Joe Roberts was one to watch in American motorcycle racing when he was coming up the ranks. He took wins in AMA Pro, won the MotoAmerica Superstock 600 championship in 2015, and in 2017 proved strong in the FIM CEV Repsol Moto2 class. He was young, he was clearly talented, and he was hungry. That combination got Roberts a chance to dip his toes in MotoGP’s Moto2 class in 2017, where he contested five races and then moved into the series full time in 2018. This year he’s back again with American Racing KTM and he’s still working hard to find his feet. It’s been a big jump to the world stage, and Roberts is not shy to admit it has been an adjustment.
“It’s pretty intense, man,” Roberts said of racing in Moto2. “You show up to a weekend… These guys are generally not far off the lap record within the first session, so it’s something mentally you have to wrap your head around when you show up to a track. Something I do when I come out here to the supermoto track is just try to set my absolute best time in the first outing to kind of train your brain to really just be firing right away. So it’s stuff like that that I think coming from the national level where things are a little bit more relaxed I would say, you kind of have to think about that.”
Roberts used to prefer to take the first session to do some mental preparation with the bike, the track, to make a plan of attack. But he’s working to push past old habits like that.
“Visualizing the track and just understanding,” Roberts explains of his approach now. “I do a lot of watching the races before I show up. The next track is Jerez, so I’ll start to study all the previous years, different lines, different braking markers, things like that. You can spot a lot on those cameras. Also now MotoGP they do the onboard cameras too. You can just select that. So I do a lot of that stuff. That helps me out as soon as you get on the track. Obviously you still need a few laps to kind of put everything together, but that’s improved my process a lot more.”
The difficulty is compounded by a brand-new bike in Moto2 this year as well.
“I think there’s some things they still need to figure out with the electronics,” Roberts said of the new Triumph platform. “Just little stuff. Like in Austin where I put the first gear, the thing pops into neutral. So sometimes stuff like that can come up.
“But it’s a new class. They’re working the kinks out. That was something we were struggling with a little bit the last race. But it’s a new class. I like the bike. I’m a heavier guy so if I have more power, it helps.”
Plus getting the settings dialed is a whole other matter, adjusting the torque management system (not traction control) that, according to Roberts, essentially makes the throttle softer. Engine-braking settings and other maps all need to be refined.
In addition to all the technical concerns, there’s also the mental game and team dynamic to consider.
“I think mentally we’re already there. I came into this year very positive and strong that I could be at the front. Honestly right now what we’re running into a bit is just some things like within the team where it’s a new team and sometimes the communication, it takes a few races to get everything dialed in, for everyone to kind of find the rhythm. The team is really strong. I think there are a lot of good, positive things. We just need to put everything together. But I’m really positive we’ll be there. In A lot of races we’re only like a second off, but in this field it’s like 25th place. It’s kind of interesting to think about it that way because you also can see we’re only one second, so you improve a half a second that’s really nothing and you’re right up in the front. We’ll be there.”
Roberts is fully committed to reaching his goals of consistent top-10 placements by the end of the year. He’s now based in Barcelona and supplementing his physical training regime with plenty of supermoto. He’s working to pick up Spanish too.
Spain has been a hotbed of amazing talent in recent years, so it doesn’t hurt to be fully enmeshed in a culture so supportive of motorcycling.
“These Europeans, they grow up racing each other from when they’re like 10 years old. I witnessed it when I went to race in the European championship. I could just see these little kids. They were like 10 years old but in professional, full-on same structure that I’m racing in as a professional team. They’re just kind of groomed to be these amazing riders. Not everybody is. It’s not like, ‘I’m Spanish. I’m an amazing rider just naturally.’ There’s a lot that aren’t. But I think people here in the US could be like that if they had the same kind of opportunities. I think you could have these amazing riders. It’s just to me with the opportunities they get as a young kid.
“Actually I think they get a lot of help from the local governments as well. I think a lot of the families aren’t really that well-off. In Valencia, I know a lot of top riders from Valencia are sponsored by the government, so it’s pretty crazy. I was thinking about hitting up the Glendale government, the city or something, and seeing what happens. They’d probably just tell me to piss off.”
Which is a shame, because American riders need a more effective way to prepare themselves to be competitive on the world stage. For now, Roberts really only sees a viable path similar to the one he took.
“I can only really look at what I did. I went to [Red Bull MotoGP] Rookies Cup. That was a big eye-opener for me and taught me a lot of things about the way things are structure-wise and how fast they are, those Europeans. When I came back to America it wasn’t like I was here to stay. It’s not easy to go over to Europe. There’s so many fast riders. Obviously I think MotoGP wants Americans, but it’s not cheap either. It’s a long way to go. That’s maybe the things they’re running into. As far as [Cameron] Beaubier and guys riding in MotoAmerica, some of them got some good deals going on with some factory teams, getting paid well. So maybe they don’t feel the need to risk it all. I can respect that. That’s not really something I’m looking for.”