Chat: Stephen Sword

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Stephen Sword’s back in the travelling circus that is the FIM Motocross World Championship now, as he is working closely with Conrad Mewse and Bas Vaessen over at Hitachi KTM fuelled by Milwaukee. Sword, a former Grand Prix victor in the MX2 class, has a wealth of knowledge from his time at the very top and is now attempting to help those two reach similar heights on the world stage. How did the intriguing arrangement come out about? That question sparked this exclusive MX Vice interview, which then led to a lot of insight from his time in Grands Prix.

MX Vice: How did the deal to work with the Hitachi riders come about then? I know you were at Landrake at the end of last year, so was that a taster for you? Was it always a possibility to do a full-time programme with both riders? 

Stephen Sword: I obviously stayed in the industry after I finished racing, not so much on the racing front but with the Honda off-road schools with Dave Thorpe. I was working with a friend of mine, Rich Churchill, at RC Motorhomes the last two years. I spent the last two years building up campers! It all came about, to answer the question, when I went to the British Grand Prix last season. I went up on the Saturday and knew Conrad [Mewse] anyway. Not personally, but just enough to say hello and ask how everything was going.

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Ray Archer

I actually saw him in a restaurant on the Saturday night before the British Grand Prix – he was there with his family – and looking back now that is exactly where it started. Nothing was mentioned then, but it was just a case of them asking me questions. The year before I actually asked Roger [Magee] if there was a position to come in and be a positive influence on the team or coach the riders, but it was not available that year. I think the first time that I actually went out with Conrad and started to do a bit with him was before Lyng last April, so it was a bit sooner than Landrake.

We started to do a bit and it was really positive. It was a part-time job at that time, but I arranged it with Conrad and Roger. Everyone was happy. Job done! I did not know Bas [Vaessen] at all at that point though apart from his name and that sort of stuff. It was purely with Conrad to begin with and then a month in he hurt himself at Canada Heights, which obviously put him out for the whole year until he came back at Landrake like you said. I had already committed to do two or three Grands Prix in that time though, with flights paid and stuff.

I said to Roger that, seeing as it was all paid for, I would go along and work with Bas a bit as well. Everyone was keen and Bas was happy, so that was the taster of it all. I was still working with the campers at that time as well though, so it was not until October last year that I sat down with Roger and we talked about it becoming a full-time thing. I wanted to go for it, we did a deal and then I began in November. That was for the pair of them though – I was working with the whole team.

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Ray Archer

It is a shame it has gone this way. Conrad was obviously healing up from his injury – he went to Landrake at the end of last year and did really well – and then he had to have more time off to get pins out. I went to America with Bas at that point, because he was there for two months. I went to America twice before Christmas and spent some time with his family to build up a good relationship before the season started. That was before Christmas, then after Christmas they were both back.

Bas actually broke his collarbone two days before he was leaving America and had to have four weeks off. It all came together in the end and we went to Spain for three weeks, then we had just got back from there when all of the noise about the coronavirus had started. That was where this deal started though. It came together just because it worked well for the riders and Roger had the budget for it.

You mentioned that you spoke to Roger before the whole Conrad thing came up, so were you getting an itch to get involved in the sport again? Most riders are relieved they do not have to travel and stuff once they step down, so had you had enough of a break? 

I think it’s a difficult one for someone who has been racing for the whole of their life, no matter if it is at a high level or a lower level. It’s what you know! It really was on my mind and still is, especially now that I am more involved. This keeps my brain ticking over a bit nicer and it is interesting for me. I have seen some people who I have not seen for years, so it brings back all of the good things without the pressure. It had to be right though. It is a commitment and you are living a life where you are travelling a lot again.

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Ray Archer

It has to fit in around the family and everyone else has to be happy. I wouldn’t have taken the offer or gone down this road if everyone else around me was not happy. I have got two kids and I am away a lot again now, but you can make it work and the family can enjoy it as well no matter if that is at a British round or maybe some Grands Prix. It works nicely from that side. I am just really gutted that this bloody thing has come along and we have not really started. It is not just a one-year thing for me though, because it needs to go on.

I don’t want to be in it for one season and then out again. Roger understands that. I think that things do not just happen in one year and it builds up over time, so that is what I emphasised to Roger. I do not want to just have an impact on the riders – I want to help him and have a positive input into whatever it may be. No matter if it is sponsors or the mechanics. There is a lot that I do not know about teams and I am not a mechanic, so I will not stick my nose in when it comes to trying to get the bike to go faster.

