Ryan Hughes has been a fixture in the sport from the moment he hit the professional circuit in the early 1990s. He was a member of the famous Spitfire Kawasaki team and became a folk hero when his chain snapped just shy of the finish line at the final round of the 125 championship, which he overcame by pushing the bike uphill. Rides with high-profile teams, including Kawasaki and Honda’s factory efforts, carried Hughes through the rest of the decade, but setbacks and injures kept him from adding a long-awaited championship to his mantle. In 1999, he moved to Europe for a short-stint with Pamo Honda, where he finished fourth in the championship standings and helped the US claim a Motocross of Nations title, before returning in 2001 to become the test pilot for Honda’s CRF450R.
Aboard the million dollar works bike, Hughes raced his way back into the forefront of American motocross. Sadly, a string of concussions in the final rounds of the season, four concussions in six weeks, forced him to retire for the first time. But after just two years, one of which he spent testing with KTM, he lined back up for another series of runs at the 125 Outdoor National Championship. Hughes came close to earning the coveted title on two occasions, even racing despite broken bones in his foot, but mass flooding in Ohio during the 2003 season ended the entire series a round early. Hughes spent the season locked in battle with his Red Bull KTM teammate Grant Langston, and heading into the final round, only seven points separated the two. But with the event cancelled, Langston was awarded the championship. Ryno spent his final season in 2005 riding a privateer ECC Honda and announced his retirement from fulltime racing at the end of the year.
Although he left professional racing, Hughes has never been far from the sport. In the latter portion of his career, he began training a number of riders and launched the RynoPower supplement line, all while lining up for marquee Pro-Am events throughout California. This past winter, he suffered a vicious crash that left him with an assortment of injuries, including a broken back, which forced him to hang up his riding boots for good.
On coping with the realization that your career is beginning to wind down...
“I think that as a racer, no one wants to admit they are getting older. One of the biggest problems with riders, and I didn't figure this out until the end of my career, was that everybody sticks to the same thing that they have been doing. The body, the mind, and the nerves start getting older, and if you keep doing the same thing, the body will become so efficient at it that it doesn't improve if you train like you did when you were 20 or 21, when the body has all of this natural ability and your reactions are quicker. I believe that older riders need to change their training to make themselves younger by becoming quicker, faster, stronger, by working on their hand-eye coordination, all to race against someone that is 25 years old. Once you get to the point, you lose that nerve and aren't going to put it on the edge. It's hard to swallow that you are getting a little bit slower, but it's harder to swallow that you are quitting. That's why people will hang on for so long, or retire and come back. You see in so many different sports, and I believe that it is not the activity or the sport that is the addiction; the addiction is the energy that comes from being a top athlete, of waking up everyday and having something to shoot for. Having the drive, the determination, the sacrifice, the results, the pressure, the expectations, and the limelight is an energy that is addictive. When you lose that, there is now a hole and you have to ask, ‘What is grabbing me by the balls?’ Most of the time when you come back, you don't succeed, and then fade away again. That is why I think it is hard to come to the point and say that you are done.”
On fighting the urge to comeback...
“I think there is a way to stay away, but you'll see everyone come back. Even Ricky [Carmichael] did a small amount of races and maybe he was going to do something, but when he raced he found that it was something different. He had that energy missing, so he went to NASCAR and that didn't work out, so he did Loretta's. And maybe in the back of his mind there was a comeback, but he did one race and decided to forget it.”
“It's very hard to swallow and not allow your ego to say, ‘I can beat these guys.’ When you step away, you see different things and things in the sport open up in a new way because you are on the outside, because you don't have to perform. Sometimes when you are the observer, you see little things that you could have been better at and things that the other guys aren't. And that makes you say, ‘Oh, if I did these things, I could do it again.'”
“You are so used to the energy. Lance Armstrong came back for that one Tour and decided that maybe it wasn't it, that there was something that he was addicted to and maybe it wasn't the sport, but being ‘the guy.’ How cool is it to say that you are better than almost anyone in the world at something? I was 40 years old when I got hurt, but I was still better than 95-percent of the world, if not more, on a motorcycle. It feeds the ego, and I see it in all of these guys. Yeah, it is cool to still be good on a motorcycle and get that praise. Who do you know that has been the best in the world at something and then completely stepped away and is never heard from again? It's the same for artists and musicians, because it is the biggest drop to say ‘I am done.’ You no longer feel alive and that is where other addictions start to come in, maybe with girls, gambling, or drugs and alcohol. That is why so many people go down the wrong roads, because they are trying to find that energy. Those things in the beginning will do that, but they are a dead end street.”
