Racing a lightweight motorcycle around a dirt track and flying through the air at high speed is just a normal day at the office for Jeffrey Herlings.
At just 26, the Dutchman is already a four-time world champion, with no less than 90 grand prix victories under his belt.
He was favourite to win last season’s crown, too, until a head-on crash left him with a severe neck injury that almost paralysed him (Herlings sat out the last seven rounds of the competition to concentrate on a full recovery).
But after a remarkable turnaround, he’s back competing in the Motocross World Championships – something he’s done since he just was 15.
Herlings rides for the Red Bull KTM Racing Team, and in the new docuseries MX World, which follows the KTM team throughout the last season, he shows us what it’s like to relive and recover from an ordeal that could easily have ended his career, demonstrating what it takes to get back to fighting form.
With the 2021 MXGP World Championship set to kick off with his home grand prix in the Netherlands in May, exclusive behind-the-scenes footage follows Herlings as he makes the journey from (impatient) patient back to title contender – with the goal of recreating his 2018 title win.
As one of the sport’s biggest personalities, with around 500,000 Instagram followers to his name, Herlings’ story is a captivating insight into a hidden world with a dedicated – and growing – following.
Here, he tells Men’s Fitness how it all started, what you need to make it in motocross, and what it takes to get back on track.
Jeffrey, tell us how you got into MXGP.
My father used to be a motocross racer, so that’s how I started. I love the pressure and I just really enjoy doing it. It’s strange because I’m scared of heights – so no base-jumping for me – but when jumping on the bike feels natural.
How do you prepare for a race?
It’s a very demanding, high-risk sport and it takes a lot of time to prepare, so you have to live really healthily and prepare on the mental side, too. Unfortunately, there are a lot of injuries involved in our sport. I train two to three times a week, plus recovery training and gym sessions – and a half-hour warm-up on the cycle right before a race.
What are the physical demands?
You’ve got to be very disciplined. And not too much muscle: we do a lot of reps with lighter weights. It’s all about good endurance and good coordination –you have to be quick.
And what are the pitfalls?
You have to deal with injuries – and I’ve had some good ones! It’s important to stay mentally strong and to understand the risks. Racing dirt bikes is one of the higher-risk sports, but until I was 16 I never broke a bone. That said, it’s not unusual to see a guy limping [away from the track], and as you get older you take fewer risks. But I like the adrenaline.
Why do MXGP riders need to stay so fit?
I’m racing with the best racers in the world. You can have a lot of talent but if you don’t work hard it’s going to be difficult to win. So it comes down to a balance of talent and technique. Obviously if you don’t have it you don’t have it – but you can improve by training a lot. It’s a 24/7 job.
Do you pay equal attention to nutrition?
We have a lot of help from Red Bull with stuff like this. The trick is not to get too heavy and maintain low body fat – mine’s around 7-8%, but to achieve that I need to train hard and watch what I eat. Sometimes I cheat a little bit and I take a small piece of cake. And maybe a sneaky McDonald’s once a month.
Why should we watch MXGP?
There’s a lot of action happening! You see people crashing, you see people flying through the sky, and it’s not a difficult game to understand. In F1, a lot of it is about the car. But in MXGP, the bikes are pretty similar – it’s more about the rider.
Go behind the scenes of Jeffrey Herlings’ rollercoaster 2020 season in MX World: The KTM Diaries S3E3 on Red Bull Motorsport YouTube. The full docuseries, starring Herlings’ teammates Tony Cairoli, Jorge Prado and more, is available to watch on Red Bull TV.
Interview: Phil Rhys Thomas