When Jonny Walker headed into 2016 as the top man in extreme enduro, having deposed Graham Jarvis, the future looked there for the taking...

JONNY WALKER IS the kid from Keswick (a small town in the rural North East of England). He holds onto that, almost jealously. He’s an international moto-star but in his heart he prefers still to be Jonny the window fitter and weekend dirt bike nut. Of course he’s not that person anymore, hasn’t been for a good three-four years, and with an exhausting annual international itinerary, a factory-racer’s contract and a highish-level public profile afforded by the efforts of the Red Bull media team, he has to be something of an idol. At 25 he’s not so much the kid anymore, either. But now, as then, he’s not ashamed to say his mum does his laundry.

Jonny’s background is in youth trials, he was a national champion by the age of nine, and remained top-three in each age category until age 18 when he transitioned to enduro. The swap was initially self-funded and not as focused as you might think.

“When I stopped trials and started racing I went straight into British championship enduro as a total privateer-amateur. I was working at the time – I worked until I was 21 (2012), fitting doors and windows – and I did my first year just racing the British championship because I couldn’t afford to do anything else. When you’re a privateer, its just you and it’s a real commitment, it really costs a fortune going racing!”

The commitment nonetheless paid off. Jonny managed to place 5th in the national E2 class and caught the eye of enduro mechanic-manager Julian Stephens. It’s Jonny’s good fortune that Stephens was local to him (Kendal is another Lake District market town) while Stephens’ own CV is impressive, having worked alongside both Paul Edmondson and David Knight in their world championship winning seasons. Stephens, also known as ‘Smooth’, was running a dirt bike shop at the time and was keen to promote this through a race team – Jonny was a shoe-in for one of the berths.

“I went to ride for Smooth in 2011, doing the British and European enduro championships. I’d travel to the Europeans with Danny McCanney. Danny beat me to the European Junior title that year. In the middle of the year we went to ride Erzberg – it kind of made sense with my trials background. I’d looked into it before, of course, but didn’t really know much about it. But on that first go I placed third. And that changed things, and I started to do more extreme races.

“But it wasn’t all plain sailing. I was doing too much, I was trying to race the British championship, the European championship plus the extreme races and you couldn’t really focus on the one thing so it made it really difficult. For 2012 I got my first deal with KTM, my first factory ride, and it listed the full range of events, from indoor, the extremes to British championship. It was too much, trying to race all the different races meant every weekend you were kind of getting a shit result because you weren’t able to specifically train for it, it made it too hard, so Smooth told me to concentrate on extreme races and that’s what I’ve done ever since.”

IN FACT A move to France in 2014 would change everything. As early as 2011 the moto-press had been getting excited about his prospects, but the wins rarely came, initially perhaps because of his scattergun approach to racing, then perhaps simply struggling with the enormity of the the job. He had his fair share of big wins, like Erzberg in 2012 and Sea-to-Sky in 2013, but that’s one win per year, barely enough to maintain a works contract.

“Things changed when KTM offered me a two-year contract starting in 2014. I was nervous that they’d drop me altogether, but instead they came back with a bigger deal and a new arrangement. I was given a new mechanic, Sebastein Fortanier, who’d worked with Johnny Aubert and Cyril Despres, and I rented a place close by him near Toulouse in the south of France. Smooth wan’t in the deal, but he’s remained my manager and he still negotiates all my deals.

“Seb is so much more than a mechanic, although that’s his fundamental role. But it was his experience and direction that changed things around for me. I’d turn up at his place ready to go riding and he’d ask me, ‘why are you going riding today?’ You look at some riders, they’re riding every day but they don’t get any better because they’re simply riding too much. So Seb cut me down to riding just three days a week, and make that race-specific training – we’d look to my next race and if it was a three-hour race I’d do a three-hour moto as training. And I think that’s what set me apart last year. I cut the number of races down too, to about 15, but by doing that I knew exactly what was coming up and knew what to train for. Seb’s guidance made the biggest difference.

“This year will be different though. Seb’s wife has become ill, so I’ve moved back to the UK. I didn’t want to be there, I wanted him to be with her more, not being distracted by coming training and racing with me all the time.”

