Born in the vibrant beachfront city of Cape Town, South Africa, and now a long-time resident of The Netherlands, Calvin Vlaanderen’s story is one of determination, resilience, and the relentless pursuit of greatness. The tall, polite, and refreshingly down-to-earth South African, who immigrated to The Netherlands to pursue his dreams at the tender age of 15, has already established himself among the elite of MXGP. However, despite his obvious talent, evidenced by his collection of 12 podiums, which includes two GP wins, Calvin has been without a 'factory' ride for the past four years.
In a sport predominantly dominated by European powerhouses, Calvin stands as a rare face from the southern tip of Africa who has made it against the odds. What sets him apart from other non-Europeans who have ventured before him, aside from his incredible work ethic, undeniable confidence, and his natural ability to ride a dirt bike on any surface, is a stroke of fortune in the form of a Dutch passport. "I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and I moved to The Netherlands when I was 15 to pursue my career in motocross," he shared. "My dad is a South African-born Dutchman, which makes me half-Dutch. I got a Dutch passport when I was around four years old."
Calvin, the youngest of three siblings, was born a twin to his brother Damon, who is two minutes older than him, developed a passion for motorcycles thanks to his father. Reflecting on his childhood, Calvin recalls, "When we were small, my dad said to my brother and me, when we can ride a bicycle without training wheels, that he will buy us a PW50. The day we did, he bought us a PW50, and we went to the park to ride."
From that day, Calvin was hooked, and as he grew to a lengthy 187cm tall, the thrill of race wins became a familiar sensation. Reflecting on some of his most memorable moments, a subtle smile appeared on his face. "Winning a race in the Junior 125cc Motocross World Championship in 2013 was a highlight for me," he remembers. "I finished second overall that weekend, and then after that, of course, my two Grand Prix wins in Indonesia and Sardinia were really special."
The latter of the victories that Calvin referred to, in the dunes of Riola-Sardo, Sardinia in 2022, was perhaps the most exciting of his achievements. It was the moment in which the South African ace secured his first-ever MXGP-class win after powering his Gebben Van Venrooy Yamaha Supported MX Team-backed YZ450F to a thrilling double moto victory. However, while it stands out as one of the most iconic maiden Grand Prix wins in history, Calvin’s journey into the 450 class, MXGP, was not without its challenges.
“When I moved up to the 450 in 2020, my main goal was to get a factory ride as soon as possible,” he explained. “But I didn’t have a great rookie season, and I am quite realistic with where I am at and what I am able to achieve, and what options I have in terms of teams. So, I knew at the end of 2020, that I was not worthy of a factory ride.”
Facing a tough first season and the realization that a factory ride was not immediately within reach, Calvin remained undeterred and kept his determination intact.
In 2021, Calvin elevated his game and achieved positive results, proving to himself that he was deserving of a factory ride. However, despite his efforts, the offer he had hoped for didn't materialize. “It’s always in the back of your head that you want to prove you’re good enough to be a factory rider,” he added. “I felt like I proved I was good enough in 2021, so it was tough waiting for an offer that didn’t arrive. It was something I had to go through mentally, and it was something I just needed to accept.”
Accepting this disappointment presented a mental challenge, but instead of allowing it to deflate him, he saw it as motivation to push forward. He remained focused, worked tirelessly, and steadily climbed the ranks over the next four years.
“I just put my head down and kept working hard and moving forward. My full focus was on just getting better and better, and I feel like I have done that over the past four years. Each year, I have gone better and finished higher up the ladder. I knew that eventually, my time would come, and I would get a factory ride, which is where I am now, and it’s where I believe I can be a World Champion.”
Factory rider aspirations are common in motocross; however, only a small percentage of riders take the honour of a factory seat, particularly in the premier class. Calvin's never-give-up attitude underscores what is possible. “I think the turning point between 2020 and 2021 was down to a few things,” he revealed. “I think we improved the bike, but I also think mentally, you are a year older and a bit more mature. I also went into 2020 fresh off an injury, and I was on a new team. They were new to MXGP, so they didn’t have a lot of experience, and I was also new to the 450, so I was inexperienced as well. But I stayed with that team, and we all worked hard, so going into 2021, I had a good winter and felt great on the bike, and I felt like I knew what to expect, whereas, in my rookie season, there was just a lot to learn.”
Through perseverance, learning from setbacks, and constant improvement, Calvin has earned his place on the Monster Energy Yamaha Factory MXGP team in 2024. “For me, the team behind the rider is really important”, he explained, “although the rider does all the work on the track, the team basically does all the work off the track. So, trust is important. It’s important to trust the people you’re working with, and so is the knowledge and experience they bring to the table. I feel like these points are the biggest difference when it comes to being a factory rider, and this is where we have made a big step for this year.”
While Calvin’s achievements are undoubtedly impressive, the number #10 remains humble and modest, choosing to deflect the traditional measures of success. "I'm not only proud of what I have achieved. I wouldn’t say my results are what I am most proud of when asked either. I am much prouder of who I am and how far I've come. Coming from South Africa, I've grown up far away from home, and I've sacrificed a lot." He recognizes and takes pride in his growth; both as a professional athlete and as a person off the track.
With the firm belief that the measure of success extends far beyond race results, Calvin is a great role model for the next generation of MXGP stars. “If I were to share one piece of advice with the younger generation, I would tell them to enjoy the journey and have fun. In the end, when you look back at your younger self, it’s not just about winning, but the path that leads there."
Now, as a factory rider, Calvin believes he has the best opportunity to become a World Champion. He has reached a point where he can see his potential for greatness. He has embraced the journey, knowing that his time and opportunity have finally aligned, and he is determined to make the most of it.