Team Honda HRC’s Ken Roczen has a very specific plan for 2018, and while it would be inaccurate to suggest that he doesn’t give a crap about whether he finishes the 2018 AMA supercross and motocross racing seasons without a championship title—or even a race win—when you consider just how hard Roczen has had to fight to salvage his livelihood, Roczen’s wish for 2018 makes a hell of a lot of sense.
“All I want is to be happy and healthy,” Roczen said. “You know, we take things for granted, and sometimes you’re healthy for quite a while, and you start overlooking things. Well, once you’re hurt, you realize how shitty it is being on the sidelines, possibly losing an arm, or other people with other problems. I just want for people to be happy, especially because I feel like ’17 was a shit year for a lot of people, not just for me. There were a lot of things happening wrong [in the world] in general, and I feel like I noticed it this year more than ever. Maybe because I had more time with myself, but I feel like there a lot of things that went wrong, people getting hurt or this person dies, and every month it was something else going on. I just want a happier world.”
While he may have felt that same way at the start of 2017, the 23-year-old German was more focused on coming out and proving that his move away from Suzuki to Honda was the right one, and it appeared as though he was showing it before a fateful crash while leading the main event at Angel Stadium during the 2017 Anaheim II Supercross turned his world upside down. In what was effectively the crash felt ‘round the world, the 2016 Lucas Oil 450cc Pro Motocross Champion suffered a severely broken left arm that ended his season and put his future in serious jeopardy. It wasn’t just your average injury, and only now does Roczen even mention how close he came to losing the arm altogether to save his own life.
But get to know Ken Roczen and understand how he thinks, and you’ll quickly learn that the word fail simply isn’t in his vocabulary. To some, his attitude might come off as conceit rather than confidence, but as they say, it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.
When it comes to making a return, Roczen has arguably already done it. After surviving 11 surgeries to repair the arm damage, he will be taking to the starting gate on December 6 for his first professional start in nearly a year, a year in which he underwent an agonizing amount of rehabilitation just to regain some mobility in that damaged arm—let alone get it back to 100 percent. But it’s functional, and Roczen figures that’s all he needs to give himself a shot at returning to the top step of the podium in 2018.
“The arm feels pretty good,” Roczen said. “I go back and forth between soreness, like if I do a lot or ride a lot, because I’ve been doing pushups on my arm and everything. It will get sore every once in a while, but other than that I obviously have a lot of restriction in movement. But I’ve gotten used to it now to where I don’t really feel like it bothers me too much [when I’m] riding. All in all, it will never be the same, but I’ve adjusted to it so well that I kind of ride just the way I rode before the crash. So, I’m very fortunate to be in this position. I feel like I’ve recovered. I heal pretty quickly. Even my doctor says that he has never seen anybody that heals that quickly from an injury like that. I think the positon we’re in right now, we have a good shot at winning races and, hopefully, a championship toward the end.”
For Roczen, just making it back to Anaheim is a victory in itself, and he said he plans to enjoy the experience.
“I’m just so glad to be back in the spotlight with people and get to race again, because that’s what I miss the most,” Roczen said. “Sitting on the couch was the most miserable thing ever, especially for that long. You know, I’m getting paid but I’m not in use for anything. I’m not racing. I’m trying everything, obviously, not bumming around. I’m doing everything I can to get this arm back going. But at the same time there was such a long healing process that I’m just kind of waiting and waiting, and I didn’t see anything getting better for a long time. It took a long time to get a little bit, and then at one point it started getting better. But all in all, my arm feels pretty solid. I have very small movement, like I have to pushups on my fist for example. I’m very limited in movement, like I can’t throw a ball. But, hey, as long as it’s good enough for riding, then I’m fine with it.”
Of course, being laid off for so long, it wasn’t just the arm that ended up needing work, but also the surrounding joints, tissue and muscles as well. Roczen described his scaphoid bone as being the consistency of “sand paper,” and a lot of rehab was directed at making sure that it, too, could withstand the rigors of racing motocross and supercross again.
“When you’re in a sling for a long time, and your arm is internally rotated like that, all the stabilizer muscles that are around the shoulder blade, your rotator cuff muscle and all that stuff, is really getting super weak,” Roczen explained. “I didn’t move the shoulder around much until later on, and that actually took a long time [to get stronger], so never mind weight training. I was using terra bands and doing some super simple exercises to get that strengthened because you have to start really slow. I had huge problems with my shoulder for a really long time because the humerus was bunching up in my shoulder, and that was giving me big problems while I was riding. But, all in all, whether it’s in the gym or riding, I’m pretty much pain free. The shoulder problem has been solved for the last few weeks. I struggled with it throughout boot camp a little bit, but I just had to make sure that my posture and my shoulder was locked in at all times. As soon as I have a lack of positioning, it can go the other way, but that’s why we focus a lot on posture.”
