Adam Cianciarulo doesn’t take long to drain a large iced coffee in Starbucks. It’s a wonder that his drink has gone down much at all because – as usual – the 22 year old is in good and chatty form. An expressive and open character, Cianciarulo has much to feel buoyant about in 2019 so far. As we sit and talk – and as OTOR materialises online – ‘AC’ has been leading a close chase in the 250SX West series and is closer than ever to the first of what should have been a plethora of supercross titles. Instead the Pro Circuit ‘ever-present’ has been furrowing a browbeating pattern of injury-rehab-injury-rehab and was even in danger of fading away from the motocross map after a miserable succession of pain in 2015 and 2016.
“Oh god, I could go on forever,” he wide-eyes when quizzed about his list of woe. “In my rookie year I did my shoulder and then on my second day back I broke my leg with the tib-fib. Got back on the bike and raced the Geneva Supercross at the end of 2014 and knocked myself out and did the shoulder again. Got back and raced five Outdoors and then did the other shoulder. Then going into 2016 I broke my ankle and my wrist. There are some sicknesses in there as well….” He trails off, the articulation of the journey and all those hours of recovery a memory he’d rather not re-live again.
Now, things finally look decent. By partially severing his Floridian roots and family and friends and committing to a fairly lonely existence in Murrieta – a short distance from trainer and mentor Nicky Wey – Cianciarulo has evolved from an occasionally brilliant, often erratic and mostly luckless super-personality in the sport to someone who could finally join Mitch Payton’s illustrious and lengthy list of PC champions.
Regardless of what fate befalls Cianciarulo this weekend in Las Vegas (and perhaps he won’t want to think what happened the last time the Monster Energy Pro Circuit Kawasaki team went to the Sam Boyd Stadium with a title on the line) 2019 has been a turnaround campaign with five wins and six podium finishes. Cianciarulo is almost there, and it has been seven long years in green waiting for this moment “but it feels like four because that’s the amount of races I have done!” he smiles. “2015 and 2016 you might as well just take them out of my career book. I basically didn’t race. In 2016 I got through Outdoors but I was re-building myself. I almost didn’t ride a dirtbike for two years. I really feel I restarted my career in 2017.”
There must have been part of you that really hated the sport in that time…
Oh, for sure. Growing up I had a lot of things go right for me. I was in a super-fortunate position, although I think some people get confused because I didn’t start out with everything. I had the same as everybody else. I came from a middle class family and was able to do well by winning a lot of races. Going to the Pros I didn’t expect to dominate right away but I thought I’d do well and get the hang of it and Supercross went OK the first year but a few injuries later and you start asking yourself: “OK, what’s going on? This keeps on happening…” Looking back now I wasn’t very mature physically, not very strong. I was doing a lot of training and I was tired a lot of the time. One of my biggest attributes – that can also be one of my failings – is that I have this sense of urgency; like a lack of patience or more like a ‘want to…’ I have to do this, I have to win, I have to be the best guy. I think it was something that held me back mentally. I was getting hurt a lot and rushing back. I was getting too far ahead of myself and it would lead to some other mistakes. It was a tough little period.
Were you scared at one point to think you might have missed your ‘window’?
Yeah…but think I gained some perspective and learned a lot in terms of realising ‘this might be the worst it can be’. It takes pressure off. For example I’m in a tight championship battle right now and two, three, four years ago I would have done anything to be in this position. I was at the bottom during that time and now I am back, I am one of ‘those guys’ and competing at the top level of the sport. So those moments allow you to realise that you are lucky to be able to do it.
But because of what you have been through do you feel a little panicky or edgy with it being so close for the championship?
I’m not going to sit here and say I would turn down a few extra points! In Supercross rarely do you see a championship won without some adversity here or there. It’s a great way to win it if it comes down to being close, and at Vegas as well. I’ve never been one to shy away from the pressure and I dealt with that a lot as a kid. It is almost second nature to me and some of my best races ever happened that way: if I felt my back was against the wall I was able to put some of my best performances forward. I do believe I’m the best guy so it [the dispute] is not something that is keeping me up at night.
