Cham­pi­ons Com­pared

Mo­tocross and Mo­togp ath­letes at the peak of per­for­mance


In a sin­gle 30-minute heat, a mo­tocross pro will burn as many calo­ries as two marathon­ers and ex­pe­ri­ence twice the G-forces of a fighter pi­lot in full ver­ti­cal climb. A Mo­togp rider will wres­tle a 350-pound bike to the pave­ment hun­dreds of times per race at aver­age speeds of more than 100 mph and lose a half-gal­lon of sweat in the process.

Com­peti­tors at this level are nearly ma­chines them­selves, though of a dif­fer­ent sort, depend­ing on the dis­ci­pline. We broke down the key specs and char­ac­ter­is­tics of two dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent types of elite racer—the top-gun Mo­togp speed­ster ver­sus the air­borne, dirt-sling­ing mo­tocross ath­lete—to get a sense of that fuzzy bor­der at the edges of hu­man ef­fort.


Pro­fes­sional rid­ers come in all shapes and sizes, but ac­cord­ing to the num­bers, Mo­togp rid­ers are the smaller, slim­mer ath­letes. Look­ing at the personal stats of the 10 top-ranked rid­ers from both dis­ci­plines shows the “aver­age” elite Mo­togp racer stands just less than 5-foot-8 and weighs 143 pounds, while a com­pos­ite rider built from the best Mo­tocross 450-Class com­peti­tors would weigh 157 pounds at around 5-foot-10. The rule of thumb for cal­cu­lat­ing ad­di­tional body weight for adult men above 5 feet tall is 5 to 7 pounds per ex­tra inch of height. Here, the 14-pound weight dif­fer­ence for two ex­tra inches of height hits the up­per limit of that bench­mark. This sug­gests the mo­tocross ath­lete is pack­ing more mus­cle mass, which is rel­a­tively heav­ier.

“Mo­tocross rid­ers tend to have a bit more def­i­ni­tion and bulk,” con­firms renowned pro coach Al­don Baker, who has trained mo­tocross greats like Ryan Dungey and Marvin Musquin, as well as the late Amer­i­can Mo­togp rider Nicky Hay­den at his Baker’s Fac­tory com­pound in Florida. “Phys­i­cally, the Mo­togp rider needs to be leaner with not as much mus­cle be­cause, while mo­tocross rid­ers have to mus­cle the bike around more, a GP rider has to stay aero­dy­namic.”


A lot of the mo­tocross rider’s ex­tra mass is fo­cused in the legs. While Mo­togp rid­ers are like jock­eys, nim­bly shift­ing and lean­ing with the bike’s mo­men­tum to cut through the air, mo­tocross ath­letes ride a sig­nif­i­cantly lighter ma­chine but are con­stantly wrestling it around the track and are al­ways mov­ing along the spec­trum be­tween an up­right po­si­tion and sit­ting.

“If you look at how many times a mo­tocross rider squats dur­ing a race, it’s in­sane,” Baker says. “Watch the rider’s move­ment through­out a lap—it’s up-down, up-down, up-down. There are so many more move­ments in­volved in mo­tocross, whereas Mo­togp is more about pre­ci­sion, so the mo­tocross ath­lete is go­ing to be phys­i­cally stronger and more mus­cu­lar.”


The down­side of ex­tra bulk, of course, is slug­gish ac­cel­er­a­tion. It’s harder to mo­ti­vate a heavy bike-and-rider combo than a lighter one. And while the Mo­togp rider has a me­chan­i­cal ad­van­tage over the mo­tocross ath­lete thanks to a big­ger, faster mo­tor­cy­cle, pure ac­cel­er­a­tion is also far more im­por­tant in Grand Prix rac­ing. The rider does his part to goose the power-to-weight ad­van­tage in the only way he can: by stay­ing as trim as pos­si­ble.

