Interview: Clement Desalle on his career, MXGP retirement, future and more!
What a career Clement Desalle has had in the Motocross world. The Belgian announced towards the end of the 2020 season that he has decided to retire from racing at the highest level in the MXGP World Championship.
Desalle has a lot of great memories when he looks back at his career as he won 23 GP’s, won the Motocross Des Nations with Belgium and even raced a couple of AMA Nationals in America.
We decided to catch up with Desalle to discuss his career, future and much more.
GateDrop: Back in 2006 – 14 years ago you raced your first MXGP race at Zolder in Belgium. Can you remember much about that day and how you felt making your GP debut?
Desalle: Yes, it’s been 15 seasons ago already. Sure, I was really excited and impressed to ride with the best riders in the world in the big class already. I did my best of course but only qualified as second reserve and unfortunately, I could not ride in the moto’s. Anyway, I already learned a lot to just ride on the same track and at the same time with the big guys.
GateDrop: You finished 14-20 on your GP debut (when you qualified), back then did you ever think for one second, you’d go on to have the career you did?
Desalle: At that moment no, I was just thinking about doing my best on that present moment and to progress step by step.
GateDrop: You were a teenager at the time but decided to race the MX1 class as it was known back then. Was that purely based on your size or did you ever think about racing the MX2 class instead?
Desalle: No, I got the opportunity like this in MX1 directly and I knew I liked to ride with the bigger bike. I took the opportunity, I knew it was a big decision being so young on a bigger bike, but we (my dad and I) did a plan and it was working. The plan was to learn step by step on that big bike, just stay focused on myself and try to stay away from trouble and put up a big fight in the race with riders who have a lot of experience on those big bikes.
As we know the bigger bike can also be more dangerous when you are younger especially. I have to say our plan was working really good and I’m really happy about my decision and the way I progressed in the first 4 years and without injury. I was never thinking about racing MX2 anyway because this opportunity was not excepted for me at the end of 2005, so I just had to think about taking the opportunity or not and I took it.
GateDrop: In 2009 you signed a deal with a private team, LS Motors Honda. It was your first big deal; it must have felt good to sign with the GP team? You won your first MXGP overall that year at Loket. Can you remember much about that day and how it felt to win your first overall?
Desalle: From 2006 I was with Suzuki Kurz and during 2007/2008 I was with Suzuki Inotec Ortema (Suzuki Europe) who were a really professional and family team – they were perfect to learn step by step in GP racing.
I have to be honest, the very beginning of 2009 was not easy, Honda had a brand-new bike that year and we were not that well prepared with the team as special parts were not ready for the bike (good suspension, etc…). So, I was not really positive. Finally, it went well, we progressed again so much step by step with the team during that year and made progress with the bike too. We did several podiums and had 2 GP wins.
To secure my first GP win was such a nice moment. To feel that you are the best that day is so nice. I was dreaming of this, I got it and I have to say it’s special. When you get this feeling you just want to get it every weekend.
GateDrop: You then signed a contract with Factory Suzuki where you spent six years. It really seemed like your home, you seemed to have a special connection with them. Who were the people you were closest with at Suzuki?
Desalle: Again, this was a big step in my career to sign with a factory team. Being a factory rider was another dream and being with Suzuki, this was a team I also dreamt about as it’s one of the best. Yes, I have to say they were all nice people there and I really enjoyed working with them, really professional and I learned a lot with Sylvain Geboers, I really enjoy his valour and the way he worked and thinks. I had a real good connection with my mechanic Marc and my suspension mechanic Frank but also with everybody in the team.
GateDrop: You won several GP’s with the Suzuki team and had many good battles for the World Championship. When you think back is there any specific race that stands out the most?
Desalle: Yes, our (me and team) national GP win in Bastogne 2013, It was a really nice moment to win in our country in front of the Belgium public and I really felt the strong support from the public that day. It was really nice. It was a really good feeling to win both moto’s in Sweden and get back the red plate on that day.
GateDrop: You then signed a deal with Factory Kawasaki for the 2016 season – how difficult was it to leave the Suzuki team you had so much success with?
Desalle: It was difficult in one way to say bye to some people in the team, but they also will have some big changes in the team that I knew would not be positive for me.
GateDrop: Since 2009 you’ve actually only been with three teams which is quite rare – some riders have three teams a season! But it shows that you are quite loyal when the team works hard and gives you want you want?
Desalle: Yes, it’s true but if you find a good way of working together it makes sense. If you’ve got a mutual happiness in the way you work together at the same time of course that you know you always progress to perform better and when we do that you can get the best possible results. Then there are good points to stay together.
GateDrop: In 2010 you contested the AMA National at Unadilla, you showed the Americans exactly what you are about going 2-2 and leading lots of laps. What was it like racing the AMA National and battling with Dungey?
Desalle: Yes, I was always interested by the AMA Championship (I still am now actually). The tracks they have, I always wanted to ride or race at those tracks. It was a really good experience; it was nice to battle with Ryan Dungey and James Stewart etc and with the best riders in the US. I really enjoyed the tracks when I raced the AMA Nationals (Washougal and Unadilla).
GateDrop: At that time do you think the MXGP riders maybe didn’t get the respect they deserved? Things have changed since Villopoto’s stint in MXGP and the MXoN results but the speed in GP’s has been fast even before that…
Desalle: Not really actually, if you’re a real fan of motocross and realistic, you know this. Anyway, in this world everybody should have respect for each other. It’s true that since Villopoto came, many people understand this better.
