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Moving to the other side of the stopwatch: Tyla Rattray

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Moving to the other side of the stopwatch: Tyla Rattray

After a distinguished racing career in MXGP and AMA Supercross and Motocross, 2008 MX2 World Champion Tyla Rattray jumped away from a motorcycle at the end of 2015 and straight into a role as protégé to famed trainer and fellow countryman Aldon Baker and to head up the KTM AG’s 250 rider development program in Florida. We asked about the rapid change of life from racing at the top to preparing others to do the same …

At 32 years of age Tyla Rattray does not look too different from the wide-eyed sixteen year old that made an immediate impression as a KTM rider in 125cc Grands Prix in 2001. The incredible wear-and-tear and sizeable catalog of injury in a fourteen year career means that the Florida-based father of three (with wife Sam) can sometimes feel the punishment of all those motos and dismounts. But the South African keeps a spring in his step (and a physique that indicates he could still gun a 250 4-stroke to a respectable lap-time) thanks to an alternative challenge inside the sport.

In 2004 Rattray finished as world championship runner-up in MX2 with a KTM 125 SX. In 2008 he used the 4-stroke KTM 250 SX-F to claim the title and then sought further race-winning glory in the United States, earning runner-up finishes in the 250 MX series in 2010 and 2011. A dalliance in MXGP in 2014 and 2015 brought his riding days to a close but the spark with KTM thanks to the works Troy Lee Design 250 Factory Team was reignited. Rattray, who trained with Aldon Baker as an athlete, then hooked-up with the revered specialist once more … but in a different capacity.

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Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Rattray’s personal self-orientated perspective of racing has widened to incorporate five other riders, mostly on the TLD program, and from the confines of the exclusive Baker’s Factory on the east coast. There are not too many other world champions and AMA national race winners active in such a capacity in the Supercross and Motocross paddock.

‘Styla’ was renowned for his work ethic as an athlete and ‘un-showy’ approach to his racing. That he knows the hard graft necessary for the job is beyond doubt but whether he can transmit that – and all of his vast international competition experience – onto impressionable youngsters is another matter. KTM, TLD and Baker believe steadfastly in his potential but it felt timely to ask some questions.

As per usual Rattray can be found friendly, accessible and open to conversation and debate. He is now a much more articulate speaker than those awkward first years in Grand Prix and the maturing effects of fatherhood and the highs-and-lows of Motocross have helped shape a rounded character.

Tyla, how difficult was the transition from being a rider to a trainer?
“Basically since I was five years old all I’ve known is to ride and race. It starts as fun, becomes a profession and then is a job. We all know this sport doesn’t last forever as a racer. It has to come to an end sometime. When it’s over you almost sit back and think ‘wow … this chapter has finished. The book is closed. What’s next in life?’ I always wanted to get into training and I tried to learn as much as I could when I was racing. I was learning about my body and what worked best. KTM and TLD were looking for someone to help their guys and Aldon is obviously the man when it comes to training in this sport and there is only a certain number of guys he can take. They wanted to find someone to help and with my history with Aldon for five-six years I had a lot of knowledge about putting-in the right kind of work and how important things like rest can be. There are no shortcuts in this sport and you have to do the work to get the results. It wasn’t like I was waiting around for a while to see what I’d do; I came back from Europe and started with these guys almost right away. I’ve been learning again and it has been a great transition.”

What about changing that mentality of a racer and only having to worry about one person to suddenly thinking about the surroundings of five other guys?
“That’s a thing about being a racer – especially one that wins – they are very selfish. It is all about them. When I was racing in Europe and I won the world championship then it was all about me. Afterwards I was trying to win national championships and it was the same. I knew I’d need to take a step back away from that … and I think a lot of people don’t like doing that. They still want some of the limelight. My goal now is to help these athletes be the best they can be and get to their full potential: it’s a great opportunity. Especially at the Baker´s Factory. I wish I had something like that when I was racing: this exclusive facility with the best tracks, track guys and infrastructure. It is first-class. And for any rider to compete against that is very tough. We have seen good results through the 450 program and now we have the whole 250 division and it is all about them now and not about me any more. I’m trying to get my experiences and mistakes across and help the riders minimize their own mistakes.”

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Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Did having children help with that ability to get some distance from the intensity of racing?
“Yeah. We had Brooke in 2010 and I wouldn’t change anything about that. It is fun to go to the track, do the work and come home to a bundle of joy. It was good for me and it motivated me. People say having children can be a distraction but if anything it motivated me to keep pushing and getting results. I had a family to provide for. Then we had Brody and then Blake, so three now! It would be pretty crazy to be racing now with three kids. The timing worked out perfectly.”

