In Search of MX in Tahiti
By Donn Maeda
Throughout my 25-year career as a moto journalist, my job has taken me to some pretty incredible places. While Lima, Ohio, and Hagerstown, West Virginia, for the Grand National Championship flat track races may have been forgettable, places like Asolo, Italy, and Tokyo, Japan, for motocross events have really left a lifelong impression on me.
Last month, my job took me to French Polynesia…the beaches of Teahupo’o, Tahiti, to be exact. While I won’t disclose exactly why I was there (you’ll have to wait for the September issue of TransWorld Motocross to see why), I will say that the trip was one I won’t soon forget. Though Tahiti is a dream vacation for most, it was a place on this earth that I never imagined that I’d ever visit. I don’t surf (I’m too fat to do sports that require no shirts), and I’ve never been a big seafood guy, so the two main reasons to spend time on an island are all but lost on me.
Knowing well that I would probably have a fair amount of free time while I wasn’t working, I decided to box up a mountain bike and bring it with me. Surely, there would be plenty of trails to explore on the island, right? Wrong! Though my google search did find some talk of mountain biking on Tahiti, I learned quickly that Tahiti is basically a mountain sticking out of the ocean, and people basically only populate a quarter-mile strip around its shore. Though I did find a fire road or two ascending the mountains, I was miffed to discover that they were actually driveways for wealthier Tahitian homesteads. Instead of logging miles on amazing trails in a tropical island paradise, my Santa Cruz Bronson was used as my main source of transportation, to and from my friends’ houses, the grocery store, and photo shoots.
One day, I emptied the camera equipment from my backpack and made the 20-mile roundtrip journey to Carrefour, the largest store on my area of the island. I thought that walking through the store in my TLD mountain bike gear and cycling shoes might draw some stares, but I seemed to blend right in with the locals, many of whom were decked out in One Industries, Fly Racing, Metal Mulisha, and DC t-shirts. After loading the sandwich supplies, cereal, milk and fruit into my backpack, I started to pedal back to my small apartment near Teahupo’o. About halfway back, a pickup truck with several local boys drive past, just as a banana splatted across my neck and into my ear. The look of joy on their faces and the cheers they emitted made me smile, and as I laughed and threw them a “shaka,” they got even more excited. Hey, at least they peeled the banana…a whole banana might have hurt!
Though there are indeed hotels in Tahiti – closer to the airport and big cities – there were no such accommodations where I was. My “apartment” was actually one of four or five bungalows located behind a main house. The family in the main house was very friendly and accommodating, and they seemed quite amused that I rode my bike everywhere, instead of driving a rental car. One of the only things I didn’t enjoy about Tahiti was the rarity of air conditioning. Well, that, and the absence of screen doors or window screens! Tahiti is hot and humid (think Loretta Lynn’s on steroids), and there are a bazillion mosquitos and other bugs that bite. The hot weather and lack of air conditioners force you to keep the windows and doors wide open for airflow, and this lets all the native insects in. Let’s just say that Tahitian insects must really like the taste of Japanese American tourists! I stopped keeping track when I counted by 90th bug bite… Because I was so sweaty and itchy, I think I might have averaged about four showers a day…all cold! My apartment itself was very clean and nice inside, but it was the scenery right outside my patio that really made the place amazing. Forget a private swimming pool…I had my own private waterfall! The sound of the water overpowered the buzzing of the mosquitos every night, and I slept like the dead.
From what I’ve been told, some of the world’s best surfing goes on in Tahiti, namely at Teahupo’o beach, which was a stone’s throw from my apartment. One day, I hired a small boat to take me out to the break, which is actually quite far from the shore, thanks to a huge coral reef that gives the famous wave its shape. All I could think about, was how tired I’d be by the time I paddled out to the waves. Had I been a surfer, that is!
Though I was super scared of losing my balance on the boat and dropping my camera into the water, I did manage to snap a few photos of guys who were surfing Teahupo’o. By chance, one of them was Mikey Taylor, one of skateboarding’s badasses. Funny how as a non-skater, I’ve been lucky enough to meet several of the sport’s best…Salman Agah and Steve Cabalerro being the others I can call friends. (My skateboarding career ended when I was 10. After my wheels skidded to a stop on an acorn, I lunged forward and sent my board shooting backwards, off the curb, across the street, and into the gutter. Never got her back…)
On one of my bike rides up the southwestern shore of the island, I was shocked and elated to spot a motocross track on the side of the highway. After pulling into the facility and riding a lap around the course on my MTB, I approached one of the workers and asked when the track was open for business. Imagine my surprise when they told me that the opening round of the Tahiti MX Nationals was that weekend!
When race day arrived, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Checking out the locals’ bikes, gear, and skills on the track was exciting. Though the event was small even by SoCal local race standards, the Tahitian MX National had more entrants than I expected. According to one of the locals who I spoke with, there are about 400 riders on the island, but only a hundred or so that actually race. Six-time Tahitian National Champion Raiarii Vonbalou looked really familiar, and after seeing the enzo racing stickers on his suspension, I remembered meeting him last year at Perris Raceway. He also competed in a round of our TWMX Race Series.
The machines and gear were a mix of new and old, but the one thing that was common was the excitement and passion for motocross among the riders. The track itself looked relatively simple with several small jumps and many banked corners, and the soil looked quite slippery…especially when it started to rain! The motos were actually quite lengthy, but since there were only five or six races, I could see how they could get away with good, solid motos. As the races blasted off the starting line, I began to wonder if I could borrow a bike and a set of gear for at least one moto in Tahiti. Better judgement took over before I even began to explore possibilities, though.
I spotted a lot of GoPro cameras on racer’s helmets and in the hands of fans. Having struggled to find a decent internet connection anywhere in Tahiti all week to check e-mails and post to the web site, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself how any locals could possibly share a video with anyone with the dial-up quality Internet service that was available on the island.
The pits were divided into two distinct areas: a paved strip that also hosted a small vendors’ row, in which racers pitted out of their trucks with canopies. The main area consisted of a large permanent structure that reminded me of my old high school pergola area, where my friends and I ate lunch. In this section of the pits, racers wheeled their bikes, tool boxes, gear bags and gas cans beneath the awning, where they set up next to each other. Ropes were strung up between the support poles to dry wet riding gear and display sponsor banners. A good deal of Monster Energy signage could be found, as the Tahitian importer is the main sponsor of MX on the island.
On the side of the pits, I spotted the podium! While the races were still going, it served as a table for the racers pitted closest to it. Still, it must be pretty rad for the top finishers in each class to get to stand atop it and receive their trophies.
The vendors’ row area was small, but there were necessities for sale, like goggles and tear offs. From what I gathered, there are two motorcycle dealerships on the island, and a new dirt bike costs upward of $10,000. I was also told that 250s are more popular than 450s, as the larger bikes are too powerful for the small Tahitian MX track.
The largest class of the day was the “Open” class, which included vets, a couple women, and anyone else who wanted to compete in a second class, as long as they were not pros. I did a double take when I realized that the guy who won the first moto was actually racing in a Fox Racing downhill mountain bike helmet!
As the skies opened up and a steady rain began to fall, I took that as my cue to pedal back to my apartment. I mean, I love motocross, but not enough to watch it in the pouring rain wearing flip flops and board shorts while trying to keep my camera equipment dry! As I rode down the road, two thoughts raced through my mind. First: that no matter where you are in the world, dirt bikes are the coolest things in the world and racing them is one of the best things you can do. The second? I was hoping that the banana-throwing locals wouldn’t hunt me down for a second direct hit!