When you see what happened to Joey Savatgy in Las Vegas a couple of years ago…it is never really in the pocket until the flag flies and it must be hard to ignore that fact…
Yeah, I have to be mentally disciplined and all I can do is the maximum possible to be the best I can be. It’s that whole ‘one week and one race at a time’ and ‘look at it from an individual’ perspective. Instead of being on such broad terms as a championship. You have to isolate the race. If I go to an event and think ‘I need a win this weekend’ and take the points out of it then it just helps with confidence and belief. If I go there and think ‘well, what about the championship…and if I make a mistake and do this-or-that’ then it is draining. It’s a discipline, and I can tell you that the last two years I have gone into the final races 10-15 points down and I’d much rather be where I am than not having a shot at it at all.
Do some of those bigger picture thoughts come into play during the final moments of a race? Would it be stupid not to even consider what position you hold and what it means?
I think I’m a pretty ‘aware’ person in general and thoughts come into your head all the time but you have to know when to push them out. I’m not an idiot and I don’t just go out there and pin-it but there is a line where you can be thinking too much and it is about balancing that.
No offence but perhaps there are not too many observant or analytical racers out there and when you are tenths of a second apart, using similar styles then it can appear a bit robotic, a bit samey. Like it is hard for anyone to make the difference…
Sure, there are lots of different dynamics that people don’t see and a lot going on inside our heads. A lot of the lack of transparency comes from riders wanting to keep ‘that status’ of people not looking at us as human beings and you want your competition to know that you don’t feel things. You are a robot! It can almost give you a mental advantage if people believe nothing can worry you. The riders want to look a certain way to other riders as much as they might want to in the eyes of the fans. But the truth is that we’ve all been doing this our whole lives and it means a lot to us and I know that about everybody out there. We all live-and-die by it. You gotta own it.
Is the smoke screen necessary these days? People can get such insight thanks to the videos and the social media…
I think there are a lot of guys out there now that do a good job of getting their personalities across. Somebody like Dean Wilson does a decent job of giving himself to the fans or to show who he is and I think that’s cool. He has a big following. I think other riders are a bit quieter and just work and do their stuff. Some people embrace the media and others don’t. I think it is important to be open and show honesty. There is a fine line and you have to guard yourself sometimes. You have to have that bad-ass, tough-guy look a lot of the time.
It’s seems to be a relevant topic when you are punching at the top of the sport. Take a rider like Eli Tomac who seems to be praised and criticised in equal measure. Maybe some more transparency would help there…
Yeah, it definitely leaves a lot of stuff up for interpretation but maybe that’s just the way Eli is: a quieter guy and there is nothing wrong with that. He is certainly criticised and praised a lot and does amazing things on a dirtbike and I honestly think he is content with who he is and that’s cool. Just be you. If you try to fake it one way or the other then that’s when people can see through it. It happens in other sports as well and I think it is easy to see when someone is trying to pull a fast-one.
Pro Circuit has been a constant since you were twelve but you had the support-dynamic with your family, you tried the Aldon Baker regime and now you are working with Nick Wey. Have you finally found the green pasture you needed?
I feel like I am in a really good place right now and I could be for the rest of my career in terms of the people around me and what I am doing. It is crazy the growth I have had since I turned Pro. I have always been the type of guy that has deferred to people that I feel have more knowledge than me. I’ve never felt like I know it all or to be ‘that’ kid. There are so many examples of kids that said ‘screw everybody, I’m going my way’. I was always the opposite, almost to a fault. I think I’m pretty smart and since my knee injury last year I re-assessed my programme and really understood what is best for myself. I think I have surrounded myself with people now that I really believe in and trust. I’m in a good spot and I have improved so much. I was off the bike for effectively five months and wasn’t doing anything. It took me three months to train for supercross and I feel I am insanely better than what I was last year. It took some time to trust the decisions I’ve made because I did defer to other people and it was moment I did some myself. I wanted some accountability. Whether it is good or bad I want it to fall on me.
An example of a change or improvement?
