In-depth interview: Joel Roelants reflects on his Motocross career

What a Motocross career Joel Roelants had, the Belgian has eight MX2 podiums to his name as well as a GP win. After a great MX2 career, in 2013, Roelants moved up to the MXGP class after signing with Factory Yamaha.

In 2014, Roelants went a different direction and ended up running his own team. Sadly at Maggiora things went wrong and that was the end of his professional riding days. Roelants ended up paralyzed but is still a fan of the sport as he remains in the GP paddock and always in good spirits.

We caught up with Roelants to discuss his Motocross career and much more.

Gatedrop: 2008 was your first full season racing GP’s – it was quite an inconsistent but that’s to be expected for rookies. Where you happy with your season? 

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Roelants: My first full season racing the GP’s was with Champ KTM. For sure I really learned a lot that year. I was working with Kees Van der Ven and Harry Nolte was doing the engines at that time. We had good bikes and during that year I learned a lot, back then the step between the European and World Championships was quite big. It was nice to have a full year of GP’s under my belt and I think I had a few good results. The podium at the end of the year, so we had great progress – to get a podium in your first full GP season is not too bad, I think.

Roelants on the CHAMP KTM Pic: Nigel McKinstry

Gatedrop: You ended that year on a high getting the first podium of your career, perhaps unexpectedly as well. What do you remember from that day and it must have felt amazing to stand on the podium for the first time in GP’s? 

Roelants: I remember that day well, it was quite a muddy race at Faenza. There was a big downhill with really deep lines, and I remember being quite fast there. I can’t remember exactly what race it was, but I was passing a lot of guys on that down hill because I think my style suited me good there and I wasn’t scared. That was one part of the track that I still remember good and for the rest, it was really nice to have a good result on a hard pack track. It was rutted but it was still nice.

Gatedrop: You then got an opportunity at Jacky Martens KTM and you were young when you signed for that team. It’s thought that Jacky can be quite hard on the riders to toughen them up and there’s lots of gnarly sand riding. Do you remember what it was like being part of his team at a young age and what it was like working with him? 

Roelants: I remember quite good working with Jacky, we obviously spent a lot of our time at Lommel, a gnarly sand track. We did a lot of testing there, long days! A lot of the time I would do my moto’s and then after that do more testing because for me it was better to test when I was tired. I was not really the most precise rider and most of the time at the end of the day I’d have felt more on the bike.

For me, Jacky wasn’t really tough, when it came to me, he more had to calm me down so we could try to build up slowly.

Roelants on the JM KTM. Pic: Nigel McKinstry

Gatedrop: After many years on the KTM, you signed with CLS Kawasaki for 2012, was that a difficult decision and how long did it take for you to feel comfortable with the new team? What were they like to work with? 

Roelants: For me it wasn’t a difficult decision because at that time I’d had already spent a long time with KTM. I felt like they didn’t really provide me with the best engines, and I wasn’t too satisfied with that anymore at that time. I felt that I could do more, so I made the move to CLS which was obviously a good move.

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That year I trained in the wintertime with Kees van der Ven again and we started off the season really good. I had a heat win in Bulgaria, I also had a podium there as well as Valkenswaard when I finished second after Herlings. I remember the second moto there actually when I was second, Herlings said to me after the race I was closing in on him after twenty minutes. I was going fully crazy just trying to do something about him to stop him winning another race in the sand. This was quite the compliment for me and looking back on that year I had a lot of good races.

At the beginning of the year, I was fighting for top three in the world championship and I think this would have been possible because I felt I was getting better every week. In my opinion it was possible as I was already top three but then I had quite a big crash at Faenza. I had a big concussion and I had to take one week in a dark room and stay calm for some more days.

This was quite a big set back but then I came back and was building it up again making nice results again that season. I got a GP win as well at Kegums so my hard work eventually paid off a little bit by getting that GP win.

That was nice but then a little bit later that year I dislocated my hip, and my season was over. That was really sh*t because I felt this was the best bike I’ve ever rode for sure at that time. I really felt that I could do a lot on that bike.