Regardless of how his season turns out, Roczen said that 11 surgeries isn’t likely to be the end number when it comes to restoring even more mobility to his arm, either. There’s already a possible surgery at the end of the year to remove more scar tissue and hopefully get his left wrist more flexible.
“But right now I’m happy with it, and I don’t think that anybody could have done a better job than Doctor [Randall] Viola,” Roczen said. “I pretty much have to give all the credit to him. My scaphoid was pretty much like sand paper, so they took bone out of my leg to kind of bits-and-piece that back together—they kind of free-balled that, too, you know. [chuckles] But considering how bad everything was, the focus that he had and… I shouldn’t say Ideas… but the procedure that he followed was amazing. I think he did everything right. And, together with my will to come back and do the right rehab, it was just that recipe for success. I really can’t complain.”
Nor is he disappointed with how well things have gone since climbing back aboard his Team Honda HRC CRF450R to ready himself for what may be a pivotal season in his career. Roczen has been training his tail off to get ready for the gate drop at Anaheim, and he credits trainer Peter Park of Platinum Fitness with his return to form—much as it is to this point anyway.
“We mixed things up a little bit,” Roczen said of his training regimen. “I think that’s the great part about Peter. The knowledge that he has is pretty incredible, and we learn things every single year. We changed a few things up and made it that much better. I absorbed everything very well. Obviously you get tired, but I never had a day where I felt like, ‘Okay, now I have to take it easy because I am getting super tired.’ It was the perfect amount of training really hard but not to the edge to where your nervous system gets trashed and you don’t recover. Like I said, this is the best weekend I’ve ever had. I absorbed everything. I feel super fit. I feel strong. I’ve been having some hard days of training mixed together with traveling.”
While he is brimming with confidence, Roczen can’t deny that he is a real X Factor when it comes to Anaheim !. Will he be able to compete at the same level? He says that he can, and he is ready to give it his all.
“I’m coming back to Anaheim, knowing that I’m going to be battling for wins,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage not racing, but it’s also not necessarily a disadvantage because I had some time off. I go on the track every day that I ride, and I have a blast, so I think it really recharged my batteries. I think a lot of people could struggle with that, but I’m just not the struggling-type person when it comes to getting mentally ready for acing. So, I’ll go to Anaheim ready to do my normal thing as if I’d never left. My arm is plenty ready to race. The racing part, work-wise, is the easy part. I’ve gone through boot camp, and I’ve put so much stress on my arm to get it used to it [racing], and you have to put some extra stress on it. I think the racing part will definitely be the easier part. Overall, the racing is not too much [stress], so I don’t expect too many problems.”
Adding to the X in the X Factor are comments that Roczen made on Facebook, comments that drew their fair share of criticism from the media and fans regarding what Roczen claims is their mistaken assumption that he was ripping his competitors, namely Marvin Musquin, when Roczen posted, “It doesn’t matter who wins three months before Anaheim.” Roczen emphatically denies that the comment was directed at any of his competitors.
“That was not toward Marvin,” Roczen said. “It was toward the people who think that whoever won six months ago, eight months ago, whatever, who won during outdoors, who won a year ago during supercross… It doesn’t matter. You know what I mean? Things can turn around a lot. I’ve won Monster Cup before. I was ready. I was fast. And I won Anaheim, but it didn’t work out to where I won the championship. It was nothing against Marvin. It was nothing against [Eli] Tomac. It’s a simple fact. Marvin is going good. It looks like he is really going good right now. He is winning a lot, almost everything. It’s going to be very tough, but I just disagree with fans that… I wouldn’t say that don’t know anything… But they make assumptions, you know? ‘Tomac won 11 months ago, during supercross.’ Well, I don’t know. It doesn’t mean that he is going to win the next championship or anything like that. So, it was nothing against any other riders. No names were mentioned. If would’ve had a problem with another rider, I would have mentioned their name. That’s for sure. Things can turn around. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
By that same token, Roczen scoffs at those who would suggest that he can’t do what he says he is going to do, not only come back to racing, but come back and challenge for wins and for season titles. He rejects the notion that he has been left out of the equation when it comes to pre-season predictions.
