Steve Matthes: It was over before it really began. The news that Kawasaki’s Ryan Villopoto is hanging up his boots doesn’t come as much of a surprise, since his cracked tailbone suffered at the fourth round in Italy also came with some back issues. It’s too bad we never really got to see the “USA” version of Ryan Villopoto over in Europe, but he did win one GP and surely would have gotten better over time.
The whole GP thing probably shouldn’t have even happened. RV was burnt out at the end of 2014 and wanted to retire then, but he had a contract with Kawasaki and Monster. The financial penalties incurred by RV to retire would have been severe enough that he was, in essence, forced to race.
When I asked him why not take Monster Energy Supercross off this year to recover from a knee injury and make the 2015 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship his farewell to the sport, Ryan told me that the US schedule was still too hectic for him. The FIM Motocross World Championship offered a more relaxed schedule and a chance to see the world on someone else’s dime. All things I can understand, but it did seem to me that he wasn’t “all in” back when he was actually returning texts and calls to me.
He’s retiring as one of the all-time greats, someone whose personality in front of the camera wasn’t nearly as great as it was when the red light shut off. Having been to his house many times to hang out and spending so much time in the Kawasaki truck, I’ve seen the “real” Ryan Villopoto, and he’s a real funny guy. I wish the fans had gotten to see that more, although his appearances on the Pulpmx Show were close to what he’s really like.
Some people say he’ll regret not having the fitness he could have had for this GP attempt, and some say he’ll look back and wish he had done more this final year. I say he never cared about records and where he stood in the pantheon of greats. (Check out this Classic Commentary I did with him about his first ever 250SX win in Dallas 2006, and listen to him not really know all that much about that night.)
Win or lose, he wasn’t worried about where fans ranked him or the fact that so many people tried to drape their American flag on his shoulders this year. For Ryan, this was just another series, just another attempt to win, and it didn’t happen.
I’ve been going to the races since 1996, and since then, Ryan Villopoto was the closest thing to Ricky Carmichael I’ve ever seen when it came to outdoor motocross. And he matched Jeremy McGrath’s four-straight supercross titles. He’s in RC/MC company if you look at some of the stats—that’s not too shabby.
Thanks for the memories, RV, and enjoy the next stage in your life because you’ve certainly earned it.
Jason Thomas: Ryan Villopoto has retired. While I knew this was coming a while ago, many have been holding onto hope that he would return for one last run at glory. That's just not going to happen, unfortunately. His injury in Italy came at a time when I believe Ryan was frustrated with how things were going and ready for it to end. His season had been tumultuous; most realized that. I truly believe that he never wanted to race in 2015 in any capacity. The MXGP scenario was a means to an end. Well, that end is here. After so much winning and so many titles here in America, he’s leaving the sport on a lesser note. He’s leaving the sport of motocross behind to pursue whatever else interests him in this life.
In reality, Ryan's departure should be no surprise. I heard from many that he was looking for a way out going into this season, but that situation was just not possible. He had signed contracts that he needed to see through. Powerful people wanted to see RV on a dirt bike in 2015, and honestly, when people are doing things that their heart isn't into, this is what usually happens.
We should have all seen this coming last year when he was spending weeks and months with Casey Stoner, a world champion MotoGP rider who went through this same scenario a season before. Casey surely shared his opinion on life after racing, and I think they had much in common. Both were legends in their own discipline and both wanted out at a young age with winning still in their future. The writing was on the wall, many just didn't want to read it.
I feel pretty strongly that RV wasn’t as prepared for this season as we have seen in previous years. He wasn't riding and cycling and in the gym with Aldon Baker everyday like before. He was on his own schedule, which he is surely entitled to, but that is not the recipe for the RV we saw from 2010-2014. That version of RV was a motocross machine. There was nothing else on the docket but racing and winning. That’s what Aldon's program requires, and I just don't believe that Ryan wanted to make that sacrifice anymore. He was going to fulfill his end of the contract but on his own terms. No supercross season so he can avoid that pressure cooker, spend the pre-season in America on his own timetable, and hope he still has the same magic as before.
Alas, it was not to be. I have said many times that I believed the series wasn’t going to go all that well from the first round in Qatar on. He just didn't look like the same RV. He looked much more "normal," and the razor thin face that transformed in 2010 was gone. Surely he wasn't "out of shape," but I didn't see the lean, unbeatable version of RV and that was apparent to me from the start. That only meant one thing to me: He wasn't as prepared as he normally arrived at the beginning of a championship. Things didn't work out, although he did win in Thailand, and I truly believe that had he prepared as he did in previous years, it would have gone differently.
Some will read this and disagree or become angry. Many of those will be MXGP faithful and that's fine. I don't mind that. I’m saying what I believe to be true. It is in no way a slight or insult to the amazing talents in the GP series. Tony Cairoli is simply incredible both on and off the bike, and getting to know him a bit last year, there aren't many people on earth that I have more respect for.
I’m merely frustrated that we didn't get to see RV's best. I have watched RV at every race he has entered since he turned pro. I’ve also ridden right alongside him at his former testing grounds and seen what he went through on a daily basis. I’ve talked to many people privy to the current situation and also have heard things concerning this season that will never be made public. I have no motivation or bias to say that RV wasn't as prepared or motivated for this season, other than it's what I believe.
He is riding off into the sunset with millions in the bank and titles on his mantle. He seems at peace with what he has accomplished in this sport and rightfully so. He’s one of the most successful racers to ever walk this planet. My only question is this: One day down the road, maybe a year, maybe five years, will he regret how this season went and how he approached it? My bet is that he doesn't care right now, that he just wants out. He wants to get away from the expectations and pressure of professional racing. As that fades in time, what will he then feel? Will he be content knowing how incredible his career was? Or will he regret how this Euro experiment went? I think he will. I think he will look back and wish he had done a few things differently in 2015. For all of the great things he did in this sport, many in Europe will only remember this year. That is unfair and short sighted but it will happen.
