Canadian Motocross is in a Good Place Right Now / The Alessi Effect
Story and photos by Billy Rainford
A lot gets said about the state of Canadian Motocross. A lot of negative things get said about Canadian Motocross. Sometimes, the most heard voices are the ones who scream the loudest and, unfortunately, those are usually the vocal chords attached to the ‘nay-est sayers’ in the crowd. But what is the real story? I think the truth is that we are in a pretty good place right now.
In 2014, we saw what must have been the most-competitive MX1 field in the history of the sport in this country. It’s not often we have one of the top-ranked amateur racers of all-time, a top 5 AMA outdoor rider, a consistent AMA Supercross main event qualifier, arguably the best starter in motocross history, and a rider with a back story interesting enough to fill the stands all by itself.
At first, you thought I was talking about different riders, didn’t you? Well, if you re-read that paragraph, you’ll see that I was talking about one rider: #800 Mike Alessi. When rumours of the Alessi Camp possibly bringing their talents and reputation north of the border started surfacing last year, everything changed for Canadian moto overnight.
There are probably only a small handful of riders who would have the same affect on our sport. Who would you put on this short list? Ryan Villopoto, James Stewart, Travis Pastrana, Antonio Cairoli, Ken Roczen, and Ryan Dungey? Maybe. Any one of those riders would create a buzz on the track, but it was this plus the added excitement of the possibility of all hell breaking loose at any time with ‘Mike and the Gang’ coming north.
We’ve seen many one-off events over the years with these guys: the infamous standing on the bike while pressing the kill button, ‘Lasergate,’ tears after a qualifying win, to name three. We all wanted to be at the race when/if something went down. I remember where I was when Elvis died (London, England) and we knew we wanted to be able to tell our grandchildren we were there “that crazy time when Tony Alessi _______.”
I’m not picking on these guys. In fact, I was able to get to know them a little bit over last summer and can tell you that they are some of the most passionate people you will ever meet. Mike was always very gracious with his time for interviews and whatever we needed. His dad, Tony, is definitely a little quirky, but every time I spoke with him he was polite and very accommodating with his time.
Nowhere does it say that athletes need to all be cut from the same cloth; it takes all kinds. I will go out on a limb here and say that without the characters, most sports would fall off the charts as far as spectator interest goes. We need these guys! Like it or not, Pro Sports are about putting bums in the seats and this takes personalities.
If you were to ask CMRC President Mark Stallybrass if he noticed a marked increase in interest level from south of the border last summer, you know he would say yes. All we at DMX had to do was make the lead photo of any of our reports Mike Alessi and the numbers would spike through the roof. Seriously, it made that much of a difference. Now, add in his MX2 teammate Vince Friese and you have a media outlets dream come true!
Not only was Vince talented enough to win the MX2 title, he made things interesting every time he showed up at the track. I will admit, I remember a couple years ago when it seemed every East Lites SX race he did he wound up getting involved with Canada’s SX superstar Cole Thompson, and, for that, we were all a little leery of his reputation.
Again, having said that, he was always very courteous with his time whenever we asked him for an interview. Not only that, he was always most-assuredly capable of creating a sound bite that would rock our little sport in Canada. With lines like, “I know I’m the best, I have no competition, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t win this series” (or words to that effect) he was instantly in all the riders’, media’s, and spectators’ heads. It was great!
I got texts, phone calls, and emails from people I know in the moto media south of the border almost every Monday asking what these two got up to on the weekend. Usually, all I could tell them was that they both won the races, but they weren’t really interested in that. They wanted to know about the silly stuff: the alleged cutting of the Kamloops track, the rows with Kaven Benoit, the tense relationship with Colton Facciotti, did Vince really slap someone?, Alessi got egged?!, whose brother did what?! were the stories they wanted. And then Mike’s brother Jeff showed up as we headed east…
Oh boy, what was this going to mean? Was he brought up here to mess with MX1 points’ leader Facciotti? Probably. I didn’t really see anything on the track between the two (Colton is a much faster rider), but I did see that Jeff lined up right beside Colton at Deschambault and didn’t stop talking to him at the line the entire time they were in staging. It was hilarious. Colton tried to ignore him but the chatter just kept coming. He was making an obvious attempt to get Facciotti off his game without having to put a bar or wheel in on him at all.
As things heated up out West, most people looked ahead on the calendar and circled the two rounds in Quebec as ‘payback time for Friese.’ Many fans thought he was going beyond the limits of competitiveness and would surely ‘get his’ when the series slipped into the bounds of Quebec. They are a very passionate province and unlikely to be accepting of any perceived mistreatment of one of their own.
I have never seen anything like what transpired at the Ulverton, PQ track. Kaven Benoit’s brother, Karel, got the festivities started early when, during the MX2 sight lap, he blasted off the gate after Vince Friese got announced and proceeded to do whatever he could to get in his head. It should be noted that they introduced 5 of the top MX2 riders to head out solo for their sight lap and Karel wasn’t one of them. You knew something was coming.
I won’t get into details, but there were some serious tempers flaring on the line before the moto. Fingers were being pointed and threats were being uttered. You can’t write this sort of stuff…but I’m trying.
In the first moto, Karel Benoit lined Friese up at the 180 left-hand turn at the top of one of the hills and proceeded to be ‘unable’ to remove his bike from on top of Friese’s. I snapped and snapped photos of it as it happened and couldn’t believe what my lens was seeing. It was the kind of move that instantly goes down in moto folklore, putting Karel in permanent infamy status.
When Friese’s turn to seek his revenge on Kaven Benoit in the second moto came and he punted him off the track it was all the French crowd could take. I saw three ex-pro racers out in the middle of the track as Friese circulated the rough course. I actually have photos of them but won’t post them here (please don’t email me for them, either).
When I approached the Smartop MotoConcepts rig at the end of the day to interview Vince, he said he was a little too heated and was afraid he might say something he’d regret. Later, as I was wandering around he said he was ready to talk and proceeded to call the Quebec fans, “like monkeys.” It made me wonder what he would have said had he not ‘cooled down?!’
By the end of the 2014 season, both Alessi and Friese finished 2nd in their respective classes. Mike was arguably the fastest rider at the track most times, and Vince was fast enough to win any time the gate dropped too. I don’t think it could have been scripted any better, though. Had they won, it would have been what they and most others expected, and that would be that. However, now that they didn’t accomplish what they set out to, maybe this means the fire still burns in them both and we’ll see their return in 2015.
With all three champions from the past 4 years returning in 2015 –Matt Goerke, Brett Metcalfe, and Colton Facciotti – and with the possibility of Alessi’s return, we could be in for the best season in Canadian MX1 history. Yep, I’ll probably say that again in 2016…