Championships are not won on days when the sun is shining, the bike feels perfect and everything comes easily. Championships are won on days when calamity rains down, your body aches and yet you go out and score some points anyway.
There's still a lot of racing left in 2014 Monster Energy Supercross, an FIM World Championship. But Saturday night was one of those nights and if Ryan Villopoto holds on to his points lead for another championship, his sixth-place finish in Toronto, despite all the odds against him, may be more important than any of his spectacular wins. It meant he only lost six points of his 31-point lead over Ryan Dungey on a night when the points race could have closed to almost nothing.
Villopoto spent much of Saturday in the hospital, trying to figure out if he had food poisoning or something else that was making him so sick that many doubted he'd even make the starting gate. But he was back at Toronto's Rogers Centre in time to line up for his first heat race.
If there ever was a track where a rider could afford to skip practice, the Toronto track was definitely not it. The layout featured complicated sections where riders had to sort through various possible combinations of doubles and triples to find the fastest line and there was one section where riders had to choose between two different routes. But worst of all was the treacherous whoops section, which had even the best riders shooting off in unexpected directions like someone threw a Molotov cocktail into a bin of bottle rockets. Having missed the practice sessions, Villopoto's first chance to try out this complicated challenge was during the first heat race in the 450 class. He finished ninth, while still learning which way the track went. By the time the checkered flag dropped on his semi, he was in second place and handily transferred to the main event.
That, Supercross fans, is what's called riding with talent and instinct.
The ability to overcome adversity comes from mental toughness. That toughness is particularly striking to me in Villopoto.
The first time I saw Ryan Villopoto race, he was a skinny little red-headed kid from Washington, racing in the amateur ranks. His main competition was Mike Alessi, a California kid for whom some predicted a limitless future.
This was 10 years ago when the two were still middle school students, but Alessi already had his own website in the pre-Facebook and Twitter era and had a following and fans wearing "Believe the hype" T-shirts. It seemed to me at the time that the Alessi hype had gotten inside Villopoto's helmet. He clearly had the talent, but he'd pass Alessi for the lead and then crash, as if the pressure was weighing on him. I wondered if Villopoto had the mental toughness he'd need as he moved into the pro ranks.
The great thing about kids, however, is their capacity to grow and change, almost overnight. Today, nobody doubts Ryan Villopoto's mental toughness. He has three consecutive Supercross championships to his credit, along with MX des Nations and other successes on his resume, and his performance Saturday night pushed him closer to a fourth consecutive premier-class Supercross title, something only Jeremy McGrath has accomplished. Meanwhile, Mike Alessi has one lonely 450-class heat race win. Hype, indeed.
Toronto gave us other stories and lasting images, from James Stewart's torrid pace through the field, flying and skipping effortlessly over a track that pummeled and flummoxed the rest, to Adam Cianciarulo's courageous effort to ride out the 250 main with a dislocated shoulder, and his air-kicking frustration when it proved impossible. But if Villopoto goes on to become the second rider to win four consecutive Supercross titles, historians of this season may well conclude the deal was sealed not with a victory in the spotlight in Daytona, but with a gritty sixth-place finish in Toronto.