This article was originally printed in our December 2017 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Don't Tread on Me
Zach Osborne Recounts The Remarkable Highs And Lows Of Representing The Stars And Stripes At The 2017 Monster Energy Motocross Of Nations.
By Eric Johnson | Photos by Mike Emery
Team USA MX2 racer Zach Osborne put in exactly 35 laps at the 2017 Monster Energy Motocross of Nations, and he'll remember every single one of them for the rest of his racing life. The Motocross of Nations is far and away the single most important motocross race in the world, with the 71st annual running of the race dating all of the way back to 1947. Osborne was keenly aware of this when he voluntarily went to longtime Team USA team leader Roger DeCoster and asked to be among the three-man team destined for the sweeping Matterley Basin track located on the outskirts of London. As always, the goal would be to try and win back the Chamberlain Trophy, a trophy the Americans had claimed on 22 separate occasions and a trophy that had not had an American hand on it in in five years.
As a former Grand Prix rider, Osborne was determined to find his way back onto a world-class American factory team. After doing just that, and becoming a 250SX and National MX champion in 2017, he had a score to settle with the Grand Prix riders. With this wholehearted determination fueling him, Osborne did quite well representing American motocross at this year's Motocross of Nations. Aboard his Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing FC 250, he commandingly won the MX2 Qualifying race by charging from way back to pass Australian Hunter Lawrence on the last lap. The following day, he placed 10th overall in the opening MXGP and MX2 moto, and third overall in the MX2 and Open moto. Those results sound good as is, but against MX2 riders only, those scores earned him third and first. While the American team could only manage a ninth-place overall finish, Osborne, of Abingdon, Virginia, was able to leave Europe somewhat content in knowing that he had put in an outstanding performance.
The day after arriving home from Winchester, England, TransWorld Motocross spent some time with Osborne. We asked the 28-year-old to reflect back on just what played out before, during, and after the 2017 Monster Energy Motocross of Nations. Osborne still had things fresh on his mind, and he recounted the event and all that went into it. It is without a doubt an uncompromising, very interesting glimpse inside the American camp.
"I wanted to go right from the start. I went up to Roger DeCoster right after Hangtown and told him, 'Hey, look, I want to be on the squad to go to England and I hope you'll consider me,'" Osborne said. "He listened to me and it ended up working out. I was on the team."
Three months later, on Saturday, August 12, 2017, at the Unadilla Valley Sports Center in New Berlin, New York, it would be officially announced that Zach Osborne, fellow AMA rider Cole Seely, and 250cc MXGP rider Thomas Covington would represent Team USA at the Motocross of Nations. Osborne was named team captain as an MX2 rider and was quite pleased with the squad.
"I felt good about the team," Osborne said. "It was a group of guys who wanted to go and were passionate about being there, and I felt like that was a huge step in the right direction, and I felt like we had a fighting chance, for sure."
In his desire to get to Europe and to begin getting his Husqvarna FC 250 race bike sorted out and dialed in, Osborne arrived in England two weeks before the actual running of the race. Somewhat interestingly, Osborne would not see his American teammates until the Friday of race weekend.
"I was there for about two weeks prior to the race training and getting ready and stuff," Osborne said. "I was pretty comfortable coming in. Heading into the event, we never got to ride as a team. I didn't really think riding together as a team was going to make a big difference in the result, but looking back, maybe it could have made for a little bit better atmosphere. At the same time, we all got along really well and all three of us had the same goal in mind. We did the track walk together on Friday and I felt like, as far as atmosphere and all that stuff goes, we were pretty good. There weren't any issues. I felt really good about the track and everything else, and I was excited for the race and excited for my first Team USA experience. I could really sense the atmosphere and the electricity in the air."
Saturday morning, September 30, the weather was gloomy, but mercifully dry. With the weather gods seemingly determined to send rain clouds over the south of England the entire weekend, Osborne was pleased when he drew open the hotel room drapery and looked out.
