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Whether you still think of it as a sport for kids (or, secretly, for rednecks) you should know: there’s a tremendous amount of athleticism required to participate in Motorcross.
It’s physically demanding. Dangerous. Badass. During the race, for 30 minutes plus two additional laps, racers throw around 220-pound bikes like rag dolls and make it look effortless. (Trust us, it’s not.) They race around mile-long loose-dirt, sand, or clay tracks, with dramatic elevation changes and technical jumps and divots. Loosing control means flipping over and risking a multi-bike pileup.
Racer Ryan Dungey, 22, led Team USA to three victories at the Motocross of Nations (think Motocross Olympics) and won every major Motocross title by age 21. To top it off, he took the trophy at the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross 450 Class Championship, and is expected to win his last race September 8, which airs on NBC Sports Network at 11 p.m. Dungey got this far, not on raw talent like many of his competitors, but on hours of training and careful diet-scrutiny.
Men’s Fitness wanted to know exactly what it takes to be a winning dirtbike racer. So we sat down with Motocross’s king of the track to find out.
It took Dungey almost two competition seasons to peak at the pro level. “He was fast right away, but needed to learn more about how to pace himself,” said Brandon Short, MX Sports Pro Racing Media Manager. “His early successes were also accompanied by several heartbreak losses that ultimately led him to become a more mature and mentally tough rider.”
Part of his early influences included training in Florida, riding the same ground as Ricky Carmichael—the guy who’s career arguably pushed Motocross from a party sport to a more serious level. “I was hanging around some of the best racers, and I could be a sponge,” said Dungey. “I saw what worked for them on a fitness level and I discovered what worked best for me over time.”
Dungey found his stride in the 2009 season and won his first two titles—Supercross Lites and Motocross 250cc division. In 2010, he moved up a class to the 450cc division and pulled off the most decorated rookie season in Motocross history, winning both Supercross (winter-season arena Motocross) and Motocross titles. “Mentally it’s a very tough sport, you have to be willing to pull yourself back up and do whatever it takes,” said Dungey. “You can’t be afraid to fail. Progress takes time, and some of the greatest things I’ve learned through failure.”
Close second-placers push the pace of the race, and the winner, leading to insane (and sometimes surprising) finishes. In Dungey’s case, he has not one but three major contenders: James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto, and Chad Reed, all former champions as well. As a group, they’re dubbed the “Big Four” and according to Short, the group is the largest most successful collection of riders to compete at one time. Generally, only a couple riders (of the 40 competing) race with a shot to win on race weekends. But with these four former champions lined up at the start, anything can happen.
Of the Big Four, Stewart brings Dungey his best competition. The two trained together during their early years in pro racing. While Stewart rides all-out aggressively, Dungey rides with strategy in mind. Before they split ways to train with different riders, “Dungey learned a lot about what it takes to win both mentally and physically from Stewart, who is affectionately known as “the fastest man on the planet,”’ said Short. “It was this relationship that helped get Ryan to the level he needed to be to win consistently.”
Dungey, unlike most other Motocross riders, doesn’t work with a personal trainer. When he joined the Red Bull/KTM Factory Team early in 2012, he utilized Red Bull’s team of trainers to fine-tune his workout system. From there, he took it upon himself to execute it. He used to wear himself out, but now he re-focuses on getting the most from every workout, which for him, means building in more rest. “I’ve learned that it’s good to tear your body down and push it, but you also have to let it recover,” said Dungey. “I’m not saying sleep all day, but it’s good to know when to scale back and avoid overtraining.”
He starts every morning with 15 minutes of yoga stretches to loosen up. He then layers cardio, lifting, and riding during the week, and rests on Sunday.
Monday – Saturday: Dungey builds his cardio foundation with 45 minutes to an hour of cycling, elliptical, or running.
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday: He rides his bike for about four hours, switching from shorter sprint laps to longer rides. On Saturdays, he rides in motocross race format. “When you spend so many hours on the bike per week it becomes a high load,” said Dungey. “It’d be like running at 80-90 percent pressure, and sustaining that for hours.”
Monday and Wednesday: He hits the gym to focuses on explosive, full-body strength training. “When you’re riding a dirtbike your heart rate is almost maxed out, so interval work helps me push my body to adapt to the stress of the load,” said Dungey. “Racing takes tons strength to keep the bike in line, you have to brace yourself, grab that bike and put it where you want it.”
Dungey’s success is directly related to what he eats. When Dungey joined the Red Bull/KTM Factory Team earlier this year, Red Bull’s trainers ran a blood analysis and discovered he had a dairy allergy. Dungey cut out dairy and put more effort into eating healthy. Within two weeks, he noticed significant changes in his workouts. No longer was his body fighting the dairy, making him feel sluggish on the track. “I was less tired, able to ride harder,” said Dungey. “I could handle more physically, recover better, and feel sharper.”
He now strictly eats plain, well-sourced foods. And a lot of them. On normal workout days, he burns up to 5,500 calories, and on race day he burns 5,000 calories. “We use a lot of energy mentally [on race days] and that energy comes from our glycogen stores,” said Dungey. “So, being topped off and never hungry is key, maybe eating more than you would during the week.”
