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Insight: Jeffrey Herlings

A massive chat with Jeffrey Herlings on 2019

· 21 minutes read

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Jeffrey Herlings has been missing in action a lot this year, which has obviously left fans across the globe heartbroken. Herlings was still in attendance at the Grand Prix of Czechia, however, and made some time for a lengthy MX Vice interview. It has been a while, so there was a lot to discuss. Herlings discusses his various injuries in a candid manner below, as well as a return date and how much of a toll the last twelve months have taken on him. There is plenty of new information below, so dive right in!

MX Vice: Before we get to everything that has happened, first of all, how are you doing? Screw riding, screw racing, screw all of that… Are you doing okay? This has been tough. I feel for you a little bit.  

Jeffrey Herlings: It's been an off season, let's say, with everything that happened injury-wise. It's been a pity. Being so dominant last year and now with what's happening this year, then you ask me how I am… Yeah, I'm not good. Motocross is such a big part of my life. You just want to be out there every weekend with the boys and be racing.

(Ray Archer)

For now, I'm just focusing on my recovery to heal up and get back to one hundred percent healthy. Obviously, I won't be one hundred percent anymore this year. The recovery from both of the injuries will just take a matter of time. It's been a tough road with a lot of bumps in it. I think 2020 will be starting over again. New season, new chances.  

I think the last time we spoke would have been November and at that point you were loving life. You were the big guy in the pits. Everyone loved you. I think you went on holiday and had a bit of a break. I'm guessing that was good for you, right? After that, you were refreshed and ready to get back into the grind of just the most intense training programme ever.

Yeah. I was perfectly on schedule when that happened. The accident was just a few weeks before… I think two weeks before I was going to do my first race. I think we improved on the bike from 2018 to 2019. I improved on myself. I was the right weight. I was physically good. I gained speed. I was, I think, better than I ever was, even better than '18. Then one crash just changed it all, even though it was just a small crash. My foot was between the wall and the bike, and it just shattered my foot. That changed the whole year. That was just the beginning of the end, let's say.

(Ray Archer)

Would you actually call it a crash? Like you say, you got caught between a wall that was on the side of the track. Did you actually go down? Did you actually hit the dirt? 

Yeah, I actually did hit the dirt. When I stood up, I didn't think it was so bad and I wanted to stand up. I felt like something is not really correct there. Then I thought I broke my tibia or my fibula, but then I saw my leg was still straight. I came out of the boot and everything looked fine. I was like, "I might have just broken a small bone in my foot or something on my ankle." Then we flew home the same night to be sure and then when I made the x-rays the doctors were like, "This is not good. This could be a career-ending injury," because it was so shattered.  

Then obviously everything turned out well and they got it all repaired. It's never going to be like it used to be. When I'm walking, it's still not one hundred percent especially with the latest fracture on my ankle. It has just been a pity. That is why I want to heal up now. Just time is ticking. I really am focused on racing at Assen, doing ‘Nations and hopefully a few more GPs. I need to start riding anytime soon because it will take six weeks minimum to be good at ‘Nations and we still have eight or nine weeks.

For now, I just want to heal up. Normally start riding anytime soon. I don't know exactly when. Maybe five days or maybe in ten days. I don't know. Then check if I'm good regarding pain or not, because there are two new screws in my ankle that are really on the ball, let's say, of the ankle and it's really irritating, because that's exactly where the boot is. 

(Ray Archer)

It gives a lot of friction between the boot and the bike, because of the pressure point. Hopefully it's not going to be too bad. We already decided that, if we can still pull off some races, straight after the season we will remove all the material that is in my foot and my ankle right now. Then we will start with a clean sheet for 2020. Like I said, new chances and new season.

That track where the first injury happened, I heard from some other teams it is a sketchy place anyway. I heard that an MX2 rider or something almost did exactly the same thing as you. It is not like it was a fluke thing. That track is not great.

Well, I did a lot of days of riding there but that day it was pretty hot. Twenty or twenty-five degrees and it was only the end of January, then because of the sun they watered it. The day before like twenty or twenty-five riders went riding there, so the track was really like ice. Just on the takeoff my rear-wheel slipped, then I got out of balance and when I landed my bike was almost ninety degrees let's say.  

I just ran straight into the wall. Just my foot was in-between. If the wall wouldn't have been there… If it would have been in America, you probably would have another twenty meters to go off track. I would not have even crashed. I wouldn't have anything. Just wrong timing and wrong place. Not good.