Was that also ‘schooling’ for how to handle the different personalities of younger riders? Everyone has their own quirks and ways to interact …
“Definitely and the kids coming through will only get younger 18, 19, 20 because that’s the whole deal with KTM, the facility and program to attract the kids from amateurs and develop them through the 250 scheme. Those first years as a pro, that’s when riders learn the most. The goal is obviously for them to win championships and then step over to the 450 program. You have to be hard sometimes. I’ll be 33 at the end of the year and I feel that this age gap is pretty good. I think there is that ‘respect’ factor and it’ll help moving forwards because I think with a group closer in age then the respect is not really there as much as dealing with someone that is a lot older. You also see it on Aldon’s side and the way the riders respect him. I think it grows every year because the age gap parts ways. I think the whole structure is still quite new to us and the communication channels will only improve because if a guy comes through the 250 side and heads into his 450 program then Aldon will want all possible information on him to see where he is at and what kind of ‘loads’ he can handle. I need to work on that: to really keep track of these guys on a daily basis.”

“It’s a dangerous sport and we want to be a prepared as we can be but a kid in the amateurs will see the riders on TV, the fireworks, the show, the money … and Supercross is only getting bigger.”

Aldon is renowned for his program and the discipline and commitment it requires. You obviously went through that and people might wonder ‘why do – or go near it – again?!’ How is the relationship between you both now?
“Well, we have a business down there in Florida and like any business you want it to grow and be successful, be bigger and better. That’s what he has been doing. I feel we have some more challenges on the 250 side because the guys coming in are slightly newer to it all; whether that’s Supercross or even a set of whoops and there have been a few crashes. Just before we came out to California for the start of Supercross Aldon had to spend thousands on a new machine just to fix and take better care of the whoops for the kids. It is a business that is evolving and I’m sure it will get better but we’re at the baby steps stage at the moment. Aldon and I have a good relationship. He has never really had an issue with me in terms of commitment, even when I was riding with him as I’d always put-in the work and he never had cause to doubt that. I was maybe not the best rider in terms of skills and technique but I got the job done. It is the same now with being a trainer. I am all-in and I want the guys to win championships and look to the 450s.”

Do you feel a bit like a rookie again? What worked for you might not work for Shane and you need to adjust to someone else’s needs …
“Yeah, I’m still learning but the basic fact underlying everything is that the work has to be done: the motos, the graft and the belief. You cannot think for a second that it will be easy. Every athlete is different and I’m learning about that. Some can recover quicker than others and obviously the younger ones have that ‘kid power’. My plate is not too full and I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to lose careful track of these guys. It is a monitoring process almost on a daily basis. It would be easy to copy-paste and email out fitness programs – you could do that for a hundred guys – but to give the right load it has to be day-by-day even down to sleep patterns and regular heart rates.”

“Rolling out at a Supercross is scary but when you are in the gate then your focus is on racing and you black everything [else] out. When I did my first A1 I was like ‘Holy Smokes! This is crazy!’ and I got on the podium; so you have a different switch ‘upstairs’. Racing has a different type of focus and it is something I miss.”

What about the mental side and the adversity of professional sport? You have your own experience but can you read or learn more to help with that aspect of the job?
“I’ve done a lot of research on it. The main issue is the variety of athletes: some are very strong mentally and others need a bit more of a helping hand. It is crazy to see how different they are but then watch when they go on the track and how close and similar are the lap-times. There is a special mentality to racing. I’m learning to help them be the best they can be when it comes to race day … but being down there in Florida they are already ahead of the game. This game is not easy. If it was then there would be a lot more professional motorcycle racers. There are only three podium spots. Many of the guys are already mentally strong. They know how to play the game and to have their head in the right place.”

Is it interesting to see how people go about the job? You would have seen teammates and friends in race teams in the past but now you have a very overall view of a spread …
“Yeah, all kinds. Some guys are really talented and coordinated and it all comes easier to them whereas others struggle to get the rhythm. At the end of the day the guys still come down there and give 100% effort and that’s what we want. It doesn’t matter one day if they are fastest or two seconds off the pace, we just want them to use their potential and do the best they can. It is also hard because you cannot expect a kid to jump out of amateurs and go straight into winning 250 SX main events. You’ll have guys in their mid-late twenties winning those races and there is a big gap to breach there. The kids need to be mature. An eighteen-nineteen year old coming into pros has to be like a normal twenty-four/twenty-five year old. They have to quickly gain experience in just a few months. The young guys at the Factory can also learn from the slightly older ones to work on their consistency at a younger age.”

t.rattray_18_atlanta_jl_1268-800x534.jpg

Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Do you think kids are a lot more switched on now?
“I think they have to be if you see where the sport is going. When I was winning in Europe it was on 125cc 2-strokes. Back then we thought ‘wow, these are fast’. We were eighteen then and the kids at the same age now have even faster bikes and 250 4-strokes. We’d have something like 38hp and think ‘we’re crushing it …’ now they’ll have 50+ with better traction and torque. The human body and its limits have not really changed … but the bikes have. Physically there is almost no time off when it comes to racing in the US and kids need to have so much strength. Add to that the gap from the kids coming through to the riders that are winning races and championships can be about eight years. So there is still a long way to go before making an impression in the 250s and transitioning into the 450s. Age and experience: it is the big separator.”

