Being Jeffrey Herlings

Highs, Lows, And Lots Of Winning

By Mike Emery

Editors Note: This article was originally printed in our July 2016 issue, and to celebrate Jeffrey’s third world championship we decided to share this utterly transparent and very entertaining interview as a digital feature. Now kick back and get to know the real Jeffrey Herlings…

This article should be prefaced with the truth: I wanted to dislike Jeffrey Herlings—I really did. I had based my opinion solely off snapshots I had seen throughout his career (some I loved, while some made me think, “Man, he seems like he’s kind of cocky!”). Before you get all judgmental on me now, understand this: We (especially Americans) only see so much of a person who’s successful or has fame through many different avenues of media—some within that person’s control and others very far from it. Herlings is definitely a polarizing character, and after spending a week with the young champion, I look back on the way I had perceived him and realize how wrong I was. Jeffrey Herlings is a completely humble, wise beyond his years, funny, very self-confident, and overly talented young motocross star.

Awaiting our sit-down at a coffee shop in Eindhoven, Netherlands, that preceded our lifestyle shoot for this article, I reflected on just how far out of his way Herlings went to ensure that the TransWorld Motocross crew enjoyed our time as we joined him in his pursuit of his 50th overall GP victory at Valkenswaard. And after offering us world-class hospitality in every way possible, providing complete transparency in his program, and even making sure we had our own chance to ride on the trip, Herlings was about to pull up a chair and provide me with one of the most honest 30-minute interviews I’d ever conducted. In walked Herlings, right on time, complete with his home laundry basket filled with shoes and apparel from his personal sponsor DC Shoes to change into for the shoot. Do your preconceived judgments justice and read on about what makes this young world champion tick.

What was a young Jeffrey Herlings’ dream? Did you always want to become a professional motocross racer?

Yeah, I always wanted to win. I had a big dream of coming to the US, and at one point that changed when I got a little older, but my main goal was always to win. The Lites class [MX2] is what I’ve won a couple times now, and I’m still trying to win it again this year, but then I want to win the championship in the premier class [MXGP] in the coming years.

Let’s first discuss the ultimate decision of staying in the MXGP series rather than coming to the United States to race—what were the main factors?

Supercross is obviously a really big thing in the US, and if you want to do well in the US, you have to do well in Supercross. I went to the States a couple of times to practice Supercross, and I went down a couple of times, and I really got homesick, too, after being there for like four weeks. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have friends there, and I couldn’t speak to my family at home because the time zone is opposite. When I was awake, they were sleeping, you know? It was all really tough, and I just pretty much gave up on the dream. Everything was going so well in Europe, too—I was winning championships, I was happy where I was, and I didn’t really want to leave home anymore.

Was that tough for you to accept?

When you’re a child, you always watch AMA Supercross—that’s the big thing. When I was small, I was always watching Bubba [James Stewart], [Ricky] Carmichael, even [Jeremy] McGrath a little bit. I wanted to be like them! Then when I got to the point of making a sacrifice to leave my family, my friends, and everything I’ve built up, it became a tough decision. [Ken] Roczen made that decision, and he did really well with it—he’s won some championships there and a lot of races. Sometimes I have doubts, but I’ve had a successful career already in Europe and it’s too late to go to America now, so I’m enjoying my decision to stay put.

Will Americans ever get to see you line up at an AMA Pro Motocross race?

I always wanted to do an outdoor race in America. The problem is that it would be right in the middle of our series, so that’s not the best possible scenario for our training schedule and our preparation, and that’s not cool. I had a plan to go to Unadilla, but just one or two weeks before I broke my femur and that was a pity. But hopefully we’ll still be able to race one in the future, and even maybe this year. I’ve discussed it already, but we’re only in the beginning of the season here in Europe, and things still have to fall into place, so nothing is decided yet.

So it is really out of your control, contrary to what many fans think? You can’t just say, “Hey, I want to go line up in America!”?