“I’m not left out,” Roczen said, but then he added, “It doesn’t bother me. I’m not surprised because I don’t think anybody can just come back from an injury like that and be race ready and be mentally prepared to win. It doesn’t bother me, and I’m not really surprised. In my mind, I’m just like, ‘You guys are silly if you don’t think I’m going to be able to win again.’
Even so, Roczen admitted that if he doesn’t show signs of being immediately competitive, it will be more due to “race rust” than as a result of his injury.
“I think it will take some getting used to, but whether I win or whether I’m fifth or third, I’m going to be walking out of there with a big smile on my face [after] just getting behind a gate and racing again with my team, working together with [mechanic] Oscar [Wirdeman],” Roczen said.”He has been waiting this whole year for me to come back racing, and we’re a great team. So, whether it’s a win, fifth place, podium, doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just happy to be back. Like I said, to me, I’ve adjusted to everything well so that I don’t go into Anaheim thinking that I have limitations. If I already think that I have a disadvantage, because of my arm, to people, then I might as well not race. So, I’m going to Anaheim, thinking that I do not have a disadvantage.”
Of course, with a comparatively small amount of time to get back up to speed, Roczen has had no chance to measure himself against his competition lately. That doesn’t seem to bother him, however.
“I don’t really need to do that,” Roczen said. “I don’t need anybody to ride with me to know how fast I am. Tracks change all the time, so it’s really hard to compare lap times from the previous year.”
And fast or slow lap times in practice are little use when the pressure to win is in place. Roczen knows that he will be under careful scrutiny of just about everyone watching the Anaheim ! Supercross, but he says he doesn’t feel the need to prove himself.
“I don’t have to do anything,” Roczen said. “I want to win. I want to go out there, and if I win, amazing. If not, amazing too. I’m racing, and that that’s the absolute most important [thing]. There’s 17 rounds, and we have seen riders before, struggling, legit struggling in the first few rounds, and then Eli [Tomac] clicked off wins toward the end and almost won the championship. It’s really just [about] getting some race time under my belt, but I think that I’m good at going back there [to race]. I am going to be on the gate, feeling very familiar, and I’m going to do my thing. I’m not one to worry. Obviously, it’s going to be a lot of media, a lot of talking, before that whole thing [Anaheim I], but I’m really good at throwing things out of my mind. I have a happy life. I have a great fiancée and a great dog. We have plenty of time together to take the mind off of racing, which helps a lot.”
He’s also not afraid of failing. Roczen claims that he doesn’t fail, and just attempting to comeback is already a win of sorts, regardless of how Anaheim I or the rest of the 2018 racing season turns out for him.
“Failing would have been me not trying to come back and jump on a bike again,” Roczen said. “That would have been a fail to me. But even if I tried and it wouldn’t have happened, that wouldn’t have been a fail to me because I did everything in my power to do it. Hey, I’m riding, and I’m riding well. You never know what’s going to happen. You can crash quick, whatever. I’m riding, and I basically reached my goal of being back on a bike. That’s not a fail.”
Pass or fail, the only person on Roczen’s radar screen come January 6 will be himself. That doesn’t mean he is unaware of his competition. It just means that he isn’t worried about what they’ll be bringing to the line at Angel Stadium.
“I just focus on myself,” Roczen said. “The reason why people always have Eli and Marvin in mind is because they, lately, have been the fastest guys, and pretty much the only people. Especially Marvin, you know, because he has been winning a lot. It would be stupid to not acknowledge that, but other than that I don’t focus on other people hardly ever for the simple reason that I could be worrying about somebody three weeks ahead of time, and then it’s not even going to be a problem.
“It’s really tough, me not racing, because I feel like there has been, before, certain things where it’s like, ‘Oh, people are going good,’ and then you come back and… Again, there’s always a lot of good riders [like] how it was in the previous years, and in the end it’s two riders up in the front,” Roczen continued. “You always think there are eight riders that can win a race, that can win or be good, but in the end, from first to fifth place sometimes there’s 30 seconds, 40 seconds, in a supercross. That’s a lot. But there are a lot of people that are riding great at the moment, I’m sure, that had a great outdoor season. It will be interesting to kind of get used to things again because I do believe that there are a couple people that will mix it up a little bit more in the front. [But] on a consistent note? I don’t know.”
That’s something Roczen said that he will just have to feel out at Anaheim I, get back riding again and see where everybody is. And where he is.
“I kind of like the gamble or the thought that there’s… not new riders but there’s riders that are going to be good, and then I’m coming back, so… I haven’t raced all of those guys in a long time. It will be a fun little test.”