The past fourteen months of Ryan Villopoto's career have been surrounded in speculation. On the heels of his fourth consecutive Monster Energy Supercross title came chatter of injury and an absence from the 2014 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, which was confirmed by Villopoto in the short period of time between the two back-to-back schedules. Although he was missing from the starting line, his name came up at every race through reports of a departure from the American circuit he'd dominated for a once in a lifetime run at the MXGP World Motocross Championship. This rumor too proved to be true, as it was announced by Kawasaki during the German Intermot convention in October.
Worn thin by the chosen profession, his body wrecked by of injuries, and in the final year of a contract with Monster Energy Kawasaki, Villopoto had planned to close his career after 2015. But with another wound and his championship chase ruined, another query has come : is this the end already?
Ryan Villopoto isn't one to hold in his true feelings about a subject. He’s long spoken with contempt for competitive motocross and in the wake of the MXGP announcement, he pinned the decision to leave America largely on the rigors of our two versions of the sport. "It's a never-ending circuit. You have the guys at Feld, who take off the summer, and then the guys at Lucas Oil, who take off the winter. We are stuck in the middle and every time we come into the series again they are all excited and we are like, 'What are you excited for? We just got done racing,'" he told us in November, a comment he repeated for months. "I will be the guy that throws my hand up and says that something has to change with the way the sport is here." (As one would expect, remarks in this vein didn't sit well with those in charge on this side of the world.)
Around this time, the perpetually pissed off Ryan Villopoto we'd come to know disappeared. His enthusiasm for the motorcycle seemed to skyrocket and for weeks we watched as he ripped around the local test tracks with effortless speed, chatted with people between motos, then spent days in the rain-soaked SoCal hills with a crew of freestyle motocross riders. There was the lighthearted cigarette photo on our Instagram account and an endless feed of videos showing him shaking down the KX450F at secret sand tracks. By the time he boarded the trans-Atlantic flight in mid-January, everyone was an RV fan.
Before Villopoto made it to this point, a few obstacles had been encountered and overcome. The most important pertained to his Monster Energy Kawasaki contract, which after reportedly intense deliberations, was amended to allow the final year of the agreement to be fulfilled overseas. Because he was such a factor to the team on numerous fronts (multi-time champion, face of the brand, large paycheck), it forced Kawasaki to regroup almost entirely for 2015; they ultimately hired Davi Millsaps, Wil Hahn, and Jeremy McGrath. As for the European branch (Kawasaki Racing Tem), they prepared for RV's arrival by recruiting Tyla Rattray, a longtime friend, with a sudden agreement. Testing with KRT began by using Villopoto's American settings as a baseline and as they progressed, parts like traction control from the European team eventually trickled onto the bike.
To date, Ryan Villopoto's MXGP career consists of four races (Qatar, Thailand, Argentina, Trentino) and you undoubtedly know the outcome of each event. Mechanical issues and collisions with competitors mired his debut, which resulted in a seventh place overall ranking, but he bounced back a week later to take the overall victory in the sweltering Thai heat, and then quietly finished fourth place in Argentina. Things came off of the rails in Trentino, where Villopoto suffered an unusual loop-out crash while blitzing through a very high-speed section of the track. The hard impact resulted in a fracture to his coccyx and the unique injury forced him to the sidelines for an unspecified amount of time.
That was over a month ago. In the time since he's been practically silent, save for a few ambiguous posts on social media. Shortly after the crash he returned to the United States to recuperate with the help of longtime trainer Aldon Baker, a partnership that remained intact despite the distance between the two. From what we've heard through those close to RV, there's no rush to hop back on the bike. And with just nine events left in the MXGP schedule, many have doubts he will race again at all. This weekend the gate will drop at Teutschenthal in Germany for round ten of the series, but his name is missing from the entry list and there has been no comment on the matter from any of the groups involved (rider, team, or series). Aside from the prepped motorcycle that is parked in the pit area each weekend, there are very few reminders that Ryan Villopoto ever lined up.
Throughout the preseason Villopoto proclaimed that win or lose, this would be his final year as a professional motocross racer. At 27 years old, he'll retire as one of the most accomplished racers we've ever witnessed and wealthy thanks to numerous wins and varied investments (he is a large partner in the Mobius knee brace, among other projects). Unlike so many, he has the chance to leave on his own terms, slightly battered but wholly self-supported. And in this sport, that's a victory.