Photos/Interview | Donn Maeda
With a new season comes a lot of changes, but that’s not necessarily the case for Christian Craig. The Geico Honda rider is only making a few changes to his program in preparation for the 2017 racing season, but he’s ensuring that they’re the right ones. Recently, we sat down with Craig to see what he’s been up to, and to hear about these changes a little more in depth.
We're a little less than two months out from Anaheim 1, and you've been riding for about three months by now since your broken leg, right?
Yeah, roughly three months by now.
Are you as far along yet as you would be had you been riding all along? Have you caught up to where you left off?
I'd say so, but my leg isn't quite 100% yet. I'm getting there, though. It's just a little weak still. It's not like I'm currently dealing with a broken leg and trying to be strong about it, but it is healing and it's doing everything that it should be doing. I'm trying to get stronger, but it takes time and my doctor says that I'm on the right path. Every day that I ride, it gets better though. At first, it was a struggle because I couldn't even put my leg out for a while, but it's slowly feeling better and I'm starting to lean into my right-hand corners again instead of only the left-handers. I'm starting to have fun again, which is key, but most importantly I'm feeling better on the bike.
You broke your tibia and fibula back in May, so what specifically needs to get stronger?
I need to regain my muscle strength again in my leg. I lost all of the muscle around the injured area, and even if you look at my leg from behind you can see one of my calf muscles is smaller than the other. I still managed to lose all that muscle even though I began walking on it a couple weeks later. I had a limp for a long time and I think I still do here and there, but I still can't run and that's one of the things I'd like to get back to. I think once I'm able to run I'll know in my head that I'm close to if not at 100%. It's going to take baby steps though, and I have to take my time to get there.
Racing motocross is a lot of impact on the human body. Even though you have exceptional suspension, do the harsh landings, square edges and acceleration bumps still cause you pain when you ride?
It'll hurt here and there, especially if I case a triple or something like that. It's just one of those things that you have to shake off in order to keep moving forward. It's not terrible though. I've dabbed it a couple times on the ground while I was riding, and that didn't feel very good. It's almost as if it needs to get used to that beating and abuse again. It's just one of those things that you have to go through because a rider's legs have to get used to that constant abuse.
You've transitioned from motocross into Supercross by now to get ready for the season opener in January. One might assume that Supercross is harder on your leg because of the impact of the whoops and jumps, but you mentioned that it's actually easier on your leg?
Yeah, outdoor tracks tend to get pretty rough, and that puts a beating on your whole body; especially your legs. Supercross typically doesn't get as rough, but there's a lot of cornering so your chances of dabbing your foot on the ground are increased. I've come to realize though, that since I started riding Supercross I'm not complaining about my leg as much. When I initially started riding outdoors again I would do two, ten minute motos, and by the time I was done my leg was toast. Now I can do two, 15 lap motos without any problems. I'm glad we're preparing for Supercross instead of outdoors because that would be a lot harder on my leg.
How much do you expect to gain between now and the season opener, fitness and speed wise?
I think my fitness is there because I feel like I'm right where I left off. In Vegas, I felt pretty good, but now it's a matter of progressing and putting the pieces together to figure out why I faded in this race or why I crashed in that race or why didn't I win this race. I'll break that stuff down and come up with a solution to keep myself from making those mistakes again. I recently hired a riding coach to help me pick out and correct those mistakes, as well. I think my fitness is good, and I know my speed is good. I think having that confidence and knowing that I can win though, is the biggest thing for me. I was doubting myself a lot before, and to finally get a win under my belt was huge. It's like something clicks in your head once you get that first win because from that point on you know you can do it again.
You've recently hired David Vuillemin to be your riding coach, who's obviously had a lot of success as a racer in the United States and in Europe. He was always a very smooth rider like yourself, but the two of your have completely different riding styles. As a coach, what does he bring to the table for you?
