PHOENIX — Motocross doesn’t look a whole lot different from a casual ride through a field filled with humps and bumps.
Kick start the bike, twist the throttle, lean and lift. That’s it.
Actually, it’s not.
Motocross and its indoor cousin Supercross are far more demanding than most people outside the sport can possibly imagine.
“If anyone goes to a track and runs as hard as they can for 20 minutes, that’s what it’s like,” says Aldon Baker, a certified trainer who specializes in working with motorcycle athletes.
That leads to another misnomer: Motocross riders simply put down their beer and cigarettes, jump on the bike and ride.
Try that and most people wouldn’t finish the first lap, much less the race.
And race day is just a fraction of what motocross riders do.
During the week, they’re running, swimming, bicycling, cross training, rowing, lifting weights — anything and everything they can to keep up their endurance and strength. They’re also stretching, watching what they eat and making sure they get enough sleep.
They are professional athletes, as fit and focused as any.
“It’s crazy because it’s pretty much a 24/7 job,” says Chad Reed, a four-time AMA Motocross champion. “You eat, think, sleep motorcycles.”
The preparations start right after waking.
For many riders, the day starts early with a solid breakfast, followed by maybe a little stretching and about an hour of cardio, the key to making it through a race.
Motocross riders rev up their heart rates from 170 to 190 beats per minute for the length of each 20-minute-or-so race. If they don’t work on cardio ahead of time, they won’t be able to control their breathing or have a chance of finishing the race.
After cardio, they’ll often jump on their dirt bike, ride up to three or four hours, though not necessarily nonstop.
After that, it’s off to the gym to lift weights.
Motocross riders don’t go to the weight room to bulk up, though; they’re built more like gymnasts than linebackers.
Controlling a dirt bike takes nearly every muscle in the body, so riders do a lot of full-body workouts, often combining two movements that involve different body parts. This gives them strength that’s sustainable through two races — the moto and the final — and makes it easier to survive the inevitable crashes that come with the sport.
All the preparation gives the impression that flying off all those jumps and powering through ruts is easy.
“It’s kind of a trickery because when the fans are watching us, they can’t really see our face,” said Ryan Dungey, defending champion in motocross and Supercross. “Even on TV, it’s under the helmet. There’s so much suffering we go through physically.”
Then there’s the diet.
These guys aren’t running out to McDonald’s or In-N-Out Burger. They’re constantly watching what they eat, swapping out fried and fast food — the type of stuff many people think they’d eat — for grilled fish and chicken, vegetables, salad with olive oil.
Motocross riders burn tons of calories during races and training, so they’re constantly trying to keep up. It’s a constant cycle of trying to build up enough calories to be able to get through their rigorous days and replacing everything they’ve burned off.
“It’s very tough to keep the dieting part of it right when you’re on the road,” said Ricky Carmichael, a 10-time motocross champion now racing in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. “When you’re at home, very simple. You fix what you want, but when you’re on the road, you have to have a lot of willpower and make right decisions and find good places to eat.”
There’s rarely a letup, either.
Professional motocross riders spend January through the first part of May racing indoors on the Supercross circuit, get two weeks off, then hit the outdoor motocross circuit until September.
That’s nine grueling months of riding filled with lung-searing sprints, body-pounding jumps and those inevitable wipeouts.
“A lot of people think it’s just riding a bike and the bike does all the work,” said Baker, who works with rider Ryan Villopoto and previously had Carmichael and James Stewart as clients. “It’s a lot to control.”
And a lot of work to get there.