Yeah, it’s a team decision—not just my decision. We’d have to get the bikes over there, which wouldn’t be a big problem, but we’d still need to bring our own suspension and our own people. We have 18 races all over the world, as well, and to do that on a free weekend is not as easy as it seems. Also, the only thing I’m capable of accomplishing over there is losing my face. If I win, okay yeah, that’s great. But if I lose, people will always say, “When you went to America you got beat!” I wouldn’t care if I got beat—I wouldn’t want to—but the problem is that I can only race one or two motos, and I wouldn’t be able to have a revenge race or second chance on another weekend. I can pretty much only lose and not really gain much.

That’s what everyone said about Ryan Villopoto going to Europe.

And he actually lost, so that’s really relatable.

But Southwick is back! Everyone in America would love to see you race there, but at least people will know now it’s not 100 percent your decision.

Yeah, and I actually don’t even know if we have a race that weekend, as well. But if not, yeah, I would really love to go race that. I have tons of respect for the guys in America like Cooper Webb and Jeremy Martin. Those guys are freaking fast, and to beat them would be way harder than winning a GP on an MX2 bike, that’s for sure.

Touching on Villopoto’s run at the MXGPs, what were your thoughts on everything?

First of all, I was a big fan of Ryan Villopoto, and I still am. He was freaking amazing to see on a motorcycle hanging off the rear fender wide open—he had a really amazing style. Like I said before, he won so much in the sport: Supercross championships, outdoor championships, and Lites bike championships. What was there to gain, you know? He could only lose really—he had probably enough money in the bank account. To do that, I don’t know if it was smart or not, because he had already won everything in the US. He won the Motocross of Nations; he won literally everything he could. Coming here and after four races having an injury and having to get out of the season was not a nice way to end it, but he still had a really successful career aside from the ending that wasn’t so great in my opinion.

In America it’s common for top riders to have a trainer they work closely with, but you mentioned earlier your program is much the opposite.

I mean, its tough—I try to do everything myself [laughs]! I’m like rider, trainer, manager, gardener, and house cleaner. I kind of do everything; I don’t have much free time! But in America they have a goggle guy, gear guy, manager, and trainer. I think it’s a little bit different in Europe, and okay, I may be one of those extremist guys that try to do everything their own. Some guys have managers and trainers here, but it’s a little less crucial than in the US, or maybe it just seems that way.

Do you feel more proud of the success knowing you’re in control of pretty much everything in your program?

It’s tough because all of the decisions I make, I make myself. Whenever I go training and then I’m completely knackered on the weekend, I’m like, “Shit, I did something wrong this week or the last couple of weeks.” When I test something on the bike I have to say, “Okay, this is better,” or “that is better.’ I don’t have that trainer standing by my side saying, “Ah, I think this looked better,” or “that looked worse.” I have to make every decision by myself, so sometimes it’s tough. When you’re winning and pulling it off, you smile and think, “Yeah, I did a freaking good job.”

I know you would rather not discuss it, but these last two years with all of the injuries had to have sucked for you. Was that mentally the toughest thing you’ve had to deal with in your career?

Yeah, it did suck. In 19 years of my career I never had really any big injuries—I dislocated my shoulder once and I had a car accident, but nothing to do with riding. Then in the last two years, I broke a femur on a goddamn mini bike! Like a supermini [laughs]. That was the most frustrating thing—I was leading the championship with like 140 points and then that happened. It was a pity, but then I had even more bad luck. I got an infection in my leg, and at the end of the day I was out for seven months from the broken femur. So getting back to racing, I wasn’t in good shape, I was still sick, and I just wasn’t healthy. I had to start racing the new season unhealthy and then crashed again and got another injury. I couldn’t train, and it was just a big mess.

Run down the list of injuries you’ve dealt with in such a short span after the femur break for those that don’t know.

I broke my collarbone first, which was not such a big injury, but I wasn’t able to ride for two or three weeks. I had that plated and then I had to regroup. I came back and had a start crash in Sweden, and my pinky almost came off. We repaired that and then the next race was Loket. I didn’t ride for almost five or six weeks, I wasn’t in good shape, I had gone through two different surgeries, and everything was just a big mess. I started off really bad, worked my way up to the front, went down again, and then someone landed on my ass and dislocated my hip. Then I was out for like four or five months.