(Ray Archer)

It's funny you say that you could have been even better this year. I interviewed Dirk [Gruebel] a couple of months ago and he agreed. He said maybe it wouldn't have been at round one, but by this point in the season you probably would have been lightyears better than last year. Obviously, you believe that too. 

I don't even believe it. I know it for sure. I've been on the same tracks in the same conditions. I was just faster lap time-wise… Everything-wise! I just felt better on the bike. We changed some things, which I'm really convinced improved. I was sure I could have done better. Knowing how the season has turned out this far, with not many guys left. [Clement] Desalle is out. [Romain] Febvre was out at the beginning of the season. Tony [Cairoli] is out. [Tim] Gajser is pretty much from the top five the only one who survived going into all races so far. It has been a hell of a season with what you have all been seeing. It's one for the memory books.

I feel like that first injury… It looked like you kind of took it on your chin a little bit. You accepted that you were injured like, "Right. This is a chance to have another big break and prepare for the second half of my career." It looked like you really just shut off from motocross. I'm sure you got back on the McDonald's programme a little bit, which made you happy and eased the pain just a tiny bit. 

Yeah, I love food. I still love food. All the year I could not really enjoy it, because when it happened… You cannot get the way, because I knew it's normal. There were a lot of sponsors involved and a lot of people involved. They want me to be racing as quickly as possible, which is normal. It's not that I really had a holiday. From the moment I could start training, I went to start training and things like that. After the second injury I just took two weeks off, because I was in the cast, then I started cycling and everything that I could possibly do.

(Ray Archer)

Just so that when I get back on the bike like now and also last time, that I'm at least in good shape. Normally when you start going back on the bike at the end of November, you still have two or three months before the first race but now I probably have a few days or a few weeks. It's a pity to come back on the bike and not know. Now I have had four weeks of training so hard, but I don't really know if I get on the bike whether it's possible with the screws and stuff like that.

It will be a pity if I start riding and then I have a lot of pain, so I'm not able to continue and need the surgery already before. It's all a question mark right now. We just try to get the positive things out of it. There is not a lot of positive things to say about 2019, but at least it will be a dream come true for this year to at least finish off the ‘Nations strong. That's the only thing I can still accomplish this year. For the rest, it's just been a nightmare.

(Ray Archer)

I guess I have got to ask about this. Everyone loves this question. There was talk of you doing the AMA but, looking back on it now, it wouldn't have worked. Even if you had got the green light from KTM, it wouldn't have worked time-wise. You wouldn't have been ready. Even if you had tried to race Hangtown, you would have been at like fifty percent.

No, because more or less I was just on the bike when Hangtown was. I wouldn't have been ready anyway. I thought it would have been three months. The doctors gave me six months. I was like, "In three months I'll be back riding." Then I was like, "No. I wasn't even on the bike." Even if KTM said, "Hey, let's go do it," I wouldn't have been ready anyway. I think together with KTM we made the best decision to just stay here and race two races, then get another holiday in.

I just really feel bad for the team, because they put in so much energy and time and we have been working so hard over the winter. It's just a shame. We had no results this year. We won one moto. That's it. Especially coming from what we came from last year, it's just been a nightmare for me as well as for KTM. It's a pity, but hopefully next year I can deliver them another championship. First, try to get healthy over the wintertime. Get all the material out and try it all over again. 

(Ray Archer)

You say you only won one moto, but that one moto… I have seen you do some amazing things over the years. I was in pit lane watching that first moto in Latvia and I was genuinely stood there like, "I cannot believe what I'm seeing." I said to Dirk after the race that I genuinely think that may be remembered as your best moto ever, considering everything that happened. 

Yeah, because actually I had a really small crash. When I stood up, they rode over my ankle and I felt like, "That isn't good!" After the sighting lap, I limped to the toilet to get a pee before the moto like, "This really isn't good." I actually got a good start. I got second. Then the first jump I actually made… I felt my ankle in my boot. I was like, "This might be the last moto of the year. Who knows even if I broke it or not? I'm just going to win it and I'm out. I'm going to go home."

I don't know if you remember the post-race interview after the race. Everyone was like, "Yeah, you won!" I said, "Yeah and I also broke my ankle, so I'm out for the day." They were all looking at me like, "He can be kidding me?" Then we went to do an x-ray and I had a big crack in my ankle. That was it. The comeback.