“We al­ways had to watch Nicky’s [Hay­den] weight be­cause he was typ­i­cally a big­ger rider than ev­ery­body else in Mo­togp—he needed to be a lot leaner

But rac­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle at the pro­fes­sional level is bru­tal, ag­o­niz­ing work.

be­cause his team­mate, Dani Pe­drosa, was so small that his ac­cel­er­a­tion was phe­nom­e­nal,” Baker says. (Ac­cord­ing to cur­rent listed stats, Pe­drosa clocks in at just 112 pounds, which is within the nor­mal weight range for a 13-yearold Amer­i­can teenager.) “In For­mula 1 or NASCAR, they weigh the driv­ers then add weight to the cars to make it bal­anced. It doesn’t work that way with bikes. If the rider can be 30 pounds lighter, it re­ally helps.”


While there’s a marked dif­fer­ence be­tween Mo­togp and mo­tocross rac­ing for­mats and styles—mo­togp rid­ers race a roughly 45-minute sprint at speeds up to 217 mph, while mo­tocross ath­letes com­pete in a pair of 30-minute (plus two laps) “mo­tos” and rarely break 50 mph—baker says the two types of ath­letes are nearly iden­ti­cal in terms of car­dio­vas­cu­lar en­durance, with sim­i­lar train­ing zones and max heart rates in the 180s. Still, he says, the big­ger and more mus­cu­lar ath­lete will usu­ally have the en­durance ad­van­tage over a smaller, leaner com­peti­tor.

“When it came to phys­i­cal strength, mean­ing fa­tigue, Nicky was nat­u­rally stronger and could go longer,” Baker says. “Pe­drosa used to get tired—his arms were dy­ing at the end be­cause of the brak­ing.”

Baker says that the key fail­ure point for any com­pet­i­tive mo­tor­cy­clist is the arms—specif­i­cally, the fore­arm pump that hap­pens with re­peated brak­ing.

“The big­gest thing you do not mess with in either sport is the arms,” Baker says. “No curls! You never want to build up the bi­ceps or the fore­arms for mo­tor­cy­cles; if they load up, you’re done. When that lit­tle ball in your fore­arm starts con­tract­ing, then gets rock hard, you can’t brake—that’s the worst night­mare for a mo­tor­cy­cle guy. We’re al­ways do­ing ex­er­cises to stretch re­lieve any load­ing in the arms and fore­arms.”


An in­ter­est­ing point of dif­fer­ence be­tween the two sports is how each ath­lete is forced to ad­just as the race wears on and fa­tigue sets in. For the Mo­togp rider, “The course doesn’t change,” Baker says. “You’re not go­ing to come around the bend to find a big hole some­where or that the track got steeper.”

What changes is the bike: As the tires are scrubbed away, the grip gets looser and the bal­ance of the bike changes dra­mat­i­cally, re­quir­ing the rider to use more fi­nesse even as he tires phys­i­cally. In mo­tocross, it’s the op­po­site: Dirt rid­ing is eas­ier on the tires, so the bike es­sen­tially stays the same while the slick, muddy course is con­stantly mor­ph­ing. “You still have to mus­cle the bike to main­tain the pace,” Baker says, “but un­der con­di­tions that are chang­ing every lap.”


All mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing takes a toll on the body, whether it’s from heat, phys­i­cal and men­tal ex­er­tion, or a crash. The most sig­nif­i­cant phys­i­cal stress fac­tor ex­pe­ri­enced by any racer in any dis­ci­pline is cu­mu­la­tive G-force—the “push” on the body that comes from ac­cel­er­a­tion. But Mo­togp and mo­tocross, with their di­ver­gent styles, pun­ish ath­letes’ bod­ies in dif­fer­ent ways. The Mo­togp rider ex­pe­ri­ences the most G-forces un­der brak­ing, scrub­bing an im­mense amount of speed in mil­lisec­onds, while

a mo­tocross ath­lete is most af­fected dur­ing jumps—either the com­pres­sion be­fore launch­ing or while land­ing.

To get a sense of the types of forces with­stood by each ath­lete, we reached out to Michael Ford, pres­i­dent of LITPRO, a rider an­a­lyt­ics com­pany used by mul­ti­ple teams in Lu­cas Oil Pro Mo­tocross and Mon­ster En­ergy Su­per­cross. For a typ­i­cal mo­tocross lap in com­pe­ti­tion, LITPRO data shows the rider ex­pe­ri­ences aver­age G-forces in the range of 2.7 to 2.9 G, ex­clud­ing air­time. How­ever, peak G-forces, such as when the rider lands a big jump, are mas­sive (if short-lived): any­where from 10 to 20 G. As a point of com­par­i­son, elite fighter pi­lots main­tain around 9 G dur­ing a ver­ti­cal climb.