Ryan was a great champion, and if he chose to, he could go win more titles. To do it, though, he has to sacrifice more than he feels it's worth. He wants to live his life on his own terms and enjoy all that he has earned. And he has done just that, earned it.
Davey Coombs: Ryan Villopoto gave MXGP a go and it just didn't work out, not for his sake, not for Monster Energy's sake, and certainly not for the Grand Prix circuit's sake either. Villopoto just wasn't the same guy that left the AMA circuit in May 2014 after leading the last eighty laps of Monster Energy Supercross and clinching a record-tying fourth straight series crown. He had seemingly already quit on motocross in his mind—remember when he said he was racing outdoors then did an about-face the day after Las Vegas and suddenly had a knee injury? We all thought he was going to quit then, and in hindsight, he probably wishes he had too. But there are some folks at Monster Energy that were adamant about his racing one more season in Europe (where they sponsor that series and have long tried to make it more relevant to U.S. fans) and they made him an offer he literally could not refuse.
That said, those four races that he did on the Grand Prix circuit should have no bearing on his place in motocross history. In my opinion, his likeness was already chiseled into the Mount Rushmore of American SX/MX when he walked off the supercross stage with such a staggering display of dominance. His four straight SX crowns and five outdoor titles put him in the same elite neighborhood as Ricky Carmichael, Jeremy McGrath, Bob Hannah, and Ricky Johnson. His abbreviated farewell Tour d'Europe has as much relevance to the rest of his career as Yamaha superstar Broc Glover's forgotten 1989 season riding a KTM in Europe, his prime well past.
On a personal note, I saw Villopoto race live at the vast majority of the races he did here, and I also was one of the few Americans who also got to see him do one of these MXGP races in person when I went to Italy in April. That was the race where he crashed and hurt his tailbone, and ultimately the end of his career. And no matter what anyone tries to tell you on the Internet or Vital MX or wherever, I saw with my own eyes that the 2015 version of Ryan Villopoto was a shadow of the one we saw in 2012, '13, and '14.
His race craft had changed, he didn't look comfortable or confident, and it seemed even before he crashed that he might have already been regretting his decision to make the very big jump across the Atlantic Ocean. This is no disrespect to superb GP riders like Tony Cairoli, Max Nagl, Gautier Paulin, and Clement Desalle (and now Romain Febvre), but the Ryan Villopoto they got wasn't the one that took his last outdoor checkered flag here in 2013. Some fans and GP-related journalists might howl otherwise, but I have a pretty good eye for these things, and he just wasn't the same guy that dominated here, let alone the guy who introduced himself to the rest of the world at the 2007 Motocross of Nations at Budds Creek. That Ryan Villopoto parked his bike last May.
No matter, Villopoto will be forever regarded as one of the best all-around competitors our sport will ever know. Thanks for giving us so many great races and memories, Ryan, and enjoy the hunting and fishing—you deserve it.
Jason Weigandt: Few careers in any sport close with a storybook ending, but even knowing that, Ryan Villopoto’s last chapter was bizarre. Capturing the FIM Motocross World Championship would have been the perfect walk off, but reality is, as Matthes explained, this was just a marriage of convenience, as opposed to an all-out assault on the world. Hey, that’s no excuse, though. Had Ryan come into the 2011-2014 seasons underprepared, no one would have given him a mulligan then.
The story is even less clear, now. While things weren’t going to plan for Ryan at the early races, he might have had success after all. Before the season, our GP scribe Adam Wheeler said the title would really be decided in the medic room, as injuries usually dot the GP season. RV wasn’t dominating through the first few rounds, but he was in the hunt, and the season soon turned sideways not only for him but for everyone else. When RV crashed out in Italy, he was doing all he could to contend with Max Nagl, Tony Cairoli, and Clement Desalle. Those three ended up hurt, too. In fact, the rock-solid Cairoli had troubles in the very next moto of the season. Then all hell started breaking loose.
Meanwhile, Romain Febvre has come on strong. Those first few rounds are barely recognizable from what we see now. In fact, for the Qatar opener, I remember everyone watching in the pits at the Atlanta supercross and saying, “What? He got passed by some French guy named Febvre?”
Well, Febvre could end up being world champion. It’s been a truly crazy season, which makes it even harder to try to decipher any kind of meaning out of the races we saw with RV in them. We’ll all forever wonder what would have happened if RV hadn’t crash in Italy, and what if Cairoli, Desalle, and Nagl had stayed healthy.
The funny part is, Ryan probably cares less about that. He’s probably so relieved to be done that none of that matters.
The bigger tragedy is that the public never got to see Ryan’s real personality. He came across as boring in TV interviews but had a biting wit behind the scenes that many would have loved. In today’s polarized world, though, some wouldn’t have liked it, the same way some see this GP season as a referendum on all American racers, and some are saying it shouldn’t matter at all. We can’t agree on anything these days, and RV’s real personality would have been Gatorade to some, hateraid to others.
Ryan chose to stay in the middle ground, which is too bad. If he raced for a few more years, he would have learned to let the personality leak out, just like all the veterans do. Just compare 2003 Chad Reed to the one we know today.
So that’s the big loss. Ryan leaves with the trophy collection, but maybe not the adulation he should. For that, he needed a little more time, but he’s decided his time is up.
We’ll have much more regarding his superb career, because he accomplished so much. Still, I’m left wondering what if on more than one topic.