“We’re not just sportsmen. We’re show-stars too.”

Words: Werner Jessner Photography: Julie Glassberg

When the outdoor motocross season revs up this month, the rise of a charismatic young rider from a small German town will be unmistakable.

Ford Field in downtown Detroit is sold out, with 60,000 spectators. It’s not the Lions on the bill; tonight it’s the AMA Supercross gasoline gladiators. 

There are jumps of over 100 feet and wicked washboards to look forward to but it’s really the jump combos that make this spectacular indoor form of motocross so appealing. Should the first couple of jumps be doubles, then triples? Or should you take the first three hills in one go and then do two doubles one after the other? The riders have precisely 10 minutes to familiarize themselves with the course before things get going. The spectators want action.

In amongst the American supercross elite we find Ken Roczen from Mattstedt, Germany. It’s only his rookie year, but the 20-year-old is already making noise—beating the field in his debut in January. When motocross’s top riders transition from indoor Supercross racing to outdoors, for the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series that kicks off in Glen Helen, Calif. this month, it’ll be Roczen who most will be watching. 

The 450cc four-stroke engines rev up, the gate comes down and it’s fireworks as 22 riders storm into the first corner. Cole Seely is sensational as he ends the first lap in the lead before being reeled in by James Stewart, who has the second most wins ever in the Supercross history. Roczen passes someone for 8th and goes for a wild attack on the two guys directly in front of him when all of a sudden he comes to a standstill at the point where the track leads up to the stands. He jumps off his KTM, tugs at and fumbles with the lever and kicks the brake disc. The rest of the field reappears and laps him before he can carry on, way behind them all and now without a hope in hell. A stone had got wedged in the brake caliper and ruined his race. 

At 8:37 p.m. that night, @KenRoczen94 tweeted: “Suuuper bummed.”

A lap time of 58 seconds on the training track, with 28 of those in the air.

It’s a traveling day for Roczen. Flight DL2028, Delta Airlines from Detroit to Orlando, Fla. Departure time 12:15 p.m., ETA 2:51 p.m. An incredible 17 races over four months with not a single weekend off takes its toll and requires both steely discipline and a set-up that may sound luxurious but whose sole purpose is to make sure he gets through the season safe and sound. He travels business class; a window seat to lean back in and a film on his iPad as he tries to get a few minutes’ sleep. He has two homes—one in California and one in Florida—so as not to spend even more time on the road in a season that covers the entire continent.

When Roczen gets off the plane in Orlando, he runs into fans who recognize him even though he’s in a hoodie. He knows the score. He stands patiently between the terminal and the baggage claim area and has his photo taken. “I talk to all of them,” he says. “Okay, if I’m sitting and having dinner, I might refuse to sign an autograph. But I once stood in front of [US motocross legend] Ricky Carmichael myself with my eyes open wide and a pen in my hand. I haven’t forgotten that.”

It’s taking a while for the baggage in Orlando to come through. Ken Roczen’s Ogio Rig 9800 gear bag, personalized with his start number of 94 and name, is the third item eventually spat out onto the conveyer belt. He’ll be home within the hour.

“I couldn’t have imagined doing all this by myself as recently as a year or two years ago,” he says. “Now I travel alone. I live alone most of the time. And I enjoy it too, to a certain extent.” His girlfriend Mariah still lives in California. They mainly see each other on race weekends.

Leaving his new home in Florida, Roczen drives his tricked-out Toyota Tundra half an hour to train at a course owned by his competitor, Ryan Villopoto.

© Julie Glassberg

Clermont, Florida, 11:30 a.m. A huge, dull-grey wrapped Toyota Tundra with a raised chassis sits outside the second house on the left-hand side of the street. It has the No. 94 emblazoned on one side, way more conspicuous than any house number. Its owner is half an hour late. His morning racing bike session went on a bit longer than expected. When Roczen rolls up on his black and white Specialized Tarmac, the display shows that he’s done a little over 36 miles.

“Sorry for the mess,” Roczen says. “I only moved in five weeks ago.” The front door is covered in notes from missed deliveries. Yesterday the huge flat-screen TV for the open-plan living room arrived. All the room has in it now is an armoire, a beanbag and a PlayStation 4 where NBA 2K14 is his favorite game.

