Features 26 May 2011

The Matthes Report: Byrner's Story

AMA contributor Steve Matthes looks at the life and career of Queenslander Michael Byrne in the U.S.

It’s funny how fleeting the sport of motocross is. Consider the case of Michael Byrne, who at the end of the 2009 outdoor season was a factory Suzuki rider and was on fire all season long in the nationals – tying for an overall win at Southwick, a bunch of podiums and probably an income almost in the one million dollar range.

Life was good for the Australian, who not many realise, was the first Aussie to come over to the good ol’ USA after Jeff Leisk did so many moons ago. One of the sport’s good guys and just an ordinary dude around the track, life looked good for Byrner as he was most likely going to re-sign with Suzuki for the 2010 season. After all, who wouldn’t want to have a solid guy like Byrne on their team?

Team manager Roger DeCoster even wrote Byrne an email at the end of the year saying that he was happy with his ride considering all he’s been through with an injury that caused him to miss supercross and things seemed to be moving along just fine until one day, it wasn’t.

“RD [De Coster] seemed to be happy with me and everything was good but then the communication just kind of stopped,” Byrner told me. “It was weird. I don’t know if there was politics involved or what in terms of what someone brought to the table, but at the very end when I already knew Mossy [Matt Moss] was hired, he sent me an email saying that I was out.”

It was a surprising development to drop a solid top four guy in the outdoors and a former podium rider in supercross for an unproven rider who had previously tasted success on a 250 in Australia. And to the surprise of no one, Moss did struggle bad at times on the factory RM-Z450 (although to be fair, he did come into the year injured).

Michael Byrne in action during 2009, his last season as a factory Suzuki rider in the outdoors.

Michael Byrne in action during 2009, his last season as a factory Suzuki rider in the outdoors.

“Matt’s a good kid but I knew he was going to struggle in the 450 class with no experience racing that class in America,” Byrne added. “Obviously I’m biased, but I think that if I had just stayed there with that bike and developed it even more, I felt like my results could’ve got even better.”

So with that, Byrne was left without a ride. There were some talks with other teams but nothing that was substantial. It was a remarkable twisting of events that left Byrner without a ride. His contract was up, teams were cutting back everywhere, he hadn’t raced supercross in a couple of years due to injuries and the outdoors were forgotten a month after they finished.

There’s the short end of a stick and then there’s what happened to Byrne. Without anything really solid, Michael made what turned out to be a bad decision when he agreed to race the Australian supercross series for a Honda team on the all-new 2009 Honda CRF450.

Byrne was hoping to go back home down under and get the buzz going on him going into Anaheim 2010 but in fact, the opposite happened. It was a complete disaster for the Queensland (is that where everyone eats chicken and shrimp? I’m just wondering?) kid as he couldn’t come to terms with the funky bike and way different tires.

“Yeah, going to Aussie on a Honda wasn’t good – I got taken out at the first race on the start,” he explained. “My repaired shoulder got jacked up again and was sore the rest of the way. I spent one day on the bike and after three years on factory bike it was a big adjustment for me. Also, even the American Honda guys couldn’t get a handle on that bike in the first year.”

So whatever the exact opposite of coming home the conquering hero is, that’s what Byrne did as he came back to America to find the sound of crickets chirping. There was nothing there for him in terms of a ride. So come Anaheim 1, 2010, Byrne was not in a factory truck, he wasn’t in a support truck. Nope, at the back of the pits, by the giant A in the parking lot, there was the podium guy from last summer in a motorhome with some EZ-Ups erected and a privateer Kawasaki.

There first round didn’t go as good as hoped but soon after, Byrne caught a break as the Joe Gibbs Yamaha team needed a fill in rider after one of there riders got injured. It was another tough thing to do, go from your Kawasaki to the all-new 2010 YZ450F, which is a little different bike.

Byrne was in a tough situation as he was laying out the money right now to get to the races but on the JGR Yamaha ride, it was everything paid and even a bit of money in his pocket. Michael had no choice but to take the deal and start from scratch again – the going would be tough no doubt about it.

“The new bike was weird and I felt like I was in that Aussie supercross deal all over again,” Byrne said. “I literally had two days on it before I had to race. Going weekend to weekend was tough but I tried to make the best of it. I did feel like at the end, I started to ride it better and was probably going to get a podium at Salt Lake City, but developed a rear brake problem.”

