Jake Nicholls has enjoyed a successful career that has included many highs, but also some crushing lows. One of the toughest blows occurred in April this year, when Nicholls dislocated his hip without even crashing at the Grand Prix of Trentino. The devastating injury robbed him of a British title, but also offered him an opportunity to evaluate his career and determine what he would like to achieve in the coming years. Finally, the decision was made to step away from the FIM Motocross World Championship and focus on claiming that elusive British title with Dave Thorpe’s Buildbase Honda outfit.
MX Vice: I guess we need to start off with your new deal, so just talk about how that all came about with Buildbase Honda and how you feel about riding for a British-only team for the first time in years.
Jake Nicholls: I obviously made my decision the day that I got hurt at the Italian GP. I told my mum right there and then that I was done racing Grand Prix. I have always kept in contact with Dave Thorpe, because I used to train with him when I was sixteen or seventeen and have known him for years. We have actually discussed a ride for years, to be honest with you, but it has always transpired that I am a Grand Prix rider and that has always been my goal. We spoke a couple of times and then, yeah, he was as keen as I was to make it happen. From my side, the goalposts obviously changed a little bit. My sole goal, as soon as I got hurt, was to win the [Maxxis] British Championship and MX Nationals.
I obviously wanted to get myself set up with the best team and surroundings to do that. Dave, in my eyes, runs the best team and the most professional team there. I have gotten on well with him for years. Ryan [Thorpe] was my mechanic in my first year of GPs ten years ago as well, so I have known him for a while. It was just a case of getting a deal done, making sure Honda was happy with everything and going from there. It is a big change for me – that is for sure.
Obviously the injury prompted the decision to step away from MXGP but, based on what you said about not enjoying the travelling before that, it seems that it was time for you on a personal level anyway. Was it almost a relief to call time on your Grand Prix career?
Yeah, I was in a really funny place. I have always enjoyed the GPs and loved it. It started at the end of last year, maybe just before Assen? I just stopped enjoying it, did not really look forward to going to the tracks and then I’d get there and was getting proved right every time. It was just another sh*t track basically. I think I have grown up riding old-school tracks. I don’t even think they are old-school but, places like Blaxhall that are just motocross tracks in my eyes, are now becoming old-school, because of the way that MXGP has gone. I guess I lied to myself for a little bit, over the winter and stuff. I had a really, really good off-season and was going quick before the season started.
I got to the first round of MXGP and it was like I didn’t even want to be there. I was struggling with my bike, then it was literally like something clicked. I just did not want to be there. I rode really badly, didn’t enjoy it one bit and I was scared. I do not know what happened, but I just was not enjoying it. I think secretly I just didn’t want to be there and my heart had gone out of it, whereas usually I would hang on for dear life and try everything. I was trying, but it just was not happening. I think deep down I just didn’t want it. I soldiered through the few flyaway rounds, but I actually hated it. I hated all of those tracks. In Indonesia I did alright, because it was muddy, but it was the same thing really. I was just miserable and did not feel like myself.
I had a couple of decent rides in the British Championship and really enjoyed myself. I had it in my head that I’d get to a European-style track in Italy and be back to normality, because of that, so it would all change. I did not expect it to happen overnight, but I thought I would be a bit better than I was. On the Saturday night I had a bit of a meltdown and was on the phone to my wife in tears, just saying that I did not know what was going on and whatever I did would turn to shit. I was trying hard and just having sketchy moments. She told me to just try to enjoy it on Sunday and forget about the results. In the first race [at Pietramurata], I actually enjoyed it. It was the first MXGP race all year that I actually enjoyed and I didn’t even score a point!
I had bad starts and the second one was a similar situation. I had a bad start, was in the middle of the pack and not really doing a lot. I was just riding around and going alright. It was not like I was thinking about not enjoying it, as I got that out of my head. I was in a little bit of a better place, then this incident happened. I did not even crash or anything. I have had a fair few injuries over the years, but most motocross riders have really had a lot.
I have always been one of those people, in life in general, who will never push it if I get a little bit of a sign that things are not meant to be. That was basically a sign to me. If I’m going practicing in the morning and get a flat tyre on the way or something else happens, I’ll just turn around. I don’t just keep going to the track thinking that everything will be alright in the end. It was a situation like that. I just thought that was a sign. That was it really.