If I remember that moto right, you were leading early on and then the other guys caught up to you a bit. At that point I was like, "Fair enough. This is where his fitness comes into play. He isn't at one hundred percent and had a good run. Now he'll go back to third and we'll all be happy." You came back again though and I was like, "How?" Then at that point I was like, "If you had come in fully healthy, what the f**k would I be seeing right now? 

I would have been winning, I would have won the GP and I think I would have won many races after. If this and if that. There are so many ifs. It's like this. It's just been a nightmare year so far. I just want to be healthy, get back to racing how everybody wants me to be racing and in good shape. Even for the rest of the year, I've been almost off the bike since January. I spent one month on the bike. Even for Assen, I will never be as good as I was last year. For now, it's just important to get healthy as far as I can and finish off this year, get all the material out, take a deep breath and take it all on again next year.

(Ray Archer)

The ankle was not ideal anyway, but it was worse because, if I understand right, you didn't have full mobility in that foot anyway when you came back. Then obviously you got put back in a cast, so that… I don't even know what happens then.

Yeah. I was already four steps behind, let's say, and then they put me another eight behind. I have now worked a few up, but because of the material in the foot I didn't have the full mobility. That's why they want to take out all the material anyhow at the end of the year. I have ten or twelve screws, two plates and another two screws in my ankle now. I'll be like one kilo of metal lighter by the end of the surgery. I cannot wait to have that all out and to just get the mobility back. I really feel like with all the screws and plates being in there right now, I don't have the full movement and it's bothering me in daily life but also with racing. I think it's really important to get it all out.

Do you think the ankle will be better than the foot, say this time next year? 

The ankle should get back to one hundred percent. The foot will always be a little scarred, let's say. It will get better, but it will never be one hundred percent anymore. I will always have a problem in some movements, but I should be able to walk normal and ride pain-free. It's never going to be like it used to be, but the ankle should be one hundred percent again.

(Ray Archer)

The second injury in however many months. That's got to be even tougher to take. I was genuinely thinking, "How could you take that mentally?" Like I said, I was worried about you. I was thinking, "How could one person take this much?" Especially after winning a moto. You just kind of got a little glimpse of being back. 

At least I stopped on a highlight. I stopped on top.  

No one can say you sucked.

I stopped as a hero. I just drove home. I was in the car already twenty minutes after the moto and still sweating. 

You were on a plane, like, two hours after the moto. I couldn't even figure that out.

Yeah. We brought a different ticket. I said, "I'm over it. I want to go home now." I told Valentina [Ragni], "Please get me a ticket home. I just want to go home. I'm over it." Then I was at home at like twelve in the evening and I sat on the couch alone. I was looking at the TV like, "Ugh." I didn't know really what to think anymore or what to say. Whatever happened, happened.  

I was like, "Was I such a bad person in the past? What do I deserve this for?" I think every big champion had those moments. [Ryan] Villopoto was out for two years back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. Stefan Everts had it. [James] Stewart had many crashes. Even Tony [Cairoli] now. '15, '16 and '19. That's the shitty part of motorsports is that injury-wise it sucks sometimes.

(Ray Archer)

This is my one line. In articles and when talking to people, this is the one thing I always trot out. Everyone likes to get on you like, "He is always injured. When is he going to learn to stay on a bike?" Look at the facts. You don't actually crash that big. It doesn't happen. Look at all your injuries. They have all kind of happened with these weird things.  

[Arminas] Jasikonis hitting your foot. That wasn't really your fault. Hitting a bank on the side of a track… Take that away, you would have been fine. There are so many things like this. Uddevalla, in that first turn. If that wasn't at the start, maybe you would have been fine? You don't actually crash that big. I've said it a million times. People need to listen to me! You don't actually crash.

 Well, I do actually crash but no big ones. If you saw [Tim] Gajser's crashes this year… 

Look at Latvia. 

Yeah. I have a lot of respect for him, but if I was him then I would probably be in a wheelchair right now. He has so many crashes and they all turn out fine. I'm very happy for him, but he had a little bit of luck with that. He deserves the championship this year, because I think he was the best this year after all the things that happened. If you look at me, like my crash in Sweden, that was just a small tip-over. Boom. Finger almost off. 

Hit the bank not even that hard, foot shattered. I crashed in Loket three years ago. Went to stand up. [Jordi] Tixier ran me over and I dislocated my hip. Now crash on the sighting lap and they run over my foot. If you just think about it then you are like, "Why?" I never really had big crashes. When I crash, many times it is just a small one. If I just touch the ground then it is a done deal.