I called up Jeremy Albrecht, a long-time friend of Byrne and the JGR Yamaha team manager to get his thoughts on the fill-in ride.

“I felt like he’s a great guy, he helped us develop the bike and the results aren’t like I thought they would be,” Albrecht said. “I was definitely hoping for better results and I’m sure he was too. I think the class is tougher than when he last raced it, the kids moved up and took it to another level. All in all, he didn’t ride bad and I think he had a podium but we let him down when he got a brake problem.

“I’ll tell you what though, as a team member, we couldn’t have asked for more. He’s a professional guy, one of the nicest guys, he respects everyone, he works on his own bike and tests on his own. He’d come up with new ideas and that part of it was great. There was no babysitting him. He brought his bike back and it was perfect, no problems. I wish nothing but the best for him.”

After that deal was over, Byrne latched on with the Valli Yamaha team for the outdoors where he had put in so many good rides just a year earlier but it wasn’t happening for the #26. He couldn’t get a start, got hurt halfway through and was on a team that he struggled to gel with.

That was it for the 2010 racing season in America and Byrner had his worst year as a pro, no doubt about it. The cruel motocross Gods weren’t done with Byrne yet though. Oh no, they were going to through another obstacle at the rider that had already ridden four different brands in 12 months.

Looking to get back on the bike where he had his best years, Byrne landed a two-year deal with the BTOSports.com/BBMX team and a big part of why Byrne signed on the dotted line was because the team rode Suzukis. It was a big gamble for the BBMX team to have a high-profile rider like Byrne on the team.

Previously, they had a lot of Florida-based riders and the fastest rider they had was privateer-forever, Jason Thomas who is friends with the owners and as laid back as they come. A guy like Byrne, who had been to the top, was a big step for the guys at BBMX and they upped their efforts to get Byrne back to where he once was.

But as I was saying, the moto Gods had one more thing in store for Byrne and that was an errand haybale at the Bercy Supercross in Paris, France, last November. On the first night, Byrne landed on it and went over the bars, breaking his wrist. It was a devastating blow to Michael and his wife Dani, they just couldn’t catch a break wherever they turned. “Lately, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” laughed Byrne.

That put him behind the eight ball when it came to racing supercross and once he came back, it was a work in progress for Byrne. Some good races, some bad but it’s tough to jump in on a new team, a new bike and expect great things in a field that’s never been deeper. I’ve seen Byrner since he was #990 and I’ve always thought of him as more of an indoor guy but lately, his results say otherwise.

“I think I’ve come to ride the outdoors better, something happened after I hurt my knee, something started to click for me in motocross,” Byrne said. “Back home in Australia, growing up I was always better at motocross and then in America I was better at supercross! It doesn’t come easy for me to train for it [supercross] and I think that people like you think that I’m better indoors is because I’m usually one of the first guys to figure out a section but really, I’m better outside.”

Byrne has always been fast, however much of his most recent pro career has been cursed with bad luck and injury.

Byrne has always been fast, however much of his most recent pro career has been cursed with bad luck and injury.

Now here we are, the outdoors are upon us and Byrne finished just outside the top 10 at the opening round at Hangtown, a track that has never suited the Aussie. He’s pragmatic about his finish there. “Hangtown, I was tied for 10th and that’s like a win for me!” he reflected.

When asked about the adjustment to his team he had this to say… “We have a lot of good sponsors on the team like Vince at BTOSports.com and we just need time with those guys to get better. Like with Factory Connection (suspension) trying to fit us in isn’t easy and the testing and development part is tough. They have their own teams that they are working with.”

So we’ll see where it goes from here for the always-friendly Byrne. There are those out on the track that seem to have everything go their way all the time and some say that’s a combination of hard work and preparation coming together, but I call bullshit on that.

There are others out there, like Byrne, that put the work in, put the hours on the track and out on the road and for some reason, things don’t go their way. A guy like Michael Byrne has done it before and that’s to be respected. For the riders on top right now, enjoy it because it can all change in a minute.

Michael Byrne may not ever get back to his previous heights but that’s not stopping him from trying everything he can to make it happen. Sometimes, the breaks just don’t go someone’s way and let’s hope the good times come back soon. He certainly deserves it.