I remember seeing an Instagram post from you that summarized “F*CK 2015” in a few more words than that.

Yeah, I was like, “I’m done with this shit, I’m over it.” At that point I was almost thinking I just want to stop racing and just get a freaking normal job for maybe two or three grand a month and not take these risks. But then after a couple of weeks, I was like “Nah! I still love the sport. I still love racing and traveling and things like that.” This sport is sort of a drug when you’re winning, but when you get injured it’s also hard. You forget it really quickly, though.

Take us through that day you raced in Mexico to try and salvage the championship. That had to be some of the gnarliest pain you’ve ever experienced.

Well, I had tested that Thursday before, too. There was an infection in my bone, and it actually healed really badly. There was a rod inside my femur, so I went to ride that Thursday before Mexico and was able to do it, but it hurt really freaking bad. So then we went to Mexico and rode a couple of laps on Saturday just to make it into the race on Sunday. We took X-rays again that night in Mexico and found out the bone was re-broken, so nothing had healed, and I was just riding on a rod. If that rod would have broke, I don’t even know what would have happened. It would have been a big disaster. At that point, I was so close, so we decided to take the risk. We called a couple of doctors who told us if the rod is in there and I didn’t have any serious crashes it probably wouldn’t break. The first moto we came in like 13th or 14th, and I was in so much pain I took a couple of injections and some pain killers.

Have you ever felt pain that bad in your life?

No, never. I don’t wish that on anyone. It hurt so freaking bad. So then in the second moto, [Jordi] Tixier got the holeshot, and I saw that he had got it and I was like, “Okay, this is done. I’m gonna pull off.” And then I saw him on the ground somewhere halfway around the first lap with his arm between somebody else’s rear fender and rear tire. I was like, “Holy shit! This could still be a world championship right here.” At that point I just forgot about the pain, but it hurt so much with each jump I made, each time I had to put out my leg—just so much pain. I ended up losing the championship two laps before the end, because he was in fourth and only had to pass into third to win it. He made the pass with two laps to go, and it felt like my world was going to end. I’m 100 percent sure I would never take that risk again.

Out of all those hard times, do you think it made you a stronger person?

Ah, I don’t now. I mean, yeah, it made me a stronger person, but after all I know now, there was nothing to gain. Yeah, I would have won a championship, and it would have given me a nice championship bonus and a third world championship at the time, but putting my health at such a big risk was a really stupid thing to do.

You probably hear this from a lot of haters, but everyone always mentions that you’ve been in the MX2 [250cc] class for some years now. Some think it’s political, others say you’re a cherry picker. In your own words, talk about that and your career plan.

Okay, so this depends on many things. First of all, I was going to step up to the MX1 class after the year I broke my femur. I would have moved up at age 20 to ride in the MXGP class, which is still pretty young for the class. But then I broke my femur and got that infection and could only start riding in February—our season starts at the end of February. I could never, ever, ever have been ready for the MXGP class that quick and wasn’t even ready for the MX2 class either. In 2015 I broke my collarbone, almost ripped off my pinky, and then seriously dislocated my hip. So at that point they said I was out for another six months and that I would get back on the bike around mid-January. So by then I was back on the bike with only about one month to prepare, and one month is not enough to prepare for MXGP, and it’s the reason I’m still in MX2. People forget that I’ve had all these injuries that I had to go through, the pain that I went through, and all the bad luck that I had. If I didn’t have all that, I would be in the MXGP class already for two years and hopefully be up front there and winning. People just forget what I’ve been through and call me a sandbagger and a pussy or whatever, but if they had to go through what I had to go through, they wouldn’t say those things.

Do you feel like fans—especially Americans—misunderstand you sometimes?

