There is one guy who can answer all of these questions, because he has been there and done that. Jeff Ward's credentials (the only rider to win 80, 125, 250, 500, and Supercross National Championships) speak for themselves. He even rode the same brand that Ricky rides. And for years pit pundits questioned whether he was too weak, too ragged, and most importantly, too short (he is about the same height as Ricky).
Today, Jeff is a highly respected Indy Racing League driver who has stood on the podium at the Indianapolis 500. The MXJ gang caught up with Jeff after he had just been chosen to race next years Indy 500 for racing legend AJ Foyt’s Power Team. This was a tremendous step up the career ladder for Jeff, and he was pumped. Still, he seemed just as excited to be talking to MXJ about Ricky Carmichael. Ricky has encountered problems that Jeff avoided in his MX career, and luck is not the reason. Speaking with Jeff, we couldn’t shake the feeling that he knows exactly what Ricky needs to get back on top of the podium. Here’s what Jeff had to say about Ricky.
MXJ: What do you see when you see Ricky ride his 250?
Jeff Ward: Ricky wants to ride his 250 like a 125. That is possible, but not without a substantial increase in his strength. The 250 gets away from Ricky in the whoops and in the ruts. If he was on a 125, he’d throw a foot down and overpower it.
Imagine that you are wrestling a steer. Suddenly the steer that you were wrestling weighs 30 pounds more, is twice as powerful and three times meaner. You are not going to take it down as easily. You need more strength. Going from a 125 to a 250 is the same thing. There was no way I could have had success on the 250 or 500 without getting more upper body strength. It is easy to overpower a 125. Strength wise, you can hold it wide open over the bumps. That’s because the bike is lighter. The 250 is heavier, so you need to be stronger. Ricky is going to need more strength to bring it back when it gets out of shape.
It can’t just be as simple as upper body strength?
Building strength was the most important part of moving up to the 250 for me. And it was even more crucial when I moved up to the 500s. It is all weight versus strength. It has nothing to do with your speed. Anybody can go fast for a lap or two, but when it starts getting rough and you have to manhandle the bike, the difference between a 125 and 250 is giant.
What program did you switch to when you jumped up to the 250 class?
Jeff Spencer, my trainer, put together a rigorous training program with the goal of building my strength. We were not interested in building bulk. It was similar to Olympic lifting- dead lifts and jerks. The program didn’t have anything to do with endurance. If you get on an endurance training program, you wear your muscles out. If you do small reps for along time, you get pumped-up. It is like when you play a video game. You don’t use much pressure, but your arms can get pumped up because you are doing it for a long time.
Can any rider improve by lifting weights?
You have to use the weights properly. I picked up a ton of strength. Jeff Spencer had me training in Pasadena, CA, with a Russian Olympic weight trainer. The guy was a former World Champion in the dead lift and clean and jerk. We did explosive type weight lifting. I used to jerk about 250 pounds. That’s a lot of weight for somebody who only weighed 150 pounds (laughs). I could dead lift almost 400 pounds.
You get down and you get psyched-up. It was all power. You just explode. Either you make it by throwing it up and dropping under it or your hands come off and you throw it out. It is a commitment that you are psyching up to do. It builds as much strength in your mind as it does your arms and shoulders. It improves your confidence.
How does this workout apply to Supercross and Motocross?
It is the same as on the bike. You ride relaxed and then - bam! - you need all of your strength because you got into a big swap or you cased it. Every time you case it or swap, you use up strength. The key is to have more strength than the other guys before you start the moto.
Many of the top riders feel that weight training will hurt more than help.
I know that Johnny O’Mara, who works closely with Ricky, is anti-weight training. He is more into endurance than strength. O’Mara ran marathons. He was on the mileage kick. I was on a 3 to 5 mile plan. It was 20 miles a week instead of 80, but everything I did was fast. Explosive. I’d go to a running track and do sprints. I didn’t do anything to wear my body out. Weight lifting really strengthens your body. Do it right, and you’ll have more energy when you leave the gym than when you arrived. You don’t do reps until you can’t do anymore. I trained with some football guys once and when I left the gym, I couldn’t lift the tailgate on my pickup! And I’m supposed to go riding after that? That doesn’t do you any good. The Spencer lifts I did, you just got stronger; you didn’t wear anything out. You’d get the muscles to their peak, and then you were done. You can lift everyday and not have a problem. If Ricky did that he would be 10 times better.
That’s a scary thought.