“There are a lot of factors that play a huge part in being successful in this sport. You cannot just dip in-and-out like it is golf or something.”

Can you imagine being seventeen again now and doing this?
“I was on a 125 when I was eighteen! You have seventeen year olds on fast, factory 250 4-strokes and I think the injuries now are more severe than back in the day. You are hitting the deck at higher speed. We try and develop these kids to have the strength and stamina so that when they do turn pro and head into Supercross at eighteen-nineteen they can go the distance. You want them to have confidence as well and not just get crunched every weekend. You want them to stay healthy, get the best out of them and get their mind in the game – if they are winning in amateurs then they will want to win in the pros too – but that’s tough! And how does that translate into the years they need? They need to take steps and climb that ladder.”

You talk about educating them on mistakes. Give an example of one you made: would it be something to do with racecraft or decision-making?
“Hmm, mistakes like when you are under pressure. When you should be focusing on yourself. It can be easy to lose concentration and get involved with another rider on the track that then messes your race up. Steam might be coming out of your eyes and you want go hunting for that guy at the next race because he messed up your podium position. You have to let the race come to you. If you are eighteen and a twenty-six year old who is fighting for the championship overtakes you then follow him, instead of trying a reckless pass in the next turn and crashing and paying for it. So it can be racecraft and polishing it as well.”

t.rattray_18_atlanta_jl_0089-800x534.jpg

Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Lastly is 450 SX the biggest stage for a racer? Is that what you drink-in the most as a pro?
“Once it gets down to the 450 division and making the podium there in Supercross then it is a big deal. When it comes to fans and all that then I still love the Euro scene. It is a lot different. The GPs are really professional with their podiums and setup. The crowds go a bit crazy; if you are in France fighting a French guy for the win then the atmosphere is insane. I miss that side of racing and I had a great time in Europe as well as the US.”

