End of an era for the gladiators of motocross

This weekend's Motocross of Nations in Winchester will attract 250 million TV viewers. Mike Rowbottom reveals why
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The Independent Online

There is, it seems, only certainty about the Motocross of Nations taking place in Winchester this weekend - it will end in tears.

The 60th anniversary running of an event which is this sport's Olympics and World Cup rolled into one is expected to attract a crowd of between 25,000 and 40,000 to the Matterley Basin venue in Hampshire, and a worldwide television audience of 250 million. All those excited viewers are looking forward to emotional farewells from the two riders who have dominated the sport for the last decade on either side of the Atlantic - Stefan Everts, of Belgium, and Ricky Carmichael, of the United States.

What promises a final twist for all true motocross followers is the fact that Carmichael, generally recognised as the finest racer of his generation, sustained a nasty shoulder injury last Sunday week and may be present only as a lauded spectator.

Just in case, however, the man named as the US replacement in this annual three-man team competition, Ivan Tandesco, rides a similar bike to the man nicknamed "The Angry Little Elf". And given Carmichael's reputation as an unstoppable competitor, no one is ruling out the possibility that he might get on to his machine one last time.

Carmichael and Everts meet rarely, given the fractured nature of a sport that derives its name from a conflation of "motorcycle" and "cross-country". Originally established in Britain as "scrambling" in the 1920s, motocross became big in the United States after the Second World War.

But by the end of the 1970s the US National Series - involving outdoor racing and an indoor "supercross" circuit of short, spectacular man-made circuits - became pre-eminent, and since then the top US and European riders have only competed against each other regularly at the Motocross of Nations, where there are three categories - MX1, for 450cc machines, MX2, for 250cc, and MX Open.

Carmichael and Everts have chosen to end their competitive motorcycling careers for differing reasons. The American, still only 26 but with an unbeaten outdoor record, is rumoured to be contemplating a career in Nascar racing.

Everts, meanwhile, has reached the grand old age of 33, having clocked up a record 10 World Championship victories, with last weekend's performance in his final grand prix race in Ernée, France, taking his total of wins to 101.

He plans to spend more time at the family's motocross training school in Spain which is run by his father, Harry, himself a four-times world champion. But first there is the matter of his grand farewell in a race which may or may not contain the only man who has managed to get the better of him during his career.

After earning his final grand prix victory on Sunday, Everts admitted that tears had come into his eyes as he waited on the start line for the second of his runs. This weekend's conclusion to 18 years of racing promises to be similarly emotive.

Everts is hoping to earn a final victory for the Belgian team, with whom he has already won five times. And the news of Carmichael's injury has raised hopes that the defending champions - last year's result put them level with Britain on 16 victories - may be beatable.

Of the other 34 teams, France, Italy and New Zealand are most likely to prosper. Britain, whose last win was in 1994, appear to be some distance from the podium.

"I was sorry to hear the news about Ricky," Everts said. "This was our last meeting, and I would have a chance to try and give him a challenge. It will be a pity for our sport if we can't race each other. I would rather he was there, and 100 per cent fit."

Carmichael, who has beaten Everts at the last two Motocross of Nations events, has been suffering as he rehabilitates injured tendons and ligaments at a clinic in Tallahassee, Florida. It is a familiar situation for Everts, whose own career has been punctuated by injuries, including a ripped patella tendon and a broken ankle, as well as an accident which required his spleen to be removed. Riders may only travel at between 25 and 45mph, but when they go over the jumps they can be 80 to 90 feet in the air.

As the multiple world champion looks ahead to life after competition, a potential successor is already emerging - under his own roof. Two-year-old Liam, his son with partner Kelly, already knows how to sit on a bike and use the throttle. "The other day I told him to open the gas," Everts recalled. "And he said to me: 'I'm going to be a rider later'. I think there's a big chance there is going to be a third generation of racers..."

Further details available on www.mxofnations.com