The Mud Gauntlet
Mud caked riders roar through pits of dirt leaving rooster tails of clay in their wake. They race along a track that resembles a World War I trench, disappearing into dark hollows before emerging in full flight over a hillock and crashing down onto the snaking dirt track that veers sharply around a pond of muddy water. The distinctive sound of powerful four-stroke engines buzzes in the ears of the 130,000 spectators that line the route of this famous race track in the English midlands. They have come to see teenage riders from around the world endure a bone crushing gauntlet known as the Motocross Grand Prix. Experiencing the spectacular event is a thrill for riders and on-lookers alike.
The word motocross is an amalgamation of two words—motorbike and cross country. Once known as scrambling, motocross has become a phenomenally popular sport with the 17-race Grand Prix taking place in locales as diverse as Shanghai and Istanbul. The U.S. occasionally stages this spill and thrill muck adventure at Laguna Seca in California, but its spiritual home is at Donington Park, in England where the U.K. Grand Prix is one of the biggest spectator events in the British sporting calendar.
There is no doubting the skill of these young bikers as they weave through a race course that on a wet English day can resemble a flooded construction site. Studies have shown that motocross bikers require a level of fitness greater than track athletes and football players. The intense physical demand of keeping a 91kg (200-lb.) bike under a controlled speed over a rigorous track means the riders have to be young, skilled, and exceptionally strong. Riders sustain a heart beat of 190 beats per minute as they weave and jump around the circuit that lasts on average 35 minutes.
The dangers are obvious. Frequent falls and crashes see spine snapping injuries. Riders limp off with fractured shoulders and shredded muscles. Many endure battle wounds patched up with titanium plates and broken bones knitted together with steel pins. As if the race is not dangerous enough, many riders now opt for a variation on motocross known as freestyling. Here they perform acrobatic stunts during high jumps. One is called the Superman Seat Grab where the flying rider lets the bike sail before him mid-air as he stretches out and holds the bike seat. He truly does look like Superman coming to the rescue.
Other motocross variations include vintage motocross where old bikes such as the legendary British made BSA are wheeled out and put to the test on a swampy circuit. BSA was the pioneer brand that first saw bike riders test their rides on the British countryside in 1924. The distinctive high chassis and big suspension forks of motocross bikes were all features introduced to handle the ruts and mires of scrambling and bike makers such as Suzuki first proved their worth by competing in motocross. —CO’M
When to go: July.
$$$ Cathedral Quarter Hotel, 16 St. Mary’s Gate, Derby, DE1 3JR, U.K. ( 44/1332/546-080; www.cathedralquarterhotel.com). $$ Holiday Inn Express Derby Pride Park, Wheelwright Way, Pride Park, Derby DE24 8HX, U.K. ( 44/1332/388-000; www.ichotelsgroup.com).