I think you can… I’ve seen it and been in teams where the atmosphere has been very good and others where the atmosphere has not been so good. It has a big effect. I said that we need to get everyone ticking and feeling at their best every week, because that will surely have a good strong effect on the results. It is not just the riders. It is about keeping everyone going.

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Ray Archer

You obviously felt that there was something you could bring to the table for both Conrad and Bas. What were some strengths and weaknesses that you saw in them to begin with?

They can both ride a bike – there is no question about that. Someone asked me if they have got what it takes a little while ago, but they have already got it. That is clear. It is the small percentages that make the difference at their level. I do not need to tell them how to scrub a jump or go around a turn – they can do all of that. I am not telling them how to ride a bike. What pleased them about me was putting them on the right programme in the week.

When it comes to the weekend, I’m there to pick them up if things aren’t ticking along nicely. I’m more there for that – times when things seem harder than they need to be. It’s about stopping things like that before they happen. It can all go wrong very quickly in this sport. You need to push on in the right direction and give 110% all of the time, which they are very good at. They have both got their strong points and are as equally talented in their own ways.

They are two lads who want to be on the podium every week and they have got the speed, as we have seen. It has been said for years that Conrad should have been on the podium by now and he will be the first to say that he should have one. I’ve got no doubt in my mind that the pair of them can get on the podium, and I think we would have seen that by now if this had not kicked off. We will have to wait and see.

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Ray Archer

Are you just involved in the riding then or are you there on the fitness side as well? Are you the one who tells them that they need to do motos or sprints on certain days? How deep do you go in their individual programmes?

I’m not physical trainer at all, but I do have the experience of trying to not do too much. We travelled quite a lot when I was doing Grands Prix, but they have ramped it up quite a lot since I was out there with more flyaway races and a few more rounds too. They start earlier too. I’m always very, very conscious and on at them about not doing too much at the wrong time. Aching at the weekend is always a must for every rider and listening to the body. They have got their own trainers and physios.

Bas is very, very good at sorting himself out and is a friendly guy – he’ll go off and chat for hours. That’s what makes me laugh about him – you will be looking for him and he is just off chatting. Conrad has got everything in place here with his trainer in Frome, he has got a good physio and has just got it all in place here. I talk to Bas daily and send him what I think he should be doing leading up to races, from a riding point of view.

I think that once the racing starts and we are a couple of rounds in then the physical training becomes a maintenance thing. It is all about maintaining what they have got from then on and making sure that we are as strong as we were at the beginning of the year at the end of the season. We went to Spain for three weeks and that was good. They were chasing each other around. We mixed it up with long sessions, short sessions, starts and one chasing the other.

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Ray Archer

We make it as competitive as we can at the practice days, because they have top-five speed in the world and that means it is easy to go 80% when they are out there on their own. It has been very good for Bas. Bas will be the first to tell you that there is no one quicker than Conrad when practicing, but that is what is good about Bas. He accepts where he is, but that being said he needs to give himself a bit more credit sometimes. He can be just as fast as well! He’s very honest and accepts that Conrad is a very good training partner.

Conrad is the same – Bas is easy to get on with, fast and doesn’t let off at all. I think it’s a good combination and I am very, very lucky that I have stepped back into a situation where the two riders can win races and get on the podium. That is encouraging for me. Everyone wants to win and see results at the end of the day. I think that we started well, and there is obviously more to come. We will not know what that will be exactly for a while though.

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Ray Archer

Conrad has admitted in the past that the mental side has let him down a bit, especially at the beginning of last year. That is also where you come in, I think. Even without saying anything, just having that reassurance of you being in the background counts for something. You can almost have an impact without actually doing anything.

Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly how it was when I raced. Dave Thorpe was a big influence for me. After your parents look after you, it gets to a point where you need someone else to reassure you and tell you what to do. That’s why they were getting to the point where they were trying too hard or doing too much. What I see is that both Bas and Conrad have a good balance at the moment with where they are at. They are not the oldest in MX2 – so have time – but they are not the youngest either and have experience on their side.