Hmm, just being out here in California. I had been in Florida in a lot over the course of my career: I grew up there and obviously did the Aldon thing. I felt I reached a peak with my technique last year and couldn’t go much faster or at least go that fast and be consistent without making some changes. In Florida we have a great facility, a great track and place for training but I don’t have anybody there saying ‘hey, do this with your feet or hit that line it’s a bit better’. Just because I have been doing this a long time doesn’t mean I don’t need a person like that. Maybe Ryan Dungey, with a few years to go in his career, was cemented and his technique was his technique and he was going to ride the same every day whereas I feel I am still developing and I had a late start because of my injuries. I really identified that and said ‘right, I’m going to California’ even if everybody says that’s where the slackers go. I moved to within a couple of miles of my riding coach and really gave Nick the reins of my riding programme in terms of the schedule, the cardio, strength. It is all in one place and under Nick’s eye and he’s someone I really trust and believe in. He comes to the track with me every day and we are constantly working on stuff that can make me faster and more consistent and safer. I thought that was a big thing for me. It wasn’t easy to do. My friends are all in Florida and I have a small apartment close to here and I work, that’s it. I’m heading in a direction where I feel I can be in the elite, a championship contender and that’s all I wanted.
How has Nick made the difference? Is it just about chemistry?
Chemistry, and he has been through it. Maybe he didn’t win as much as he’d like to but just in the same way that I can tell you how to swing a gold club sweetly it doesn’t mean I can do it myself that well! I don’t mean that as a bash on Nick but he really knows his stuff. Another thing he has really helped me with is the mental side. He is super-level headed. This sport means so much to me and I’m an emotional guy and in the past if a race has been bad or great then the emotions have been really low or really high. If I didn’t do well then I was ready to kill. I wore emotions on my sleeve whereas now it is much more the same whatever happens on the weekend. Sure, you have a bit more spunk if you win but I realised you cannot sustain a career at a high level being so emotionally up and down and Nick taught me that. If you have a bad race you still need to be ready to go again on a Monday and you cannot do that if you are still down in the dumps about the weekend. The mental side has been the number one thing for me…and reacting to the rollercoaster that is racing in general.
People have seen you as fun-loving and outgoing so is this latest phase a case of getting more mature?
Yeah, I have always taken the sport very seriously and given my all every time I am out there and people can see that. I think I have tried too much sometimes. I think you chose the right word there because it has been about maturing and putting my energy into the right things. You reach a certain point – and it is funny to say this because I am 22 and I have another year of eligibility – but if I want a 250 title then I have to win it now. That was my whole mentality last summer and I had to change something because I’d been doing the same thing over and over again. I had to do something different. And in the past I would not have had the conviction to make my own decisions. Nick writes my strength programme which co-insides with my cardio and cycling and riding and the laps I make. So we are not guessing about too much of this or that. It is super-organised and that’s what I wanted.
Did you ever have your head turned during the low moments?
No. Ever since I was a little I didn’t believe I was going to be the best motocross racer ever: I knew it. There was no other option. I still roll with that. At one point I was overwhelmed and wanted to be done, completely. I wasn’t eyeing up another sport but I was asking myself ‘what am I still doing here?’ You just feel bad because you have sponsors that have invested a lot in you and you’ve let everybody down. It can get you down in the dumps but you think back to those days now and…well, I am so far ahead now where I thought I would be at this point. I didn’t have a like a ‘Kenny injury’ where it was super-publicised and – all the respect in the world to him for getting over that – but I had a bunch of medium-sized injuries in a row and people were like ‘we don’t know with him…’ I had doctors telling me I’d never ride again because of my shoulders and there were moments when I thought ‘I’m done’ so the fact that I’ve been able to get back here….I mean, there was a time when I wondered if I’d ever win again. It is a feeling I still carry with me.
You should have had a pick of titles and it is finally now so close so what will success in Las Vegas finally mean to you?
A lot! It would be huge personally because of those low days I mentioned. I thought my dream was over. Also for the people who have supported me, and Mitch [Payton] is at the top of the list. He has had my back through everything and I’d love nothing more than to repay him with a championship this year. Honestly two! I want to win Outdoors as well and hell, go to the Nations also. It would mean the world….but, win-lose-or-draw I will carry the same perspective. Don’t get me wrong I want to win more than anyone on the gate but I do know how lucky I am just to be out there. I also understand that not a lot of people get to be in this position and with a chance of a championship. I feel very lucky. A championship battle is what you dream of as a kid. We’ll give it our best shot. We’ll either win and be stoked or we’ll pick up and go again. I believe in myself and the team and we’ll try to get it done. A noisy sound from the straw in the cup. Cianciarulo walked to the coffee shop from his little apartment and is now heading back. We watch the tall figure stroll across the sun-kissed but windy car park outside and despite the battering over the years some of the old teenage swagger is starting to return.
By Adam Wheeler @ontrackoffroad
Photos by James Lissimore @lissimorephoto