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The race of champions: Herlings v Cairoli

The race of champions: Herlings v Cairoli
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Almost unnoticed at Maggiora, such was the battle for the team victory in the third moto, was the individual race of champions as two greats of the sport went head-to-head.

Until Webb crashed, you had the current 2016 MX2 and three-time world champion Herlings taking on eight-time world champion Cairoli for the win. Behind that you had Strijbos, the newly crowned Belgian champ who had passed the newly crowned British champ Tommy Searle and the US National champ Cooper Webb, with Webb under immense pressure in fifth from the 2015 World Champ Romain Febvre – that’s quite a top six!

As we all know Webb made a mistake under Febvre’s pressure and the pass by Febvre on Searle gave France a thrilling win – but the battle at the front between Cairoli and Herlings was also enthralling.

To understand the context of the quiet rivalry let’s go back to 2012 and the MXON at Lommel. Both Herlings and Cairoli were vying for the crown of the fastest sand rider on the planet, but as was the case this year Herlings was MX3 while Cairoli rode MX1 – it meant one moto to decide.

But it all went wrong for Herlings when he went down in the first turn and Cairoli was quickly into the lead, at just 18 year’s old Herlings was fearless and tore through the pack in one of the most impressive rides in the history of the sport to remarkably catch Cairoli. But with two laps to go, Cairoli upped the pace and Herlings, racing his second moto in a row, just had nothing left in the tank to make the pass. Cairoli won the race but Herlings had shown his speed – they both won that day but neither could claim to be unequivocally better.

Now, four years later, Herlings was back at the Nations but also back in the MX3 class, it meant once again Herlings would only race one moto against Cairoli and Febvre but this time it was hard pack and in Cairoli’s back yard with thousands of noisy Italians cheering their hero on.

This time, Herlings survived the first turn and nailed the holeshot, Cairoli started fourth but he immediately recognised the need to stay with the young pretender and put quick moves on Coldenhoff and Searle. He was into second before the end of the lap and got onto Herlings wheeltracks.

From there it was a battle of ego and pride. Cairoli the wounded champion determined to show the young kids he still had it. Herlings wanting the show the old king he was going to be the new king on his first big race on the 450.

Cairoli gave it everything to pass Herlings. Pic: KTM

Cairoli gave it everything to pass Herlings. Pic: KTM

Both riders upped the pace, both riders dipped into the 1.53 range, the only two riders in the race to do so – it was on! Cairoli got close initially but Herlings eeked out a 3 second advantage only for Cairoli to put a charge on again towards the end of the race to the delight of the vociferous home crowd.

This was Herlings’ big test, his weakest conditions, with very little time on the 450 against the king of MXGP with the home crowd roaring him on. The Herlings haters wanted him to move up, they wanted to see how he could handle the best, this was his answer – Herlings picked up the pace and stuck in a 1.54 to answer the 1.54 of Cairoli’s previous lap. Herlings followed it up with another 1.54 and effectively broke Cairoli. The Italian then settled for second with a couple of laps to go realising that on this day Herlings was just too strong.

It was sweet revenge for Herlings, who in the final few laps upped the pace just like Cairoli had done to him four year earlier. Herlings showed his skill, talent and mental resolve at Maggiora. Instead of calling him a sandbagger for staying in MX2, remember the last two MXGP champs came from MX2 and Herlings was beating them no problem – so maybe he is just that good!

In the end Herlings had the fastest lap of the day and did it in the final moto, his best lap was half a second quicker than Cairoli and a full two seconds quicker than Cooper Webb in moto three – and three tenths quicker than Febvre’s fastest lap of the day, obtained from moto one.

In the race of champions it was Herlings who triumphed and not even the critics can take it away from him this time! This was a huge win for his confidence and the MXGP boys now know they are going to have to work harder than ever this winter to give him some competition – Herlings has said he will only get faster from here.

Herlings made a huge statement at Maggiora and even if some didn’t notice you can be sure his rivals for 2017 did!

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