I told Kawasaki I’d work with Ricky on a strength training program. I taught Ryan Hughs and Jeff Matiasevich how to weight train. When I started with Chicken he was a weakling. His heaviest weight was where I started to warm-up. He could barely get it over his head. He started to get up there pretty decent. Neither of those guys had arm pump problems after lifting weights. How could it not help? You’re down at the bottom of the spectrum and by the end of the year, your up 100 pounds on your cleans. Strength is free. It doesn’t pump you up and you don’t get hurt as easily.
It was great for your wrists. I used to have bad wrists. Yu have to get your elbows real high and your wrists back when you come up on a clean. Your wrists get so flexible that your knuckles can almost touch your forearm. I believe that weight training is a lost art for motocrossers. Sure, motocross is an endurance sport, but it is not all endurance. Supercross isn’t an endurance sport at all. It’s a lot of explosive hits.
How often did you lift when you were racing?
I enjoyed training. I’d drive down to Carlsbad and ride in the morning, go home to Mission Viejo, shower and then drive to Pasadena and weight train. I’d do it two or three times a week. I could do the weight training at home, but it was better to have someone to push me.
Did your life feel like a grind?
No. I took all that hard work with me to the races. I knew how hard I was working and that built my confidence. It didn’t matter if it was a 250 National or the 500 Nationals. I knew there was nobody stronger. Being smaller helped my motivation, because I knew that guys like Lechien had it easier. They could get back farther on the bike when hitting the rough stuff. I knew I would have to be stronger to beat them.
Did you change your riding style to adapt to the larger bikes?
Not really. The main objective was to bring my speed up from the 125 to the 250 and ride the 250 like my 125. The only difference is the 250 is heavier and not as forgiving as a 125. You need to work on strength to overpower it. When I won the 250 National and Supercross series, I think it was all because of the weight training I did.
How does Ricky’s size help or hurt him?
It is a give and take thing. In Supercross, I had the same problem Ricky has in the whoops. Guys like Lechien, Bayle and Johnson didn’t have any problems. But I was a lot quicker in all of the tight stuff. They couldn’t touch me in the little quick stuff (like holding the inside when you have to jump up on the table top). They’d have to do an outside line because they couldn’t sit on the seat properly to get that squat to jump up cleanly.
Shorter riders have to take the gains and losses and work with them. In the whoops, you have to accept that you are slower. You have to get through them, maybe not as fast, but consistently. You can’t waste energy. Skating three-quarters of the way through and then riding a big old bucking bronco the last five or six whoops is not going to work. You can’t do that for 20 laps. You’ll end up going down. That is what happened to me and that is what is happening to Ricky. He tries to do what they do. He needs to plan to lose a bike length in the whoops and make up for it in the corners. He can try skating the whoops once or twice if he is going for the win or to protect his position, but he can’t depend on it.
Where can Ricky hurt the other guys?
He is probably the fastest guy in cornering. Jeremy McGrath may be the only guy who is as fast or faster than Ricky in the tight stuff. He needs to blast the berms and square the corners. Use that to his advantage. When he gets to the parts he is struggling on, he needs to get though them as fast as he can, as far as he can and then give up a little bit to be consistent. It looks like he tries so hard through the whoops. They either through him down or throw off his timing for the next section of track.
Is Ricky facing any challenges that you didn’t face?
He’s had it easier. There is nobody in the 125 class! All the heavy hitters are in the 250 class. He has only been riding against guys who are 125 Supercross specialists. The 250 guys are light years ahead of those guys. I didn’t have it so easy because when I was in the 125 class, I was racing against O’Mara, Lechien and Barnett. Those guys had already won championships. We all moved up to the 250 class together, so it wasn't as big a change for me, competition wise, as it has been for Ricky. Ricky Johnson was already in the 250 class, but I had raced against him earlier.
Give Ricky Carmichael some fatherly advice.
Ricky, you need to put in more preparation for the 250 class than you did the 125 class. It is not as easy. I went to the 250 class knowing I was physically stronger than anybody. You need to be able to look at Greg Albertyn and know you are stronger than he is. Right now you aren’t. Albertyn is in great shape. He has the right style for the 250s and the strength to ride it. You need to be able to say, “I can out-muscle Albertyn.” When it comes down to the second moto in the heat, I don’t think you are strong enough to beat those guys yet. Speed and endurance-wise, you are strong enough to beat them, but you don’t have the strength it takes to make a 250 do what you want it to do.
That's it for now. Until next time, good luck with your training and, as always, VT can be reached anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org . In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section , your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness.