Jeffrey Herlings: First Impressions are Lasting Impressions
Words by Wes Williams
In today’s age, first impressions are wildly diverse in nature. Your initial impression of someone might come from actually meeting them face to face, through social media or an Internet forum, or, in the case of the Netherlands’ 20-year-old motocross superstar, Jeffrey Herlings, in an autograph line at a round of the World Motocross Championships. In most situations, people are generally able to form their impressions of one another from an encounter or personal interaction; yet in Herlings’ case, one’s first introduction to the Dutch rider could be quite varied depending on circumstances. With the many reputations that precede Herlings, and the aura of mystery that surrounds him, the likelihood of having an unbiased first impression is rather slim. Everyone knows the kid is fast and has amazing ability on the bike, but the true question is who is Jeffrey Herlings as a person, away from the bike and without a helmet on?
As an amateur-motocross aficionado, I can recall hearing nearly a decade ago rumors of an unbelievably fast kid from the Netherlands on a Suzuki 85cc. Granted, the Internet then was sparse on information, and the stories you would hear coming from Europe seemed more exaggerated myths than actual reality. However, it took only a few times hearing the names of Ken Roczen and Max Anstie being spoken alongside Jeffrey Herlings’ before it was evident that there was a reason for the hype behind these three kids.
It’s objective to say Herlings’ amateur career was overshadowed by the aforementioned riders, but with Roczen turning pro half a season before and Anstie moving to the USA and running atop the amateur circuit, Herlings’ limelight was certainly hidden from the masses—for the short time being, anyway. Fast-forward to Motocross of Nations 2009, the Olympics of motocross: It was here that the then-15-year-old prodigy decided to make his professional debut. This was where I was first able to put a face to the name I’d heard so much about.
Standing atop the Red Bull Energy Station sporting an obviously European haircut and a manner that seemed reserved, the young Herlings greeted me with a big smile. We exchanged names and pleasantries, joked for a bit with Roczen by our sides, did a small interview, and we were all on our way. Despite being biased toward Herlings based on his legend, I left that encounter with an official first impression—one that, to this day, hasn’t changed.
That was the first and only time I would see Herlings until 2011, when I once again crossed paths with him at the Motocross of Nations. Within those two years, Herlings had become the second-youngest rider ever to win a World GP and had finished runner-up to Roczen in the MX2 championship. On the bike, his reputation was infallible; he was a supernatural talent, he’d taken seven MX2 overalls and, with Roczen departing to race in the USA, he was the clear choice as successor to the MX2 championship throne. However, off the bike Herlings had created a stigma. Characterized by a quick mouth, ruthless words and an ego befitting someone his age, he’d become the infamous bad boy of the GP scene. While not many would say his attitude and way with words were politically correct, that’s ultimately what defined and shaped his persona. It’s a trait that built him an even bigger following.
Herlings himself admits, ”As a person I used to say things, do things, which are not correct, and now I think twice before saying something and doing something. I used to just say whatever came to me, and that’s what I’ve really been changing. It’s also because I’m getting older. I started on the GPs when I was just 15 and now I’m turning 20 in September . I’m still really young, but I’ve been around the world for so many years already and [been] with adults and professional motocross teams.”
With age comes maturity, and Herlings accepts that his adolescent antics were sometimes a bit over the top. But it’s those occurrences that have shaped public perception and the impressions he’s left on the world. With a mission to reveal the mystery of Jeffrey Herlings, we sought out some of the most highly respected and influential people involved in the World Motocross Championships.
“Who really knows who he is, but he’s one of the biggest talents [I’ve seen] in all my years in motocross. The boy is incredible. Seeing him riding, seeing him riding in the sand, I call this a piece of art. Maybe when you talk to somebody who is in opera or theater, [they] say art is painting, but for me the way he rides is art. It’s the highest art. It’s an unbelievable talent.
“He’s young. He’s at times a young, angry man who still doesn’t know who he is. He needs to get mature. He needs to find his way. He needs to find his personality. Like all of us, he’s [made] terrible mistakes, but maybe he [wouldn’t be] where he is without this. The only one who can destroy him is himself [and that would prevent] Jeffrey from being probably one of the greatest. He has all the potential to become a mega-superstar with titles and GP wins—when he keeps himself in one piece. At a certain age he also needs to listen to some people. He needs to listen when somebody gives him advice, when a doctor gives him advice. When he stays in one piece, then we see something great. This is what I hope for him.
“For the world championship, a rider like him is so important. He’s a character. Just like Valentino Rossi … We need that. He’s a character. Sometimes he talks too much. I remember the situation we had in Portugal; during his live interview [he made very vulgar remarks]. I said, ‘My goodness, what the hell are you talking…? Please be quiet!’ He’s important for the championship. He’s a personality. He’s not finished. He needs his years to mature, but I really wish him well. The boy is needed for this championship. He’s such a great rider. He’s such a pleasure to watch.”
—Wolfgang Srb, director, FIM
“Jeffrey Herlings is a great personality and a fighter. Very, very strong character, and a good boy, [and that’s] what the majority of the people … don’t know. Everybody knows Jeffrey on the bike—very powerful and always very determined. But in the experience I have, I think Jeffrey is a very good person. On the back of his façade, it’s somebody good. I have a very good relation[ship] with him, very respectful.
