Following a painful couple of months, the new season is upon us. Monster Energy Supercross is around the corner! Following the departure of the reigning champion, Ryan Dungey, the door is wide open for recent hashtags to resurface and someone else to claim the number one plate. It is quite clear that an unpredictable season lies ahead, just look at the number of stars featured in the final part of this preview!
It is incredible to think about how far Justin Barcia, a rider who was once tipped to be the brightest star in the sport, has fallen. Monster Energy Supercross has been particularly difficult for him, as injuries seem to set him back early on each year. Rounds three through twelve were missed the year before last, for instance, and then he missed the first six twelve months ago. The results have been far from ideal when he has been on track too, as he has had just one top-five finish in the last three years. The machinery, a YZ450F and RM-Z450, were blamed at points, which makes his most recent move rather intriguing.
Barcia was poised to pilot a privateer Honda, a bike that he personally chose, but then Davi Millsaps crashed out and his Monster Energy Knich Yamaha became available. Despite the issues that he has had with the machine in the past, he jumped at the opportunity and has been working closely with the factory effort in Southern California for a couple of months now. Why is the YZ450F suddenly the answer to his problems? The JGR crew were heavily involved when he struggled in the past, whereas he’ll now work closely with Yamaha Factory Racing, so that is supposedly going to make a big difference.
Although some have questioned that judgement, one would presume that Barcia truly believes that this is the best place for him. The two-time 250SX East champion simply cannot afford to slip up and must prove his worth once again. Bridges have been burnt along the way and the premier division will be inundated with 250SX graduates next year, so another opportunity on a team of this calibre may be tough to come by. It is worth noting that his current deal is for six events, but the common consensus is that he will spend longer than that with the squad.
In a preview that looks at potential race winners and former champions, one could question how Broc Tickle landed here. The newest recruit at Red Bull KTM is expected to take a step forward, however, thanks to that employment and the time that he has spent with Aldon Baker in Florida. Tickle may not be the most flamboyant rider in the paddock, it is difficult to deny that, but he was quietly effective during his time with the RCH Suzuki squad. A handful of injuries meant that he could not capitalise on some momentum that he established, but there were flashes of brilliance along the way.
How many pundits really remember that Tickle actually snuck onto the 450SX podium in Toronto last year, despite the fact that the field was still rather deep? The position that he occupied in the final standings, eleventh, was not a true representation of how well he performed either, as he was forced to withdraw from the final two rounds with a fractured wrist. It is most likely that he would have finished eighth, had he completed all of the rounds, but seventh certainly would have been possible! The fact that he landed a contract with Red Bull KTM suddenly makes more sense when you take that into consideration.
A problem that Tickle will potentially run into is that expectations have climbed dramatically. Will finishing around eighth in the standings really be acceptable now that he is on a bike that is considered the best in the field? A single podium finish was impressive a year ago, whereas now most will suddenly expect him to make multiple trips to the box. There is no doubt that Tickle will expect to see improvements too, as he chased the deal with Red Bull KTM and has made some drastic changes to his programme, so whether that causes him to take a significant step up or not will be most interesting to follow.
Expectations of Chad Reed are now at an all-time low, which means that the only way is up from here. Reed logged just a single podium finish last year, limped to ninth in the points and was then dropped by the Yamaha Factory Racing effort. There is a positive spin to put on that, however, as it allowed him to jump on a bike that suits his specific needs. Following a shootout at his private facility in Florida, where he tested different bikes, he eventually pointed to the Husqvarna as his machine of choice. Reed is dangerous when he believes in himself and this should put him in a very strong position.
It will be impossible for him to hit his marks immediately though, as he has only ridden a few times since May. Why? Reed took the summer off, as he typically does, and then geared up for the Red Bull Straight Rhythm with minimal prep. That event is more of a gimmick than anything and consequently it was not taken too seriously, but then an ankle injury was sustained at press day and forced him onto the sidelines through November. The doctor cleared him to ride during the second week in December, but then he had to finalise sponsors and put a race bike together. The whole thing was far from ideal.