It is not the same culture in the US compared to MXGP, for example we show with what we have in MXGP, we have a really good speed in Motocross especially the past few years. Also, the MXoN like you say, but the US guys compete a big part of the year in Supercross too. They are always testing, training and racing SX, it’s time they don’t do Motocross. At Supercross they’re much better than the MXGP guys that’s sure because we’re not doing it.
GateDrop: I think I know who you are going to say here but when you look back at your career who would you say the toughest competitor was you raced and why?
Desalle: Of course, it is Antonio Cairoli. It was him who was most of the time in front of me when I finished second. For me, he was the most difficult guy to beat constantly.
GateDrop: You decided to retire at the end of this season, ultimately what brought you to this decision? You’ll be missed in the paddock…
Desalle: Yes. I made this decision with a combination of reasons.
I’m doing motocross, first of all like many because of my passion for the sport. Even though I am a professional it was important for me to keep the pleasure and fun on the bike with the work. This helps my mind and the overall feelings for good results.
To be honest, in MXGP, it was coming more and more complicated to find this for me (track preparation, maintenance and location) I don’t enjoy the tracks and the mentality anymore in MXGP. Then another point I must explain is the financial side.
The market of the financial part is not going good. It’s a certain minimum I need to ride, of course it can be up and down due to some results of having a good or a bad year. But certain riders (who don’t need to prove their level anymore) have a value also you cannot go down too, it’s not respectful. I find a lot of riders do not make it good to bring this on a correct level in consideration for this sport and it’s a shame!
GateDrop: You are a family man these days after becoming a Dad, how has that been, and did you start taking less risks than some of the younger talented in MXGP at the moment?
Desalle: It was a really good thing for me in my life and it’s helped me to realize that some things are not crazy important in life (some details that I took as important and could be mad about it with my sometime negative character) and be happy.
But sometimes I need to be negative when I’m not happy about myself or about something else, with respect but I need to be negative, analyse and do it better. I’m sure that sometimes being negative helped me get to this level in Motocross in my way.
No, I never thought on the bike about taking less risks. If I was feeling this, then for sure it would make no sense to continue at a high level.
GateDrop: On GP’s – Gautier Paulin recently stated that riders paying for a rides are a joke. What’s your thoughts on this? It has been for a number of years but perhaps more are paying now than ever?
Desalle: Of course, it is a joke and unfortunately, it’s like what I was saying just before. It’s crazy. This way is not good. The problem is that some of those riders are taking some spots in some factory teams.
I think that you need to deserve to have this strong ride or a factory bike. Some teams take profit from this situation, I don’t find this fair. You know it is a really difficult sport physically and extremely dangerous. Okay, it needs to be balanced but sportsmen like this need to earn good money.
GateDrop: What do you think Infront can do in order to help this? Perhaps bringing back prize money would be a good way to go and lowering the entry fees…
Desalle: Yes, that would be a good thing, but I already stopped thinking about this, sorry.
GateDrop: What’s the short-term future for Clement Desalle look like? What are the chances we will see you race the AMA National series? Could we even see you race other National events?
Desalle: My short-term future will be to let my body recover for a few weeks-months from those several seasons and especially with the intensity from the last one with three races format in one week.
So, a little bit of rest along with simply taking time to do simple things that I’m not used to doing. All my life I was dealing with time and having scheduled programs. Yes, there is a chance to see me racing the AMA National series, but we will see.
GateDrop: Have you any long-term plans to stay in the sport? Perhaps as a rider coach/trainer, is that something you have thought about?
Desalle: No, I have no plans about this yet. I’ll never say never but I don’t think about this now. I have been thinking about the AMA National series. I am also interested by Enduro maybe, I ride Enduro with a friend all the time, but it is something I have to think about.
GateDrop: Since Stefan Everts hung up his Motocross boots, it’s quite sad about what is happening the sport in Belgium with so many tracks closing. What’s your thoughts and is there anything you could do to try and help?
Desalle: This point is horrible, I am so furious about it. Belgium is the worse place you can go to train for motocross. The location of Belgium is good because it’s quite in the centre a little bit during a season. But there’s only two tracks you can go train and they’re only in the north of Belgium, I mean we need more possibilities and also, I think of the younger riders who want to improve themselves to maybe becoming pro. There are no possibilities.
I think is a big political problem here. They make promises in theory, but nothing is happening practically so it is completely stupid. At the beginning I try to help a little with that. I think like 13-14 years ago, I think in my second year of GP race, I went to the South of Belgium to have meetings who had a project for new tracks, still now this project is not there because the city is blocked with the higher political or I don’t know.
Also, other projects I speak to politic people in the city about it, but nothing has been happening already since a few years ago, I am tired of it. In the end you lose your time and energy, I think mechanical sports are not welcome in Belgium. There are possibilities to have Motocross tracks but there are always excuses from the politicians, it’s going really bad. I understand everyone should have respect for each other, you could open a track and not ride every day from morning to night otherwise it will not be good for the people that live next to it.
I have lost motivation in this, all my career I had to drive thousand of Kilometres to go out of Belgium to train, we have less tracks in Belgium than ever and we already had not so much. I think when people think about Motocross they have a bad image for nature but I don’t know. This is wrong, you know I spoke about this a few days ago with the ex-president of Belgium Federation and I know another one too. They are two really good guys who did and tried to do more for Motocross in Belgium but they lost the motivation and stopped, I totally understand them. It is a real shame. I think now the politicians should move seriously in the practice side and give Belgium more Motocross tracks. This is not something I am that positive about happening though, which is sad.
Interview: Andy McKinstry
Main pic: Kawasaki