Roelants on top at Kegums – his GP victory! Pic: Kawasaki

Gatedrop: You moved up to MXGP in 2013 after ageing out of MX2 – Was there ever an option to stay with Kawasaki? In the end you signed with Factory Yamaha, you must have been pleased to secure such a good ride?

Roelants: I signed with Factory Yamaha which I decided to go for, they had a lot of good results in the past. I didn’t test the bike with the circumstances of getting injured and stuff like that. This was probably the worst decision of my career because the bike at that time was really terrible. They didn’t even want to test anything in 2013 because they knew the year after they’d have an improved bike.

I couldn’t even choose my handlebars at Rinaldi so this was not fun. I’m quite an aggressive rider and I remember that even if I pushed half a lap with that bike, I always crashed which would lead to an injury or something like that. It was really hard for me, but I kept working and always thought even if the bike was bad – they never even had good results with the bike at that time, I thought if we could test we could make something from it but I was not allowed.

For me, this was one of the biggest frustrations of my career because the year before I think I showed good stuff. I decided to go with Yamaha because it looked very professional, but it was not what I expected from it.

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Pic: Yamaha Racing

Gatedrop: What were your thoughts on moving up to the 450cc – did you enjoy the bike more and want to move up to the class or would you have been happier and more comfortable in MX2? 

Roelants: Yeah, when I moved up to the 450cc I didn’t enjoy the bike more because at that time the bike I was on I didn’t like. Like I said, every time I pushed, I would just crash. Coming from the CLS bike which was really safe and had really good power, I could have pushed anywhere I wanted without crashing really hard. Sometimes you would crash but I felt so comfortable and safe on the bike then to go on the 450cc, for sure the engine was good because they could do whatever you wanted with the mapping. On that part we tested some stuff but chassis and suspension wise, it was not fun at all to ride with. This was a really difficult year for me.

Gatedrop:  Considering the issues, twelfth as a rookie in MXGP – not bad considering! Where you happy with your season or did you want more? 

Roelants: Yeah, I finished twelfth as a rookie and I was totally not satisfied with that. For sure, I wanted more.

Gatedrop: Yamaha decided not to keep you for 2014 and you failed to secure another ride. Just how disappointing was that and having to start your own team, was that something you really wanted to do? How did you find running your own team – challenging?

Roelants: I did have some other offers from other teams but because of what happened in 2013, I didn’t want to take a risk anymore. I also felt that I didn’t want to have another sh*t year, so we put the faith in our own hands. At the beginning it wasn’t so easy because we had to do everything ourselves. We did have good help from Honda which I’m still thankful for – Roger Harvey and people like that helped and it was good.

The beginning was about finding my groove, we did have somethings that could have been better but we started to figure everything out. I started working with Kees Van der Ven again and was really on the right track. I started to feel super comfortable and was also really happy with my bike.

I felt a lot more was coming and by the end of the year by goal was to get on the podium. Maybe when you look back at the results it doesn’t look so possible but in my opinion, it was possible and I was going to make it. This would have left me in a good position I think to start the 2015 season on a good bike and to get even better support. We’d have decided whether or not to keep our own team or sign with another team – we’d have made sure we had a good bike.

Pic: Nigel McKinstry

Gatedrop: At Maggiora, Italy in 2014 – that’s a day your life changed forever. Can you remind everyone of your injuries from that day and what you remember from that day?

Roelants: I crashed on the double after the start, I think it was during timed practice. I was going for a fast lap; it was a little bit muddy at that time and I decided because I thought it would have been faster to go completely on the inside on the first corner after the start. The plan was to scrub the two jumps actually which most of the riders were doing and then go for that fast lap.

I came so fast out of the first corner, pftt this was one of the best corners that I took in my career. I was going so fast out of the corner I thought I may as well hit the double because I could at least make it and probably quite easily. So, I jumped the double and I landed on the top which is normally no problem at all but the top of the second bump was really soft so I landed and my bike got stuck in the dirt a bit. I made a nose wheely for around 15 metres.

