Ryan Dungey knows it can be a lot harder to defend a title than to win one.
He'll get a chance to start his 450cc outdoor national motocross title defense Saturday at the 45th Hangtown Motocross Classic at Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area near Rancho Cordova.
Dungey, who captured KTM its first 450cc championship last season, won 10 of 12 races to claim his second title - the first coming in 2010. But the Minnesota native is facing perhaps the toughest field in the sport's history.
Injuries have sidelined some of the sport's biggest stars the past couple of years, but the 2013 season begins in Hangtown with the top riders in the premier class healthy and ready.
"It will be a challenge, for sure," Dungey said of his title defense. "With Ryan (Villopoto), Chad (Reed) and Stewie (James "Bubba" Stewart) in it, this will be the best field, maybe ever. I'm looking forward to it, actually, because if you win it all, you want to win it with everyone there."
Villopoto won the 450cc title in 2011 but sat out the 2012 outdoor season with a torn ACL in his left knee. He's coming off three consecutive Supercross championships and says he's 100 percent healthy and itching to take it to the field outdoors.
"The competition for the outdoors title is stacked," Villopoto said. "Regardless of which track we're at, there will be a bunch of guys who can sweep the motos. It's going to be tough to win it all this season."
Stewart is still an immensely popular rider and will try to rebound from a wrist injury to make a title run. His last championship of any type came in 2009 when he won the Supercross title. He won the premier class motocross championship in 2008 when he went undefeated in all 24 motos. Only Ricky Carmichael accomplished that feat before.
Stewart started 2012 with moto sweeps at Hangtown and Freestone County Raceway in Texas, but he fell and hurt his wrist at Thunder Valley Motocross Park in Colorado. He missed half the season and finished 11th.
Chad Reed, who won the 450cc title in 2009, returns from a knee injury that kept him out of the 2012 season. Other contenders include Mike Alessi, who finished second behind Dungey last season, Justin Brayton and Josh Grant.
A rider who is not getting much attention is Jake Weimer, Villopoto's Monster Energy Kawasaki teammate. Weimer finished third in 2012, was on the podium 10 times and had perhaps the most impressive ride at Hangtown last season.
In the first moto, Weimer tangled with some riders on the first lap and dropped to last place. He then passed 30 riders and finished 10th. That earned him the first Ricky Carmichael Hard Charger Award of the year.
Blake Baggett looks to defend his 250 title, while Ashley Fiolek looks to do the same with her Women's Motorcross Association championship from 2012.
There will be added excitement in the 250cc class as 16-year-old phenomenon Adam Cianciarulo makes his pro debut for Monster Energy Kawasaki Team Green. The Florida native is the winningest AMA amateur motocross rider, having won a record 11 national championships.
Carmichael, Dungey, Stewart and Villopoto never experienced as much amateur success as Cianciarulo. But he'll bump the starting gate Saturday at Hangtown, competing with the best 250cc riders in the world.
That's going to be a lot different.
WANT TO GO?
Where: Prairie City SHRV, 1330 White Rock Road, Rancho Cordova
When: Gates open 8:30 a.m.; practices, motos all morning; opening ceremonies, 12:40 p.m.
Tickets: $40 adults, $20 children 6-11
For more information: www.hangtownmx.com, (800) 426-4869
Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.