The guy [is a] champion; they have … character, and they are strong. If they are not like this, maybe they [wouldn’t be a] champion. Sometimes also you have to cool them down. I really believe [he’s] a great value for the world championship, not only because he’s a great rider and a great talent, but also [because] he’s somebody that is very communicative with the young [crowd]. So [he has] a lot of young fans. They can see him like a hero. This is very important for our sport.”
—Giuseppe Luongo, president, Youthstream
“In the eyes of MXGP fans, Herlings is either a messiah or a pariah, but you can hardly accuse him of being boring. He can be as sparky and fascinating off the bike as … on it. We love the fact that he seems to lack a filter when it comes to expressing his thoughts and opinions. There is a refreshing lack of bullshit mixed with occasional attitude. He’ll speak his mind and seems to enjoy being gently provoked on subjects like his rivals’ opinions of him.
You have to remember that Herlings came to Grand Prix as a 15-year-old long hailed in his country as the savior of Dutch motocross, on a factory bike and with a 10-time world champion in his corner. These are not normal circumstances for a motocross racer. Then [again], Herlings is hardly your typical rider, and [he] burst through the press and glamour bubble at the highest level with Ken Roczen in a frenetic teenage spell of angst, speed and utter success. A dazzling podium (and win) in just his third appearance and an astounding record in the sand, two world championships before his 19th birthday—as an athlete and in terms of his record, we might not see this rate of accomplishment so fast, so soon, for quite a long time.”
—Adam Wheeler, journalist and editor, ontrackoffroad.com
“He’s a hell of a guy. I’ve never met a guy like him. In a way, he’s very, very good in what he does. He’s got a supernatural talent. He’s got enormous views, an enormous way of riding in general with tactics and lines. He’s really an animal, also, on training. He can be very extreme on his riding; [he’s a] high-demanding boy. Puts in a lot of hours on the bike. Destroys a lot of bikes. Needs a lot of attention. He’s in a way organized, but in another way also very chaotic. [He has] many different extremes. He’s a very extreme guy, one side to the other side. Many times it’s tough to deal with all the things he’s bringing with him.
“At the end of the day, he’s doing the job and he’s doing it well. He’s a hardworking guy. He trains hard. Again, you don’t see that with everyone. He puts in the time to be how good he is also on the track.”
—Stefan Everts, manager, KTM MX2, and 10-time world champion
“Jeffrey Herlings is probably one of the most talented riders to have graced the motocross world championship in a while. His results obviously are outstanding. He’s rocketed up the win list pretty quickly. Is that because of him and his talents or is it because of the, dare I say, inconsistencies of the other riders that’s allowed him to do that? I don’t know. As a person, I don’t really know him—only what we see week in, week out. I did a photo shoot with him a few years ago in his first year in GP. Seemed a nice enough kid then. Always seems to have a lot of time for me personally when I speak to him. Seems well-mannered and well-natured in that respect, but of course he’s had his problems as well. It’s difficult to see why that’s the case, whether it’s because you look at sports people at the top of their game, whether it be tennis or football or golf or Formula 1 or moto GP; success doesn’t come without its element of drama. We win, win, win, win, but then when it goes wrong or when there’s a problem or whatever, we see maybe the insecurities of a rider or the way that they can react when it’s not going well. A short temper, short fuses, that kind of thing. Donny Schmidt I remember being like that, but a great rider. So I think from Jeffrey’s point of view, definitely talented, great to have him in the world championship.
“He’ll tell us he’s matured, but maybe he’s still just got a little bit more growing up to do. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. But I think he’s great. I think he’s a good character. Good to have him around because it’s a talking point, for you guys in media and for me in TV. That’s what makes it more interesting. If he wasn’t like that … then we wouldn’t have anything to talk about, but it wouldn’t be as exciting. And we need characters.”
—Paul Malin, commentator, MXGP, 1994 MXoN winner
The words of journalist Adam Wheeler summarizes this best of all.
“Herlings has endured the hard cliché of having to grow up swiftly in a professional racing environment; understandably, at times he has struggled for maturity, guidance and wisdom in his four years of GPs to date. As a world champion, Herlings has evolved to be a courteous and more receptive racer—but, like a sleeping bear, he can be dangerous if prodded (and therefore motivated) too harshly. In press circles his candor and openness is met with receptivity, and hopefully he keeps these traits of his character through what is bound to be a fantastic and long-standing career. One thing is for sure: His impression will be everlasting.”
In the end, though, Herlings probably knows himself best:
“I’m a motocross racer to start off with. On the bike I try to be as smart as possible and try to not make mistakes and be really consistent. When you want to be consistent, you have to be smart. I always try to work on my weak points, not only as a racer, [but] also as a person. I like girls, which is normal. [Laughs.] I like to have fun with my friends. I like to hang out and have a good time and sometimes go have a party in the winter. But at times I’m really serious when I have to put the helmet on. I work hard and I’m a driven person. I try to be the best I can be as a person and as a racer. Every day I go out and I just have fun and be the best I can be in both things, [as a] person and as a rider. I just want to make improvements and learn every day. Who else am I? I think I pretty much said everything.”
Story featured in Volume 001
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