The world’s most underrated motocross champion

Who’s on your Motocross Legends Mt Rushmore?

When you think of the four best motocross riders in the world, do you think of Antonio Cairoli? Ricky Carmichael quickly springs to mind. Stefan Everts too. Jeremy McGrath will always be the most dominant supercross rider of all time. I’m here to assert that Antonio Cairoli’s name belongs alongside this illustrious trio and ahead of names like James Stewart, Ryan Dungey, Ryan Villopoto and Roger DeCoster.

To research this story, I searched on Google “The 10 Best Motocross Racers of All Time” and on a number of lists in Europe and the United States, Cairoli has only appeared in a few of the ‘between them and his highest ranking was in sixth place. As you can imagine, this was an article based in Europe – the US placed it somewhere between Ronnie Mac and Brandon from “Brandon’s First Race”.

Statistics don’t lie

In an age when you can produce any statistic to support any argument you wish to debate, the facts surrounding Cairoli’s career simply cannot be ignored. His career as a world champion began in 2004 and now, at 36, he remains as competitive as ever. During that time he racked up over 270 GP starts, so there is no doubt about his durability and longevity in a sport that is brutal for the mind and body. Out of these 270 GP starts, he has a 34% win rate. Let me rephrase this for you: In an 18-season career, Cairoli has won one in three GPs he’s lined up with.

Want more? He amassed 273 motorcycle victories during that time. Still not sold? How about his 177 podium appearances at an incredible 63 percent success rate. Yes, two GPs out of three that he starts, he climbs on the podium. His career points per GP are 38 out of 50 possible in each round. The racing world has marveled at Chad Reed’s incredible consistency throughout his career, but his stats have faded over time. Cairoli managed to maintain those stats and even this year he was neck-deep in the battle for the World Championship until an injury slowed his push down.

Humble beginnings

Born in Patti, Sicily, in 1985, Cairoli was no MX child prodigy. He was talented and dedicated, but he didn’t burst onto the scene with the hype, pressure and instant expectation of a James Stewart, nor does he have a family heritage like Stefan Everts. . Of course, he had won a Cadet and Junior Championship in Italy as his driving developed, but it was not a fast track to glory at a time when you had to make a living as a racing driver. Professional motocross on the grueling GP circuit.


With the support of Yamaha, Cairoli took part in the first GP of 2004 and registered a 21st place for the GP with the only points obtained thanks to a 15th place in the second race. But the brand determination that built his career kicked in and the learning curve was steep. The following GP in Spain saw him return to eighth place, third round in Portugal and he was in the top five with a fifth place. The fourth round in the Netherlands saw him record his first motorcycle podium and in the sixth round of 2004 he stepped onto the podium for the first time in a GP round.

His first race victory came in Round 11 in the Czech Republic and the renewed confidence spurred him on to the very next GP and his first of 93 GP victories. He went from a driver who barely scored the points in the first lap, to riding a wave of momentum throughout the 2004 season, eventually finishing in third place of the year and cementing himself as a competitor MX2 for the future.

By Carli Yamaha

Claudio De Carli formed a racing team in 1994 as his personal racing career came to an end. It was an association with Yamaha that saw the team win a 125cc World Championship with Alessio Chiodi in 1997, but it was Cairoli’s signing that really pushed the team to a new level and still stands. today. The De Carli / Yamaha / Cairoli relationship proved to be fruitful. From 2004 to 2009, Cairoli won three world championships, the first in 2005, including a one-season fight with Australian Andrew McFarlane. Cairoli narrowly missed the championship in 2006, but came back with a vengeance in 2007 to win another world title. Things were on track for a repeat in 2008 after winning four of the first nine GPs, but a torn ACL ended his season – despite still managing to finish sixth in the Championship.

The following year brought the change. Cairoli moved up to the 450 division in what was his last year on a Yamaha. Rumor has it that he found the YZ450F too much to handle after years of releasing a 250F and wanted a more maneuverable bike. His move to the 450cc class was an instant success as he won the championship on his very first attempt in what was believed to be a 400cc machine.

