Interview with living legend Ivan Cervantes

Interview with living legend Ivan Cervantes
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Ivan Cervantes is widely regarded as an enduro legend. Although that description also does him justice. Cervantes is a four-time Enduro World Champion, SuperEnduro World Champion, Guinness World Record holder, Dakar finisher, adventure bike winner and now Triumph test rider. We sat down at the table with “El Torito” for an extensive conversation.

Cervantes is the first ever Spanish enduro world champion, the first ever Spanish “ISDE” scratch winner, he rode the brand new KTM EXC-F 250 (with double overhead camshaft) to the E1 world title in 2005 and played a crucial role in the development of the acclaimed Triumph TF 250-X MX dirt bike. New challenges have clearly never deterred the 42-year-old Spaniard.


It must be very satisfying to see how well Triumph's MX2 bike is doing and how enthusiastically it has been received by the media?
Ivan Cervantes: “It's really great! My first conversation about this project was at the end of 2019, so it has been a long journey. But I'm very grateful to be involved zo’n once in a lifetime opportunity. It feels like I'm experiencing my second youth, because I've ridden so much and it allowed me to compete at a really good level again. I am convinced that the Triumph TF 250-X is one of the best bikes in the MX2 class at the moment.”

What was it like to see Triumph standing there straight away? You got a podium with Mikkel Haarup in Argentina, Jalek Swoll was fast in Monster Energy Supercross?
Cervantes: “Wow, it was an incredible moment to see Mikkel take a podium at the very first GP in which Triumph participated. He also took the holeshot in the second moto. It was a huge statement for Triumph and a great achievement! I think it is a historic achievement for any manufacturer to achieve a podium in your very first race in such a competitive championship. It gives me goosebumps when I talk about it. We put so much time and effort into making the best engine possible. That bike has some of my DNA in it! Argentina's emotions can only be compared to the performance of the bike in the LA Coliseum during the SMX World Cup final. Seeing Ricky Carmichael and Jeff Stanton drive into a packed stadium that night was magical!”

What exactly is your role as a test driver?

Cervantes: “Well, I get to try all the different versions of the bike during the development process. Driving with different chassis, different engines and suspension. I also tried different options for brake pumps, different exhausts, wheels and sprockets. Basically anything you can try! You really have to concentrate on the feeling with the engine. This usually takes place in blocks of 10 rounds for each specific question from the engineers. You also concentrate on the right words to explain what you experience as precisely as possible. Only in exceptional cases, such as during an in or out lap, did we race against each other a bit! Anyway, it was a difficult job because Triumph decided to do everything themselves. So they didn't go 'shopping' to buy the chassis from this manufacturer and the engine from another. Triumph chose to design everything itself and also produce many parts itself. So sometimes we had to take two steps back and decide that a particular part wasn't working as the engineers had hoped.”

Of course, the development of such a large project is a team effort. Also from the perspective of a test rider.
How did you feel about working with Ricky Carmichael (pictured above), probably the best supercross and motocross racer ever?
Cervantes: “When Ian Kimber, Triumph's motocross project leader, told me they had hired Ricky, I was speechless. First of all, it was clear that RC would bring so much knowledge and experience from his background at three motorcycle giants: Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki. And then of course there is his level of riding and the reputation he has built. When Ricky sometimes gave his opinion, I didn't always immediately see what he was referring to until his comments sunk in. And he was always right! Really great to experience. From a personal perspective, it was a dream come true as I had Carmichael posters in my dad's garage growing up! Secondly, Triumph put together a great group of test riders. Because they also brought in top players like Clément Desalle (photo below) and Ivan Tedesco. Clément is still going very fast and Ivan already had a lot of test experience. One of the most remarkable things that happened was that all four of us always had the same opinion on all major decisions. There wasn't one who said we should go in that direction and another who wanted to go in a completely different direction.”

How did you get into motocross?

Cervantes: “My father was a motorcycle enthusiast with a great passion for everything on two wheels. He was particularly interested in GP racing, so when I was a toddler he would take me to road racing circuits like Montmeló and Valencia to watch the races. I told him that the bikes were okay, but that I preferred studded tires. Don't ask me where that came from! Like many kids, I got a 50cc dirt bike for Christmas and that was the start. I was really bad at first, to be honest. My father never pushed me, but encouraged me. Step by step my confidence grew and I started winning some local competitions. When you're seven, it's pretty cool to go to class with last weekend's trophy in your school bag!”

You actually got into enduro by chance?
Cervantes: "That's right! I was already involved in motocross when it became a bit more serious in the 80cc. I won the Spanish title and came third in the European Championship. I also did quite well on the bigger bikes. I won the Spanish 125cc SX title in 1999 and came second in 250cc the following year. In 2000 I won the 125cc European Championship qualifying in zone A against riders such as David Philippaerts, Joaquim Rodrigues, Kevin Strijbos and Christophe Nambotin. In 2001 I had the opportunity to go to the 125cc World Championship with the Spanish Motorcycle Association team on TM motorcycles. That was a huge step for me, because I was able to do the entire World Cup for the first time. Only the first 15 riders scored points, so in that respect it was more difficult. I remember Namur in Belgium was my best race!”