His favorite pre-race dinner? Tied for two dishes: salmon with brown rice and a side of asparagus or pasta with marinara sauce and a side of broccoli. For a post workout drink, he mixes electrolyte-rich GuBrew with orange juice—an all-in-one sugar, carb, and protein replenisher.
No professional athlete goes without battle scars. Sports injuries are about making mistakes and becoming smarter in training and recovery. Only the strong bounce back into the game. That’s exactly what Dungey did earlier this year when he had an accident during practice in Tallahassee, Florida. “I lost control in the rhythm section of the track and the bike spit me off,” said Dungey. “I whacked my head, it knocked me out and I broke my collar bone.” But sticking with his fitness and diet plan, he rested, ate clean, healthy organic foods and was back on the track racing just five weeks later. “That’s the tough part of our sport and the risk we run,” said Dungey. “Being smart and maintaining focus is huge—you’re going fast, bikes are getting better [race speeds on straightaways can reach upwards of 70-75 mph] and you’re far from flat ground.”
Dungey rides a KTM 450SX-F. KTM, an Austrian brand, saw little success on U.S. soil until Dungey scored the 450cc championship this season. KTM pours millions of dollars into developing its engines, tires and exhaust. But so do Honda, Suzuki, and other dirtbike companies. So what really makes the difference? Suspension. “Being able to make the bike settle and absorb energy in as effective a manner as possible without inhibiting Dungey’s ability to ride the bike is the key to success,” said Short. Mechanics make minor tweaks and changes according to race track layout and type of dirt to ensure Dungey has maximum riding comfort.
Fox Racing—360 Flight Jersey and Pants; V4 Helmet
Dungey wears Fox Racing’s 360 Flight lightweight vented jersey to ensure maximum cooling during summer heat. His maneuverable 360 Flight pants protect his legs from bike-produced heat. They also prevent annoying bunching that becomes problematic with the stabilizing knee braces all riders wear. His helmet design changes every year, providing more sophisticated protection without adding weight.
Oakley—Crowbar MX Goggles
Dungey’s Crowbar MX goggles by Oakley protect his eyes from debris and absorb sweat from his forehead. Clear lenses are crucial so he can see every obstacle on the track. Before the race, 10 to 20 layers of plastic film called “tear-offs” are applied to his goggles. During the race, Dungey pulls off strips as his vision becomes dust-impaired.
Nike custom-developed Dungey’s AIRMX boot. Only Dungey, and ironically Stewart, his main competition, wear the boot. The boot isn’t for sale or available to the public.
Nike’s minimalistic AIRMX boot is lightweight and flexible. Unlike other Motocross boots, the Nike boot is simplistic in design and relies on just three buckles and Velcro to fasten it. “Aside from the helmet, the boot is the most important protective article a rider wears as knees, ankles, and feet can all easily be injured in the course of a race,” said Short. Dungey goes through a pair per round of racing.
Belgian Roger De Coster, 68, manages Dungey and Red Bull/KTM. He has been a fixture in American Motocross for decades, taking former Motocross legends Travis Pastrana and Ricky Carmichael to championships, and previously managing Team USA at Motocross of Nations. Pre-2011, De Coster managed Dungey when he rode for Suzuki in his careers early years.
De Coster’s a former champion himself, and he understands the sport from inside. He’s Dungey’s biggest motivator. “Roger was the guy who gave me the opportunity to race in the pros,” said Dungey. “Being around him, he’s taught me to appreciate every minute because it’s a short career. You start at a young age and by 30 most guys are retired so you have to make and take every opportunity.”
De Coster, known for his smooth, controlled riding style and dedication to physical fitness, is also Dungey’s largest influence when coping with the pressure, adrenaline, and pre-race nerves the sport brings. “Every time I line up to the gate I wait for that nervous feeling to go away, but I’m kind of thankful for it because it’s good to have something to lose,” said Dungey. “It drives me, and helps me hone my plan of attack. Roger has worked with me a long time so he’s a big part of that.”
Dungey’s 22 Motocross wins in the 450cc division tie him for third on Motocross’s all-time wins list. He has won 64 percent of his 450cc division races (an unheard of amount) and he has led Team USA to three consecutive victories at the Motocross of Nations serving as team captain for the last three years. He plans to lead the team again to Motocross of Nations in Belgium at the end of September.
But numbers and statistics aside, his career shows just how crucial fitness and diet really are. “Dungey doesn’t win because he’s necessarily the most gifted rider out there,” said Short. “He wins because he takes his diet and workout strategy into his own hands. He reads, questions the right people, works with his body’s physiological chemistry, and clocks the hours of hard work. He’s living proof it pays off.”
For Dungey, Motocross isn’t just a sport or job. It’s a venue to reach his thousands of fans to promote cancer awareness. After losing his grandmother to cancer in 2005, Dungey dedicated his career to her and ensured charity work became an integral part of his riding. His biggest athlete idol, Lance Armstrong, inspired him to get involved (through his sponsorship with Nike) in Livestrong. He also leads frequent Sunday charity rides after Saturday races, and works with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through his sponsorship with Target. From donating pink-accented gear to breast cancer drives, to racing in black and yellow Livestrong colors once a year, Dungey stays dialed in to giving back, branding his career with this purpose. “Promoting cancer awareness is how I can help others in a way that’s close to home,” said Dungey. “It’s the way I can speak up and get others involved in a good cause.” Dungey plans to start his own charity foundation in the future.
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