“The hardest part is now, because the question is if I will ever ride again. I had to take a step back and see that life has really changed. So what was all of this for? Why did I push myself so hard to have 20 broken bones, 18 concussions, 14 broken ribs, a lacerated liver, two rods, three plates, and 24 screws in my body? If I walked away right now, no one would remember me. It is a reality check to ask if it was all worth it, why did I take the fun out of it, and where will I fit in. The thing I did for 29 years, I still teach, but I can't do it. That is where we have to be mature and check the ego at the door. You still love to do this, but can I get a different approach and do things like dual sport riding or trail riding that is not as fast, but is still a challenge and is technical. You can have the fun, but you are not hitting the big jumps and battling with people. You have to ask yourself why you ride. Most of us are so ADD and it is the only thing that can turn our minds off. It's like you are meditating at that point, which is why I think it is so addictive. People keep riding in their 40s, and even after they break shit, they come right back. It blows me away.”
On his first departure from the sport in 2001...
“I had a few concussions in a year. Myself, my doctors, and my wife all decided that I should take a year off, because we didn't want to risk permanent damage, but in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Okay, I am done, so let's see what happens.’ As the year went on, I started doing some testing and found out I was faster than I was when I left. I got some medical tests done and found out there was no damage, not that there was before, but things were happening so fast that I wanted to take a step back. I came back and made another successful attempt at racing.”
Is it easier to make the choice or have circumstances out of your control end your career?
“It is easier if it is a personal choice. Then you don't feel like you were cheated or that something was taken away from you. You have to be very open-minded and aware of how you work emotionally and mentally, because with all of these different things happening, you can go down the wrong roads because of emotions or other things that you are used to. I think that knowing you are done and stepping away is easier. If these things had happened in the middle of my career, when I was at 100-percent but I couldn't ride or race anymore, it'd be tougher.”
“That is what I mean when I say you don't let your emotions get the best of you, and I think maybe Kevin Windham did. Maybe he wasn't fearing getting hurt so much and he could have thought, ‘Let's maybe go racing outdoors instead,’ because there is not as much of a risk. It's so tough, because Kevin has been ‘Kevin Windham’ since he was fucking eight years old and a part of him just died. He was that person for over 20 years, and there was questioning, because there is no way in hell that you can just walk away and say that everything is cool.”
“I think with Windham it was fear, that he didn't want to get hurt and was over it. And that is probably the easiest way to go. I walked away from it as a job, but I still did it because I was addicted to the energy. I didn't want that expectation anymore of having to be there performing, being that guy. After races were the worst days, when my body and soul told me that I was done and that I didn't have it anymore. You can walk away from it, from being a fulltime racer, and instead be a guy that races only when you want to.”
Finding you place in the world after racing...
“Before I was finished, I already knew that it was the end, so I started getting into the training business. I trained Josh Grant and Brett Metcalfe for two years while I did the WORCS racing, because there were big breaks between each race. Once I was done racing, I slipped right into it. I had the track, which didn't work out well, the supplements, and the website. It was easy because I could still ride and get the thrill and challenge.”
Advice to racers approaching retirement...
“What I would do is sit down alone. It is very easy to allow people to feed into you what they want you to do, and they can put things like, ‘What if you get hurt?,’ into you mind. It would almost be better to sit in a room and maybe write down the pros and the cons of why you want to and why you don't want to race. When you look at those while you are thinking about it, you need to know that afterwards you'll want to come back and you'll see the mistakes of other people and think that you can do it better. There are a lot of people that have come back. You need to be patient; it can't be something reactive. Most people that are battling with this have it in the back of their head that it is time. I tell people that I train that their career is just a short period of time and that they need to think of something they want to do later, and get it going now, so that once it's over, you have something to fall into. Once it is done, you are nobody.”