is like punching a wall. It can be hard not to let any of it get to you but you try to remember deep down that not many people will understand a situation.
That last lap video in Vegas could go down as an American racing classic and could be watched many, many years from now. How does that feel?
It’s pretty crazy. Many people have said to me that it was the greatest Supercross race of all time and it is crazy to think that a) that was me and b) I only got seventh place! It was not the greatest race of all time…but I did ride the race of my life to get back. I wasn’t riding to win the championship for most of it because I figured if [Jordan] Smith messed up then Joey [Savatgy] would win; there wasn’t a moment where I thought I’d get back [enough] to do the job. When I got up [from the first corner pile-up] I was sorta thinking ‘do whatever you can…get as many points and let’s see’. With a couple of laps to go I was battling and there was one guy who even passed me back and I was thinking ‘I’m gonna be close…but it won’t happen’.
Emotions at that point?
It was an emotional rollercoaster because I thought it was definitely over when I fell on the first turn. I was down forever because the guy I crashed with had his footpeg in my front wheel and I had to get it out. I was thinking ‘it’s over…no chance’. Afterwards I was so drained. It had been a stressful race anyway before any of the drama; going there with just one point between three guys is what they [promoters] want. It was a heavy move [the pass on Savatgy] but I wouldn’t say it was dirty because he would have done the same and I would have expected him to do the same. Anybody who wouldn’t have done the same thing cannot be a racer. If I had not taken that opportunity then I don’t know if I could have lived with myself.
Go back half a lap. Did it dawn on you that the championship was in your grasp?