Jeffrey Herlings is expected to win whenever he rolls behind a starting gate. An incredible MX2 career has left him in that position but now, during his maiden season on a 450F, he is struggling to make an impression. Lewis Phillips, the MX Vice editor, caught up with Herlings on Sunday evening to discuss all that has happened recently.
MX Vice: This is a building process after the injury, with it being a new class and everything. You built again this weekend, got some more points and it was a little better. I’m guessing you’re happy with that, or are you a bit frustrated?
Jeffrey Herlings: Definitely frustrated. If you have seen me racing the last five or six years, and you see me racing now, I’m not even close to what I was before. The thing is, I don’t really know what the problem is. I did not ride for a long time but, the last two or three weeks, I have been riding a little bit more. Obviously with the hand it still hurts a bit, but it is not a big issue when I’m racing; just when I jump I kind of feel it. It is not an excuse. It’s very hard to accept, but it’s a new class. Those guys are really gnarly and they are fast, so it is hard to accept.
We keep on working and keep on trying to be better. The top two guys, like Tony [Cairoli] and [Tim] Gajser, they are way ahead. They are just much faster. But I think from number three to number ten, they are really close. I think with a little more riding and little more belief we can slowly get there. The championship is over to me. We’re almost 100 points behind. I think once we get to Europe and we get some sand tracks, I’ll hopefully get some better results and some confidence back. I think that will help, but I’m shocked. I didn’t expect this. After being so dominant for so many years, this came as a surprise. I think I looked at it too easy during the winter. This is the big boy’s class.
So, at this point, if the injuries are not much of a problem, is it safe to say that you can admit that you are just not fast enough? Are there other things that you want to work on, which you think will get you the results you deserve?
I think it all starts with the start, you know. I was not there on the start until now. Not in one moto was I in the top five or top three. I always had to come from mid-pack and that’s tough. When you have to come from mid-pack and you are not riding fast enough, you are always around that spot where you start. Hopefully in Latvia and Valkenswaard, where it is a sand track and you have the advantage of being on the inside, I can start a little more on the inside and start the race a little bit more up front. We are going to work for that. It’s a long season. There are still fourteen races to go.
We have many guys who have been really good in a rookie year, but you see guys like Cooper Webb, in America, he is struggling. Also Tomac in his first two seasons wasn’t so great, but now he is like the man to beat. Maybe I’m a little slow starter? I hope, at least. It is weird being so dominant for so many years and when racing all the competition I’m racing now. For sure they got better, but I’m not what I was before. We need to keep on working to get there. Also I’ve got a little bit scared to get injured once again. I’m just riding in my comfortable zone and not trying to get out of it until I’m ready to hang it out again.
Is that maybe a part of the reason why you have not had a great start? Do you think maybe subconsciously you do not want to get a good start, because you don’t want to push your limits and fall backwards? You want to just build gradually and you can do that from starting mid-pack. You can make gains in the results, with your confidence and all of that.
Yeah, but the tracks this year have not been so easy to pass. Argentina was flat and fast. Here in Mexico it was kind of one-lined, dry and slick. It was tough to pass. I definitely want to start up front. I’m not saying I want to holeshot, because Gajser and Tony are too fast at the moment, but I think if I had a good start, like around third, I maybe could be somewhere between third and fifth. I was never in that spot, so hopefully we can work on the starts a bit. It is not the bike, because we have a great bike. It is super-fast. [Glenn] Coldenhoff, Tony, [Gautier] Paulin, [Max] Nagl and all those guys holeshot many times. It’s something from my side I need to work on, because the bike is great. That is not an issue.
This has kind of been the story of your career, but you cannot do anything right. All along people have wanted you to back it down, take points and not get injured. You’re doing that now and people are asking why you’re not fast enough!
You have always said that you have got a lot of years in MXGP, because you have gone up early, so I guess you can allow yourself to have a learning year and then come out next year, do what you wanted to do this year, and then you have got another eight years in the class to set some records.
Yeah. You see with Tony; I think he is thirty-one or thirty-two now. He is still racing for race wins and he is in the championship hunt. I think we have got plenty of years to come, but we should not screw it up now by having some big crashes and stuff like that. You have to accept the situation, learn the class, learn the riders, learn the bike and see what is possible. I still very much believe that we can make it happen. Obviously this season is kind of over, but to me it is impossible that somebody who has been so dominant in the past is racing the way I’m racing now. I think it is also a mental case right now. We will keep working and charging, then we’ll get there one day. It is tough mentally.
I’m guessing the most frustrating thing is when someone like Anstie, who you have beaten hundreds of times, can pass you and pull away. I’m guessing that’s tough to accept out on track?
Yeah, definitely, but not only him. Everyone from Gajser to Febvre to Van Horebeek. All those guys! I have always been beating them, passing them, been way faster and now obviously… For sure, they stepped it up. Gajser is a different guy to what he was two or three years ago. I feel like I just got worse since last year. At the ‘Nations I could beat those guys and I could be up front with them, but now it is just not really happening. We will keep on working, keep on charging and one day it will happen. Hopefully that day comes quick because I hate being around tenth. I just feel like halfway through the moto I want to go home, because I suck. I just suck.
Is there one thing moving forward that you want to fix or work on that you think is the key to improving?
It is hard to say. As a rider you are always trying to find what is wrong or not or you look to the bike. We have a great bike, so that is not an issue. I think even on the podium they were second and third. I’m not one hundred percent sure, but they are on the same bike as me. I cannot blame it on the bike, so it must have been me. For sure, maybe the setup is not maybe the best for the way I’m riding. That is the thing – I need to change myself. But, for the rest, it is a fast bike and it is a good bike. It’s a great bike. I think it is just personally me. I think mentally, also, once you get in the flow it is better.
Also in the MX2 days when I had to come back from injury, for example at Loket, I didn’t believe in it. I was riding around tenth, then I crashed and then they jumped on my ass and I dislocated my hip. Just saying that a lot of things mentally. But once you are in the flow, like I was last year, I went to the race like ‘I’m going to win. I’m going to win by thirty seconds or plus.’ I just went there and knew that if I didn't make a start crash, I’d win. It didn't matter what place I started whatsoever, I knew I was going to win. That is what happened last year.
I won fourteen out of fifteen GPs and got second once behind Webb. It’s a battlefield and this is an all-out war. When the gate drops in this class they keep going until the last corner. That’s something I haven’t been used to. The last five years I’ve always been used to winning and winning. I never had to fight for second place or fifth place whatsoever. Now I’m fighting for places I don’t really want to fight for and I don’t want to be in. But this is the situation and, like I mentioned before, it’s hard to accept, but we keep going.
Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Sean Ogden