If Reed was entering the season at one hundred percent and with plenty of bike time in his back pocket, there is no doubt that he would able to challenge for podiums and even race wins. This is going to be difficult for a little while, however, and one must wonder if it is even going to be possible to catch the leaders. Whilst Reed is clawing his way up to a competitive level, guys like Ken Roczen and Eli Tomac will keep raising the bar with each race that passes. A couple of podium finishes may still be possible before the end though.
What a difference a year makes. Dean Wilson has made more progress than anyone else across the last twelve months, as he has gone from being a privateer to a Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing rider and has a full year of racing beneath his belt. The latter has been tough for him to come by in recent years. What should onlookers expect from him now, with that in mind? The off-season races were a successful exercise and hinted that he could make more strides forward when the Monster Energy Supercross series fires into life.
Dean Wilson has still not landed on the 450SX podium a traditional event, but one would presume that will happen this season. It could even occur right out of the box at Anaheim 1. It almost feels like Wilson has not shown all of his cards yet, as he was restricted by poor starts last season. Just how bad were they? The average-starting position that he had across seventeen rounds was a thirteenth. More than half of the riders in the top twenty had a better average than that, to put it into perspective. It is most likely that his results will be similar to last year, if he struggles to get out of the gate again, as the class is so stacked that it is almost impossible to cut through the field.
What happened when he actually got a good start? Wilson started ninth in Arlington, then sat comfortably inside of the top five for the duration of the main event, and then he edged into the top five again in Las Vegas after starting sixth. If he manages to master the art of getting a good start, it would not be surprising at all if he becomes a podium regular. Wilson has not hit his ceiling in the premier division yet.
Cole Seely is expected to win races in Monster Energy Supercross, there is no doubt about that, but has not managed it at all in the last twenty-one months. Does that mean that he has been a disappointment? Although some believe that, it is not exactly fair to use the label. A hand injury ruled him out of the final four rounds a year ago and his final ranking obviously suffered, as a result of that, but he was remarkably consistent before that hiccup. The Honda HRC rider finished in the top six in twelve of the first thirteen rounds and was fourth in the points at that time, just fifteen points down on Marvin Musquin.
If he can maintain that consistency and inch closer to the front ever so slightly, which should honestly happen, then he could be closer to the leaders than most anticipate. Seely had surgery right after the Motocross of Nations to repair the injured hand that had been bugging him since the previous supercross season, so that will no longer be an issue and could even give him a new lease of life. A considerable amount of hype sat behind Seely as he entered Angel Stadium a year ago, thanks to some recent success, but he is undoubtedly an underdog this time around.
In order to surge forwards, it does seem as though Seely needs to get the monkey off of his back and win again. It has been nine hundred and ninety-six days since he last stood atop the podium, which is obviously a substantial amount of time. A common theory is that it is harder to capture your second win than it is the first and it seems that may be at play here. An eighth was his average-starting position last season, whereas the title contenders rarely started outside of the top five, so better starts would certainly help his cause.
If Blake Baggett wins a main event this season, would it really be surprising? It seems as though that should be expected now. There was a lot of talk about him a year ago and he did not deliver until the series went east, but he then strung together consistent showings. Baggett registered a ninth at round seven in Minneapolis, did not drop outside of the top ten following that and even jumped up onto the podium along the way. The third-place finish that he acquired in Atlanta was a particular landmark for the former 250MX champion.
Baggett has never been considered an indoor specialist, even when he resided in the 250SX class, but that does not mean that he should just be overlooked. The RMATV/MC KTM rider proved that he has the raw speed to contend towards the front for the first time last year. It was at that halfway point that he learnt to harness that and implement it consistently. Now that he has all of the necessary tools to be successful in supercross, it remains to be seen where he will slot in each week. There is no doubt that he is going to surprise fans at one point or another.
Winning a main event seems like such a tall order, of course, but doors will open up at three of the rounds in the form of the triple-crown format. A new winner could emerge in the first main event of the night, which will last for eight minutes, so why not Blake Baggett? A good start and sprint speed will be required and he proved that he has that in his arsenal, as he won heat races last season. The only hurdle that he may encounter is the occasional poor start – an eighth was his average-starting position a year ago.
Words: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Monster Energy Media/Octopi