Tykes on off-road motorcycles: Motocross experiences unlikely youth boom during COVID-19 pandemic

There were over 830 registrations for this year’s Walton TransCan – from four-year-olds to retirees.

James Lissimore / The Globe and Mail

Dressed in sleek neon pants, plastic boots, goggles and oversized helmets that make them look a lot like bobblehead figures, a group of around 30 young motocross riders – some of whom are still in kindergarten – make up spinning tiny engines at the starting gate of the 2021 Walton TransCan, the biggest race of their short career. If this group of four to six year old kids showed up at your doorstep on Halloween dressed in their racing badges, you might guess they were superheroes, but they are, in fact, a sign of the brilliant. future of motorcycles.

Under blue skies on a Saturday in August, riders sit patiently astride their miniature motorcycles at Walton Raceway, home of the Grand National TransCan Championship, the most important event of the Canadian amateur motocross season. It’s a four-day affair that draws families from Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec and the Maritimes, as well as from across Ontario.

While parents take photos and give last-minute pep talk, many young boys and girls look around the first corner and wait for the starting gate to drop. When it does, they take off with surprising speed and sound like a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing in the distance. They bounce off the dirt road, get some air above the jumps, and generally create the kind of formative experiences that can lead to a lifelong obsession with motorcycles, at least that’s what the industry does. hope.

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Walton Raceway co-owner Melody Hodgson says there were more young riders this year than there have been in seven or eight years.

Matt Bubbers / The Globe and Mail

Young riders are the future of motocross and this year at TransCan there were more of these little rippers in the 50cc off-road category – and more young riders in general – than there are. had in seven or eight years, says Melody. Hodgson, co-owner of Walton Raceway. For her and her family, the trail – on their 200 acre farm in Walton, Ont. – is at home. You’ll find it northwest of Kitchener, in an agricultural area not far from Lake Huron, and you’ll know you’ve come to the right place as the sign for Walton says the hamlet is “Motocross Town”.

In total, there were more than 830 registrations this year across all classes – from four-year-olds to retirees – which was the second-highest number in the event’s 29-year history, Hodgson said. “It’s more than phenomenal,” she adds. She is not alone. Organizers of other races, from house league events to the Ontario Provincial Amateur Series, say they have seen motocross participation roughly double since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s COVID, honestly,” Hodgson says. “There have been big drawbacks to the pandemic, obviously, but as far as this industry, motocross goes, we are benefiting tremendously,” she says as another group of riders take off from the starting gate. With no team sports, no in-person school, and no going to friends for much of the past year and a half, more parents and kids have turned to dirt.

Canadian motocross champion Dylan Wright in action at the Pro National at Walton Raceway on August 15th.

James Lissimore / The Globe and Mail

This is good news, not only for Hodgson and Walton Raceway, but also for the future of motocross, and maybe even for the motorcycle industry in general. Most of these young riders won’t turn into pro racers, but some will surely go racing on the weekends, hitting forest trails, or maybe even buying a Harley-Davidson.

Tom McMullin of Nottawa, Ont., A few minutes south of Collingwood, is at TransCan with his five-year-old son James, who races in the Tyke class for new racers; some of their bikes still have training wheels, but they line up like the pros and spin the throttle when the flag falls. (That’s cute. But no young runner wants to hear that before a big race.)

McMullin bought his son his first motorcycle during the pandemic. “He wakes up and he’s already put on his jersey and he’s like, ‘When can I go for a ride?’ Says McMullin. “It’s the only thing in the last year that [James] really attracted, ”he adds.

However, motocross is not a cheap sport to get a child hooked on; the used Yamaha PW50 McMullin bought for his son cost $ 1,200. Protective gear costs at least a few hundred dollars more. The new 50cc class bikes cost between $ 1,800 and over $ 6,000 for a state-of-the-art electric KTM or Husqvarna.

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65cc GP winner Braxton Zeitner with his mother at Walton Raceway. Race organizers say they have seen motocross participation roughly double since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Lissimore / The Globe and Mail

It’s not cheap, but since horseback riding takes place on closed courses in large outdoor areas and requires protective gear – in the form of helmets, goggles and gloves – motocross is a strangely perfect sport to be found. practice during a pandemic. This fact may not have been on the minds of the early participants as they traversed muddy fields on rudimentary motorcycles in the 1920s, but it has helped sell a lot of motorcycles recently, nonetheless.

In addition to other outdoor recreational vehicles like bicycles and jet skis, sales of off-road motorcycles like the ones you see at TransCan have skyrocketed last year. So far in 2021, sales are down slightly from last year’s records, but experts and industry insiders have suggested the drop was more related to supply shortages and shortages. shipping problems than a lack of demand. For its part, Walton Raceway ordered 15 dirt bikes for its learn to ride program, but only about half were delivered and they arrived late.

Finding a place to ride is a bigger issue for Ryder Jamieson, Amanda Keller’s four-year-old son, who got his first bike during the pandemic. They live in a townhouse in Alliston, Ontario, about 40 minutes southwest of Barrie. At TransCan, Jamieson can let the 50cc engine sing, but at home the neighbors would complain when it passed behind their homes.

This is the biggest challenge in sport, admits Jean-Sébastien Roy. “It’s hard to find places to ride,” without irritating the neighbors, he says. JSR, as motocross fans call it, has been in the dirt bike business since the 1980s, first as a racer, winning the TransCan in the 1990s and early 2000s, and now as a as Race Team Director for KTM, a major European motorcycle brand.

He understands that some parents might be reluctant to let their child or teenager ride a motorcycle. There are risks, but he thinks five years is a great time to start riding. “They don’t hurt each other,” he said. “They learn to crash and get up. They learn to fight against each other at high speed.

The Grand National TransCan Championship draws families from Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec and the Maritimes, as well as from across Ontario.

James Lissimore / The Globe and Mail

Despite the risks and costs, JSR says motocross participation had grown, albeit slowly, since around 2011 – until the pandemic gave the sport a huge boost. This was made possible in part by Ryan Gauld, president of Amateur Motocross Ontario, one of the sport’s sanctioning bodies. Gauld lobbied the townships and the provincial government to ensure that events could take place with proper security measures.

It’s not just young riders who are getting into motocross now; Brett Lee – the husband of Melody Hodgson and the other co-owner of Walton Raceway – recently started riding again after a 15-year hiatus. “I took one of the big jumps here and you feel a little alive,” says Lee, still excited even after four long days of racing the TransCan.

Whether or not the pandemic-fueled motocross boom turns out to be a blip, one thing is for sure: once you ride a motorcycle it tends to be something you want to do over and over again, and maybe for the rest of your life.

For the motorcycle industry, the boom is welcome, although road-approved bikes still make up the majority of sales. For Brett Lee, Melody Hodgson and their family farm, however, the boom means everything.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, they struggled to make TransCan what it is now. “We just didn’t have the money,” Hodgson recalls. In 2018, they were happy to hit the event’s breakeven point. “You try to pay off the farm mortgage, you try to make sure that you pay off all your debts, that you pay off your bills, and there was nothing more. Now, she said, the future looks bright.

After the last race of the TransCan 2021, Hodgson and Lee hand out trophies on stage at sunset. The names of the Tyke class riders are called out – including James McMullin and Ryder Jamieson – and they all step onto the podium to collect their plaques for what could be the first of many times.

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About Todd Wurtsbach

Todd Wurtsbach

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