"I was pumped when I woke up on Saturday morning. It was supposed to rain on Friday night, and I woke up and looked out and could see that it had rained some, but not a ton. The further and further we drove towards the track, it got drier and drier. When we got there, there was a 125 race before MXGP practice, then came MXGP practice and then us [MX2]. By the time we hit the track it was absolutely awesome, and it was just a track that I really enjoyed. I jelled with the track instantly. In fact, we had to make a couple of changes just because the track was so grippy that it was just pulling the bike down, so I needed the bike to be a little bit stiffer with the suspension and everything. Once we got that dialed in for the heat race, I felt really, really good."
The first sign of the rough weekend the American effort would face at Matterley Basin showed itself with the Ping-Pong ball drawing for gate position for the Saturday qualifying races for gate pick. Somehow, Team USA drew the 37th gate pick. Osborne cringed with the news.
"Not pretty bad, it was almost the worst possible scenario," Osborne said, scoffing at the situation. "Luckily, we were 37th instead of 38th. I don't know how much difference that would have made anyways."
From his 37th pick starting spot, Osborne looked for daylight in the melee that was the first turn of the MX2 qualifying heat. "I got off to a 15th-place start from the very outside gate, which was a pretty big disadvantage. At the time when they told us we start 37th, I felt like it wasn't life or death and I felt like the start was pretty fair, but it was actually quite a bit further around than I had anticipated. I came out of the first turn about 15th or 16th and just set my sights on just getting up through pack. Ultimately, I got into second and Hunter Lawrence of Australia was about 10 to 12 seconds out on me and I was kind of settled in there in second. I didn't think there was going to be any way I could catch him. As the race wound down, I came around for the pit board and my mechanic, David [Feeney], had put on it, '+10 four laps,' and I was like, 'Oh man, I can maybe do that. I've kind of been lollygagging here. Maybe I can drop the hammer here and get close.' During the next two laps, I took two or three seconds a piece out of them, and I was right up to his back wheel and was able to make the pass on the last lap after a little bit of a battle with him and take the win.
"You know, that's kind of been my moneymaker this whole season," Osborne said, explaining his last lap pass. "Come to the end of the race and those sorts of last-ditch effort passes I've been able to make have really helped me, and it was no different on Saturday. I was jelling with the track and I felt like I could turn everywhere. There was traction everywhere that I wanted to be. The bike was working perfectly. I dropped the hammer in that race, and it worked out perfectly for me."
After all was said and done and Saturday's three qualifying races run, Team USA—with Osborne's win and Thomas Covington's seventh-place score in the Open class coupled in with Cole Seeley's ninth in MXGP—slotted in at a very respectable fourth place in overall qualifying for Sunday's main event.
"Roger was pretty happy with the effort on Saturday," Osborne said. "Cole, I think he was a little bit unsure. He felt like he could have done a little better in the heat race. Thomas had a really good idea of what he was looking for from the bike and stuff for Sunday. The way he saw his end of it was pretty simple. I think we had a really good sense that we could be on the podium or challenging for a win when we went to be on Saturday night."
Saturday night and into Sunday morning, things took another turn for the worse for the three Americans when the storm clouds settled in over the Matterley Basin circuit and started spitting down rain. While an equalizer for all the competing nation states, it really wasn't what Osborne wanted to see.
"That was the biggest bummer when we woke up on Sunday morning and it had finally done what they were saying it was going to do all weekend, which was to rain," Osborne said. "It was just the biggest bummer because the rain ruined one of the best tracks in the world, in my opinion."
At the call for the opening MXGP and MX2 moto to the starting gate, Osborne and teammate Seely took their assigned gate positions and waited for the inevitable.
"I was definitely a little nervous about the start before the first moto because with the big bikes it was easy to get pinched down, and if someone was to fall in front of you, you were going straight to the back," Osborne said." I knew that one little mistake could cost you four or five seconds on the 250. I decided to not take the sight lap and just save the bike and keep it clean.