That was probably the most enduro-like motocross GP ever!
Cervantes: “At that time I knew nothing about enduro. At that time, enduro was even the ugly duckling of Spanish motorsport! Before 2002 I went straight from the 125cc to the 500cc World Championship. I rode for KTM Spain on the big 540SX bike, the same bike as Joel Smets. A beast of a machine for a 20 year old! I had started the season strongly in Valkenswaard, but injured both shoulders during the next GP in Bellpuig. During a check-up with my doctor, he advised me to do some enduro riding on flat terrain before jumping back on the dirt bike. That's how I started, just having fun with some friends. KTM heard that I was riding enduro and asked me to replace Kari Tiainen, who was 7-time world champion at the time. We made a plan to do the last two World Cup rounds, although I was hesitant at first. How could I replace the greatest enduro legend of that time after a few months of enduro for fun?”

But as they say, the rest is history?
Cervantes: “I'm not sure why I adapted to enduro so quickly. In any case, always had good speed in motocross. On one qualifying lap I did well and was much higher than I would have finished in the race. I think that pure speed is something that KTM has picked up. Before I went to my first World Enduro World Cup race, I did a “test race” in Spain where I beat Juha Salminen, Anders Eriksson and a few other high-level enduro riders. I had no idea what I was doing yet, but I knew I was more into it and decided to continue in enduro. My first EnduroGP was in Finland and it was so tough: muddy, tree roots everywhere, very technical. In my first special I crashed 4 times. In one special! There was very little that I hadn't destroyed. Kari (Tiainen) told me I had broken more special parts on the bike in one special than he had in a whole season.”

That can count as a what-did-I-start moment!
Cervantes: "Precisely! It was a very challenging day as I finished around 15th in my class and I was absolutely terrible in the scratch. I was very sad that evening and Kari Tiainen came to talk to me in my hotel room. He asked me what I was doing. Because things went so well in Spain. Kari told me how impressed he had been with the way I had tackled the difficult parts in Spain. I admitted that I felt the pressure to replace hell. His advice was simple: do your best, but above all, enjoy driving and enjoy the conditions. On the second day I finished third overall and second in my class. That conversation with Kari got me thinking. My second round in Sweden was also very positive with my first win and that is why KTM made me an offer to do enduro full-time in 2003. “
The opportunity you took in 2002 to try enduro literally changed your life. How do you look back on that?
Cervantes: “It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I showed potential in cross-country, but although I earned a little money, I still had to invest a lot. In enduro I found a type of competition that I enjoyed a lot and where I could ride in excellent conditions: with a factory bike, supported by great people in Fabio Farioli's team. I knew I had a chance to realize my motorsport dream in enduro, but the transition was very big. With the help of my father, I focused on specific training. Of course, motocross riders have a high cornering speed. But riding single track in the forest, over stones, over tree trunks and deep mud, the challenging extreme tests, that is a completely different story!”

An elite enduro rider's relationship with his bike and technology is very different from that of an elite motocross rider. That must have been an interesting experience for your current role as a test driver. 

Cervantes: “It's very different, to say the least. For example, you have to change your own tires within a time limit of 15 minutes. You have to understand the engine block, how the engine behaves. If you have a technical problem during a connection ride, you have to solve the problem yourself. Plus the fact that you spend so much time on the bike every day.”

In one year enduro became a candidate world champion. In retrospect, you set a trend for motocross GP riders switching to the Enduro World Championship: Johnny Aubert, Antoine Leo, Alex Salvini, Pela Renet, Loic Larrieu etc….
Cervantes: "That's true. I think I inspired others and you mentioned some very strong enduro riders, but not every fast motocross rider was able to achieve the same success. Many came and many failed. Just like Stefan Merriman had done, I brought some aggression into my riding. That has certainly opened eyes in Spain. We had good young enduro riders in my time, but a lot of them focused on rallying. I was more complete, for example also in sandy conditions because of my motocross background.”

Does it mean anything to you that you paved the way for someone like Josep Garcia?

Cervantes: "Certainly. It is very satisfying to have played my role and to be able to start a new chapter for Spanish riders in enduro. Josep Garcia is one of the very best enduro riders in the world. Together with Steve Holcombe, Brad Freeman, Andrea Verona and Hamish Macdonald, I consider him the cream of the crop in EnduroGP.”


