May 7, 2014, 6:27 PM EDT
When the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship fires up in May, one key name will be missing from the starting gate.
Ryan Villopoto – the defending champion in the premier 450 Class and the most dominant rider active – will miss the entire 2014 outdoor season as he goes under the knife to fix a lingering knee issue.
On Saturday, Villopoto wrapped up the AMA Supercross season with his seventh win of the 17-race season. It capped off his fourth consecutive Supercross title, matching the record held by Jeremy McGrath.
With each title, Villopoto has inched closer to carving out a spot on the Mount Rushmore of motocross alongside legends like McGrath and Ricky Carmichael – the only thing holding him back has been his health. This will be the fourth time in the last six years that Villopoto has withdrawn from the outdoor Nationals due to injury.
“Going from a really great feeling after winning a fourth straight Supercross title, to knowing I am going to spend the summer rehabbing a knee injury is devastating,” Villopoto said in a press release issued by the Monster Energy Kawasaki team.
With the defending champion on the sidelines, the 450 Class looks wide open this summer.
The only other rider to win a 450MX championship in the last four years, Ryan Dungey now steps in as the early title favorite. The path to a championship this time around won’t be as easy for him as it was in 2010 or 2012 though – he was faced with a shallow field of challengers both of those years.
A pair of former champions may prove to be the most daunting competition this summer. 2008 champion James Stewart caught fire midway through the Supercross season, and 2009 champion Chad Reed was enjoying a career renaissance before injuries ended his Supercross season early.
Dungey will also have to contend with his own Red Bull KTM teammate Ken Roczen, a rookie in the 450 Class, as well as the likes of Justin Barcia and Trey Canard.
No one ever wants to see a champion relegated to being a spectator, but with such an open field, the stage is set for some incredible battles this summer – starting with the opening round May 24th at Glen Helen Raceway.