Herlings: A Milestone Moment in a dramatic career
I don’t want to get too carried away. But I also kinda want to. Another heavy milestone in the remarkable career of three times World Champion and twenty-two year old Jeffrey Herlings tumbled from the sky and planted deep into American soil this time with that Indiana victory last Saturday. The speed and form the Dutchman has developed in the second half of the Grand Prix season and with the KTM 450 SX-F gave plenty of hints that a 450MX debut success was a distinct possibility. Jeffrey is also normally not an athlete that hedges his bets. He would have entered the Ironman national and the final round of the US series knowing he had the kind of rhythm and feeling to do some damage.
I was sceptical that he could win like he did and with that amazing charge to make sure of a 1-1 scorecard – something he has managed just twice in sixteen rounds of MXGP this year – simply because Herlings would need to open the secrets of the Ironman course with minimal track time. On the other hand Jeffrey is a rapid learner. He was fast-tracked into Grand Prix by KTM, made his debut at fifteen, took Pole Position and his maiden podium in just his second GP and won on his third appearance. He has racked up wins and trophies at a prolific rate and was already high in the record books before he could legally buy a beer in the US. He thrilled at the Motocross of Nations last year on what was his first major appearance on the 450. #84 hasn’t hung around.
Herlings also has the conviction, conditioning, confidence, ability and relentlessness, not to mention that strand of arrogance that throbs from barely noticeable to noticeably egocentric, that defines his utter potential as a winner. The kid boasts the goods, the graft and the get-go.
Ironman was another entry in a career of highlights, prizes and decent contracts and earning power. OK, the bigger picture had Eli Tomac aiming for the title and not the tease of victory and Marvin Musquin perhaps needed help from his KTM brandmate but the writing was on the wall for the luckless Frenchman from the middle of the season nevermind after the first moto when he needed to win and Tomac could have motored in the depths of the top twenty. Herlings was dealing with a pack that was lacked depth in full fitness and form and a collective perhaps glad to see-out the final ebbs of another long racing campaign. He had the freedom, lack of pressure-and-expectancy and carried the excited verve that a debutant would enjoy in these situations: it is easy to imagine someone like Tomac or a fit Baggett, Anderson or Barcia revelling in the same circumstances at the end of the MXGP season and at a track that was open and inviting (and not rough and idiosyncratic as most European venues seem to be).
I don’t want to downplay Jeffrey’s achievement because it is stunning, and it is something he should always be proud of. It easily ranks with Christophe Pourcel’s debut Supercross win in 2006 as an MX2 racer at the same time; although Herlings’s feat was posted in the premier class of the outdoor series. It will sit as a bright feather in his orange cap.
Jeffrey’s lows in a lifetime of highs have been well documented: brattish, rebellious behaviour, spats and an obsession with the spoils of the sport are all consequences of so-much-so-soon and growing up from his mid-teens in the public eye surrounded by adoration and acclaim. Then there are the two serious injuries and a raft of smaller physical problems that rocked that outward confidence and chinked the flow of his Oakleys. However he matured and dealt with the adversity. When he talks now it is with a polished PR edge with the right words and graces but he is still honest with his emotions and feelings. At 22 he has been through a lot psychologically.
Make no mistake he is one of the supreme athletes and motorcycle racers of his generation. His sheer speed and reactions on the bike are gripping. I would place him in the same sphere of skills as Marc Marquez without a doubt. I would also – and have repeatedly told colleagues in road racing – suggest that watching Herlings in the sand is a bucket list sight for anyone with any vague interest or admiration for motorcycling.
This win must rank as one of his best and his favourites simply from the quantity of ‘unknowns’ he had to conquer. He was spell-binding at Lierop to lap up to third place in 2012 he decimated rivals to the point where race reports could be written well before MXGP arrived at Valkenswaard for his home round (seven consecutive years of success) and he inspired at Charlotte last summer to clinch that elusive third title and defeat a Cooper Webb at the top of his game in the 250 division. These are just three of the instances that come to mind but Ironman will sit there with them.
What now for Herlings? Will he be lured by the prospect of more American glory? There is little doubt that the MXGP crown is his big target and he came into 2017 with an unusual amount of pressure having regularly beaten the last two champions – Romain Febvre and Tim Gajser – and with the knowledge that both claimed the No.1 plate at their first attempt. A broken hand and a humbling mini-period where he had to readjust to the demands of racing the 450 meant too many points were lost to a Cairoli blaring full song. So Herlings needs to rule the world first and further boost his career stats, blossoming those numbers that he feels adds more credibility to his status. He tried a stint at the Supercross test tracks in 2011 and was bitten (the video is on Youtube) and has regularly stated his preference to be a homeboy rather than uproot his life to the other side of the globe.
Ironman will have raised his stock considerably in the eyes of an American audience and one of the biggest motorcycle markets in the world. It would have pumped his confidence that a challenge away from Grand Prix will not be an impossible task. Herlings initially made his breakthrough the same time as another teenage wonder Ken Roczen and the pair are only missing a couple of major accolades to complete an international set of championships. You wonder how wide-ranging their ambitions are: the talent certainly stretches far enough.
MXGP Photos by Ray Archer