Now that time has progressed since Trentino and you have obviously gotten healthier, have you started to have any regrets? Have any thoughts about finishing top ten regularly on a 450F or something similar started to creep in at all?
Honestly, I can say this with my hand on my heart. People always spoke to me about the day you stop doing Grand Prix and how it would be really difficult. The only way that I can describe it is that whenever I am injured, I can never ever watch the race that I am supposed to be in on TV. It would just eat me alive and I would hate it. Since the day that I got hurt, I have watched every single Grand Prix live on TV apart from Russia for some strange reason. I think I was out for that one. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching them on TV and have not had one percent of regret or anything.
It is not a bitter thing. I am just happy with my decision and there is not one percent of me that wishes otherwise. If I’m going alright, I would like to do the British Grand Prix and that sort of thing. But, as far as the campaign goes, I have no interest in it anymore and no regrets about my decision really.
Would you be interested in picking your favourite tracks or GPs to do a limited schedule if the opportunity opens up, Dave [Thorpe] is cool with it and the funding is there? It could almost be a farewell tour, I guess.
Yeah, definitely. I am twenty-seven and in no position to give up racing. Changing the subject slightly, I have started working with my dad and that is all he has ever wanted. He let me pursue my dream though. He was saying about coming to work with him and getting away from the racing, then we could buy a couple of bikes and I could just go riding with my mates or whatever. The only way that I could explain it to him is this and it took me a while to get my point across.
I love racing and racing, to me, is the best part of it. I like practicing and riding my bike, but riding my bike is where it is at for me. He has a hire business, but his background is wheeling and dealing. Although the general tick over for the business is hire, he likes selling stuff. I asked him if he would be able to just hire stuff out for the rest of his life and never sell anything. He said no and I was like, “There you go. It is exactly the same with me. I can’t just ride my bike, like you cannot just hire for the rest of your life. I want to race like you want to sell things.”
I am addicted to racing and have years left yet. I would love to race the British Grand Prix if I am going good enough. I am putting all of my eggs in the basket next year to win the British Championship and if I do that, it’ll mean that I am going well enough to do well at the British Grand Prix and perhaps another few tracks that I like. I am under no illusions that Dave is going to pay for me to go, as it is not in his budget, but if I want to do it then I’ll do it.
You say you did not enjoy the first four MXGP tracks, but what are some of the ones that you like? Obviously Matterley Basin was done up and seemed to generate some good racing.
Yeah, I have always loved Matterley from day one. The new layout looked brilliant on TV. There are places like that, but without looking at a list it is hard to say. I used to love the Spanish Grand Prix at Bellpuig. Talavera [de la Reina] was my favourite one all year. Portugal, I used to love that track, and the Czech Republic too. Basically all of the tracks that everyone else hates, because they are all used to the man-made stuff now.
In Qatar I was complaining to Rui Goncalves, who is supposed to be the rider who you can approach if you want to complain about a track. I spoke to him about the quad before the finish line in Qatar and asked if there was any need for that jump to be there, because it was so dangerous. He said that I was the only person that complained about it, so I asked if he found it dangerous. I was around his sort of position in the race and even saw him have a few sketchy moments off of it, but he said he didn’t mind it really. There were times like that where I just lost touch with it. It is a different world.
I think a part of it is that I build tracks and drive diggers, so I know how easy it is to be better. I guess a lot of the riders don’t have that luxury, which is fine, so do not see it the same way that I do. I walk a track and think, “Why the hell have they done that? It would take two minutes to do something safer.” I got tired of saying it. I went up to a digger driver and asked if we could just change something, but he said that I had to speak to Rui. Rui was never interested though. Things like that just add up.
I’m a little bit older and wiser to it, so I am all about enjoying myself now. I want to win the British Championship and get back to enjoying my racing. I have enjoyed the British Championship so much the last two years and lost it with MXGP really.
Before we move onto the British Championship and all of that, when can you honestly say that you last enjoyed a year of GPs?
It is funny. I said I stopped enjoying it before it, but I really enjoyed the race at Assen. It absolutely pissed it down and ended up really slow, like an enduro type of thing. I loved it and thought it was brilliant. On the Saturday I had a huge crash, because the track was just a million miles an hour and I jumped off the track onto the asphalt. It was then! It was not like I drew the line and it was finished for me, but it was just the general feeling that I was getting out of it. I just lost a little bit of interest in it really.
