The oldest closed-circuit motorcycle race in the world has been washed red, white and blue for the last five years but the stage for the 73rd Monster Energy Motocross of Nations could be splashed bright orange.
France have owned the last five editions of this prestigious annual team racing contest in Latvia, France, Italy, Great Britain and the USA but they face their toughest challenge yet with three-times runner-up Team Holland just waiting to create the ultimate spectacle in front of a baying home crowd at the historic TT Circuit Assen.
Circumstances could be the dictator. Assen, home of the Dutch Grand Prix since 2015, is a temporary motocross layout placed over the age-old asphalt and is constructed of fine sand that carves into a soft and bump-ridden terrain. It is a surface that locally-born athletes like Jeffrey Herlings (winner of the Dutch GP in 2017 and 2018) and Glenn Coldenhoff (Nations hero in 2018) can ride in their sleep. Sand is physical, technical and endlessly demanding. Although it can also sucker even the most accomplished of motocrosser into a time-consuming mistake.
Like any ‘Cup Final’ the ‘MXoN’ is a one-day, one-time ‘hit’ and where a dollop of good fortune comes to the fore. It traditionally involves the best-of-the-best with the three fastest racers selected by their countries to wear the special colours and liveries of their flag: at Assen there will be more than 30 nations fighting for spaces in the gate of the ‘A’ Final on Sunday and three motos (each rider competes twice) where the five best results count towards the final total. The lowest score gets to shine the Chamberlain trophy.
Excelling, leading and generating luck over the last half a decade is Monster Energy Wilvo Yamaha’s Gautier Paulin. ‘GP21’ has been like a talisman to the French. He has taken part in all five victories from the very first in Latvia in 2014 up to the dramatic triumph in the United States twelve months ago. Paulin (who finished 4th in 2019 MXGP) is just one of the big stars who will drop the veil on a long racing season at Assen. Also figuring will be Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jeremy Seewer. The 2019 FIM world championship runner-up (and Paulin’s MXGP teammate for 2020) will front Team Switzerland. Team Belgium is one of the most prolific winning countries and podium-medal-gatherers in the history of the MXoN. Monster Energy Kemea Yamaha’s Jago Geerts – 3rd in the 2019 MX2 world championship – will fill the 250cc role for the ‘red devils’.
AMA 250 protagonist Justin Cooper is a debutant for Team USA. The Americans arguably carry the largest profile as the ‘winningest’ participants in the long annals of the MXoN but have not sampled success since 2011. They know the Dutch, French, Belgians and even the British, Italians and Spanish could be formidable opponents in the sand.
Former MXGP World Champion Romain Febvre, a first-time rider/winner in 2015 and originally a member of the ’19 French line-up until breaking his leg at the Grand Prix of Sweden last month, knows how overbearing the spotlight can be at the Nations. Not only does it draw the biggest worldwide media attendance of the year for the sport but also the largest crowd as a whole spectrum of fans from different countries flock together for some partisan partying.
“The first year for me was intense!” he recalls. “I could feel the pressure of the home crowd in 2015; there were many things to do, many interviews and obligations. Even when I was about to take the MXGP title at Assen that same year I didn't have the same amount of stress before the start. You feel the support from so many people but you also know – looking at the crowd – that if you make a mistake then they’ll want to kill you! There are a lot of people. So many. We know the Nations is so special and that it is so unique with the classes mixed together. We also know that anything can happen…”
Away from the scrutiny of competition, the party sensation is not an exaggeration. The Nations is the customary end to the motocross term. The weekend sees numerous celebrations taking place on Sunday evening, demonstrations of Freestyle motocross and BMX, DJs, competitions and a general cosmopolitan, carnival vibe: it’s why fans travel from far and wide to bask in a weekend of racing and make the MXoN an unforgettable annual date not to be missed.