Who were your strongest opponents in enduro?
Cervantes: “Certainly Mika Ahola (photo above, right of stage) because of his speed and talent but also because of his great personality. When Mika lost, he showed great sportsmanship and said something like 'Congratulations, you were the best today and you won fairly. Enjoy your victory! But believe me tomorrow I will do everything I can to beat you. And that's what he would do! We were very fierce rivals, but in a very healthy and respectful way. I still miss him (ed. Ahola passed away in 2012). After a 7 or 8 hour day he beat me by less than a second or I won the other way around. That's incredible! I also had great duels with Christophe Nambotin and Pela Renet. And of course my rivalry with Antoine Meo was something special. He was very aggressive and spectacular on the bike and we were teammates at KTM! Meo was definitely one of my strongest competitors.”

You rode World Enduro Championships for 15 years, during which you achieved 68 victories and 73 podium places. That is a remarkable course in itself, but how have you experienced the changes in the sport during that time?
Cervantes: “I consider myself lucky to have been there in this particular era. As of 2004, a new promoter had just taken office. That was Alain Blanchard with ABC Communication. During that period the sport underwent a major evolution with more TV attention, more media attention, more spectacular special tests and better presentation in the paddock. I loved it."

After enduro you went to rally raid and did Dakar. How do you look back on this chapter?

Cervantes: “First of all, it's a great experience, it's also humbling. It's a 15-day race, with a huge number of kilometers and so many difficulties to overcome. From navigation to the danger that comes with the Dakar, entering the unknown, also because you cannot do any exploration. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. My biggest mistake was overstepping my own boundaries. In my first Dakar I finished 15th, which was an encouraging result for a rookie. So for 2017 I thought okay, look what I achieved in enduro, I can do that here too. Now it's time to attack! That resulted in big, big crashes. I was 11th or 12th with two days to go and had a huge crash. Luckily I got away okay, no major injuries, nothing broken in my body but the engine was completely destroyed. If you crash at 160 km/h and you have two small children at home... Then you start to think. I tried again in 2018, but I had a lot of mechanical problems. That being said, doing the Dakar without major problems - from technical things to navigation problems to major crashes - well, that's impossible!”

You've done some heavy lifting on motorcycles that - although they have off-road properties, such as the Triumph Tiger or Scrambler - are not pure racing machines like enduro or dirt bikes are. What was it like adapting to and racing those track bikes, as you did with the Triumph Tiger in the Maxitrail category?
Cervantes: “Of course you have to understand that such an engine is heavier. In general, an adventure bike is a motorcycle that weighs more than 200 kg and the center of gravity is different. You can do absolutely amazing things with it. Yes, even spectacular things, but never forget that you are riding a big motorcycle. Making a small mistake can cause injury or damage to your motorcycle. Correcting your motorcycle when things go wrong is simply more difficult than on a lighter motorcycle. However, it is great fun to show the public what the Triumph Tiger can do in serious competitions such as the Baja Aragon, 1000 Dunas, Addax Rally or Bassella Race 1.”


You've done almost everything possible on a dirt bike: motocross, enduro, super enduro, hard enduro, a bit of supermoto, rally raid and maxi-trail. But how did you get involved with the Guinness World Record for most kilometers traveled in 24 hours?
Cervantes: “Well this was Triumph's idea. One day James Wood, the marketing manager at Triumph, called me and asked if I wanted to take on a new challenge. Before me, an American rider, Carl Reese, held the Guinness World Record for most kilometers ridden in 24 hours. The record was more than 3.400 kilometers. At first I thought: No way, it's not possible to break this record! After a few days of thinking, I thought, why not? Like you said, I've tried everything. So why not something as crazy as this! We only started preparing two months before the record attempt.”

What was the toughest part of that record attempt?
Cervantes: “Maintaining an average speed of more than 200 km/h - you have to try to make up for lost time during stops - is really not easy. Being on the bike for so long is one thing, but the mental challenge is another. Staying focused during the day is possible, but at night in the dark it is demanding. We also had some rain. And when you have already driven 12 hours, the realization that you still have 12 hours to go hits you hard! Fortunately, the Tiger 1200 GT Explorer is a very comfortable motorcycle, but your shoulders and neck still start to hurt after a while. There was a large support team that helped me a lot to stay motivated. All those people are there especially for you. You can't disappoint them, you have to do your best. In the end we set the record at 4.012 km and everyone was very happy with it. But it was the hardest 24 hours of my entire life.”



How do you prepare for something like that?


Cervantes:  “I tried to get as healthy and fit as possible in the run-up to the event. In addition, I gradually started sleeping later and started driving at night about twice a week. Just 500, 600 kilometers to get used to the reduced visibility at night and the feeling of the engine. It was a great adventure.”

Thanks for your time Ivan.
Cervantes:
"Don't mention it!"


Tekst:
Tom Jacobs
Photos:
Triumph, Flavien Duhamel / Red Bull Content Pool, Alberto Lessmann / Red Bull Content Pool, Dario Agrati, Future7Media, Clice

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