"The start worked out okay, and I got a decent start and worked up through the pack to sixth or seventh," Osborne said. "Then I lost my goggles and got hit by a rock in the eye and that cost me a couple of positions because I couldn't open my eye for a couple of laps. Other than that, it was a decent moto. I didn't feel like I rode nearly as well I did in the qualifying moto, but it wasn't terrible."
Osborne's 10th-place finish wasn't disastrous, but Cole Seely's shock breaking caused him to end up back in 37th place before retiring with a DNF. Already back on their heels with only one moto run, a somber mood blanketed the American pit area.
"It was an 'Oh, crap!' moment after the moto," Osborne said. "It was like, 'Here we are with unneeded high scores and it's a muddy day and we've already had a throwaway score in the first moto.' Also, my 10th was not an ideal score."
Soon after the gate dropped to start the MX2 and Open moto and the roaring pack slithered out onto the Matterley circuit, Osborne found himself in a spirited battle with fellow MX2 combatant Lawrence. Trading track position on several occasions, the two raced up the leaderboard in a quest to be the top 250 rider. With two laps remaining in the moto the Australian held the sway before tossing it away and dropping down to eighth. Osborne, meanwhile, kept on charging and zapped Italian Open rider Alessandro Lupino on the last lap to finish the moto in a remarkable third-place position.
"In the second moto I felt really good," Osborne said. "Even though I lost my goggles again right off the bat, I kind of found my rhythm. It was still raining, but I knew I had a couple of places on the track where I was quite a bit better than the guys I was around, so I was just kind of using those spots to get closer to the leaders every lap. I was trying to make my moves as quick as I could. It was one of those races where I just had to kind of play my cards as the race came to me and I ended up making some good passes and a couple of guys went down and I was able to take third in the moto, which was really good. My goal in going there was to try and win a moto, but with the conditions on race day, that just wasn't even close to being realistic with the guys on the 450s."
The third-place result was bittersweet for Osborne, as his teammate Thomas Covington was plagued by a poor start and a few in-race miscues and finished out the moto in 22nd. Back at the Team USA camp, reality was beginning to set in that 2017 was not to going to be their year at the Motocross of Nations.
"After that second moto, at that point, we could all kind of see it slipping away and could see that it was not going to happen and that we would not be standing on the podium," Osborne said. "I think everyone was a little bit stunned that it went as south as it did. Especially after Saturday, which was a pretty strong showing for all three of us. I definitely think everyone was a little bit stunned that we ended up ninth overall after the last moto ran and that we didn't really make any impact on the race at all during the day. Everyone was proud of us for being there and they knew that we gave our best, but it was definitely a weird atmosphere after all three motos had run."
Much later that evening, after most of what was a crowd over upwards of 35,000 spectators had trudged out of the muddy, trash-strewn basin and the skies had darkened, the three Americans quietly ate dinner together in the Alpinestars' hospitality area.
"Thomas and Cole and I all went to dinner at the track," Osborne said. "Obviously, Cole was super bummed with what happened with the bike and that definitely wasn't his fault, but he felt like he had let everyone down. With Thomas, we knew his knee was kind of hurt, but then we found out he had a torn ACL. It was just a huge bummer for everyone. Nobody was mad at anyone or anything like that, but it was just a really tough pill to swallow, I guess."
As was announced at Matterley Basin over the weekend, the 2018 Monster Energy Motocross of Nations would be held at the storied Red Bud circuit in the United States of America. This will be the first time the race will be run in the US since Colorado in 2010, and there will undoubtedly be a number of American-born racers wanting to defend American soil come the autumn of '18. When asked if he'd like to be part of the American effort come a year's time, Osborne was quick to answer. "Oh yeah, I'm in," Osborne said enthusiastically. "I'm in anytime, for sure. I would love to go again and give it another try. I would love to have my name on that trophy. Like everything, having now experienced it once, I feel like I can do better again next time. Yeah, I'm disappointed, but for sure I have some unfinished business with that race."