David informs me of what worked for him in order to win races, but then he also educates me on the mistakes he made that may have cost him a race win. He's good at pinpointing exactly what worked for him and when.
He's never really been known as a riding coach, right?
Right. I never would have predicted this to be in my future. It really came together out of nowhere, actually. My wife and I were listening to a radio show that David was a guest on, and he had mentioned that he was interested in working with a racer that believes in them self and can win races, and for whatever reason that just got my attention. We were immediately in contact with him, and before you know it we were at lunch with him the following week. He was really straight-forward and he explained that he's not there to be my best friend; he's there to help me win races. If I hit a corner wrong then he'll say, "Hey, why'd you hit this corner so bad?" so that's something that I'm getting used to. I think a lot of riders are used to hearing, "You look good out there!" instead of an actual critique. I think it's extremely important to have someone that's going to give it to you straight and right to the point without beating around the bush. To have David here in my corner is huge. It's all about how you take that critique, as well. You can take it personal and be sensitive about it or you can take the advice and improve yourself. I feel like I have a good team put together and I'm doing whatever it takes to win this championship.
By now you have a few weeks under your belt with David. How many times have you said to yourself, "This guy is a dick!" because he's so honest.
(Laughs) He's extremely straight-forward. He mentioned that when we initially discussed everything. He was like, "You know, I'm not going to be there to be your buddy. I'm going to be straight-forward, and if you can't handle that then don't hire me." and that's exactly what I was looking for. I wanted somebody that wasn't going to sugarcoat everything! Our first week together, we were more or less feeling each other out still, but the second week was a little tougher (laughs). I remember pulling off the track and saying, "Man, my lungs are on fire!" since I was breathing so hard. He turned around and said, "I don't care about that." (laughs). Again, I just have to keep in mind that he's doing this for my benefit.
Has he pointed out some surprising things about your technique?
Nothing technique wise, but he likes to stay on top of my bars, levers and other controls. I said to him, "Those levers aren't going down!" (laughs).
Yeah, his set-up was always kind of weird.
Yeah, so we'll mess around with each other like that, but he hasn't pointed out anything technique-wise, yet. It's only been a few weeks, but we've primarily been working on my sprint speed since my riding is so smooth. I can look good and smooth out there, but that intensity is what we're working on.
When looking at the tapes from your races in 2016, do you need to work on your sprint speed at the beginning of the race or do you need to work on maintaining that speed throughout the whole race?
It's funny because he watched one of the races from this year not too long ago, and when I saw him he said, "I watched your win last night. It was terrible! If I would have told you a few specific things before the race you would have won by ten seconds. It's crazy that you still won that night!" (laughs). Those are the kinds of things I'm getting used to. When I was leading those races I settled into that pace where I should have been sprinting. Instead, I should have been attacking everything on every lap. There was even a time or two when I had a big lead on Cooper (Webb), but he still managed to reel me in because I was riding smooth laps instead of attacking the course. Everything he said so far has proven to be true, so hopefully we can keep this relationship going.
It sounds like he's offering a lot of mental coaching…
Yeah, a little bit. He's told me to sprint in the beginning of the race and during the last couple laps. I actually have a mental coach that helps me out with that kind of stuff though. David primarily does the "on the bike" training. Like I said, I've got a ton of great people in my corner, and I can't wait to get everything going next year.
Your fitness trainer, John Wessling, you actually brought him to the team, and you're going on your second season with him. Is everything pretty routine now or is he still bringing new things to the table to get you in shape?
I think it's turned into a little bit of a routine, but here and there he throws in stuff that makes me think, "Are you serious?" Usually it's because I'm not expecting it. You go into the gym expecting to do one thing, but then he throws in something completely different. I think that's what I like about him, though. He throws in new stuff so that it's not the same repetitive routine over and over. It's a great way to keep you on your toes just like in the middle of a race.
Is it kind of cool to have a trainer that gets out and works alongside you as opposed to a guy that just tells you what to do?