If there is one thing that you could change, would it be having someone in Rui’s position who is open to change?
I am not blowing hot air up my arse or saying that Rui is a bad person, as I have always spoken to him and gotten along with him fine. He is in a tough situation and is a very intelligent man, as he can speak all of the languages that the riders speak. He is the man for the job with that in mind. However, I have had the luxury of driving machines and building tracks on that side of the fence. Someone like that would be the best choice. On Friday in Indonesia, Ben Watson will tell you, I was like, “Do you want me to get in the digger and do that sort of thing?” It needs someone like that.
I was texting Tommy [Searle] before the French GP at the end of this year, the muddy one. I was saying how bad the track preparation was and he said he had spoken to the digger driver, who could not get the machine on the track because it was so muddy. I told him to ask what LGP on the side of the bulldozer means. It means low ground pressure, so you can go on mud or marsh and it will not sink. It is things like that. You could not beat an ex-rider, who could drive a machine and do it. There is a lot more to MXGP than that, but that would change it massively.
You are in exactly the same boat as Ben Townley was last year. Obviously you have spent a fair bit of time with him, but he echoed what you are saying exactly towards the end of his time in MXGP.
Yeah, exactly. We are likeminded people in that respect. Obviously Ben has had a lot more success over his career and is a little bit older than me, but in the same situation. He stopped enjoying it and it is just frustrating, because he is exactly the same. He has driven diggers and knows how easy it is to get right, but they get it wrong so often. It gets to a point where you just think, “I’m over it. It’s dangerous.”
I have so much respect for the other guys who just crack on and do not think about it. People have always said to me that when you start thinking about those things that is when it goes wrong and, unfortunately, perhaps I have let that sort of stuff get into my head a bit. I am thinking about it too much and going slow. It is my fault, but that is definitely how I feel about it.
Going back to the hip quickly. I spoke to Arminas Jasikonis recently and he obviously dislocated his hip on the first weekend in September. He is going to start riding in the next three weeks, so were there complications with your injury or did you just opt to take your time and not rush things?
There were not really complications and it went back in pretty well. Mine was out for three and a half hours, so that was a fairly long time. I knew that my season was over as soon as that happened. I keep saying this, but I am twenty-seven-years-old and I have had enough injuries to know that there is no point in rushing back. I made that fatal mistake when I broke my arm and tried to come back too soon. It just does not do any good, especially with an injury that big.
A couple of people told me to not rush it. Ben Townley was one of them, as he has done it twice, and he told me to take my time with it. Roger [Magee] was good and said he wasn’t desperate for me to come back. I guess that he [Arminas Jasikonis] is a bit younger than me and I wish him all the best, as everyone is different. There were no real complications with mine though and I can’t really tell that I ever did it. I got away with it really, as sometimes it can be a vicious one.
So, now that you are focussing on the British Championship full-time, does your training change at all? Will you be doing less of something specifically?
Not really. The only difference will be that I have had four months or so off a bike, so I basically won’t have a month off in the winter like everyone else will have. Another reason for that is that I am getting used to a new bike, as I have spent all of my time on a KTM since 2009. It is going to be a massive change. I have gotten on the bike and I like it, but it is really different. It is going to take me a few months, not weeks, to get used to it. I guess that means I’ll have less time to train, because I’ll be riding more. I’ll still be training as well and banging in plenty of that.
Obviously things have changed as well and I’m working pretty much full-time in our family business at the moment, but Dad is pretty understanding and I can come and go as I please. I have always been an early riser, as I am not much of a sleeper, and in the construction industry we get into the yard at quarter to seven every day and leave at six. It is a long day. I get into the yard early in the morning, see the boys and run our pit as such along with a couple of blokes in here. I am keeping an eye on that the whole time. Once I have done that for a couple of hours, I go riding and then I come back. I am in and out of the office and it is not like it is strenuous work for me.
I’ll be doing that, but I have told Dave Thorpe that I will not cut any corners and will still have the same trainer next year. I will be as fit as before and putting just as much into it. If I didn’t want to win the British Championship then, without sounding silly, I don’t need to do it. I want to. It is all because I want to do it. I have put everything into it, but I have a luxury as this is actually a family business. I argue a bit with dad about some different things, but I can come and go.