So for now, Smooth is back working with Jonny, preparing his UK race bikes, and Jonny has returned to his privateer days by maintaining his practice bikes. He likes the discipline, suggests he might waste his spare time otherwise and, he says, it keeps him grounded – something he seems acutely aware of. 

MENTAL STATE is a major part of sporting achievement. And it’s not just during a race, but a 24-7 thing, a constant state of mind.

“Graham Jarvis is my strongest opponent. He is solid, and he’s riding at the highest level. It’s literally taken me three-to-four years to get to his level – he’s definitely made it hard for me. But with Seb’s input on training, with growing course knowledge and given my speed – I wanted to be a motocross rider when I was young, and so I often ride motocross for fun and I’ll do speed events like Hare & Hounds to practice maintaining high speeds – the wins have started to come faster, last year was fantastic for me.

“I think the thing now is I’m confident. If I go to a race now and get a shit start I know that I can take it easy and still get to the front, I’ll not rush the job like before. That’s the biggest thing, the confidence now when I go to the races, I know I can do it. Before I’d go to  race and I thought Graham was better than me, and that was why he beat me. But once I’d got a few wins in I started to believe in myself more.

“The way it is now, everyone says it must be easy, my life, winning-weekends at the races and all. But the stress is still there, and it always will be. I’m not going to lie, I feel a lot of stress, but I put it on myself, no one puts it on me. And when you have to get up at 6am to go to the gym three times a week, the constant need to stay sharp on the bike, and now with my own bike to fix, it’s like running your own business, you are constantly thinking. Sometimes I wish I was fitting windows again because I got up at eight, went to work and would be finished by half-four, go home and that was it for the day. Now it never stops, a day is a day, you literally work full-time.”

Holiday periods can be the hardest, says Jonny. When his mates will be partying he’s got to be in bed getting solid sleep with a race the next day. With indoor events he’s racing right up to Christmas and this year it started again on January 2. So Jonny’s annual break comes instead when the indoor season finishes. He’ll take a few weeks off, last big holiday was to Vegas “for a big blowout”, but it didn’t quite live up to expectations and so, sure enough, was keen to get back to work – the racing.

“The lifestyle is tough on relationships, too. There aren’t many girls floating around the scene and its difficult because you’re travelling so much. I’m seeing a girl at the moment but it’s hard because she lives three hours south, so I have to arrange my training around visits (or visits around the training). But if the relationship got too hard I’d just flick it off, it wouldn’t bother me, my bike racing comes first.”

THE FUTURE can never be far from the mind of a racer, for a pro-career isn’t that long. In motocross it can be ten years, and not all those will be at the top, earning the good money. Fortunately for Jonny, despite the ‘extreme’ tag, extreme enduro does allow for some longevity.

“I’ll keep doing extreme as I’m enjoying it. I’ve got another 10 years maybe doing it, but there’ll always be younger riders coming along – I try not to think about them, I just do my own thing because I know how I need to train. It’s taken me a good four years to get this good and that’s kind of my buffer against the next guy coming along. It’s so easy to go fast in one part of the track, but it’s stringing a race together and riding smart that’s the biggest thing. But when all this is done – then I think I’d like a go at the Dakar, I’d love to have a go and that would be something like a new start.

“I’m mindful of career paths. I can see how it’s gone with my greatest rival, and great friend, Graham Jarvis, two years ago he was unbeatable, but last season I took over from him. I don’t doubt that he has the capacity to come back, for instance I know he’s riding a lot more motocross to improve his speed, but being over 40 for him it can’t be so easy, the body eventually wears out. But I never count him out, he has probably the highest skills of any rider in the paddock, a constant threat.

“I’m a big fan of David Knight, too. He is a legend, and he was the rider I followed as I came up. He’s an incredible all-rounder, big and strong in the indoors – never get in a fight with him on track, he can just push you aside. But a lovely bloke, it’s a shame being outspoken seems to have cost him so dear, especially because the sport needs personalities like him. And this is a difficult stage in his career, he’s won it all, he has nothing left to prove, yet the fight is still in him, he still wants to win

“Ultimately, though, I think my career will always be measured against Graham’s. He made the job so much harder for me and it’s good – a relief – that I’ve been beaten him before he’s retired. Back in 2014 he was winning everything, if he’d retired then people would have said ‘yeah, Jonny would never have beaten him’. So it’s been good to beat him!”

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