In-depth interview: Joel Roelants on MXGP and coaching

In part one of our interview with former Grand Prix rider, Joel Roelants we focused on his Motocross career. However, in part two we decided to focus on the MXGP World Championship and his coaching – in 2020 he worked as part of the Diga-Procross GasGas team as well as a few other riders.

We have to wait and see what the future holds for him but he’s a good coach within the GP paddock.

Gatedrop: You now do some coaching in the paddock, what do you try and teach to the riders you coach? 

Roelants: I have some riders that I help physically and then with the GP riders, I make their physical plans as well as watching them ride. I try to help them on the riding side as well. I try to put everything together, everything that I learned in my career. I was always interested in the physical part and trying to be as good as possible physically. I think I’m quite good with that and combined with my racing experience, I think I know what it takes to build up a rider physically as well as helping them on the bike technically.

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I try to develop them the best way possible, I’m not trying to make them like I was in the past because I think that they have to be better than me. They have to have a better style and a better technique than I had so I really just try to learn from everyone, all the good guys and what I did wrong in the past. I try to make sure that my riders do it good.

Gatedrop: You had a role with the GasGas Juniors MX2 team in 2020, first of all – what’s your thoughts on GasGas being a new manufacturer in the paddock last year, do you think it’s good for the sport?

Roelants: I think it’s really good for the sport that we have another manufacturer in the paddock. Obviously GasGas is owned by the KTM group but I still think it’s really nice to see a different brand.

Gatedrop: At the beginning of the 2020 season, you worked with Jeremy Sydow and Simon Längenfelder – initially how were they to work with? 

Roelants: It’s been really nice. I started working last year (2019) with Jeremy. At the beginning of 2019, Jeremy broke his wrist at Matterley Basin so that was a setback. I only started working with him two weeks before that happened, he was struggling to get good qualifying in England and he also didn’t feel good with how things were going at that moment. I think I really helped him and made him feel happy, he has always been super grateful to me so it’s nice to see. He had a good second place in Kegums last year so it shows that we were on a good track. He’s a very nice kid and nice to work with, he does everything that I say so this is nice. This year (2020) he had a good beginning to the season, his progression had been impressive to what he was doing before.

I started working with Längenfelder during the winter, he came back from a foot injury that he had at the Red Bull Straight Rhythm. He already had six weeks off the bike coming into the season. We had to build slowly at the beginning because when you are 15 and break your foot, you have a lot to build up. I tried to build up smart with him and in the beginning, it wasn’t easy but I think he started to really believe in the program. When a 16-year-old makes a top 5 result in an MX2 moto like what he did at Valkenswaard, it shows he’s already quite fit for his age and it shows he has a lot of potential. I was really pleased to see them both perform good in the second race at Valkenswaard. It was confirmation for me that we are on the right way.

Pic: Oliver Speith

Gatedrop: I have to say Längenfelder has really surprised me. I thought EMX250 might have been better for him but at Valkenswaard in that second moto he was seriously fast finishing fifth. Did he even surprise you a little or is that the speed he shows at the practice track all the time? 

Roelants: He didn’t surprise me in the second heat because in the first moto he crashed at the start and the first few laps, I was not blown away because I know what he can do at practice, but I saw the Simon that I wanted to see. This is what we train for. He was disappointed after the first race because he knew he could do better at Valkenswaard, he still finished 21st after being on the ground for a long time in the first corner. He was frustrated but I spoke with him and told him that if he rode the second moto like he did the first few laps at the beginning that I was 100% sure that you can ride top five. When everything goes right it’s even possible to do more. Maybe at the beginning he wasn’t 100% sure in himself but once I spoke with him and told him the positives from race one, he was ready for the second race on a high.

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He was focused on the start because the conditions were sh*t, he finished fifth in the second race and that’s what I said to him before the race, so I was super happy to see him do it already. It was only his second GP ever so even though it didn’t surprise me I was super happy that he did it. At the end of the day, you can have the speed, the bike but at the end the rider has to do it himself and he really did a good job there as well as Sydow after a not good Saturday. He turned it around and both riders on Sunday felt fit and could push good. It was actually a new situation for both of them to be in the top ten, but they did what they had to do and I was super pleased with them.

Gatedrop: Despite being German, it looks to me that Längenfelder is actually stronger on the gnarly sand, would you agree and are you trying to get him to ride more hard pack?

