2 years ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: John Pearson Media, Mark Kariya

After being involved with the management group for Australia’s International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) team for many years, AJ Roberts was appointed Team Manager this year, taking over from the long-serving industry stalwart, Don Atkins. Roberts, himself a three-time Outright AORC winner (2005, 2006, 2007), a six-time Aussie ISDE team representative, and long-time boss of the highly successful ShopYamaha Off-Road Racing team, was well aware that the transition to Team Manager would come with its challenges. But little did he know the scale of the logistical changes he would be faced with in 2022 – a predicament caused primarily by the skyrocketing cost of sending a shipping container full of Aussie team bikes and gear, which is how the Australia has traditionally got themselves to the international event.

Shortly before Roberts jetted out to France to prepare for this week’s ISDE, we sat down with the 39-year-old to get an insight into the alternative solutions forced upon the Aussie team management and riders this year.

Josh Green #99 with AJ Roberts

TM: You’ve been involved with Australia’s ISDE campaigns for, what, almost a decade now? And in recent years, as Assistant Team Manager?
AJR: Good question. I guess I got involved initially around 2013, but there was the odd year I didn’t go. I don’t get too wrapped up in titles. What I can tell you is that I’ve been part of Motorcycling Australia’s ISDE team management group, and have focused my contribution on the mechanical side of our campaign.

Don Atkins

And now as Team Manager for Australia’s first ISDE since 2019, taking over the role from Don Atkins…
Yep. Right back to when I did my first Six-Day in 2002, Don Atkins was part of the Australian ISDE team management group, and then the Team Manager for many years. I believe he was involved from the late 1990s, when Aussies such as Shane Watts and Stefan Merriman were winning Enduro World Championships. Don’s made an enormous contribution to Australia’s ISDE effort and success, and been a key figure in the domestic off-road scene too – especially with the annual Australian 4-Day Enduro. He’s left a real legacy in the sport, and helped countless Aussie riders overcome the additional logistical hurdles we need to overcome to get to Europe to compete in the ISDE.

And during Don’s tenure, Australia has evolved from a mid-pack nation to world-class powerhouse nation.
Absolutely. Back when Watts and Merriman were winning world titles, there was a big speed gap to the next rung of Aussie riders, and that was reflected in our ISDE results, as it’s a team event. But even since the inception of the AORC, our Aussie riders have steadily climbed the international rankings. And as you know, we dominated the 2015 ISDE in Slovenia – winning every bit of silverware on offer – and then won the World Trophy Team again in 2018. That’s not to mention the six wins that the Aussie Women’s team has collected. Don was always very organised and very structured and had a deep understanding of the event, and the Australian team – no matter who its managed by – will benefit from that for many years.

It’s funny you mention the AORC because, after winning those first three AORC titles inn 2005, 2006 and 2007, you’re now managing a national team whose strength owes a lot to that domestic series.
Yeah, it’s a bit of a full circle thing. I mean, in hindsight it’s obvious. You need a super-competitive, multi-round domestic championship if you ever want to be competitive on the world stage. Our ISDE success has absolutely been driven primarily by the AORC at home.

There’s an extra layer or three of logistical challenges to get an Aussie team to the ISDE, which is held in Europe a majority of the time. But for 2022, there’s a whole other level of logistical challenges, due primarily to astronomical increases in freight costs. Tell us about that.
For years, like since the early 1980s, Australian teams figured out that the only commercially viable way to get their bikes and gear across to an ISDE was to share the costs of a shipping container, which was sent over about three months ahead of the event. Depending on the destination country, that shipping container generally cost between $20,000 and $30,000. Riders would then pay a portion of that freight bill (like $1000 to $1500 apiece) to send their bikes in the container. But for 2022, we discovered the shipping container costs would be $75,000. Aside from that being cost prohibitive, there was no guarantee of the timeframe for when it would arrive. So what do you do? Select a team six or eight months ahead of the event, before we’ve even started racing domestically that particular year? Not an ideal way to make your team selections, right?! Anyway, so that’s what prompted us to look into alternative ways of getting to the French ISDE this year. After there being no ISDE in 2020 because of Covid, and then our national team not going last year in Italy because of the travel restrictions Aussies faced with Covid, we really wanted to make it work this year.

