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Adam Cianciarulo: More than a dirt bike racer

In any sport, a 20-year career sets an athlete apart. When a 27-year-old has logged that length of service, it is even more special.

When he turned pro in 2013, racing the full Pro Motocross series in the 250 division, Adam Cianciarulo did not expect to retire before 30. In the past decade, he’s lived through the trend of dirt bike riders racing well past that mark, but Fate had different plans. Cianciarulo has come to terms with that reality.

Cianciarulo scored his first top-10 in his second outdoor start. His first top-five came near the end of the season at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, finishing behind a couple of soon-to-be-legendary riders, Eli Tomac and Ken Roczen, and ahead of one of this year’s championship contenders, Cooper Webb.

Cianciarulo’s Monster Energy Supercross debut was even more successful: He won in his first attempt in Arlington in 2014, his third in Indianapolis, and his fifth in Detroit. His other attempts in that span of races ended in runner-up results.

“This sport has been great to me,” Cianciarulo told NBC Sports. “This has been my career since I was eight or nine. I’ve been taking it really serious for a long time. One of the things that I think is a testament to my love for it is that I did take it serious so young, and I put so much time into it.

“I don’t think it would have been weird if I had burnt out before I made it this far. Because I love it so much, it’s been able to sustain me through the ups and downs. I’ve won races at the top level of the sport. I’m here with factory Kawasaki — been with Kawasaki 20 years.”

Cianciarulo finished second in Supercross points three times consecutively from 2017 through 2019. He was third in the 2017 Motocross season.

Cianciarulo won his first championship in 2019 in the outdoor series.

Cianciarulo emotional Denver

Cianciarulo’s most recent podium came last year in the penultimate round in Denver. He has one more shot at ending on a high note this week in Salt Lake City. - Feld Motor Sports / Align Media

Everything Changed

And then everything changed when Cianciarulo graduated to the 450 division.

At the start of the 2020 season, fresh off a win in the Monster Cup the previous October, Cianciarulo began to suffer from a nerve disorder.

“I feel like I took a big mental step in 2018, 2019 in terms of maturing and not making stupid mistakes on track that led to missing races,” Cianciarulo said. “Just as I figured that out, the health started. It’s been really frustrating the last couple of years since this is the position I’ve always wanted to be in.”

“And although I’ve had some wins and podiums, I feel like, when healthy, I’m capable of a lot more. But I’m at peace with it. I’ve done everything I can, and that’s just life: We can’t control everything.”

Adam Cianciarulo: “I found a spot where it’s like I failed so many times in row and it’s like rock bottom, but it kept getting lower and lower. And then one day I looked around and my life’s still fine.”

That season, Cianciarulo ran extraordinarily well at the beginning of races and faded as the laps ran long.

He also developed a tendency to crash. It took a while to determine what was happening.

In Round 7 of the 2020 season at Tampa, Cianciarulo had a typical showing. He took the lead on the first lap, led most of the event, and was passed by his teammate Tomac. Five laps later, Cianciarulo crashed hard in the whoops while trying to stay in contact with the leader.

He injured his shoulder and was out for the remainder of the season.

When NBC Sports caught up with him before the 2021 season, a somber and reflective Cianciarulo was only beginning to work through the ramifications of his accident.

“There’s always been this negative self-talk and like this super load I put on myself with all that stuff,” Cianciarulo said at the time. “I found a spot where it’s like I failed so many times in row and it’s like rock bottom, but it kept getting lower and lower and lower.

“And then one day I looked around and it’s like, ‘my life’s still fine’.”

MX High Point 2023  Adam Cianciarulo on his way to a podium.JPG

Adam Cianciarulo scored his first Pro Motocross podium of 2023 after improving in each previous round.

Adam Cianciarulo has been equally strong in the outdoor series and in the stadium. / Align Media

Better Still

This April, Cianciarulo made the tough decision to retire at the end of the Supercross season.

“It’s a bittersweet moment for me,” Cianciarulo said. “I’m a big fan of the sport. This has always been my dream. I didn’t see myself being done this early when I started my pro career, but that’s how it’s gone. This nerve injury specifically started out of nowhere - no crash or anything - in 2019. I’ve been dealing with it since then.

“It’s progressively been getting worse.”

The heart is still there, but Cianciarulo’s body began to let him down as soon as his dream was being realized.

“It’s basically a weakness in my hand - so I’m not able to ride up to the level of my ability,” Cianciarulo said. “Another aspect of that is if you don’t have full control of the bike, obviously it can lead to more crashes, more injuries.

“For the longest time there with my injuries, I was trying to be that fast guy that I was when I first came onto the scene. As my strength gradually went away, it put me in worse and worse positions and that is really what has led to my other injuries.”

The bittersweet part is the memory of that first season when Cianciarulo came close to winning a title in his rookie season — something he’s watching Jett Lawrence do this weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“There’s always going to be more things: If I had two championships, I would want three, if I had 10 I’d want 11,” said Cianciarulo. “That’s just how it works. Was I capable of more? Yes, but I’m very content and at peace with what I got from it. What dirt bikes has taught me is that I’m more than a dirt bike racer.”

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