The drive and the desperation

Injured again and subject to the scrutiny of a doctor’s scanning equipment once more, Jeffrey Herlings apparently took the news that his left shoulder blade fracture was larger and more serious than first thought surprisingly well. Herlings famously sustained the crack thanks to Ivo Monticelli’s plummeting front wheel Sunday morning 18th July at Oss for his home Grand Prix. He still won the moto with a staggering display of strength and will and apparent self-disregard. As in Latvia 2019 – when a bizarre fall on the Sighting Lap and clip from Husqvarna’s Arminas Jasikonis caused a break to his already weak right foot – Herlings triumphed, made his statement and then disappeared for treatment.

On Monday after Oss Herlings stared at his scan results and was informed yet again that his championship aspirations were in tatters. He’d received similar news in 2014, 2015, 2019 and 2020 so acceptance and dejection were part of the routine. The effects of the pandemic in MXGP means a close accumulation of races. Just being in every gate fully fit is a minor achievement in itself. Herlings was told he’d miss three grands prix in three weeks to let the bone knit and heal. A maximum of 150 points with athletes like Tim Gajser and Tony Cairoli carefully constructing their title bids? It was over.

It was therefore something of a surprise to see Jeffrey stoically at the side of the fence in the Czech Republic six days later. The 26-year-old rarely arrives to a race any earlier than absolutely necessary so his attendance in Loket – rumoured to involve meetings with KTM bosses like Robert Jonas and Pit Beirer – was still eye-opening.

Perhaps while it was watching the second moto at the fifth round on the Czech hillside, something stirred in the Dutchman. When Gajser lost traction and ejected from his Honda, tumbling from podium contention down to 15th, Herlings saw a flicker of light. Of hope. After the chequered flag and confirmation of the results at Loket Herlings had slid down to 6th in the standings but Gajser, the leader and double world champion, was only 51 points adrift. Lommel and that fantastic and fearsome sand was next. There was no better or ‘easier’ terrain for Herlings to toss that Red Bull KTM cap back into the game.

Although KTM had made no official word that Herlings was sidelined beyond the Grand Prix of the Czech Republic, many in the paddock knew or suspected that the 2018 world champion would be out of play until after Latvia three weeks later. Publicly Herlings described how day-to-day life was no different after the accident and he was cycling once again to maintain a semi-normal training regime. It’s in this state of positive uncertainty that the possibility of racing at Lommel grew.

I arrived at the track in Belgium on Saturday morning to be greeted by news and questions of Herlings’ potential participation. His KTM team were none the wiser, but his gear was ready, his bike had been passed through technical control and the final decision was to be made by the rider that same day after he’d attempted a training moto. I wondered if Jeffrey remembered the 2013 Grand Prix of Benelux at Lierop. Then only 18 and already a double world champion, he had fractured the same troublesome shoulder blade in a crash during qualification at the Belgian round at Bastogne on August 17th. By September 7th he was ignoring the recommendations of then-KTM Team Manager Stefan Everts to race in the Lierop sand and in front of his home fans for the final GP of the year. At the same circuit in 2012 he had lapped the entire MX2 field up to 3rd place. In 2013 he crashed again in the first moto but – predictably – was still able to go 1-1 for his last statement that season.

“I felt every single bump and every single kicker each lap over and over again,” Herlings said that day. “It was hard to keep focused and not make stupid and painful mistakes. I lapped almost everybody last year but this was definitely not the case this time. I really wanted to do good for my fans. I was worried; I even said to Jordi [Tixier] ‘look how fat I am getting from three weeks of nothing’! It was cool and fun and I like these unexpected things.”

“Pit [Beirer, KTM Motorsports director] texted me before and said ‘are you gonna ride?’ and I replied ‘yes’,” he added. “He asked: ‘how was the riding?’ and I said ‘shit, but good enough to win’. When I race I do it to win and I told Stefan that on Friday.”

He won, but he also lost. The injury was re-aggravated, he would miss the Motocross of Nations at Teutschenthal in Germany, struggle with an infection and also sustain a stress fracture in his right leg for a miserable off-season period in the run-up to 2014.

History is humankind’s biggest and most often-ignored didactic source. Nevertheless in Belgium last weekend, Herlings raced the sand, he dominated, he thrilled in a chase from almost last to 5th in the second moto and notched his fourth podium finish from five appearances. He beat Gajser and slimmed the deficit to 42 points.

A first reaction was disbelief. How was that possible? It brought back memories of Josh Coppins’ desperation to recover from the pain of a similar injury to attempt the final four rounds of the 2007 world championship. The Kiwi had led the contest the whole season only to crash at Loket (oddly enough) through a failure of his rear brake and suffer the break. He had to watch Suzuki’s Steve Ramon chip away at his points’ margin – without winning a single GP all year – and eventually claim the crown (still Suzuki’s last) as Coppins, crushingly could not do anything about the ailment despite a brave attempt to race at Donington Park in the UK, the penultimate fixture, only four weeks after the mishap in Czech.

Herlings’ familiarity and acumen in the sand was a contributing factor to his gains last Sunday but that still didn’t mask the amount of pain and insecurity he had to deal with. He’d also missed nearly two weeks away from the saddle of the KTM 450 SX-F, which is such a vital cog of his training and preparation routine. Those results, against that opposition and across a Lommel surface that seemed rougher and more ruthless compared to previous editions of the GP, were staggering. Herlings continues provides a narrative that just keeps on giving, and the feat arguably overshadowed the excellent speed and performance by Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre who conquered Lommel for the first time in his career and sits at the centre of a 2022 contract whirlwind with the Japanese.

“With the way I feel now then it was not a good decision [to race] but a lot of championships have slipped away [from me in the past],” Herlings said by way of explanation and justification afterwards. “I’m just like my trophy on the podium: I seem to be made of glass. It’s pretty frustrating at times…but right now I think I am [mentally] in a good place. I don’t want to give up this championship so quickly. We’ll keep fighting and hopefully stay in one piece.”

The ‘invoice’ for Herlings’ gamble will arrive this week. The feeling in his shoulder and perhaps yet another scan, another diagnosis and maybe more stern news will determine whether Lommel was worth the exertions for a few numbers (although the bank account digits will gladly accept the bonus). Latvia will come around extremely quickly. Although Kegums is sandy it also has a hard base and is slick and fast. If Herlings can race again then round seven will be an authentic damage limitation exercise (with probably less competitiveness) until #84 and his crew can scramble to the sanctuary of the three week break brought upon by the cancellation of the Finnish GP. The second phase of the delayed 2021 competition will then begin afresh and the Lommel ‘lunge’ of faith might be an authentic turning point in the tale of a fascinating championship story to-date.

By Adam Wheeler @ontrackoffroad

Photos by Ray Archer @rayarcherphoto

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