De Carli Yamaha’s six-year relationship with Cairoli spanned three world championships, a second, third and sixth place, but the winds of change were blowing behind the scenes and the relationship was about to enter into a new era.

By Carli KTM


KTM was making waves in Europe and looking to strengthen its presence and profile in the motocross world. They had already had success in the MX2 class but were looking for the ultimate crown, an MXGP championship.

Also, behind the scenes, KTM was developing a 350cc model for the market. At that time, there was talk of having only one major class, like Formula 1, and a mid-size four-stroke seemed to be the preferred option. Add to that Cairoli’s preference for a bike of this size, De Carli’s team infrastructure and proven track record and KTM’s desire to win, and suddenly things looked a lot more orange in 2010.

They never missed a beat as they changed manufacturers during the 2009 offseason. Cairoli proved to be the perfect fit and won the 2010 450cc motocross world championship, demonstrating the potential of a 350cc machine at the top. highest level. It was a great marketing bonus that a new bike, which was due to hit the market in 2011, had a championship on its first attempt.

It was the first of five World Trotting Championships for Cairoli and KTM. Twenty-twelve was the most dominant season of all. He has won 11 of 16 GPs this season, including seven consecutive to end the year.

As his dominance continued, many wondered if the bike Cairoli was on was still a 350cc machine. In order to quell the rumor, KTM even staged a PR stunt that saw the bike lower and be inspected during a GP.

But the 350cc didn’t last forever. In 2015, Cairoli returned to 450 and based his logic on two reasons. The first was that the 2016 KTM range has seen some significant updates and he felt that this set had the potential to suit him in the future. The second was the GP circuit tracks; the Italian felt that the tracks had gotten faster, simpler and less technical, so he wanted a more powerful bike. The 350 was parked and the 450 got out.

In 2015, Cairoli was in the midst of the championship race halfway through the season, but broke his elbow during his home GP. The following year saw him in the middle of a fight, eventually finishing second, before rebounding for his ninth world title in 2017. Although he had not won a world championship since the 2017 season, he remained ultra- competitive. He finished on the podium 14 times out of 19 races contested in 2018 to reach second place. He also won four rounds and two second places in the first nine rounds of 2019 until a shoulder issue ended his season.

Even in 2021, and facing a field that includes Herlings, Gajser, Prado, Febvre and Coldencoff, he’s still a constant threat and has landed four podiums in the first five laps.



Tony, as he is called in the paddock, is not the type to chase the headlines or cause controversy. Over the years there have been rumors of tension between him and some of his teammates, but none of this has ever been made public. The fact that Cairoli and Herlings were never on the same team when they were in the same class adds fuel to the fire, as do Cairoli and Prado. But while it may have been a management nightmare for KTM and the team members, all parts have been professional enough to keep it under the rug.

The end is near

During this season, Cairoli announced his retirement from full-time racing at the end of the year. But like everything in Cairoli’s career, there was even more magic to come. He was captain of the Italian team at the Motocross of Nations and over a weekend filled with drama he added another highlight to an already exceptional career by securing the smallest of victories against the Netherlands and his great rival Jeffery Herlings.

When asked at the end of the race if this would be his last MXoN and if the success made up for not winning that elusive 10th World GP crown, Cairoli replied: “Yes, I’m really happy, but this is not my last ‘Nations. I’m going to do more, and I really like this race, and one race a year is possible. I will be ready to race again next year and put the number one plate on the MXGP bike.

So the ride might not be over, it just slows down a bit. No matter if everything ends tomorrow, his legacy will live on forever. He might not have been a MX trailblazer in the world, a record-breaking machine, or a guy who reinvented the way we ride a dirt bike. He was just a hard-working Italian kid who rode a motocross bike faster than anyone else on the planet for nine years. And there is no problem with that!

He will be comfortably seated among the MX icons. Along with Carmichael, McGrath and Everts, he was one of those runners who was simply a cut above their opposition at the time. It is more than welcome to pull a chair to my Mt Rushmore of MX.

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