So, what does Plan B look like in France?
Basically, we’ve hired a Sweden-based Yamaha enduro race team to supply us with as much equipment and vehicles as possible. Y’know, tents, tyre changers, fuel drums, tools, bike stands, fridges so we’ve got food on-site at the event, storage, and all the other things you need to get a large number of riders through a Six-Day. These guys have gone over and above for us, running around to get everything we’ll need when we arrive. So, in effect, these guys provide us with the facilities and infrastructure. We then hire a shipping container in France that’ll sit in the Parc Ferme to store and secure everything, including the 120-odd tyres our team riders will use for the event. And Motorcycling Australia organise hire cars and vans for us, plus some supporter crew we need to man controls.

Is it an issue that not all Aussie riders are aboard Yamaha machinery?
No, not really. Because the logistics are so complicated this year, it’s all about everyone working together to pull it off. For instance, we’ve has Aussie-based Yamaha rider, Jeremy Carpentier, trying to organise a Husqvarna tent for Todd Waters to pit under and tools for us to use. Andy Wilksch and Corey McMahon have gone directly to an Italian race team to sort their bikes and race support this year, rather than renting them through KTM’s ISDE rider support package. Daniel Milner will be pitting with his Fantic race team in the Parc Ferme (much like Matt Phillips and Stefan Merriman have done in the past, when they’ve been on EnduroGP World Championship teams) and then we’ll look after him out on the trail’s controls. Emelie Karlsson has been over in Sweden ahead of the event, and is loading a van up with KTM tents and support crew. We’ve got ShopYamaha team mechanics come over to support all the Yamaha guys. Todd Waters has his brother and mechanic, Jason, coming over. The set-up is more fragmented than we’d ideally like, but this collective effort has been the only way we can get it done this year.

With the ISDE going to Argentina next year, it sounds like most countries will be needing this sort of collective approach!
Exactly. In the past, for a ‘normal’ ISDE in Europe, you’ve basically had the Aussies and Americans who shipped containers. The rest are already in Europe. Next year, with the ISDE in Argentina, the Americans will simply drive south to the event, and everyone else will have to ship containers to South America. That’s 30 countries who’ll want shipping containers. And that’s going to be interesting [laughs].

So, what you’re saying is that Australia will reap the benefits of this year’s learnings the following year at the Spanish ISDE, right?
Yep. Who know where shipping container freight prices will be in 2024, but if they’re still unaffordable, at least we’ll have figured out the logistics to get around it. And seeing as we’ve had a couple of team rider changes since the Aussie teams were initially announced, that’s highlighted the inflexibility associated with sending a shipping container several months before the event.

Has replacing Daniel Sanders and Wil Ruprecht with Andy Wilksch and Todd Waters complicated things further this year?
Yes. But both Andy and Todd have raced in Europe and ware well-connected there. And that’s allowed them to get themselves sorted with bikes and/or support at short notice. It was unfortunate that Daniel couldn’t arrange a GASGAS bike he’d be happy with (but then he got injured and wouldn’t have been able to compete anyway), and for reasons I don’t fully understand, Wil’s TM team made the decision not to support any of their riders at this year’s ISDE. Whatever the case, I know Andy and Todd will step up and be very capable replacements.

There have also been a few rule changes for 2022, including how many classes – E1, E2, E3 – each national team needed to cover. Though it appears several countries, Australia included, were not across this.
Yep, they changed several rules this year and all I can say is that, from where I sit, it wasn’t communicated to all countries very effectively via an FIM Bulletin or anything. I also know that a lot of people in the EnduroGP paddock in Europe weren’t across the rule changes either. Australia selected its teams based on an understanding that the Senior Men’s World Trophy team needed to have a rider in each class, and that the Junior World Trophy team had to cover two classes. It has now come to our attention that riders can all ride in whatever class they want. The other rule changes for this year mean that all team riders’ results count. In the past, only two of the three Women’s team members counted in the results, and three of the four Senior Men’s results counted.

Safe to say it’s been a hectic few months for you, mate – what, with a busy domestic racing scene and these ISDE shenanigans to content with.
Yeah, there’s been a lot on my plate [laughs].

Have you had time to think what success will look like for you this year, in your first year as ISDE Team Manager?
Well, we know that we’ll be starting on the back foot this year. Because we haven’t raced the ISDE for two years, all our teams will literally be starting from the back of the field – as the starting order for all a country’s teams is based on the prior year’s result of the Senior Men’s Trophy team. And starting in 210th position means our guys have a very difficult task ahead of them this year. If conditions are dry and dusty – which is what we’re expecting with the heatwave Europe has been hit with over the past couple of months – the Aussies riders are not going to see fresh tracks for at least two days. Considering that, our strategy is to be smart, finish, get ourselves into that top-five Outright group and set ourselves up for Argentina.

Go well, AJ. Whatever happens, it already sounds like it’ll be a memorable event.
Thanks, Andy.

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