Roelants: Yes, Längenfelder has been on the sand a lot at Lommel and Honda park when he was on the 85cc actually because they knew this was his weak point at that time.  I think he has developed really good in the sand, for sure he can still get physically stronger and also his style and rider lines have to be defined sometimes. Although he has already made a big step and already strong in the sand, there’s room for improvement so we are trying to get him as good as possible in sand and hard pack.

Pic: Shot by Bavo

I think he’s good in the hard pack too, but he just hasn’t really showed it yet. From what I see at the practice, he’s also good on the hard pack he just needs a little bit more time to believe in that himself. We need to develop him a little bit more on that as well but I’m confident it can come quite quickly.

Gatedrop: Both riders unfortunately picked up injuries so GasGas drafted in Sandner and Gifting. Isak was really really fast! Did you expect that from him and what’s he like to work with?

Roelants: I expected him to be fast, at the beginning it was quite hard for him because he had to test a few things which he didn’t use on his KTM bike before. At the beginning he was searching and the first few days were difficult for him but I could see he was a fit rider. But when a fit rider isn’t feeling comfortable and he had a few crashes the first days, then the confidence can go away quite quickly. Because we started off quite difficult, I think I could have quite a good connection with him because I could help. It was really nice to work with him because if you have a good physique then you can make big training days and that’s exactly what we did. He improved a lot in the GP’s that he did, so I’m really satisfied with that.

Pic: Oliver Speith

Gatedrop: In terms of Isak he rides with his heart on his sleeve but now he knows the speed will the plan be to maybe calm him down a little – if he can be smooth, he can be very dangerous as he obviously has the pace!

Roelants: If he can be smooth, he can be dangerous because he obviously had the pace but in the beginning that wasn’t really a problem. I could see during the practice when he rides completely free that he was a lot faster. My main job was to get him like that for the races, make him feel comfortable and for him not to think that just because he has a factory bike that he needs to ride top 8 or whatever. I told him that he just needed to go for it because he had the speed and he had to believe in it.

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In Lommel I told him he had to go for the win, and he looked at me and said, “what do you mean go for the win”? (laughs). I said maybe you can win, you are really fit, these conditions suit you and I could also help him with a few other tips. I told him for the second moto to go for the win and even if you don’t win – if you finish second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or even seventh that it’s still a good position. Everything he did was good, so he just needed to ride without stress. In the second race when he finished second, he just looked forward and not backwards anymore, it made a big difference for him. It was really nice to work with him.

GateDrop: For 2021, what are your expectations for both Gifting and Längenfelder?

Roelants: In my opinion if Längenfelder keeps doing what he has to do and stays healthy, he should get some poduims in 2021 and fight for the title in 2022. That’s what he should do, anything less than that is not good, I think. If he takes the maximum out of his capacities, then he’s a title contender in 2022 – if he doesn’t get big injuries.

For Gifting, obviously he came in with no expectations in 2020 halfway through the season so everything was good. Now coming into the season, they will have more expectations so we will have to see how he deals with that but for sure he will work hard and try his very best. I think when he rides like he did in 2020 then he can be a consistent top six rider.

Pic: Infront Moto Racing

Gatedrop: You also worked with Benoit Paturel who has had a good start to the season in terms of speed and with JM Honda being a brand-new team things must not have been easy then the injury hurt him a lot. How is he to work with and what do you think he can achieve next season? MXGP is stacked!

Roelants: I started working with Benoit at the end of last year (2019), I think he was in a situation where he had nothing to lose anymore. He had two really sh*t years and maybe even almost three. He called me a lot and told me he wanted to do everything to get back to the top but two years with sickness having Epstein-Barr virus. He’s been completely at the bottom and he was also overweight but a deal came together with Jacky Martens for JM Honda. The deal was that I would help Benoit, Jacky was still searching for a third rider and I told him that I think Benoit can be good because he called me already many times telling me, he’d do anything. I advised that he should take the chance.

