Eric Geboers - A Motocross Legend
Interview Saturday 25th March 2011 By Geoff Meyer
While not a physical giant he is a giant of the sport, one of its true greats.
Born into in a motocross mad family it was inevitable that Eric would start early, learning the ropes not long after he'd exited the womb. And, utilizing the experience of his older brother Sylvain, he would race his way into history, etching his name into the record books with each passing year. When, as a bubbling two-year-old he began to walk upright his first few steps led him to the place he knew he would find his brother: the family garage.
Sylvain Geboers, the current team manager of Suzuki's factory effort and former GP rider, was Eric's hero. A better role model at such a young age would have proved impossible to find.
'I didn't know anything else,' said Eric, before contemplating then thought for a moment. 'My brothers used to load up their trailers and go to the races with their motorbikes, which was life as we knew it. I didn't know if I was interested in riding because at that time it was just fun to be around. I was interested in riding my pushbike, acting like I was racing a GP. That helped me a lot and taught me to enjoy riding. Until I was 16 I didn't do anything other than play around on my bike, enjoying it. We couldn't race in Belgium at that age, it was not allowed. Although we could race in Holland and we did that a few times. I remember winning a race over there. When I was young I was really small and very thin. I raced the day I turned 16, there was a big race in my local town and it was my first real senior race. It was also the day that Sylvain decided to stop his career - that was a mixed day of emotions for my family."
It was Sylvain who recognized Eric's talent. Although biased by blood Sylvain saw his kid brother's natural ability and pronounced to the world that he was something special.
"Sylvain was always telling people about me. I had a lot of control over a bike and that led Sylvain to say I was going to be the best of all time. He was always helping me. It is impossible to say what he did for me."
Sylvain taught Eric that bike maintenance was an important step in becoming a good rider. It was his belief that working on your bike gave you a better understanding of how the engine and suspension works, which would give you an important advantage over your rivals. Long hours in the garage would also teach the younger geboers about work ethic and dedication.
“He never helped me work on my bike, he taught me how to do it but he didn't work on my bike for me. The first machine I had was a 400cc Maico; I built it from spare parts that were lying around the garage. Sylvain rode for Maico at the time and I had all his old parts to make a bike. I made it myself and, for a young guy, that was a lot of work. But it helped me a lot. it taught me how to judge the bike, understand what is happening with the bike, if something is going wrong with the bike, then you know what is it, you know if you can keep pushing or if you need to ride it a little slower to get it to the finish line. If you have two laps to go and you feel something break you know if it's something that will last.”
Those early years proved vital for Geboers, with a thorough understanding of motorcycle maintenance he had knowledge that many of today's riders would chew an arm off for.
After proving himself in Belgium Sylvain knew he had to get his brother racing at the next level: Grand Prix. But getting the go ahead to race proved difficult - he wasn't going out with the right girl you see...
“We asked the Belgian Federation if it was possible that I race a round of the world 125cc championship at the Grand Prix of Austria. We got an answer that this was not allowed and that I needed to be 18 years old. But Sylvain was in Austria and he saw another young Belgian rider waiting in technical control who was as old as I was. Later we found out that this rider was going out with the daughter of somebody in the Belgian federation, so we asked again, but this time mentioning the situation in Austria. The next GP was in another country and I didn't go to sheepish about the situation and let me enter. So I rode and finished third overall, it was my first ever GP, the year was 1980.”
Eric Geboers was always known for his preparation. He did his homework and knew that if he worked hard the results would come. lonely nights spent jogging the village streets in a bid to keep fit combined with his knowledge of motorcycles saw him enter the GP scene running, sprinting in face, and had he been given the chance to race a full season in his first year of grand prix who knows what could have been.
“At that time I was working like a professional, running at six in the morning and working on the bike until it was dark, then more training, I got really focused. Because of that third place in Belgium I was also allowed to race the next GP in France. I won that one. I won the second motto and came third in the first. It was a very wet race and there was a lot of mud, harry Everts had to stop because he lost his goggles and the mud was stinging his eyes. Then it was up to me and Marc Velkeneers, but his engine broke down. As the season rolled along I won two other GPs, one in the Czech Republic and on in Germany.
“You know, if I had been allowed to ride those first two GP’s I would have been in with a shot of winning the 125cc title at the last Grand Prix of the year in Spain, I could have been world champion. Harry also had his problems, he was out with a broken arm for some time, but still, I should have won that year.”
Having shown true potential in his first season at the highest level geboers was given a slot in Suzuki’s factory team alongside 125cc world champion Harry Everts. But it wasn't all sun and roses, in fact among all the commotion of a factory squad Eric found life difficult, confusing even, but he carried on regardless.