I am there to tell them that they are doing everything right, which is the easy bit. When they are doing things right then I can just sit back and watch. That’s exactly what I say to Conrad all of the time. When he is at his best level, it is out of this world to watch. I say the same thing to Bas. They still ask how they are going though, so I just say that it’s perfect. You have got to try to get the best out of them. This is what I was saying about getting the best out of everyone in the team.

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Ray Archer

The mechanics need to be told that they are doing a good job, as do the people in the team. That is another little thing that I was talking to Roger about, just making sure that everyone does their job properly and can enjoy themselves whilst doing that. They are really, really good. They are easy. They don’t talk back, get lippy or anything like that. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said about Conrad and the mental side, because there is no question that he is one of the quickest.

We have seen it all before – he is so fast at times. Once he puts that into a race and starts racing like that then I think you will see a rider who does not accept not riding to his ability all of the time. He has had a lot of pressure on his shoulders from a young age as well. I was never as good as him at 16 years old. I didn’t start scoring good points in Grands Prix until I was 20 or 21. I didn’t get my first podium until I was 24 years old, but he has been right there from a very young age.

Tommy [Searle] was meant to be the next British world champion, you could say, and then it fell onto Conrad. It is all still there for him – he has still got two more years in MX2 after this, if he wants it. The world is his oyster in a way. It is the same as Bas – he has got another year after this. They have both got it there in front of them, if they want it. It is going to be interesting.

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Ray Archer

This is a fun question. Do you see any of your own qualities from when you were at this level in Conrad or Bas, either on the bike or off it? Are there things that they do where you are like, “I was the same.”

It’s funny. My mind tells me how to do it, but my body won’t let me anymore. I don’t feel old-fashioned now, but it has definitely changed. I remember when I was their age and an older rider would say, “It was not that way back in my day.” I hear myself saying the same thing now! We have a good laugh about a lot of things and they definitely bring the younger side of me out. I can fit into that role quite quickly as well. I think that is again where the balance of having me around comes in – I think Roger would agree.

I am old enough to say that they are definitely not doing something. I do not have to, but I am also young enough where they can relax and act how they want around me. They don’t feel like have got someone who is a much older rider around. Times change and everything is quite flashy now, with social media and everything. I’m definitely not too old to fit into their ways. When we were away for three weeks in Spain, there are times where you just cannot talk about motocross all of the time. I fit in quite well when we are doing other things or talking about different stuff.

Bas will talk you to sleep, that boy. If you ask him something then he will tell you exactly what is going on and when. He is like the news! I like that about him – he can switch from doing a moto to chatting about something completely different. Bas is very relaxed as a rider too – he doesn’t get uptight and that’s a good quality to have. A lot of guys cannot relax on race day, get arm pump and then you never get the best out of them. Bas is happy and has a good family around him as well.

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Ray Archer

It’s a nice bit of fresh air and way for me to step back into what I used to do as well. Most of the people are still there, so I have seen people who I have not seen for years. Some of my old suspension guys are still doing suspension! It’s funny which stories people remember and what they come out with. It has definitely helped me as a person as well. Going back to one of the first questions about finishing motocross… Yeah, if you are successful then you can do well.

I was lucky enough to put money into properties and stuff. You still need something to go for at the end of the day though and something that makes you want to get up every morning to go to work. I think that this is the next best thing for me. We would all like to win the lottery, but once you have had a taste of racing and the excitement of being around the team when they are at the sharp end of it all… You just cannot buy that feeling. It is nice to be in that bubble again.

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Ray Archer

One thing that you have mentioned a lot is making sure that everyone in the team has that positive influence. Is that something that you picked up from being with Jan DeGroot at Kawasaki? I can imagine that he ran his operation in that way.

Yeah, it is like any job. It all stems from the management. Workers are working and everyone has to get what they want from the job. That team was the one that transformed me – I didn’t even have a podium before I went to Jan’s. He was the one who transformed me into a race winner and a threat in the world championship for a few years. I believe it was his work ethic, how he ran his business, his nature and experience. A lot of that you cannot buy. He was very well respected, and that was a big thing for anyone who was there.

All of the riders and mechanics respected him a lot, because of what he had done over the years. Honestly, he was a god at Kawasaki. Jan was their man, because he had done so well for them. I had some really good times there and it was definitely a big step for me. It made me realise that I could win races and stuff, but he didn’t stand for any messing around. It was this way and that way – there was always a bit of fun though. I had Mickael Maschio and Tanel Leok as teammates the first year that I was there.

