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Duncan staying in front of the pack

After three years of cruel luck, Courtney Duncan is determined to make this year different, and finally win the world motocross title. So far, she's on-song. 

The race to the first corner doesn’t decide the winner, but getting there first is Courtney Duncan’s mission.

“It’s means you’re not covered in mud,” the 23-year-old Kiwi motocross star says. To lead around that first corner, she adds, also gives you an advantage.

Being out in front means being away from risk. There’s no one to crash into, leaving it up to Duncan and her skills to ensure she gets through the race unscathed.

“Getting there first you limit the damage and risk, and it’s easy to get held up on the track [if you are down in the pack] because sometimes it’s difficult to pass,” she says.

So each time she lines up with the 39 other riders on the world motocross circuit, with 25 minutes of hard racing ahead of her, Duncan has that first corner firmly in her sights.

If she stays fit - and out in front - Duncan is the firm favourite to win her first world motocross title when the championship wraps up in Turkey in September, and she could even have it in the bag before then.

She’s already out in front, with a four point-lead after two of the five rounds in the world championship.

But, in her fourth tilt at the world title, Duncan knows only too well not to count her chickens. Right now, she’s back home in New Zealand, simply focusing on staying fit before the next round of the championship, in the Czech Republic, in July.

You will find her in the gym or out riding her bike. And receiving plenty of good physiotherapy.

“I’m enjoying being at home and, though it’s a bit of a commute, it’s good. Because,win or lose, you come back to friends and family - people who lift you up,” she says.

Duncan has been riding a motorbike since she was seven, growing up in rural Palmerston, near Dunedin. She’s taken it seriously since she was 13.

It wasn’t so much a love of being on bikes that drove her; it was more about her competitive nature.

“I wanted to win everything I did. That was the competitive side of me. I didn’t think of it as a potential job back then,” she says.

That competitive streak saw Duncan play any sport going, including hockey, basketball, rugby, tennis, athletics and cross country running.

That base fitness has helped her in motocross, an exercise in strength and endurance.

“You use all of the body. It’s one of the most physical sports you can get and we have our heart rate at about 200 beats a minute for 30 minutes,” she says. “So it’s endurance as well as strength.”

But, to be one of the best, you need more than power and stamina - you need to be skillful, to understand racing and to be mentally strong.

Duncan’s mental strength has been severely tested in the last few years.

A foot ligament injury saw her miss the final two rounds of the 2018 world motocross championship when she had a 21-point advantage - having won five out of the eight WMX races she’d contested.

In 2017, she was leading the penultimate race of the season when she swerved to avoid five fallen riders on the track and crashed into a fence. Although she recovered to finish sixth, the points weren’t enough to win the championship. She went out and won the season’s last race by 46 seconds, finishing a frustrating third overall.

In 2016, while leading her debut championship - after winning three of her first four races – she was badly injured after crashing into a photographer standing in the wrong place on a jump. She missed two rounds and lost the title.

Add to this two reconstructions of both knees, and it’s easy to see why Duncan felt she needed a change for 2019.

It came in the form of motocross legend Steve Dixon, who convinced Duncan to ride a KX250 Kawasaki bike for his England-based Dixon Racing Team, after 11 years throwing her leg over a Yamaha.

“It’s a complete fresh start for me, making the switch. I was in a rut and something needed to change. I needed some new motivation,” she says.

It has obviously worked. She produced a first and a seventh in the opening event in the Netherlands in March, then won both races in Portugal earlier this month.

Although that world title is ripe for the picking, Duncan knows she has to concentrate on one race at a time.

“I’m really not looking past the next race. As we get closer, that will be my sole focus, but for now I’m not looking past training and staying fit. I’m probably close to being the healthiest I’ve ever been,” she says.

Which is another reason why, when the flag drops in the Czech town of Loket on July 28, she will - as ever - want to be in front at that first corner.

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