Photos: James Lissimore Photography


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      Why a KTM 500 EXC?
      “I’ve lived in New Zealand for a few years and when I decided to move back to Oregon in the States, I thought what a better way to get there than ride a bike instead of dealing with another 12hr plane ride! The next question was which bike to ride…”
      “I knew I wanted something light I could ride in the dirt and pick up easily with the extra bags on, even if I was on my own. I wanted something with enough power to keep things interesting and put a smile on my face. I also needed something simple to work on and the 500 kept ticking all the boxes. Besides, I always thought it is a great looking bike, so for me it was a pretty easy choice.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      Picking up a KTM 500 EXC from a local dealer in late 2015, Aaron set off to plan the crucial details of his upcoming trip. “I bought my bike from a shop. I didn’t really consider any other options. The sales guy was trying to steer me towards a KTM 690 ENDURO R when I told him what my intentions were, but I insisted on the 500 EXC. He thought I was nuts but wasn’t going to turn down a sale.”
      “I’ve always been telling myself that if I ever stayed long enough in one place to have a dog, I would name it Tess after a working dog my uncle had when I was a kid. Few weeks into my trip, I decided to name my bike Tess.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      Traveling light…
      Moving on with his planning and preparations for the upcoming trip, Aaron quickly realized that he had to pack and travel light… “During the initial part of my trip, I was planning to ride New Zealand from the bottom of the South Island to the top of the North Island. While preparing my gear, really it was working out what not to pack. Ever since then, selecting the items I am carrying on the bike is an ongoing process that changes depending on what countries I’m heading towards and what weather conditions I can expect.”
      “For example, when I decided to ride solo up to over 5.500m on the famous Sairecabur volcano on the frontier between Bolivia and Chile, I left some of my gear in San Pedro de Atacama and did a day trip there. That was one of the highlights of my trip so far. The view was absolutely amazing, and it was one of the first times I felt I was somewhere very remote and alone. Also, my bike was a true blast to ride in that extreme terrain.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      Every end is a new beginning.
      A few months after setting off for his return trip through New Zealand and onto US territory, Aaron finally reached the end of the first part of his trip. Little did the KTM 500 EXC mounted rider know that this was just the beginning of something even bigger.
      “Reaching Portland, Oregon was another great moment in my trip. At that stage, I thought I was finished with traveling and the goal I had set was accomplished. I had so many people telling me that I had picked the ‘wrong’ bike, it felt awesome to have reached my goal. Soon enough the ‘Forrest Gump effect’ kicked in and I was back on the road heading north.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      “Another highlight of my trip was reaching Deadhorse in North Slope Borough, Alaska. I was at the very top of the North American continent and it felt damn good. It was a stunning day and I did the turn and burn not staying there, so it was a 720km day on the saddle. I had great conditions and it was just a fun day on the bike.”
      “That day I was having a bit of a race with some guys on big Travel bikes and throughout the ride back to Coldfoot I leap frogged them a few times. I would stop to take photos and they would pass me, but soon later I would catch up pass them back. Sitting in a bar in Coldfoot with a beer in hand I saw them roll in. They walked into the bar and one said: “Who’s riding the KTM?” I slowly raised my hand and they came over shook it and we spent the rest of the evening chatting.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      From Alaska to Sahara.
      After three years traveling the world on his KTM 500 EXC, Aaron has collected a wealth of experiences riding in some of the coolest places on this planet. “Riding over the last rise and seeing the Sahara Desert was another massive moment in my journey. It is just a stunning view and I had the perfect bike to go play in the dunes. It was also one of those tick of the box moments as I had always wanted to see it.”
      “My time in the Sahara Desert was another little milestone at that time. It was as far south as I was going to go before heading back to Europe and crossing Asia, so it was kind of a mental halfway point. Later during my trip, I would find out it wasn’t even close to halfway.”
      “For years I’ve been reading stories of people riding in Magadan and the depths of Russia. For me, it took a year longer than I had originally expected but I managed to get there. After coming out of Morocco, I was originally planning to ride to Vladivostok. I had the choice to put in huge back to back days to make it across Russia or throw the plan out the window and take it as it comes.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      “I did the latter, which allowed me to ride the Trans European Trail through the Balkan countries. I stored my bike in Georgia for the winter. I pulled the motor out and pulled it to pieces, taking it back to the States in a couple suitcases to get it rebuilt there. Few months later, I flew back to Georgia to continue my trip. During my time in Europe, I went by KTM’s headquarters in Mattighofen. Pulling a wheelie down the road outside the factory was another highlight. It felt like taking my bike back to its birth place.”
      “Throughout my whole trip, there’s a lot of moments I cherish… Waking up to the sound of a hot air balloon while camping in Cappadocia and riding with Dakar Rally racer Serkan Ozdemir in Turkey were some cool moments. Also, riding in Mongolia was awesome. The place is so vast and remote and allows you to choose your own path through the steppes. Riding there was simply fantastic, the food and toilets not so much.”
      “Of course, I’ve met some great people along the way. I’ve had so many people reach out offering me a place to stay when I’m in their area. The people who walk up to me in a campground and say I bet you can’t carry cold beer on your bike, here have one. I love listening to other people’s stories of their travels.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      Bike maintenance basics
      To ensure a problem-free trip, Aaron knows how to properly take care of his machine. “The number one question I get asked is about oil changes. I do a lot of them. I started doing them every 1.500km to 2.000km max, but now I will go for 3.000km without worrying so much. They are so quick and easy on my bike, so I don’t know why people think it’s a big deal. It also gives you a chance to give the bike a quick once over looking for anything loose etc.”
      “If I am fully pinned in the desert or in race mode, I do oil changes more often. If I’m clicking some easy miles through a country like Uzbekistan or parts of Siberia – where it’s back to back 500km days with the bike just purring along at 110km/h – I stretch them. I always carry two spare pre-oiled air filters. I carry a front sprocket and I change it as soon as I see the teeth start turning around. Usually it’s around the 5.000 or 6.000km mark and that’s helped my chain and rear sprocket last longer. I use a Supersprox stealth sprocket from the KTM PowerParts catalog and they last amazingly.”
      @braaping_kiwi
      “I do a bit of preventative work also. Before I crossed into Morocco, I replaced the clutch thinking I might be doing lots of sand. Did it next to my tent and it wasn’t that hard. I did my first top end rebuild at 870hrs as the bike needed it. Then I did my second at around 1.300hrs but it didn’t need it. I did it because I did the bottom end and thought while it is all in parts I might as well do it all. At that time, I was heading from Georgia across Mongolia and Siberia so it was good piece of mind to know it was all done.  When traveling alone in those type of areas piece of mind is a massive thing.”
      At the time of writing, Aaron is at Port Klang, Malaysia and waiting to get his bike delivered. Expecting to jump back on his bike soon, the extreme motorcycling traveler will continue his trip all the way back to where it all started from three years ago, in the bottom of New Zealand.
      @braaping_kiwi
      You may follow Aaron’s adventures via his profile on Instagram: @braaping_kiwi
      Photos: @braaping_kiwi
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