“I got a factory ride, which Sylvain organized for me, but he was working for Harry Everts as his mechanic, everything was run by Japan back then. I’d finished second in my first year - I was over confident. I thought I’d go to the start and it would be easier. The problem with being a factory rider is that you get so many people helping you, in the end you don't know where you are. I really had trouble. They are telling you so many things, guys who are setting your steering, doing your suspension, your engine. Believe me, 80% of the riders today get lost with all these options. It is important at least once at the start of the season to get a setting, you work on that a little, then stick to it."
In 1982, his third year in Grand Prix, Geboers secured his first world title in the 125cc class, what would follow would become known as the golden era of motocross history.
However, it was the 500cc class that offered Geboers his biggest challenge. Lined up against the likes of Dave Thorpe, Georges Jobe, Hakan Carlqvist and so many other great riders proved to be the pinnacle of the kid's career.
“That was so exciting. But working with Honda was not easy. In 1983 Suzuki was winning 125cc, 250cc and 500cc, yet in 2984 I went to Honda, I needed to change my mentality. Suzuki is a real family type of team but they are very cautious with the budget, we still beat Honda with their huge trucks and their huge wallets. So, when I moved to Honda. All of a sudden one of my motivations was gone. Now I was the one who was getting the best parts, the best help.”
One rider who gave geboers fits was England’s Dave Thorpe. The two locked handlebars on many occasions and, at times, they were enemies in the same team. Mind games played a major part in their quest for the 500cc world championship.
“Dave Thorpe was a tough competitor. On the track he could be on the limit of being mean. Thorpe didn't have that many friends; he kept a distance from the others. That was also very different from working in the Suzuki team. when I was with Suzuki I would call up Brad Lackey and ask if I could I borrow his bike, he was okay with that, he would ask me what I thought of his bike, and we would swap information. It was not the same with Thorpe; he would not let you have anything of his. He had his place in the team tent and you were not allowed to go near him. He had his father as mechanic and they would stick together, Thorpey was the worst at sharing, he was so different from the others. He was very closed as a person.
“Thorpey and I were the same speed; we had the same mental strength. We also played a lot of mind games. I remember once at the Grand Prix of America they let us do some laps before the official training, but Thorpey hadn't arrived yet. I had ridden the early morning practice and then they had not watered the track, it was so dusty. Dave arrived later, missing the morning practice and I felt it was too dangerous to ride in the afternoon. It was so hot, really, really hot, and very dusty so I decided not going out again. Anyway, Thorpey arrives and sees me sitting there just before official practice. He’s looking at me. He can see that I am sitting there and not doing anything. So he puts on his riding gear, looks at me and asks if I am going out. When I told him I was not bothered he said to me: "Jesus, your confident." I had already done some damage in his mind and I went out on the Sunday and won. We had many moments like that in our career.”
Having arrived on the GP scene like a thunderbolt, with stunning success immediately, Geboers wanted to leave on top. So, with his motivation rapidly evaporating he organized his escape strategy in the winter of 1990. The plan was simple: a victory in the 2990 world 500cc championship and Eric was off for a life of retirement.
“That whole season in 1990 I was thinking about stopping. In the winter, before the season started I just didn't have the motivation anymore. I worked hard in the winter and decided that I would give it one more year. If I won the championship, then I’d stop. The year was good, I had a plan and I stuck to it, which gave me that little extra motivation to continue. I remember that last lap in Namur, I had tears in my eyes, but what surprised me was the reaction of the fans. They didn't know I was suffering so much from being at the races; they just saw me winning and figured I was okay. you know, sometimes you don't like waiting at the airport, then you don't like arriving at the circuit on Friday, slowly it gets worse and for me travelling had become something I really didn't like doing.
“I did not tell anyone at the Namur circuit that I was quitting, my girlfriend didn't know, my parents didn't know - nobody knew. What happened was Belgian television took me with a helicopter to the television station, they wanted to find out how I felt about winning the world title, then I announced I was stopping, on national television. Underestimated how the fans would react when I got back to the track.
“I needed to g et back because after the world championship there's a big party - I wanted to celebrate. When I got out. People were crying everywhere. It started out a very emotional evening.”
Now living life at a slower pace Geboers can be found on the sport's fringes. Running the Grand Prix of Lommel and working with his brother inside the Suzuki team truck. The hard years have passed and he can enjoy his retirement without travelling too much and having to battle the likes of Dave Thorpe, Andre Malherbe, Georges Jobe and Harry Everts week in week out.