Yeah, that's one of my big things. After I met John is when I noticed that prefers to work hands on with the riders. It's easy to wind up with a fitness trainer that doesn't actually work with the rider. He's there in every aspect, and during our bike rides he's always right behind me giving me some sort of motivation. We have a good thing going and I hope to keep it up.
What's the team dynamic like at Geico, now? You have a new teammate in Jeremy Martin and a new junior teammate Chase Sexton that's moving up next year.
The team gels really well. We all get along great and if I need anything from anyone including Jeremy's mechanic Richard (Sterling) they'll drop whatever it is that they're doing to help me. It's not like it's Team Christian Craig and Team Jeremy Martin over here or anything like that. This team is more of a family than anything. I've known Jeremy for a while now, and when I lived in Minnesota he was obviously living there, as well, and it turns out that John knows him really well. It's kind of cool to see him come on board because he's a two-time outdoor champion. I have a lot to learn from him, so I try to be a sponge when I'm around him. He's a hard worker and he has true grit, which is exactly what I'm looking for. I want to be known as a hard-worker, and that's exactly what he is.
Since the team will likely split you and J-Mart up for each region, it's safe to say that within the field of potential competitors, both of you are favorites in each of your respected regions. How does that feel for you, to come into a season as a championship favorite?
I think it's huge! I've never been in a situation like this heading into Supercross. After two years away from racing, there was no telling how I was going to stack up indoors, but once I won and racked up five podiums, I think I opened some people's eyes. I can always appreciate an underdog story. I don't necessarily like to be the title favorite because everyone expects them to dominate, which is obviously what I want to do, but I want to be the guy that makes everyone say "Whoa, this guy came out of nowhere and he showed everybody that he belongs up front." It is a really cool feeling though. I was pretty close to the title last year with twenty-something points, and I think at one point I was only twelve points out. Like you said, I think we're both favored to win since we've both won main events in the past, but it’s not Jeremy and I are the only favorites on the team, either. We have a powerhouse team that's going to show everyone what we're made of in just a few weeks.
Let's talk about the bike. The 2017 production Honda CRF 250R is unchanged from last year. Is your race bike now pretty similar to the one you raced last year?
Honda went all out with their 450 for 2017, which is great and I think later on down the road, they're going to move on to their 250. Our 250 is very strong, though. We've really never had any issues with it. We have a good team that builds crazy fast bikes, but to answer your question the bike that I'll be racing on next year will be very similar to last year's bike. It's a solid bike already, but we're going to tweak some things and work on some suspension settings here to see what we can come up with. Again, it's pretty much the same bike from last year, and I never had any complaints about it.
At this level, top professional teams continue to test even after the right settings have been found for a rider. Have you tried different suspension brands?
Yeah, I think a lot of teams have done that, now. We actually switched suspension manufacturers during outdoors, and a bunch of people noticed. We had a suspension test a couple of weeks ago and Jeremy and I made a decision at the end of the day. We tried out both brands, so I think we got a good look at what we might have for next year.
Did it have to be a unified choice between the two of you?
I'm not sure, but if it came down to it maybe we could each run something different. Either way though, we both agreed on one specific brand. If your suspension is hindering you from winning then I think the team will step in and do something about it. At the end of the day though, it's what makes the happy.
The one thing in your program that will be changing though, is your number. What did you think when you found out that your new number is 48?
You've been number 48 forever and for some reason my initial thought was Jimmie Johnson. Since I was 38 last year, I knew it was going to change since I got hurt, but when I saw 48 I thought, "Alright, I'm good with that!" I know you're going to play some jokes on me or something like that, but I think it's a good-looking number (laughs).
Can we assume that you're hoping for West Coast?
Yeah, I'd like to do West Coast. I'll be ready no matter what. If the team decides they want me to do East Coast though, then I'm ready. I want them to know that I'm ready no matter what. I would like to do West because that's all I've done, and I know all the tracks and what to expect, so we'll see here in just a few weeks.