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Ray Archer

They were two riders who I looked up to, especially Maschio as I had watched him as a kid. I learnt a lot off of him as well – he was already a 125cc world champion before I got there. I learnt a lot from him. I’m not saying that I told Roger that it had to be like that, but I do believe that if everything is in line and everyone is happy then surely the outcome is going to be good. There are good young lads in there and they have a lovely workshop in Belgium. They moved to a new one and everyone’s committed to being over there.

Everything is looking so good, so it is just a shame that this has happened. Everyone is patiently waiting and doing their best to get the best out of the riders. I get on well with them all, like I said, but I do not have a magic wand. I do not think anyone expects that – you just have to say the right things and be there. It’s nice that they have even said they like having me there. If I relax them just one to two percent then that’s the percentage that those boys are looking for. It is the difference between finishing in the top three or sixth to tenth. I am ready to go now.

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Ray Archer

We’ll end on this note. I was talking to someone last week, and we were saying that maybe you don’t get the credit that you deserve for what you did in MXGP. I feel like people do not realise that you had the red plate in MX2 in 2004. It is tough to say, but do you feel like that?

I guess you just come and go, don’t you? I have got two red plates at my house. They are not as glamorous as they are now, they are just two red bits of plastic. You can actually put them up in the front room now! I’ve still got them though and a lot of memorabilia. I think what did me in was my bad accident in 2006 – that put me off the map a little bit for a year and a half. I came back though and got another podium at the Spanish Grand Prix, plus I won another British title. It exhausted me though, that injury.

I probably only had another three years after that where I felt that I was at the same point as before. I was 26 when I had that injury, and I think if I had that injury when I was 30 then that would have been it. I wouldn’t have come back from it. I certainly remember everything quite clearly. This lockdown has brought out more memories, because everyone is posting this and that. It’s been quite nice – I have seen a couple of pictures that I have not seen before. I remember it and have got all of the stuff.

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Ray Archer

I rode at the Motocross of Nations three times, but there is always that bit more that I personally feel that I should have had. I feel like I should have won some more Grands Prix, looking back, but that is just a part of it all. I feel lucky to have achieved a lot of what I have. I remember my parents driving up and down the country to give me the experience when I was younger and just doing all that they could, and at that point I just wanted to go to Grands Prix. I’d say I’ve ticked off 95% of what I wanted to achieve.

The world title was possible in 2004 and maybe more so in 2005, because I felt like I was better prepared and readier that year. I broke my hand though. I had just beaten [Antonio] Cairoli in race two at Castiglion Del Lago – I passed [Alessio] Chiodi, Cairoli and [David] Philippaerts. That was a bit of a standout race for me, because it was in their country and I was faster. I passed them and pulled away. I was only eight points off of the lead at that point. I think I’d just started riding on the aluminium frame, because I was one of the first to do that when it went from steel to aluminium on the 250F.

I won the second race in Namur and that one in Italy, so the Japanese were happy as I’d just come out with this new bike. It was all looking good. We went and tested suspension or something in France. Maybe it was another frame? I was not even on a lap. I went around a turn and there was a stone in the rut, so my front wheel washed out and I broke four bones in my hand. I was on cloud nine on Sunday and that was like the Wednesday after. I couldn’t ride the next week [at the Grand Prix of France] – I qualified but could not do the races.

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Ray Archer

There is a lot of good stuff, but I probably remember the bad stuff more than anything else. That was a standout for me. I am happy with what I have achieved though. It comes and goes. Maybe I should have had a couple more British titles – I finished second three times – but I was lucky to do what I did and worked with some good teams. That’s what I need to take into what I am doing now. I have had the experience, and until you have had that you cannot really comment on it or explain it to people. I think the experience is more valuable to what you don’t want to happen.

I can predict that if you go down that route then that is probably going to happen, because historically I have seen it so many times before. It is so on the edge at the moment as well, because those boys are pushing that hard. You just have to give it 110% and be smart. I think that’s the key to many things. Not just motocross! The riders like Cairoli and [Jorge] Prado just seem to be very smart. People say that they are lucky, but they are just smart and doing the right things. I guess it’s just about trying to not make the mistakes.

Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Ray Archer

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