You know, people only see the results and they say, “Oh, he’s been in the class for six or seven years now.” They forget I was winning GPs at age 15, where normal riders don’t win a GP until they’re around 20 or 21. So yeah, I’ve been in the class for a while, but let’s say I race until I’m 25 or 30—I’d still have five to 10 years in the MXGP class. What’s the point of going there so early when I still have so many years to go? For sure it’s the premier class, but like I said, I would have been there already if I didn’t have all the bad luck and injuries that I had.

Do you ever wish you could spend a few months in the States to show American fans who Jeffrey Herlings is as a person rather than have them have snapshots of your personality through social media?

Yeah, definitely, but everything gets so hyped up on social media lately. Social media has gotten bigger and bigger—it’s really important. You can also have a lot of negative things from social media, too, but even if I came to America this summer and won Southwick, they would say, “Yeah, but he’s only winning because it’s a sand race,” or “He’s only winning because he’s been on a 250 for so long,” or “Oh, he’s a pussy because he doesn’t race Dungey.” So whatever I do, people will always find new reasons to put you in the ground or hold something against you. Even Ryan Dungey—he’s a machine, he doesn’t do anything wrong, and people still try to find bad things about him like not being aggressive enough or whatever. He’s winning week in and week out, but it’s always easy for people to find negatives a lot of the time instead of positives.

What’s your vice?

Women. If God makes anything more beautiful than a woman, I don’t even want it [laughs]!

[Laughs] Amazing. Some guys love to buy cars and fancy things when they make some money—do you have anything fun that you spend your money on?

Many people forget that a motocross career is relatively short—in America even shorter than Europe sometimes. The top guys in the US probably make more money than in Europe, but people forget that even if you retire at age 25 or 30, there’s still a long way to go in life. I prefer to save it and spend a little bit later on instead of spending it all right now. I could spend it all now and then be broke at age 35. I have a good life right now, but at the same time, saving it will allow me to have a good life for the rest of my life.

That’s a pretty wise answer for a 21-year-old. Do you have influences around you to be smart with your money?

Yes and no. I mean, some of my friends say, “Man, if I had so much money like you, I would buy a Lamborghini!” or something like that. But in 20 years from now those guys probably won’t talk to me because I’m not that superstar anymore—not the number-one motocross rider in the world championship. Things change, and you just have to make decisions for yourself. For sure, I would like to have a luxury lifestyle, but there are other important things in life. If money needs to buy you happiness, then you’re not doing well.

Rapid-fire question: What’s your favorite music?

Justin Bieber.

Justin Bieber?!

I swear to God!

What’s you’re favorite song?

He has so many, but I like his new one that’s called “Love Yourself.” It’s freaking awesome, dude.

Owning it! You’re setting records at a young age—do you have any big goals that you’ve set out to achieve in your career?

I definitely did. Since a long time ago, I had a goal to win over 10 world championships and 100 overall GP wins. I should have had four world titles already, so that might have been possible, but now I only have two and due to injury I lost two. So that doesn’t seem possible anymore, but my dream is to win over 100 overall GP wins, because [Stefan] Everts has 101. I’m halfway there, so hopefully someday I can pass his record!

You’re known as a rider who wears his emotions on his sleeve and who’s more transparent during interviews. Cooper Webb is similar in the States for an example. Do you feel that’s accurate?

Yeah, I pride myself to be more like Cooper Webb than a guy who loses a main event by getting T-boned and then just says, “I want to thank this sponsor, that sponsor, that sponsor, and we had a good night.” I prefer something more like, “Ah, shit! That guy took me out. He cleaned me out, and I’m gonna get him back!” Seeing something more like that, it shows emotion and shows he wants to win with his whole heart. I prefer that over someone who acts like a machine only saying what they were told to say.

At 21 years old, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever experienced as a result of being a professional motocross rider?

I mean, I get a lot of things—not one specific thing. I get so many chances that a normal person doesn’t get. It’s a lot of small things, which I really appreciate. Getting free clothing or getting a car or free cycles or flying all around the world—those are all opportunities I’m getting that a normal kid my age wouldn’t get, so I’m really blessed.

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