People performing death-defying motorbike maneuvers might be an all-too-common sight on Cambodia’s chaotic roads, but those who attended the third annual Total International Motocross Championship at the Preak Leap track in Phnom Penh on Sunday enjoyed them from a more comfortable distance.
Such rough-terrain motorcycle racing events are hugely popular in North America in particular, and now organizers claim an ever-growing interest here.
The sight of an enormous dirt bike leaping five meters in the air, wheels whirring, with a Buddhist pagoda in the background is certainly a novel one, and organizer Pierre Yves Catry, who came second in the A-category competition Sunday, sings the sport’s praises.
“I have never found something as exciting as motocross,” he said.
Any comparison with the young boy-racers who plague the streets of Phnom Penh is unfair, according to Catry.
“That is just showing off,” he said. “This is a real sport.”
It’s also, he added, not as dangerous as it looks.
“Actually, I think it’s probably safer driving here” than around the city, Catry said. “There are no cars or obstacles in the way.”
As evidence of the sport’s rising popularity, more than two thirds of the 40 riders who raced Sunday were Cambodian.
One of them, Iv Leng, said Cambodian riders were developing their own distinctive techniques.
“[Racing] will improve here the more sponsors it gets,” he added.
Though the deafening engines, loud rock music and excitable commentators lent the scene a distinctly testosterone-driven flavor, the estimated 4,000-strong crowd included large numbers of women and children. They whooped loudly along with the rest at overtaking maneuvers or when showboating riders dropped glitter from their bikes in mid-air.
“I only ever saw it before on TV,” said spectator Samreth Sokhim, 28, who came with her boyfriend. “The art of it is exciting.”
The riders’ technique and engine management amazed Heng Channa, 27.
“I used to like football more but now I am crazy for motocross,” he said.
Eight-year-old Chheng Hokheng, who was there with his father, said he enjoyed the action, but balked at the idea of ever doing it himself.
“I would never do it,” he said. “It’s too dangerous!”
On the day, Cambodian rider Lim Pheng was a popular winner in the C category, while in the A category New Zealander Jason Robinson came out on top.
The category B winner was Vong Ching Chove-businessman, motocross enthusiast and owner of the land on which the Preak Leap track is built.
Vong Ching Chove believes motocross has the potential to challenge football and kickboxing for a larger share of public affection here.
An increasing number of riders are able to afford the $8,000 it takes for a decent bike, he said, and audiences are hungry for more events.
“Cambodians love it,” he said. “This sport has always drawn spectators when it is well-organized.”