After that I went over the bars with my head hitting the mud so I got stuck and my bike hit my back. Even though I had a chest protector on this didn’t make any difference because my head was stuck in the ground and the bike was on my ass. This made a crack on the middle of my back, they described it like it was probably a 90-degree angle at that time. It left me with six broken vertebrae’s which actually isn’t really a problem. Two of the vertebrae’s went completely through my spinal cord which means that I am paralysed from around my chest down. I also had a punctured lung, some ribs broken – it was quite some injuries.

I also knew directly when I was lying there on the ground, I tried to turn left, tried to turn right and nothing was moving. I knew straight away that it was not good.

Gatedrop: Mentally and physically how tough was it for you to deal with? Seeing you in the GP paddock these days you always seem happy and have a smile on your face which is great to see! 

Roelants: After the crash I got transported to the hospital with the helicopter. There they took pictures of my back and everything, I can still remember one of the first things they did when I was awake but on medication. They took my shoulders and my arms and then they took my legs and really stretched me out because they saw the angle in my vertebrae which they had to pull out. This was probably the most painful moment of my life; it was unbelievable the pain I felt even though they already give me medication. I guess the punctured lung and stuff didn’t help.

After that I had the first operation and then I woke up after that and only my father was there. It was quite hard; I woke up and I asked him what is the deal and he didn’t really know. The doctors also didn’t really want to say anything, but I asked the doctor straight up, “I want an answer, how bad is it and what can we do about it?”. This was like straight after I woke up and he said, “normally it’s a 100% chance that you won’t walk again”. This was because it wasn’t like my spinal cord was just cracked a bit, but it was completely broken. This meant that I wouldn’t be able to move anything under my chest.

I was happy that he wanted to tell me straight up what I asked him for. From that moment on I started thinking, for 3-4 hours I was trying to see what my options were. I decided 3-4 hours after I woke up from the first operation, I made my decision.

In my opinion I had two choices, one would be to be unhappy and to complain about everything the next six months or from that moment, 4 hours after I wake up – go full gas and be positive, as positive as possible so you can’t regret anything that you did.

For me, this was an easy choice because first of all I don’t want to be unhappy and second of all I really wanted to work as hard as possible to maybe make something happen and maybe prove the doctors wrong.

This was actually an easy decision for me, obviously the next few months are hard – people coming in and they already cry before they’re in the room. I always had to make the people feel comfortable, my friends, my parents and my family. They would end up going out of the room laughing so this was nice to see for me. The people that came to visit me, I had so many people and had so much support, I could also make them leave happy.

Four hours after I knew my verdict, I made the switch and I never looked back. I’ve been happy ever since, for sure I have had some difficult, not days but hours. This is because when I have a problem, I face the problem directly and just think, “what’s the problem, why do you feel unhappy or sad?”. I just think away around it that there are worse things and I can still do a lot. Normally when I have a bad moment it only takes half an hour or one hour and then it’s over. This was also only at the beginning; I normally don’t have bad moments and my life is perfect for the moment. I’m happy with it!

Gatedrop: When you look back at your career, what races/memories stand out the most and are you happy with what you achieved as a rider?

Roelants: For me, the 2012 season really stands out because I really showed my full potential. I learned a lot and even though I had a few big injuries that year I still managed a GP win and also show some good speed. For me this was a good year but actually I’m not happy with my career in total.

After that year, 2013 was a very sh*t year and in 2014 as soon as I started to feel comfortable I had my crash. For me this is actually the hardest thing, not being able to show what I think I could have done at the end of my career or at that time the middle of my career. I think a lot of nice things could have still came and was working so hard for it. Not being able to show that, it frustrated me at the beginning, but it is what it is, and I just need to look forward to trying and achieve other things in my life now.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Pics: Nigel McKinstry/Kawasaki/Yamaha