“If I recover from this, I will never ride a dirt bike again“Jeffrey Herlings
For a moment, Jeffrey Herlings thought he could have been paralysed.
The motocross star was the red-hot favourite for last year’s MXGP world championship and was leading the title race, until everything changed in September.
The 2018 champion’s campaign was completely derailed by a horrendous head-first crash in free practice at the Grand Prix of Citta di Faenza in Italy.
Footage from that incident is not easy to watch. The impact was so powerful the then 25-year-old was unable to move, and he lay motionless on the track.
It was a previous injury to his right foot that was the root cause of that awful crash in Italy.
Bone had started to grow, which needed to be removed, but thanks to the Covid disruption and not knowing when the season would restart, Herlings had decided to get the surgery done at the end of the 2020 campaign.
That meant the Dutchman had been using his foot differently on the bike, so that the injury didn’t hurt as much.
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“Then my foot came off, and then I just lost it – the front wheel went left, right and I just went over the bars,” Herlings said, describing the head-first crash.
“Then I kind of front-flipped, but my head went in the mud first and my helmet peak above my visor went like a shovel.
“It made my head go backwards and I actually did get a small crack in one of the bones in my neck.
“It wasn’t so bad but, because of the impact, it just knocked me out for 30 minutes.
“I wasn’t knocked out with my head, but I couldn’t stand up because there was such an impact basically where all the cables are going through, you know?”
“The nerves got such an impact I couldn’t feel my legs, I couldn’t feel anything.
“After 30 minutes things came back and within a few minutes I got full feeling and I was like ‘this feels so good!’
“But when it happened, I thought ‘oh sh**, this is going to be game over now.’”
“Five hours ago, I was there being almost dead on the motocross track”
Herlings was lucky with regards to the injuries he actually sustained – and he knows it.
But at the time, lying in the middle of the track unable to move, all sorts of things went through his mind.
“Then, I was like ‘if I recover from this, I will never ride a dirt bike again,’” he added.
“That’s what I was thinking when I was on the ground, but five hours later you just walk through the hospital and – my neck was a bit stiff – then the doctor says in four weeks you’re good to go riding again.
“Frickin’ five hours ago I was there being almost dead on the motocross track and now I’m just walking around like nothing happened.
“It turned out not to bad, let’s say.”
Being in that position yourself is one thing, but friends and family also have to come to terms with what they have just seen.
“Especially my mum,” Herlings explained.
“Your world basically ended when you see your kid – even though I was 25 at the time, I’m not a six-year-old kid anymore – but still if your child is laying there on the ground giving signs that he’s paralysed you think the world is ending.
“Definitely she said, ‘you should stop, you’ve won everything you possibly could so you should really stop’.
“But then when time goes on, three or four weeks and you don’t have any pain anymore, and you’re healed up completely you’re like ‘let’s go ride again’.
“I believe also, for a parent, it’s a difficult sport.”
Herlings features in Red Bull’s brand new ‘MX World’ Series – a docuseries which follows the KLM Factory Racing team throughout last season.
The series includes an episode specifically focusing on the 26-year-old where he watches the crash back and relives the moment. It’s never an easy watch regardless of how much time has passed.
“Because of that crash you’re almost so close to almost spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair,” Herlings said.
“Definitely it’s like a wake-up call, or a last warning type of thing you know?”
“Losing another championship”
The crash in Italy effectively signalled the end of the 2020 season for Herlings, as he later opted to have the surgery to fix his foot while he was recovering from the head-first collision.
Then there was his own recovery to think about. Physically it wasn’t so bad, despite a few awkward nights of sleep thanks to the pain, but it presented different challenges mentally.
“The physical part wasn’t so bad but the mental part – knowing you were almost paralysed from your chin down, losing another championship,” he explained.
“We were looking so strong and so consistent last year, that was tough. But things happen and you just have to accept them and move on, right?
“You can think about it all day and all night, but it also gives you opportunities again. This year we learn, I had time to fix my foot during the time I was injured – so I was able to get that done as well.”
He continued: “It’s still not 100 per cent but it’s much better than it was. When I’m riding now, I’m not pain free 100 per cent but I’m feeling good enough and I’m feeling like I can still race for multiple years with it.
“When something is smashed, and something is broken, it will never really get to what it was before often, and this is one of those things.
“Also in a foot, I didn’t know there are so many bones, and a few of them kind of exploded because of the impact. There was so much cartilage getting damaged and the foot almost needs to be replaced with some bones.
“It’s actually better to break your femur, let’s say, because you just put a rod in, the thing heals and you’re good. Three months after you don’t feel like anything has happened.
“But with the foot it’s so small and so compact. It might be just a few inches big – what’s been broken – but throughout the rest of your life it can have a pretty big impact. But for now, I’m doing ok so it’s good.”
“This injury has made me realise how blessed I am with many things”
Herlings is unlikely to forget the moment he thought he might have been paralysed.
But it’s those testing memories, and the emotional trials that came with it, that have changed his outlook on life and on racing.
“I love the sport; I love doing it,” he said.
“Definitely when you get older you get different interests, and different kinds of things you enjoy doing.
“I spend time with my family more and, when I was 16, I used to hate going to a restaurant and sitting there all evening with people I maybe didn’t even like.
“Now, when I go to a restaurant, it’s just fun sitting there all evening, talking, and you’re not in that rush you know?
“Throughout my career things have changed and this injury has made me realise how blessed I am with many things.
“I’m not blessed with some things but, a lot of things I do, I am blessed. You start enjoying that a bit more.”
But it’s not just in life where things may have changed. It has also changed Herlings’ approach to racing with the 2021 season approaching.
“When I had the injury with my foot I was so lean, I was like under 6 per cent body fat, and I was just work, work,” he added.
“Obviously training morning, midday, evening – the only thing I was basically doing was training and then I was so tired and that’s why I crashed.
“Now I just enjoy racing and riding – it’s hard to say if I enjoy racing because I haven’t raced for a while as there’s no races at the moment – but I enjoy riding a lot.
“I enjoy just being there on track and I feel like, definitely the result counts, but I just want to have fun and then the result will come naturally.
“I used to always have the feeling like ‘hey I need the win, I want to win, if I don’t perform then the team will get upset, then the sponsors won’t be happy, my family won’t be happy, I won’t be happy.’
“But now I just go out and do my best and, if it’s a fifth, it’s a fifth. If my best is a fifth then everybody has to take it and it is like it is.
“With that behaviour I think it’s the best way to maybe be injury free, but time will tell.”
“I’m just going to go out, have fun and do the best I possibly can”
The 2021 World Championship start has currently been delayed due to the pandemic, with the first race currently scheduled for June 13 in Russia.
But whenever the racing finally gets back underway Herlings knows the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team are in a brilliant position.
“KTM have a great team and it’s maybe the most strong and powerful team in the paddock right now,” he said.
“Obviously it’s a personal opinion but you see throughout the years how many championships KTM has brought in the last 10 years – in MX2 and MXGP class.
“But definitely the competition is coming strong and there’s a lot of brands who want to compete with KTM. There’s Honda, there’s Yamaha, there’s Kawasaki – there’s a lot of teams who also want to win, beat KTM and beat their riders.
“But I think we have a strong line-up with me, [Jorge] Prado and [Tony] Cairoli so we’ll wait and see.
“But I’ll just try and enjoy it and the results will come. Definitely I want to win the championship but I’m not going to say today ‘I need to win this championship’.
“I’m just going to go out, have fun and do the best I possibly can.”
Interview and words: Alasdair Hooper
Image credits: Red Bull Content Pool
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald