RV2GP
For the first time ever, a current AMA supercross champ is heading to the world championships

Words: Eric Johnson and Adam Duckworth | Photos: Supplied

Since America wrestled the mantle as the global power of motocross from Europe around three decades ago, the trafficking of superstar riders has only been one way: from the old world of the Grand Prix circuit to the bright lights of the AMA series and its glittering Supercross series.

From Jean-Michel Bayle to Greg Albertyn, Grant Langston to Sebastian Tortelli, Ben Townley, Christophe Pourcel, Tyla Rattray, Marvin Musquin and Ken Roczen, these are all world champions who headed West to find glory in the promised land of America. No defending Supercross champ has ever packed his bags and headed to the world championships.
Until now, that is.

The 2014 AMA Supercross champ Ryan Villopoto is racing in Europe in his quest to make history. He won’t be the first American to try his hand at GPs or – if he wins – become world champion. But unlike other American world champs like Brad Lackey, Trampas Parker, Danny LaPorte, Bobby Moore and Donny Schmit, who were at wildly different points in their careers when they headed to Europe, RV is at the top of his game.

Still only 26, if he wanted to, Villopoto could have a glittering career in the USA for many years to come. But the relentless pressure of Supercross all the way through to summer, followed by the AMA Nationals through to autumn – only to start Supercross training again – has taken its toll on him.
But instead of just walking away, he’s decided to try his hand at winning a world title. To face a new challenge, new challengers, and to have one final swansong before he bows out – win or lose, he’s said, this will be his last season.

Villopoto comes to a MXGP series that is in the rudest of health. Lots of talented factory riders and one man that’s clearly one of the greatest of all time, 29-year-old Tony Cairoli, still at the height of his career. Cairoli has eight world titles and is not only one of the fastest and doggedly determined but also most intelligent riders on the track.

Riding the des Nations in the UK and France is one thing, but compared to the night race in the Muslim country of Qatar, the hustle and bustle of downtown Bangkok, the pebble-strewn slopes of Arco di Trento in Italy, bottomless sand of Lommel, former Eastern Bloc countries like Latvia and unknown new adventures in Argentina, he may find the change bigger than he imagined.

To prepare for the big adventure, before the end of 2014, Villopoto and Rattray testing bikes, in the likes of Spain and France. Returning home to California, while the rest of the AMA heroes were pounding out laps on Supercross tracks, the Kawasaki duo were very firmly outdoors. They sniffed out sand tracks and rode the usual roster of SoCal circuits as they built up speed and race fitness before returning to Europe.

But instead of picking early-season scraps with the rest of the GP men like Cairoli and Gautier Paulin at internationals in Italy, the UK or France, they decided to focus on testing and stay away from showing their hand too early. We caught up with Villopoto on his final American test ride at his beloved Glen Helen to find out how he really feels about his big new challenge.

Riding the des Nations in the UK and France is one thing, but compared to the night race in the Muslim country of Qatar, the hustle and bustle of downtown Bangkok, the pebble-strewn slopes of Arco di Trento in Italy, bottomless sand of Lommel, former Eastern Bloc countries like Latvia and unknown new adventures in Argentina, he may find the change bigger than he imagined.

To prepare for the big adventure, before the end of 2014, Villopoto and Rattray testing bikes, in the likes of Spain and France. Returning home to California, while the rest of the AMA heroes were pounding out laps on Supercross tracks, the Kawasaki duo were very firmly outdoors. They sniffed out sand tracks and rode the usual roster of SoCal circuits as they built up speed and race fitness before returning to Europe.

But instead of picking early-season scraps with the rest of the GP men like Cairoli and Gautier Paulin at internationals in Italy, the UK or France, they decided to focus on testing and stay away from showing their hand too early. We caught up with Villopoto on his final American test ride at his beloved Glen Helen to find out how he really feels about his big new challenge.

Villopoto also has eight titles, albeit AMA National championship ones. Four Supercross, one 450 outdoor and three 250 outdoor. Plus, of course, one West Coast regional 250 Supercross title. And don’t forget four Motocross des Nations wins at Matterley and Donington in the UK, Budds Creek in the USA and Saint Jean d’Angeley in France. And you know he’d have had more 450 AMA outdoor titles if it hadn’t been for injuries curtailing three crucial seasons.

For Cairoli, the winter has been almost business as usual. He takes a few weeks off to relax, then hits it hard in the New Year, putting in thousands of punishing laps on the sand tracks of Sardinia before tackling the Italian championship before jetting off to the opener in Qatar. Only this year, he’s had a 350 teammate in the form of Tommy Searle to ride as shotgun.

For Villopoto, the winter has been a total change. Although he’s still Kawasaki mounted, the bike is now run from the KRT factory team in Europe and although it is similar to his US machine, there are some differences in spec. GP bikes aren’t hampered by the AMA’s production rule, so the bike can run a carbon airbox, for example. And pretty much anything goes. But it is highly unlikely Villopoto will become a test rider using lots of new parts for what is a new team. His mission is to give Kawasaki its first premier class world championship, as well as putting series sponsors Monster Energy on top of the box in place of those pesky Red Bull KTM riders.

Villopoto will be aided by new teammate Tyla Rattray, the former world champ who went to America to race, before returning last year for Husky. The pair shared a house together years ago in America, so buddying up on Kawasaki – so that essentially Ratray can show Villopoto the ropes – is a key part of the strategy to help the American avoid feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Even though, of course, the world championship is on a far more diverse range of tracks, in more diverse countries with their own distinct cultures, than homebody Ryan is used to.

THE WORD

How do both you and the bike feel out there?

I feel good, ‘cause I’ve ridden here my whole life, obviously. Also, I’ve been at factory Kawasaki for four years, and everything has been pretty similar in Europe. I had an open mind going into the team and I wanted to try what they had to offer. And they had some good things, but then there were also some other things that I kind of had to switch over to my settings just to get me comfortable. For me, it’s like you don’t want to teach an old dog new tricks. I’m trying to just run what I’m comfortable with and with what I know I’ll be the best with.

Are you where you want to be with your riding?

Yeah, I think so. I think we’re close. We’re still a few weeks away and I’ll keep riding. Once we get to Europe we’ll kind of switch gears to doing some last-minute testing with the team, because we’ll be with them and we’ll start riding the European tracks. As far as the tracks go, a track is a track. Obviously, I’d also like to get onto Lommel to see how that is because I’ve always heard about it. I’ve never actually been there that. I want to spin some laps and kind of get used to it.

We’ve spoken to a few former world champions – from Torsten Hallman to Shayne King – and all of them said you’ll do really well. But the one concern is how well you’ll adjust to how different the GP tracks actually are. Will you be able to adjust quickly?
I think that is the biggest difference. But American riders don’t struggle with tracks because we show up at every race and the track is always different and in a different condition. We’re made to adjust to all of this with only one free practice and then a 10-minute timed practice and another 10-minute timed practice. So that’s about 25 minutes and you have to go to the gate and race. You have to learn all the combinations with the jumps and the whoops and everything in 25 minutes.

In Europe you have two 30-minute practices and then and a qualifying race on Satirday and then you don’t race until Sunday – so getting used to the actual tracks is going to be, in my opinion, no problem. I will have to get used to some of the conditions are going to be different than what I’m kind of used to.
How was it missing out on the Supercross?

I didn’t know how I was going to feel, I guess. Emotionally, I didn’t know how I was going to feel about the whole situation. I didn’t know if I was going to get up there and think, “Man, I wish I was out there.” I didn’t really know. To be honest, I didn’t really have any emotion with it at all with it. The only thing I can say is that my decision to race MXGP was correct.

You’ve been over to Europe a few times, to test and train, and Tyla has said you seem to be enjoying it and getting the European vibe down pretty well – is that true?
To be honest, it’s pretty easygoing, especially over there with the team and the way the culture is. Everybody is pretty laid back. For me, it’s a different world over there and you just kind of have to accept that and know that going in. You can’t leave the States and expect to get the same things because you’re not going to and I’m OK with that.

You know, eat the food that you like and stay away from the stuff you don’t. I like the majority of the food over there and you drink bottled water in the places you need to – like in Mexico or Thailand and places like that. I’m not worried about that kind of stuff.

The first three races are at Qatar, Thailand and Argentina respectively. These events are a little bit more off the beaten path, which might help you, right?
From what I’ve heard Qatar is kind of like an American style track. That’ll be good and it’s only a five-hour flight from Europe, so that’s like flying from California to Florida. Thailand is farther away and Argentina is the farthest trip of the year. To be honest, I’m just going with the flow – I’m not really worried about it.

Aldon Baker, your long-time trainer, is out here today.
This is actually the first day he’s seen me ride since I came back and I think he thinks things are in a pretty good spot. So that’s good for him to just show up and see where I’m at and be fine with that. Obviously, we can always do better and we’ll keep working. You know to just show up out of the blue and see where we’re at and think we’re pretty good is good!

Mentally, are you in that same championship mode as you would be if you were racing Supercross?
I am, but I’m more relaxed going into this deal and accepting whatever happens will happen. Yeah, I mean, I’d like to win – ‘cause I’m not doing the work now not to win. I’ve really been putting in the work. I’m going in there wanting to win, but I’m not carrying a weight around knowing that it’s a do or die sort of thing. In the years past that’s how I’ve put some of that pressure on myself.

Do you want the American fans to follow you on this journey to help push you along?

Yeah, I think it’s going to be cool. Obviously, the last two rounds will be in Mexico and one will be here at Glen Helen, one of the greats of American motocross, so I’m sure a lot of people will show up here at this race. Mexico is not too far away, so I’m sure we’ll see some Americans down there.

Yeah, I think the cool thing about all this is we’ll be 4000 miles away on any given day but the racing is shown the same day so the fans here can see it all. I’d say it’s just like watching anything. If you don’t have a player you either like or know in basketball or football or golf or a driver in NASCAR, you don’t really follow it unless you grew up following it as a little kid – you’re born into it.

So I think now having all these people who have watched me race the last nine years, they’ll now actually have somebody to watch and relate to. I think that will bring a lot of people and bring a lot of eyes wanting to see what’s going on. I’ve had a lot of people tell me:,“Yeah, I keep up on the GPs about once a month and check to see what’s going on. Now, we’re going to be watching it and checking it all out every Sunday.” I think it’s going to be good both ways. I think it’s going to go both ways. I think this will get a lot of eyes on MXGP that have never been on it in the past.

As far as the grudge match with Tony Cairoli, are you approaching it like he is just another guy you have to beat?

You just have to think of him as another top rider, but you can look at his track record and see what he’s done. He hasn’t done what he has for nothing. He’s a consistent rider. He’s fit, fast – he has the package over there. It’s going to be a tough series to race against him and all I can do is go racing. I know he’s going to have good weekends and I’m going to have good weekends. He might have a better one and I might have a bad weekend or off weekend or whatever.

It’s going to come down to consistency. It’s a long season, you know – just like the Supercross season. I think. in the end, the cream always rises to the top and I think there will be two or three guys who will be – I don’t want to say always there – but that you can see will be there and he’s going to be one of them. If everything goes well, I’ll be one of those guys. Clement Desalle seems like he is one of those guys, and so is Kevin Strijbos and Gautier Paulin. There are a lot of guys that we go racing against at des Nations and they’re all fast. Now, it’s going to be a bit different just because instead of being just the des Nations in one race it’s going to be a whole series.
It’s time to go racing.