The challenge of crossing over

Try as he might, Brian Lopes has yet to dominate the Crossover Challenge — the annual motocross race for non-moto pro athletes.

This story originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Decline magazine.

Not a headliner, but still Lopes with a capital L.

The Suzuki Crossover Challenge pits celebrities and athletes against each other on a real Supercross track, under the lights, in front of the fans, during half time of the big show. Crossover riders come from music, skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, kayaking, wind surfing, wake boarding, BMX, motorcycle road racing and, of course, mountain biking. Some of the guys are racing just for fun, but when you’re a world-class athlete you never race anything “just for fun.” In a group of 25 alpha males, perhaps nobody is more alpha than Brian Lopes.

He is the mountain biking’s winningest active racer, regardless of discipline. Lopes has won nine NORBA national championships, five World Cup championships and three World Championships in a chain of dual slalom, downhill, dual and mountain cross wins that spans more than a decade. When big contracts and bonuses hang on a perfectly timed start and a flawless run, he hits his mark over and over again. As he says, “When I get into the start gate, I know I’m the man to beat, that the other guys are worrying about how to beat me.”

He applies this intensity to his favorite pastime: motocross. He practices with multiple 250cc champion Jeremy McGrath, and ex-125 superstar James “Bubba” Stewart has been known to ride his backyard track. Lopes wants dearly to win a Crossover Challenge, but so far bad starts and silly mistakes have earned him nearly every place except first.

Lopes and Dave Cullinan: Two big names on two tiny bikes.

In the past, Crossover riders have mounted identical Suzuki RM125s. These race machines make the huge Supercross jumps possible, but they expose bodies to a whole lot of kinetic energy. Last year two professional road racers, Jeremy Toye and John Kopkins, came up short on a big triple and broke both of their ankles.

So, in the interest of increased safety and reduced struggle, this year’s crew straddled DR-Z110s. These are your little sister’s motorcycles, with tiny wheels, a few inches of soft suspension and just enough engine to consider them self propelled. As Lopes says, “To ride a big bike you need motorcycle skills. To ride a mini bike you need bicycle skills.” With no power to regain momentum, it’s all about staying smooth and maintaining speed — two things Lopes does well.

He tried to play off like the Crossover is no big deal, but the fact is he purchased a DR-Z110 and set it up almost identically to the one he’d race under the lights. Anticipating the three-lap race to take five minutes, he went to his back yard and cranked out eight-minute mock motos. He was prepared.

Race day dawned just like any mountain bike race, only bigger. Thousands of fans swarmed the pits at SBC Park in San Francisco, and hundreds lined up to get autographs from Ricky Carmichael and Chad Reed. At a NORBA national, Lopes is a king; here he’s literally the halftime show. Doesn’t he wish this many people would line up for his autograph?

“They do,” he said, “in Japan.”

Walking the course was like stepping into the Valley of the Giants. Empty seats marched toward the sky. The track fit onto a baseball field, but everything on it was huge. The eight berms, two waist-high whoop sections, three monster rhythms and two 60+-foot triples create a speedy air-fest on a big bike, but on a little bike they’d be a slow roll-fest.

Brian easily won the 15-minute practice, returned his loaner bike to the Crossover tent then headed to his van in the parking lot. While his competitors absorbed the scene, he pulled his personal DR-Z110 out of the van and practiced his starts. With only three laps of racing, the start meant everything. He had a trick: He held the shifter down all the way and pinned the throttle. When he lifted his boot the tranny shifted into first and — pop — the little tire chirped the asphalt. After a bunch of these runs, Lopes was ready to go.

When the Crossover guys walked on the field 40,000 fans were swilling beer, snarfing garlic fries and going to the bathroom. The announcer tried to create a frenzy — “These guys are superstars in their sports, so watch out!” — but as cool as mountain biking and jet skiing are, they’re tiddlywinks compared with Supercross.

The 30-second girl scampered off the track, the little engines roared as mightily as they could, and the gate dropped. Lopes entered the first turn somewhere in the tangle. By the second turn he was in second place, and by the third turn he was leading by a large margin. He’s handled this situation a thousand times. All he had to do was stay on his bike, and the win was finally his.

Meanwhile, pro jet skier and 2002-2003 winner Victor Sheldon was closing the gap. Sheldon is also a serious moto rider, with his own stable of bikes, a back yard track and McGrath in his riding Rollodex. By the 1 1/2-lap point Sheldon was sitting a couple bike lengths behind Lopes’ right shoulder. Not so close he pushed the pace, but close enough to strike.

When they hit the big whoop section for the last time, Sheldon attacked and Lopes responded with more effort. He got off line and front-sided hard. The front wheel stuck, the handlebar hit his groin and he toppled. Three riders cruised by: braap, braap, braap. It was over.

Lopes wound up fourth behind Sheldon, ex-downhiller David Cullinan and wind surfer Keith Pritchard. He returned his loaner bike, changed into street clothes and sat in the stands to watch the mains. His friends patted him on the back and asked what happened.

“I choked.”

He seemed to enjoy watching Carmichael dominate the 250 class, but he was clearly thinking about next year.

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