What has Ryan Sipes done?
For more than half a century, U.S. teams have gone to the International Six Days Enduro, and while U.S. riders have brought home hundreds of gold medals (awarded for finishing within 10 percent of the fastest time in their class), the two biggest prizes have been elusive. No six-rider team from the United States has won the World Trophy and no U.S. rider has won the overall. Since the original "On Any Sunday" movie chronicled Malcolm Smith in the grueling off-road event, ISDE has best translated into American English as "frustration."
A dozen years, ago Sipes was a solid amateur motocross racer who won major championships. He had a decent, decade-long professional career and is now writing a second chapter in the woods and trails. But when he went to Kosice, Slovakia, for the 90th running of the ISDE, few people outside Team USA knew much about the Kentucky-born rider whose southern twang stood out from the dozen other languages and nationalities. Certainly, nobody expected to see his accomplishments stand alongside those of off-road greats such as Smith, Randy Hawkins and Kurt Caselli.
After 1,225 kilometers (761 miles) of riding on a Husqvarna FE 350, Sipes did something no American has ever done in the ISDE: win. With 11 of 31 special test victories, and the consistency required to win this six-day-long marathon, Sipes not only won the E2 division, but also the individual overall, coming out on top among 503 riders from more than 30 countries.
An American first competed in the event in 1948 and the first U.S. team was sent over in 1964. Hall of Famer Jack Penton made 12 appearances on Team USA at the ISDE and earned six gold medals. He said waiting for Team USA to win has been like waiting for the Cleveland Browns to win the Super Bowl and Sipes’ victory is impressive because of how difficult it is for American riders to leave their country and adapt to a competition format and flow that is nothing like what they compete on the other 51 weeks of the year.
“This is a landmark that’s a long, long time coming,” Penton said. “This ranks right up there with when the Americans won the Motocross des Nations for the first time (1981). It proves that we have riders at that level.”
In his motocross and Supercross career, Sipes finished in the top 10 in points several seasons and won three 250SX main events. In 2014, he announced his retirement and started a second career in off-road racing, primarily in the Grand National Cross Country series, an eastern-based tour that run events three hours in length. He’s currently ranked fifth overall with four races remaining in 2015. One weekend in June, he took on the challenge of competing in a Lucas Oil Pro Motocross race in Tennessee and finished 11th in the 450 class and then drove six hours to Ohio to compete in the John Penton GNCC the next day, where he finished second overall. He later admitted that he was still worn out the following weekend.
Sipes' victory in Slovakia gives him an achievement not accomplished by legends who came before him, including many men who are today in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. The ISDE is tough and many competitors say that the actual riding isn’t the most challenging part. It’s being emotionally and mentally ready and staying focused for six straight days that is draining. Riders must do their own bike maintenance, on and off the course, they walk dozens of miles every day to memorize and prepare for the special test courses and they often have to do fundraising, because the ISDE isn’t fully financed by the American Motorcyclist Association and rider contracts with bike manufacturers vary.
“Moving over into off-road has been a tough transition for me, but to do this and be the first [American to win the overall] is an unbelievable feeling,” Sipes said to Cycle News after the event. And maybe even more impressive is that Sipes won it in his second try and first time as a member of the World Trophy team, which features each country’s six best riders. The ISDE also has divisions for riders age 24 and under and three-person club teams, including a female trophy.
In 2015, Team USA was first overall after day one and second after day two. On day three, they lost Kailub Russell to a mechanical failure and knee injury and then Thad Duvall the next day. Sipes took the individual overall lead on day two and never let it go. On day six, which featured only one special motocross-style test, he held a 35-second lead over Australia’s Daniel Milner and extended it to 43 seconds. For the fourth consecutive year, France won the World Trophy team overall and Australia was second. Because of the attrition, the U.S. finished ahead of only one of the 23 World Trophy teams.