The kitchen, though, is already in working order and Roczen gets down to business. He chops vegetables, puts them in the oven, steams a fish fillet and serves it with guacamole. His diet is strict, “all the more so because it’s so hard to get decent food in America.” In his case it means making sacrifices. No milk, no cheese, no sugar, no cheap fats, no white flour, almost no meat and omelettes made with three egg-whites for every yolk. Chocolate is out of the question, as is ice-cream. Once a week he’s allowed a frozen yogurt. “They even add sugar to the bread here,” Roczen says with a sigh and remembers his granny’s cooking. “Meatballs in white sauce with capers. Duck with dumplings and red cabbage. Bratwurst.” It’s all making him hungry.

But the strict regime his trainer Aldon Baker enforces reaps its rewards. Roczen is pure muscle. He’s athletic. There’s not an ounce of fat on his body. He’s agile and fit. “I came off hard at the race in Indy but on the Monday I was back on my bike. It’s definitely tough but I’m still not feeling any pain,” he says. Baker, a former road racer from South Africa, is seen as an authority among motorcyclists. He only works with the best: Ricky Carmichael, Stewart, last year’s champ Ryan Villopoto, former MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden. And now Ken Roczen.

Baker is not the type of guy you discuss things with. You do what he tells you to. As he explains: “At this level you have to strike the right balance between three things: endurance, strength/mobility and training on the bike itself.”

It’s 2:20 p.m. on a gated farm half an hour away from Roczen’s house. It has two supercross courses, a couple of regular motocross tracks, a flooded gravel pit and an indoor area. There are five diggers of all shapes and sizes, a truck with a water tank and a workshop with two workstations. This is paradise. Who does it belong to? “RV. But he lets me train here.” RV is Ryan Villopoto, the overall AMA Supercross leader and the man Roczen hopes to remove from his throne by next season at the latest. “There are only a handful of riders all over the world who can do supercross,” he says. “We help each other. It’s not easy to buy land in the U.S.”

Rookie Ken Roczen, above, flies high thanks to the advice of his coach, Aldon Baker, left.

The chassis on Roczen’s 450cc KTM is tuned so hard that normal people wouldn’t be able to ride it. “You’d go straight over the handlebars if you used an outdoor chassis on a washboard.” And once on the track it soon becomes clear why everything has to be the way it is. The wheels only touch the crest for a short moment on the whoops and narrowly spaced humps of the washboard, like a stone skimming the surface of a lake.

What is almost more impressive is how little time there is after they land to brake, shift down and hurtle into the bend. The final jump is 100-feet long with Baker standing on the landing ramp and a panel showing the lap-times. Even the tiniest mistake will lose you three-tenths. Roczen rides so perfectly that you can see those three tenths with the naked eye, like a picture that’s hung slightly crooked. Lap after lap, he lands the huge jump in a spot three feet square.

“Absolute precision is the secret to supercross,” he says. “Once you’ve got that down pat, it’s less demanding physically and of course you’re quicker too. It takes a while for you to be able to do that. But I’ve been doing it since I was five years old.”

His thoughts wander back to Germany and the parents who made the life he is living today possible. “They would stand there in the mud by the track,” Roczen says. “They put all their hopes in me. We had to watch every penny we spent. Now it’s paying off. They work for me. I want us all to have good, nice lives. Money comes with good results and character and now I’m the guy that a lot of people want a piece of.”

This year was meant to be a learning curve. No one would have thought that Roczen would be up there, battling it out for victory right from the start. The plan for next season is all-out attack. His contract with KTM is due to expire and so now the other factory teams are fighting to get their hands on the German hotshot.

“We’re not just sportsmen. We’re show-stars too,” Roczen says as he sits by his bike. There’s a blank look on his face after a long day: Two hours on his racing bike, three hours on his motorbike, an interview and a photo session behind him. Baker will be waiting for him again at his front door with the racing bike tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.

It’s sushi for dinner. Maybe he’ll play a quick game on his PS4.

Read more
06 2014 The Red Bulletin

Next story