Tykes on dirt bikes: Motocross sees unlikely youth boom during COVID-19 pandemic

There were over 830 entries for this year’s Walton TransCan – from four-year-olds to retirees.James Lissimore/The Globe and Mail

Dressed in stylish neon pants, plastic boots, goggles and oversized helmets that make them look an awful lot like bobblehead action figures, a group of about 30 young motocross racers – some of whom are still in kindergarten – spin some tiny engines at the starting gate of the 2021 Walton TransCan, the biggest race of their short careers. If this group of four-to-six-year-olds showed up on your doorstep on Halloween wearing their racing badges, you’d guess they were superheroes, but they’re, in fact, a sign of the shining. future of motorcycling.

Under blue skies on a Saturday in August, racers sit patiently astride their miniature motorcycles at Walton Raceway, home of the TransCan Grand National Championship, the most important event of the Canadian amateur motocross season. It’s a four-day affair that draws families from Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec and the Maritimes, as well as all of Ontario.

While parents snap photos and give last-minute pep talks, many young boys and girls look toward the first corner and wait for the starting gate to drop. When they do, they take off with surprising speed and sound like a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing in the distance. They bounce off the dirt road, catch some air over jumps, and generally create the kind of formative experiences that can lead to lifelong obsession with motorcycles, or so the industry hopes.

Melody Hodgson, co-owner of Walton Raceway, says there were more young racers this year than there have been in seven or eight years.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Young riders are the future of motocross, and this year at the TransCan there were more of these little rippers in the 50cc dirt bike class—and more young riders in general—than there were. had in seven or eight years, says Melody Hodgson, co-owner of Walton Raceway. For her and her family, the trail – on their 200-acre farm in Walton, Ontario. – is at home. You’ll find it northwest of Kitchener, in farm country not far from Lake Huron, and you’ll know you’re in the right place because the sign for Walton points to the hamlet as “Motocross Town.”

In total, there were more than 830 entries this year across all grades – from four-year-olds to retirees – which was the second-highest number in the event’s 29-year history, Ms Hodgson said. . “It’s more than phenomenal,” she adds. She is not alone. Organizers of other races, from house league events to the Ontario Provincial Amateur Series, say they’ve seen motocross participation roughly double since the pandemic began.

“It’s COVID, honestly,” Ms. Hodgson says. “There have been big downsides to the pandemic, obviously, but as far as this industry, motocross, we’re benefiting tremendously,” she says as another group of riders take off from the starting grid. Without team sports, in-person school and visiting friends for much of the past year and a half, more parents and children have turned to the dirt.

Canadian motocross champion Dylan Wright in action at the Pro National at Walton Raceway on August 15.James Lissimore/The Globe and Mail

This is good news, not only for Ms. Hodgson and Walton Raceway, but also for the future of motocross, and perhaps even for the motorcycle industry in general. Most of these young riders will not become professional racers, but some will surely go on to compete on weekends, ride forest trails or maybe even buy a Harley-Davidson.

Tom McMullin of Nottawa, Ont., a few minutes south of Collingwood, is at the TransCan with his five-year-old son, James, who races in the Tyke class for new riders; some of their bikes still have practice wheels, but they line up like the pros and twist the throttle when the flag drops. (That’s cute. But no young runner wants to hear that before a big race.)

Mr McMullin bought his son his first motorcycle during the pandemic. “He wakes up and he’s already put his jersey on and he’s like, ‘When can I go cycling?’ says Mr. McMullin. “It’s the only thing from last year that [James] really got serious,” he adds.

Motocross, however, is not a cheap sport to hook a kid on; the used Yamaha PW50 Mr. McMullin bought for his son cost $1,200. Protective gear costs at least a few hundred extra dollars. Newer 50cc class bikes cost anywhere from $1,800 to over $6,000 for a state-of-the-art electric KTM or Husqvarna.

65cc GP winner Braxton Zeitner with his mother at Walton Raceway. Race organizers say they have seen motocross participation roughly double since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.James Lissimore/The Globe and Mail

It’s not cheap, but since the riding takes place on closed courses in large outdoor areas and requires protective gear – in the form of helmets, goggles and gloves – motocross is an oddly perfect sport to practice. during a pandemic. This fact may not have been on the minds of early entrants as they rode through muddy fields on crude motorcycles in the 1920s, but it has nevertheless helped sell a lot of motorcycles recently.

Along with other outdoor recreational vehicles like bicycles and jet skis, sales of dirt bikes of the kind you see at TransCan skyrocketed last year. So far in 2021, sales are down slightly from last year’s record highs, but experts and industry insiders have suggested the drop has more to do with supply shortages and shipping problems than a lack of demand. For its part, Walton Raceway ordered 15 dirt bikes for its learn-to-ride program, but only about half were delivered and they arrived late.

Finding a place to ride is a bigger issue for Amanda Keller’s four-year-old son, Ryder Jamieson, who got his first bike during the pandemic. They live in a townhouse in Alliston, Ontario, about 40 minutes southwest of Barrie. At the TransCan, Ryder can let the 50cc motor sing, but back home neighbors complained when it rolled behind their homes.

This is the biggest challenge in sport, admits Jean-Sébastien Roy. “It’s hard to find places to ride” without upsetting the neighbors, he says. JSR, as motocross fans call him, has been around dirt bikes since the 1980s, first as a racer, winning the TransCan in the 90s and early 2000s, and now as a manager. racing team for KTM, a major European motorcycle brand.

He understands that some parents might be reluctant to let their child or teenager ride a motorcycle. There are risks, but he thinks five is the perfect time to start riding. “They don’t hurt each other,” he says. “They learn to plant and get back up. They learn to fight with each other at racing speed.

The TransCan Grand National Championship attracts families from Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec and the Maritimes, as well as all of Ontario.James Lissimore/The Globe and Mail

Despite the risks and costs, JSR says participation in motocross has been growing, albeit slowly, since around 2011 – until the pandemic gave the sport a huge boost. This was made possible in part by Ryan Gauld, president of Amateur Motocross Ontario, one of the sport’s sanctioning bodies. Mr. Gauld lobbied the townships and the provincial government to ensure the events could take place with proper security measures.

It’s not just young riders getting into motocross now; Brett Lee – Melody Hodgson’s husband and Walton Raceway’s other co-owner – recently started racing again after a 15-year hiatus. “I hit one of the big jumps here and you feel a little alive,” says Lee, still enthusiastic even after four long days of racing the TransCan.

Whether or not the pandemic-fueled motocross boom turns out to be a blow, one thing is certain: once you ride a motorcycle, it tends to be something you want to do over and over again, and maybe for the rest of your life.

For the motorcycle industry, the boom is welcome, although road-legal bikes still account for the majority of sales. For Brett Lee, Melody Hodgson and their family farm, however, the boom means everything.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, they struggled to make TransCan what it is today. “We just didn’t have the money,” Ms. Hodgson recalls. In 2018, they were happy to break even at the event. “You try to pay the mortgage on the farm, you try to make sure you pay all your debts, pay the bills, and there was just nothing more.” Now, she says, the future looks bright.

After the final race of the 2021 TransCan, Ms. Hodgson and Mr. Lee present trophies on stage as the sun sets. The names of the Tyke class riders are called out – including James McMullin and Ryder Jamieson – and they all take to the podium to collect their plates for what could be the first of many times.

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