The first thing I do when I start working with a rider are all kind of tests, he was overweight and lost ten kilo’s. He was totally unfit, so we started really slowly but steady all winter long. He did what he had to do, at the beginning he was quite insecure, but he got more secure and we made a big step with Benoit. I think we can make more steps, it will just take time, you can’t be unfit for two years and then just directly fit just three months of hard training. It takes a bit longer but we made a step that was quite big. He sticks to my program and he also has a talent to make good results I think. It’s hard in MXGP this is for sure, but I really believe that he can become a top five guy if everything goes perfect. If he doesn’t have bad luck and puts in the hard work, I’m 100% sure he can become a top five guy again. The goal for me is to get him back to the top and hopefully get some good results. I can see that he is happy and feels the progress – this is a nice part of my job.

GateDrop: On 2021, will you stay with GasGas or what’s your plans?

Roelants: For the moment, I am not working with them. Obviously with the COVID-19 crisis, they had to reorganise everything but maybe in the future we can still do something together. For the moment I’m not doing anything with them, but I’d like to thank them for the really nice past one and a half years. It was really nice to work there and I was always really motivated to improve.

Gatedrop: Obviously you were a GP rider yourself – what do you think has changed/evolved the most since you were a rider?

Roelants: I think for the moment, not so much has changed. The GP’s go a bit more overseas again and I never really liked that so much as a rider to go to so many GP’s overseas. When it was just a few GP’s in a row like Qatar and Thailand then it was okay because you could still come back after Qatar and then go to Thailand. You don’t have to spend weeks and weeks in another country where you can’t do so much. That is the downside I think, I was never really interested in going sightseeing, I just wanted to come home and train then race. When they do a lot of races overseas it takes a lot of time to travel.

It’s nice to go there for the track and also for the different environment but I wasn’t really interested in that. I think it puts a lot of stress on the riders as they have to travel so much, and it makes it difficult to keep a good training programme.

Pic: MX July

GateDrop: After announcing his retirement, Gautier Paulin commented on the MXGP rider salary mentioning about riders paying for rides. This sort of thing has been going on for a number of years but perhaps more now than ever. What’s your thoughts on it?

Roelants: I think it’s difficult, for sure there are riders that shouldn’t be in GP’s that pay money to ride around 30th place. I think it’s not so nice to see on the TV that many times there are 15-20 really fast riders. After that spot there’s riders that are a lot slower, if you really take the fastest 40 riders in the world and after the top 15 there wouldn’t be such a big gap. The last riders are riders that shouldn’t really be there, but I think we shouldn’t focus too much on that.

I think it’s more important that the riders that need to be there in the GP’s, that they are there. The top 10 or top 8 riders will always be there because when they think you can fight for the title, they can give a good salary. It’s more difficult for the riders outside that and know they won’t really ride in the top five or win GP’s. I think that’s maybe were something could change a bit.

It shouldn’t be a thing that only eight or twelve riders or whatever make good money. The others should be able to make good money too, they should combine National races with GP races but now that the calendar is so big it’s really difficult for them to combine races at the National level. 20 GP’s with quite a lot of oversea GP’s, if you have a week off, you might want to train or rebuild. Trying to do races around that to make money makes it difficult and it’s not so nice. I think there should be a basic salary for those kind of riders, that they can live a decent life.

GateDrop: Is there anything you think Infront could do to help the situation? It must be very tough for the private teams especially, you ran a team yourself so you’d know! Perhaps bringing back prize money or lowering the entry fees would be a good way to go?

Roelants: I don’t think bringing back the prize money will solve so many problems but for sure there shouldn’t be such a big entry fee. I think there should be some sort of qualification money, for sure the riders at the front of the GP’s, they make plenty of money because of the good contracts. Now there’s no qualifying, you pay the entry fee and you are at the start – this makes it look a little bit sh*t on TV also that after the top 12 or 15 at the end of the season the pace just drops five seconds because a rider pays and wants to ride. This is not nice to see and quite bad, I think those riders that pay for their spots, I don’t think it’s a big problem as there’s always riders like that but not from after the top 12 or 15, it depends on how many riders are injured. I think there should be 5,6 or 7 riders more – good riders that maybe can’t ride in the top 5 but can still make money by racing.

I think they should support them, for example give them a qualification fee when they qualify in the top 20 or whatever. Still the slower riders that wants to pay and race GP’s, can still be there. For me, that’s not the biggest problem. Okay, when someone gets lapped three times, they shouldn’t be there. The rule should be that when you are more than 8% slower, they had a rule like that before and it’s a good rule, they should do it.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Main pic: Oliver Speith