(Ray Archer)

Like you say, look at Gajser. If someone said to me, think of a big Gajser crash. I can immediately come up with one… [Pauls] Jonass even. Mexico that year. Flying through the air. Every rider has got one of those. If someone asked me to think of a big Herlings crash, I don't know if I could do it. Maybe you have got one in mind, but I'm drawing a blank.

Well, in 2013 I used to have ten big crashes and I would just stand up like, "Alright."

You used to be Gajser!

Yeah, I used to be like a rubber man. Now if I hit the deck then I'm like, "Where is the crack?" Things change. Getting old, I think. Bones are getting old.

Enough of that. We are never talking about that again. Onto the positive. You are coming back. Give it five or ten days and you'll be back on a bike. Obviously Lommel is not going to happen. I don't know why people are even talking about that. Imola… I'm guessing maybe you could push it for that? That is close though. Uddevalla, that is two or three weeks, so maybe?

I think the perfect scenario would be to maybe do a warm-up race and then to race Turkey, China and Assen. That would be the perfect scenario. It's also a team decision. Maybe from the team they want me to be back earlier. I know if I need to come back earlier and race Imola, I probably can race, but I will be nowhere up front. It's hard to make a plan also with the team, because I need to ride first to know if I'm in pain or not.

(Ray Archer)

If I need to require a surgery straightaway to get all the metal out or if I can keep it in until after Assen. For now, there is not really a plan. I'm very happy that KTM has been very supportive in everything. It's not good for the team that I have been injured, but they have really been sticking behind me through everything. I really need to thank them on both knees for everything they have been through with me. We have had a lot of ups and downs. Coming back to your question, I honestly don't know. It's a decision we have to make with the team and work from there. 

Isn't there a little Belgian race in the middle of August? Would that work as a warm-up race? 

But also that is already in two weeks.

No, you are not doing that one. 

It's all going to be pretty early. We have to wait and see. For now, there is not really a plan. We can only make a plan once I'm back riding, actually, and then work from there.  Once again, I want to thank Red Bull KTM race team for believing in me and for everything we have been through. Hopefully next year I can pay them back with a championship.

(Ray Archer)

So. It's all about the ‘Nations. That is all we care about. I feel like if you win the ‘Nations as a team and individually then you could look back and go, "That was the year I won the ‘Nations! I remember that." Would that be enough for you? I guess so. 

No, there's not much more to talk about. What else you did in 2019? Yeah, I did two GPs.

You went to Desertmartin. That was great. 

Yeah, I went to Desertmartin and signed some autographs. No, it will be nice, because as Holland we have never won the ‘Nations, so I think if I could be healthy then we would have a big chance. Definitely the USA, France, England… They have got strong teams, but I think that we will have a potential winning team.  

You are not going to be one hundred percent, like you said, but it's not like you'll be sat there going, "I don't know how I'm going to do. Maybe I'll finish tenth?" You won't be one hundred percent, but you'll be good enough to be confident in yourself doing well.

Yeah and it's a sand race, so that already definitely helps. I think it's important that I can do some races before, because I always struggle with arm pump and stuff like that. It will be good to do some races before. Everything depends on the foot. Before I ride, I cannot tell anyone a plan. I don't have a plan. I just need to wait and look day-by-day, honestly.

(Ray Archer)

Last year the training programme got to you a little bit. You were counting down the days. You have had a fair few holidays now. I'd say you have had a decent break. You are ready now? You are ready to get back into it? It's not a problem? You are motivated, excited and can't wait. Bring it on.

Yeah, definitely. I've always been motivated. I was super motivated this year. If I get a few days off, that's good enough. Now I just want to get healthy. It's not nice to jump on a bike and not be healthy. That's the most important to get healthy. I know if I step on the bike soon, I'm not one hundred percent healthy but hopefully by next year when all the metal is out we can start with a clean sheet. 

Before you start with that clean sheet, you get to have one well-deserved McFlurry. You can order whatever ice cream you want from McDonald's.

I've had a few throughout the year. I had some holidays up until now. I'm good with the McFlurry's for now. It's time to work again and hopefully put a few more nice years in. Most importantly for me is to hopefully get a championship next year. That will be good.

Finally, on behalf of the thousands and thousands of people who listen to this, we have missed these interviews. These are the best kinds of interviews. We are also ready for 2020.

The whole paddock has been missing me then! I guess it's time for me to come back.

Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Ray Archer

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