The 2019 racing season had its fair share of ups and downs for TJ Rios as he started off the year with a couple of consecutive injuries that were out of his control. He had to miss a decent amount of time on the bike throughout early spring and then he was forced to endure another injury setback just before Loretta’s, forcing him to sit out and watch the race from the proverbial sidelines. Rios took the time to reflect on his season and began to approach his racing with a new outlook and it undoubtedly paid off in his favor as he immediately began to produce results. The Rock River Yamaha rider put together an overall victory at The Motoplayground Race at Ponca City in the 450 B class in addition to a pair of 2nd place overall finishes. The Floridian kept up the good results the next month at Mini Os as he finished all four of his classes on the overall podium in the outdoor portion of the event. He had a small setback at the beginning of the 2020 season in the form of a broken collarbone at Supercross Futures, but Rios didn’t let that deter him from his continued progress. The Yamaha rider has been hard at work down at Moto Sandbox in Florida and he’s focused on making his way to the top of the B class this year at Loretta Lynn’s. We caught up with TJ for a quick chat about the difference between training on the west coast and the east coast, pushing through adversity in 2019, and being stoked to go back to the races.
What have you been up to the last couple of months during the lockdown?
I've really just been trying to stay on top of my training. I've been training in California for the last year and a half or so, but I still have a house in Florida where my family mainly stays. I have my RV here and I drove that to Freestone, but that got canceled so we drove back and kind of just decided to ride it out in Florida just because things were kind of getting shut down in California and what not. So I got a bike shipped here and I've been riding at Moto Sandbox, getting in some great training there and then goin' out on the lake here fishin'. I've just been stayin' mellow but at the same time I've been kind of getting in a routine; it's kind of nice to train with no interruptions with racing or other stuff like that.
What's the change of scenery been like for you from California to Florida?
Yeah, no doubt. It's totally different but I've trained here, I was in Florida for a while as well. I think just getting used to the humidity and the sand; the tracks are a little bit more demanding here. I guess you could say it's better than what you'd get in California at times, but I always love changing it up a little bit and not going through the motions while I train. You know, try to find new people to ride with and you can always learn, especially being at Sandbox with so many pros.
As someone who has done both, do you prefer one coast over the other?
Ahh, you know it's honestly kind of a give and take. They both have their pros and cons. The good thing about California is you're riding with so many good riders all the time no matter whether you train with them or not 'cause we all go to the same tracks; Pala on Tuesday, Glen Helen on Thursday, etcetera. Also, I love the mountain biking out there and the scenery is awesome, you know, and the people that you're around make it pretty rad. At the same time, I think the tracks in Florida have a bit of an advantage and the humidity is also a bit of an advantage. I think those are kind of things that you can work around to make California work as well, so I think just having a balance between east and west is the optimal situation but at the same time I've got good trainers. I'm training with Yannig Kervella in California and then I do my gym work with Brian Lopes and the W Training Facility. So I think it's just about staying in a routine that works for you; it doesn't matter where you're at as long as you're progressing then you can make things happen.
Did you take a little bit of time off riding and training when racing was initially postponed?
Nah, I really didn't. I took like a week off just to get a bike over here and then I just kinda hopped right into it. I was really aware of the situation and obviously I wasn't riding as much as I'd normally ride. I was riding like three days a week instead of four. I definitely just stayed on top of the bike and knew things were gonna come back around, just tried to stay on top of it and have fun. Honestly, I think my parents wanted me out of the house. I go crazy if I can't go ridin' and I'm doin' nothing.
The 2019 season had its fair share of adversity for you. Talk about some of the injuries you had to overcome last year and the way you bounced back at the end of the season.
Yeah, I mean 2019 was probably the roughest year of my life. I had an injury in early February that was just a mechanical issue where I broke my wrist. I kind of got my feet back under me and I raced Cal Classic in April with like a week on the bike so I was just tryin' to get some gate drops. Mammoth was alright, kind of a new thing for me, but going into Loretta's I was feelin' the best ever and mentally prepared. I was ready to show what I got and unfortunately, I had another mechanical issue. I just want to clarify that it had nothing to do with Yamaha or anything that they did, but it was just one of those things. It was a really bad situation, so right before Loretta's I broke my arm which set me back and just kind of sat me down. I had to rethink what I wanted to do moving forward and I had to approach my racing a little differently honestly. I saw all of the missed opportunities, 'cause 2019 was, in my opinion, supposed to be my breakout year and it wasn't. I felt like all of those opportunities were taken from me so going into Ponca and Mini Os, I felt like I was more grateful being there and grateful to be able to ride my dirt bike. Just to have the opportunity with the team on a great bike and whatnot, so that went really well. I ended up winning at Ponca and then got 2nd in my other two classes and then Mini Os came around where I had my ups and downs in supercross. But in outdoors, I podiumed every class so with how crappy my year started out I turned it around pretty well comin' into 2020. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 deal kinda slowed things down but I'm feelin' better than ever and I'm a contender for wins for sure.
Yeah, the general consensus from the few races that have happened is that everyone is just grateful to be back at the track and behind the gate at this point.
Right. It's kind of one of those things, you know, you don't know how good you have it until it's taken away. Everybody is kind of stuck at home and not able to race and stuff and that's kind of what happened with me. I didn't have that opportunity, so once I was back at the races I was there with a fresh outlook and I think you can just enjoy it and the pressure is kind of off.
You're probably eager to get back to racing at this point. What're your thoughts on the Super Regional format that Loretta's is running this year?
As far as going back to racing, I'm obviously super stoked just like everybody else. I'm really happy, I've been pounding out some motos and I'm just starting to get back into the swing of things. The Super Regionals are kind of a give and take. The Regionals always have fast guys; there are always like three or five guys that you know you're going to be battling with, so the only difference now is that you have more people lined up. Things can happen like first turn crashes, if you get a bad start there are more people to pass to get up front. The only thing this emphasizes is just having better starts, but other than that there are always a lot of people on the gate and it's just a matter of knowing where you belong and battling up front.
What's your mindset heading into Loretta's this year?
My focus is having that same mindset (as last year), I don't want to have any regrets. I'm a really hard worker, so I'm just going to keep working hard and put my head down. At the same time, just have a smile on my face and enjoy this life that I get to live that's pretty freakin' awesome. But you know, I want to win just as bad if not more than anybody else so that's the goal this year honestly. I want to show what I'm capable of and I think I'm pretty underrated and I love that. I love the fact that because of injuries I haven't really raced that much over the last couple of years. Maybe I've shown up here and there and people are like "Oh crap, he's back!" But I know where I belong and that puts a smile on my face at the same time, just being able to go to the races and know you belong up front and be grateful for the position that you're in. I work hard to be where I'm at so it's just about being grateful and being ready to win at the same time.