I renewed my MotoGP.com subscription last month. Yes, I missed half the season.
Truth be told, I meant to chuck the whole season. In fact, at one point, right after last year’s Sepang debacle, I thought I had sworn off MotoGP completely.
There are, of course, two camps in this battle. I am firmly in the Rossi camp. This brouhaha has been dissected more than Donald Trump’s unseemly rise to official presidential candidate and the reasons that have been well stated by the pro-Rossi crowd are exactly why a) I wish Marquez had been booted from the championship and b) I switched off my TV. Indeed, number 93 is lucky I wasn’t wearing Valentino’s leathers on that sweaty October 25th. I would have bunted the presumptuous little pissant off his bike and kicked his ass when I came round the next lap.
The reason, of course, that we Rossi fans were so upset — besides the fact that Marquez is a notoriously dangerous rider; just ask Alvaro Bautista, Ratthapark Wilairot, and even his own teammate, Dani Pedrosa — is that we simply believed, as pretty much everyone did last year, that this was Rossi’s last hurrah. That he was leading the championship so deep into the contest was some sort of one-off miracle. Thirty-six-year olds aren’t supposed to be up to the cut-and-thrust that is modern MotoGP warfare. Surely this would be the last time we would see the rider that many proclaim the Greatest Of All Time at the pointy end of the MotoGP alien’s club.
And yet he confounds us again this year. Not leading the championship as he was this time last year — in fact, he’s, as of this writing, 42 points behind — he’s nonetheless won two races and, most surprisingly, done so with outright speed rather than the “racecraft” Rossi haters like to attribute his recent success to. Indeed, a serious case can be made that Rossi is once again the fastest man in two wheels. Besides his two wins, he was plainly faster than Lorenzo in Catalunya and was leading in Assen until he unceremoniously dumped it. Only in Marquez’s spiritual hometown of Austin was Rossi not in the hunt. Otherwise, he’s been the terror of FP3 when all the best riders work on their set-up and race pace. And, will miracles never cease, he’s even been qualifying at the front of the pack. By almost every measure, he’s no longer just crafty; he’s simply fast. Perhaps it was Father Time who Rossi bunted off in Malaysia, Mr. Marquez simply the physical embodiment of Chronos’s Grim Reaper.
But, why were we so outraged in the first place? Why do so many love Rossi, especially we diehard — that should be read aging — racing fans?
The easy explanation would be that he gives we old fogeys something comfortable and familiar — as opposed to the new and, well, slightly smug visage of Marquez — to worship. That he remains impish at the age of 37 just feeds our collective Peter Pan complex.
The truth, I suspect, is a little deeper. Indeed, I think what some of us see in Rossi is what we see in all of the aging greats who fought Father Time so assiduously — Muhammed Ali and Gordie Howe, for instance — simply for the sheer love of their sport. Their willingness to strive way past their prime while risking life, limb and, most of all to a professional athlete, reputation, simply because the passion of youth refuses to fade away.
At least that’s how I relate to VR46. I’m 58 years and still box. Competitively. OK, if you’ve seen me fight, semi competitively. But nonetheless, I regularly climb through the ropes and let someone not quite as old as the Hein Gericke Hiprotec leather jacket I still wear take out his oversupply of testosterone on my noggin. Spare me the safety diatribe — you’re reading a motorcycle magazine, after all — the biggest risk to the rampant egotist attempting young men’s sports is embarrassment. Every time I get into the squared circle, I am one quick jab away from being transformed from “hey, he’s in good shape for an old guy,” to “man, why are they letting him do that to himself?”
The thing is, when my time comes — as it does so abruptly, boxers notoriously getting old “overnight” — the most that will witness my pitifulness will be the couple of hundred souls Toronto’s Atlas Boxing Club can hold at max capacity. But Valentino Rossi commands — indeed, still dominates — motorcycling’s biggest stage. If he is to embarrass himself, it will be in front of millions, many of whom have worshipped him since youth. And he will be naked, completely bereft of excuses. Unlike, say Nicky Hayden, who could at least skulk off to World Superbike comfortable in the excuse that he was riding second-rate machinery for Aspar, Rossi is aboard racing’s best bike supported by MotoGP’s best team, riding with the encouragement of the biggest fan club motorcycling has ever seen.
And yet, he seeks no quarter. He makes no concession to being merely “competitive.” This season, and I suspect the next two for which he is contracted, are not meant to be swan songs. He doesn’t even — and this is an admission perhaps a little too bare for a mere motorcycle magazine — rely on the good graces of the young not to beat the brains out of the defenseless old.
Instead, he’s there to win and win only. He carries the flag for everyone too stupid to stop whatever it is they shouldn’t be doing any longer. He gives an example that, as long as the passion holds, there is still some small chance to excel. He gives light to Thomas’s admonishment about not going gently into that good night. I watch Rossi and think: If I can capture but one thousandth of one per cent of what makes him beat those a generation — or two! — younger, then maybe my next opponent might be best advised to duck my right hook.
I don’t know about you, but that’s why I worship Valentino Rossi.