You have already ridden the Honda a little bit, so when you first hopped on it was there anything that really caught you by surprise compared to the KTM? Something that was better or maybe worse?
Not really better or worse, as such, but it is just a very slim bike and that is nice. Someone said that they thought I would struggle with how small it is, but it is not small at all it is just skinny. It almost feels a little bit taller when you are on your bike and you can just sit in it a little more. The KTM has a bit of a flatter seat. I am still on a standard bike with some suspension though. I think we are testing with engines in a couple of weeks.
I loved the KTM and Husqvarna, absolutely loved them. My decision is not based on motorcycles, so I am not going to sit here and say that Honda is the best thing since sliced bread and much better than that old KTM. It is not like that at all. The Honda is a very good bike and the KTM is as well – I enjoyed riding it. Whilst we are on that subject, Roger was really good to me the whole time. It was a great team and it was just a shame that it did not work out. He wanted to continue running a Grand Prix team and I obviously wanted to get the best out of a British team. It just didn’t work out. He has been really fair to me and I have had a good couple of years with them.
Now that you are a full-time British rider, what are your thoughts on the state of the British Championship? Obviously it has not been a great year and most people aren’t shy when it comes to talking about it.
In my eyes, it ultimately comes down to the injuries that happened. Shaun [Simpson] obviously was not there this year too and that just added to it. Tommy and myself were out almost straight away, then Kristian [Whatley] got injured quite early on. There were five or six strong guys there and they just disappeared, which left it in that state. I would never take anything away from the riders there and I think Graeme [Irwin] thoroughly deserved it, as he rode mega all year. He was going well at the start of the year anyway. I don’t think that you can really put it down to anything other than the injuries, as nothing has changed otherwise. I think they were just unlucky with some of the top boys dropping out.
There was a lack of entries at the end of the year, but I do not know why it was like that. Our local Eastern Centre races were like that at the end of the year as well. There were like twenty-five experts turning up, then reserves on the junior list. There was a load of experts about, but none of them wanted to race. I could not work it out. I think the trouble is there are a lot of Instagram riders these days, who like to show a good video of them going around a track and doing some bum scrubs. They are famous for that instead of actually turning up to a race and getting on with it.
Finally, people seem to think that you are winding down your career now that you are focusing on British only. Obviously that is not the case, as you have said, but do you feel like that in itself will allow you to enjoy your racing more?
One hundred percent, yeah. I have never really been one to worry about what people say or anything like that, but if people are saying it more often than not than you do have to think about it. I am just happy as I will be able to enjoy my racing, get home on a Sunday night and then get up and go to work on a Monday morning. I’ll be able to enjoy the work, because it is a good environment and go practicing in the week. I just lost that enjoyment. I never saw my wife, because she has got a full-time job and was not at the races. I am not a major softy and have been away from home for years, but you miss things like that. I have got a house and dogs, but I was just never there. It does all add up in the end.
At the same time, if I was finishing in the top ten in MXGP and loving all of the tracks then I would not give a toss about the rest. I am a selfish motocross rider and all we care about is results. I contradict myself slightly there, but you get what I am trying to say. I just want to get back to enjoying it and hopefully now that I am not putting myself under crazy pressure I will be able to ride better. I did ride terrible at the start of this year.
A few people commented on it the other day and said that I looked like I was going to kill someone on the podium at Lyng. I think I still won the overall there, but I did not ride good. I was furious. It is one of my favourites tracks, but I rode terrible and hated my bike. My set-up was all wrong, as we had just been to Argentina and that was like the weirdest track in the world. All of these little things come into it. I am just keen on enjoying it again. I am not sat here telling you that I am going to set the world alight now as I’m a different man and my bike is good, but I just want to get back to basics.
I want to say that, even if it does all change and I’m going really well, I’m not going to suddenly become a GP rider again. It just not going to happen. I have made a commitment to start learning our family business, which is a new business, and that is going to be how it is for the rest of my career. For the British championship though, it is not going to effect it as I can still do all of the races and training that I want. If I were to do MXGP, which I don’t want to, it would not happen. There is a lot more to it than people think, I guess.
Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Sean Ogden