Arenacross 2020: Champion's return, supporter to startline and freestyle fun

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Rea and Irwin star at school's Arenacross launch

Thrills, spills and plenty of skills.

Arenacross returns to Belfast for its 19th year at the SSE Arena on Friday and Saturday night.

The indoor motocross event annually draws a big crowd and brings motorsport to the heart of Belfast.

From a retirement u-turn to rising stars, we take a look at five reasons to follow Arenacross as the event prepares to start its engines.

Champion's return

Despite making the switch to tarmac racing last year, Graeme Irwin is motocross royalty in Northern Ireland.

The Carrick rider won the British Motocross Championship in 2017 before stepping up to MXGP, the sport's world championship.

While his focus is firmly on his short circuit commitments, Irwin says the opportunity to make a one-off appearance was too good to turn down.

Graeme Irwin
Irwin won the British Motocross Championship in 2017

"I was only joking with Matt Bates, the series promoter, and I was thinking about how I haven't actually won Arenacross," said the 27-year-old.

"The prospect of doing that, with 5,000 people cheering me on, was enough to convince me to blow the cobwebs away.

"Once that gate drops it is just bar-banging, intense action and I'm really looking forward to it.

"As a kid I won the 65cc class on my very first night here, so to come back here all these years later and try to do the same in the Pro class, I would be pretty satisfied with that."

A new audience

Five-time World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea began his career on the dirt and says competing at Arenacross as a youngster was something that he will never forget.

"I remember racing here when I was younger, and there's no feeling that comes close to racing in the night show," said Rea.

"You practice all day and there's no fans, then you roll into the night show and the place is packed and the atmosphere is electric.

Jonathan Rea
Jonathan Rea and his family at Arenacross last year

"Nothing prepares you for that and it has definitely given me one of the biggest buzzes of my career.

"You can see all of the action, pretty much from every seat.

"You see the likes of Formula 1 heading to the city, it's where motorsport is going now.

"It's about bringing the events to the people."

Local interest

Irwin isn't the only local rider taking part in the Pro class in Belfast. Dublin rider Stuart Edmonds will have plenty of support as he takes on some of the Arenacross regulars.

Martin Barr, one of Northern Ireland's top motocross riders, will be the home favourite in the Pro Lite class and is more than capable of coming out on top.

The trio represented Ireland at the Nations Motocross and know what it takes to win.

"It's going to be a big challenge going up against some of the best Arenacross riders in the world, but we have plenty to support and they have a genuine chance of winning," said Rea.

Stuart Edmonds, Marty Barr and Graeme Irwin
Stuart Edmonds, Martin Barr and Graeme Irwin are some of the home favourites

Matt Bates, the series promotor, says that Northern Ireland's heritage on two wheels means that it is the perfect place to open the Tour for 2020.

"Northern Ireland has a huge biking audience, and we are huge bike fans too," said Bates.

"Why wouldn't you want to put this on in Northern Ireland? We've been coming since 2001 and hopefully we'll be here for years to come.

"It's action from start to the end, it's a rock and roll sport."

From fan to competitor

While Irwin's return from retirement has grabbed the headlines, 10-year-old Jordan Kinsella is part of the next wave of competitors to come through and take part in Arenacross.

When the event came to Belfast 12 months ago, Kinsella was in the stands cheering on some of his heroes. This year, the Dublin schoolboy will be be on the startline as a newcomer.

"I was so excited to go, and the week after I was asking my dad if I could start riding.

"Since then I've been riding nearly every weekend and I then got the email to say I was going to do Arenacross. I was so happy and excited.

Jordan Kinsella
Jordan Kinsella will be making his Arenacross debut after watching the event as a fan last year

"All my friends in school were really excited and hopefully some of them can come up and watch me race.

"I'm dying to get out there and I'm just so excited.

"It's amazing having all the people watching you and screaming. I want to try and get to MXGP when I am older."

It's fair to say the young Dublin rider has well and truly caught the motocross bug.

The youngsters taking part at the SSE Arena may only be rising through the ranks, but it is the perfect chance to catch some of the stars of the future on show.

Freestyle fun

While the racing will steal the headlines, arguably the most spectacular part of the event is when the freestyle riders show off their skills.

"The freestyle motocross is what my kids want to come and see," added Rea.

"It's cool because it is not just about racing. You don't have to be a motorbike enthusiast and everyone enjoys it.

"You can sit back and admire the rider in first, last or the freestylers. They all do a great job."

The freestylers often steal the show and are a crowd favourite

Obviously, Rea's commitments are with Kawasaki and aiming for a sixth WSBK title, however the Northern Irishman says he would relish the chance to take to the dirt in front of his home crowd.

"I would love to give it a go out there and be competitive," said the 32-year-old.

"But right now my priority is Superbikes, and I can just imagine the call if I rang my team manager and said I'm going to enter Arenacross as a wildcard.

"I don't think he would be too happy," he joked.