Data is harder to come by for Mo­togp; GP teams are no­to­ri­ously se­cre­tive about their an­a­lyt­ics, and while the LITPRO tracker is hel­met­mounted for dirt bike dis­ci­plines, the de­vice is at­tached to the mo­tor­cy­cle it­self dur­ing road-course test­ing. “The vi­bra­tion from the bike ar­ti­fi­cially in­flates [G-force data] enor­mously,” ac­cord­ing to Ford.

How­ever, some ex­trap­o­la­tion is pos­si­ble thanks to hel­met-mounted LITPRO data from a tal­ented am­a­teur rider on 1,000cc sport­bike do­ing Mo­toGP-style runs around Auto Club Speed­way in Fon­tana, Cal­i­for­nia. This data shows aver­age G-forces in the 1.7 to 1.9 range and peak G be­tween 3 and 4; adding about 15 per­cent to the top end—what Ford de­scribes as a fair dif­fer­ence be­tween a top am­a­teur and an elite pro, ac­cord­ing to much of his data—the num­bers sug­gest an aver­age of 2.0 to 2.2 G per lap (no air­time) and a grav­i­ta­tional force peak in the 4 to 6 G range. So while the speeds are up to four times as fast in Mo­togp, mo­tocross ath­letes seem to put up with more phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment.

“Mo­tocross is a lot more move­ment, hit­ting things hard—it beats you up more,” Baker says.


Baker is a big fan of yoga for all dis­ci­plines. “It’s es­pe­cially good for in­jury preven­tion be­cause they’re go­ing to crash at some point, and if you’re more flex­i­ble you tend to do bet­ter when you go down,” he says. It’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant for Mo­togp rid­ers be­cause the need to main­tain aero­dy­namic ef­fi­ciency forces the rider into a tight po­si­tion for long stretches of time, which is hard on the lower back.

“Mo­togp rid­ers are al­ways work­ing at a lean an­gle, off one leg, but they still have to steer and main­tain a change of di­rec­tion on a heav­ier bike,” Baker says. To help with this, Baker fo­cuses on what he calls a type of “an­gu­lar strength,” which helps a rider main­tain sta­bil­ity and force pro­duc­tion through awk­ward body po­si­tions. In the gym, that might mean pushups with bal­ance-ball hip ro­ta­tions, side lunges with shoul­der front dumb­bell raises, or sus­pen­sion-ca­ble chest presses that in­clude a pike on a medicine ball.

“With the mo­tocross guys, you have some lean an­gle, but it’s not as crazy as GP, so I try to in­cor­po­rate a lot of the semi-squat po­si­tion­ing,” Baker says. That means ex­er­cises like seated shoul­der press, wall squats with side- and front-shoul­der dumb­bell raises, kneel­ing on a bal­ance ball with dumb­bell shoul­der raises, and chest presses with weighted ball leg raises.

Both dis­ci­plines, Baker says, re­quire ex­ten­sive car­dio con­di­tion­ing, which comes in many forms: run­ning, cy­cling, swim­ming, row­ing, ski­ing, and stair­climber ma­chines.

One key dif­fer­ence, Baker says, is the Mo­togp ath­letes’ se­ries-im­posed lim­i­ta­tions on ac­tu­ally rid­ing the race­bike: Rid­ers are given only four prac­tice ses­sions be­fore qual­i­fy­ing. With so much time off the ma­chine, Baker would fill out the Mo­togp train­ing pro­gram with dy­namic el­e­ments like eye­sight and vi­sion ex­er­cises to im­prove re­ac­tion time, ply­o­met­rics, Su­per­moto, flat­track, and even mo­tocross rid­ing.

“In mo­tocross, we have our own tracks, we have the bike avail­abil­ity, so we hone our skills a lot more from rid­ing,” Baker con­cludes. “We stick to the ba­sics: Do we have our strength in check? Do we have our flex­i­bil­ity in check? Do we have our car­dio in check? But the rid­ing of the bike is most of it.”

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