Interview: Jeffrey Herlings – ready for MXGP

There are still a few hours and days left to go but it seems that a fully fit Jeffrey Herlings is ready to slay MXGP once more. From an utterly dominant 2018 in which he owned 17 from 19 Grands Prix and finished runner-up in the other two events to a virtually non-existent 2019 where he made just 4.5 appearances (winning two of those however) Herlings is hoping the pendulum swings back the other way. 

Aside from 2012 and 2013 where he stamped his name into the annals of the sport, Herlings has bounced from dominance to disaster almost on an annual basis. 2014: loses the MX2 crown by just 4 points after having a lead of more than 150 and breaking his left femur. 2015: loses the MX2 crown in a similar position after dislocating his hip. 2016: claims third MX2 title at a canter. 2017: breaks hand on the eve of MXGP debut but finishes as runner-up. 2018: sets a new benchmark for performance at elite level. 2019: double break to the right foot.

Herlings could be ready to unleash a degree of anguish but he insists he is ready to sacrifice short-term glory for long-term gain from within the confines of Red Bull KTM (the greatest team ever assembled in the premier class) and his eleventh world championship season. 

We’re struggling to believe him as well… 

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Mentally, was 2019 worse than 2014? That year you were still very young and lost the crown so narrowly [special feature coming up in the next OTOR!]…

Way worse. I think I won every GP I raced that year except for Mexico [the final round]. So it was awesome…apart from missing those three-four races and then the championship! I also had a shoulder injury at the beginning of the season. But…2019 was easily the worst year of my career.

You had two tricky starts but still came back to win and then claimed the Nations at Assen…it finished well.

The last races were just the cherry. The complete cake was long gone. It had been eaten by the time I got to the table! It was a tough year mentally and physically. The second injury was not so bad but the first one was. I was out for a long time. It’s a part of the sport where ‘everyone gets their turn’ kinda thing; you can see it with [Jorge] Prado and it happened to Tony [Cairoli] as well, [Romain] Febvre and [Clement] Desalle. Everyone has their turn every couple of seasons. It frustrating.

Is there a different approach to this season then? Realisation of the sixty starts and forty motos to come? A repeat of 2018 perhaps isn’t necessary… 

My mentality is different. I don’t feel that I have to win any more – I mean, I want to win but in the past if I didn’t then I had ‘failed’ and the world would fall in. I’ve learned that your health is the most important thing. Racing is important to me but my health and my life way-more. So if I have to take risks to win then I don’t want to do it. I want to be in the ‘safe zone’. You can definitely still crash or go down in the start and break bones at any time but sometimes I went a bit ‘over’. Now I prefer to be in the safe zone and take a 3rd at whatever race than take a risk and end up in hospital again. My goal this year is to be at all twenty races. And to try and fight for the championship. Try to become a bit smarter and maybe lose a few fights but try to win the war.

In 2018 you virtually changed the sport and raised the level. Do you ever think about that or are you too close to it?

I did it the Aldon [Baker] way. I went all-out. If 100% was the maximum I did 110. I watched every single piece of food I ate, I calculated sleep and jet lag, I trained my ass-off, I left my social life on the side for almost a year. It was tough. I took the Aldon method for supercross but perhaps went even more extreme. It is hard to do that just for a few years, physically and mentally. It was worth it though to come to that level and win 17 from 19 races and finish second twice: I think it is one of the greatest seasons a rider has had. I also won pre-season races, all the Dutch Championship events I did, and my class at the Motocross of Nations. It was almost a picture-perfect year…and I cannot do it again. First of all you need to be lucky and you need to take some risks to make it happen: I remember starting some races from fifteenth and still pushing hard for the win. I’m not looking for that now. I won the championship by something like 150-points and through missing a race and you can win a championship by just 5 points if necessary. I don’t feel like I need to win every single race anymore. 

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The way you race makes that difficult to believe…

You need some injuries, and then you’ll understand.

It is rare to see you at anything less than 100% committed…

Look at Assen last year. In the last moto I was OK to take fourth. I wasn’t feeling good that day with the mud. I thought ‘if this is my worst day – a 2nd and a 4th – then I’m still looking good if it was a championship’. You need a few hospital visits to be able to think that like.

You still looked annoyed that day though…

I was disappointed in myself because I feel like I failed…but at the same time I was smart. It wasn’t my day, but I accepted it. I had worked for more than two months just for that race but nothing went for me; the starts were bad, the track had been flattened each time and that meant it was harder to pass, and then the conditions. So, I was pissed, mainly because it hadn’t rained for like two months in Holland and then it didn’t stop that weekend! Quite a lot went wrong for me but looking back I think it was one of my best races because I accepted not to win. It’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do two years ago.

The older you get; is it easier to think more like Tony Cairoli where a podium each weekend means a very high level of consistency…?

Yeah, that’s my goal as well this year. There are definitely some tracks where I really want to go for the win, but when I go to somewhere like Russia or Czech Republic then I know these places are not my tracks. If I can get on the podium then that’s good enough and – most importantly – I get to the races after. I need to be at each GP. Injuries can happen but you have to remind yourself to be smart. It’s easy to sit here at this table and say it but you’ll see it in my racing this year: if I can get a win or a podium then I’ll try for it otherwise I’m OK to let it go.

Interview: Adam Wheeler

Pic: Ray Archer