This article was originally printed in our October 2017 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Setbacks, success, and a refined outlook on life. This is Adam Cianciarulo.
By Michael Antonovich | Photos by Donn Maeda & Mike Emery
Adam Cianciarulo is now in the fourth year of his professional career. Many expected the 20-year-old to have a mantel filled by victory trophies and championship plates by now, except fate has turned out quite differently than what was anticipated. A series of serious injuries started in 2014, when the then-rookie looked like a lock for the 250 East Coast Supercross championship and lasted all of the way through the end of 2016. With so many setbacks, concerns for the future of Cianciarulo's career arose, even from the racer himself. "I came into the pros as the guy that was supposed to win races right away, but a couple of years and injuries later I was no longer that guy," he states honestly. "I had to be mentally strong enough to not let that break me. With an established support system and undeniable talent, things finally appear to be headed in the right direction.
Cianciarulo's pro career started off amid issues, as his debut in the 2013 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship was delayed due to a case of salmonella poisoning that ravaged his diminutive teenage body. The highly touted racer joined the series at Budds Creek, the fifth stop of the schedule, and went on to finish out the summer with a handful of top-10 overall finishes, the best result being a fourth place in Utah. "When I went pro it started off rough with the outdoors, but I kind of expected that," he reflects. "I was aware that jumping into the pro ranks was not going to be an easy task, but I wanted to be in there early to learn." As soon as the summer ended, attention turned to the 2014 Monster Energy Supercross Series, a discipline that the young rider was expected to excel at. The start of the season was practically perfect; Cianciarulo won the very first main event in Arlington and then finished first or second in the next four races, which gave him total control of the championship. Things went awry at round six in Toronto, when a misstep during the main event resulted in a dislocated shoulder and crushed both his title hopes and the rest of the 2014 race season. Footage of the medics putting the joint back into the socket has racked up hundreds of thousands of views, but Cianciarulo has no desire to see it for himself. "I still haven't even watched Toronto from the year that I hurt my shoulder. I don't think that I can," he laments. "I guess I've told myself it's not that big of a deal so that it hurts a little less so that I can bury that part and forget it altogether."
After a surgical procedure and lengthy recovery, it was decided that Cianciarulo needed to prepare for the next year by lining up for one of the marquee offseason races in Europe, the Geneva Supercross in Switzerland. On the first night of the weekend-long event, Cianciarulo crashed off of the track and into the wall, an incident that resulted in another serious shoulder injury. "I made a little mistake and ended up jumping off of the track and almost into the stands," he recalls. "I knocked myself out and shattered the socket on my shoulder, as well as dislocating it. I have some scars on my face from wood and other stuff that was on the side of the track." A reconstructive surgery was required to fix the damage, which Cianciarulo described with medical expertise: "That was the first time I had a Latarjet surgery. It's basically a bone graft that made the sockets bigger and gave the joint a little bit more stability. The bone holds the joint in the socket for my shoulder."
While Cianciarulo recovered from the second shoulder injury, his body underwent massive natural changes. By the time he returned to the starting line for the 2015 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, he was noticeably taller than just a few months prior. "I was five feet 10 inches and 150 pounds, and was still trying to adjust my riding style in a short amount of time," he describes. "I had some good results that season; I got my first podium in Colorado and was third in points going into RedBud." Just when it seemed like things were on the right path, Cianciarulo suffered a third consecutive season-ending shoulder injury from a practice crash. Around this time, doctors figured out that a genetic trait was partly to blame for the issues. "I was born with shallow joints and sockets. I think some of the training was working against me in a sense that I needed more stability and focus on my shoulder, and in hindsight that should have changed," he explains. "It was difficult, but it's a hereditary deal where my shoulders are a little smaller than most. That's why I had the same procedure on both shoulders."
Cianciarulo reached rock bottom in the offseason between 2015 and 2016, when he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus during Aldon Baker's boot camp, secretly suffered a broken ankle in a practice crash, and then a broken wrist in a separate crash. These three things resulted in his absence from yet another Supercross season and the departure from the training program he had trusted for much of his career. "The lowest point was going into the 2016 Supercross season. That was my second straight year of missing Supercross, and at that point, everything was working against me," he acknowledges. "I had worked my butt off through the offseason only to find out that I had Epstein-Barr and that my endurance was terrible. Then the wrist injury happened. I felt like I was in a hole."
Forced to go through the lengthy recovery process once again, Cianciarulo looked at the situation and took stock in what was happening around him. "You wake up every day to do what you're supposed to with rehab and physical therapy, but you wonder what the problems are. Eventually, that subsided and I remembered why I did this in the first place," he proclaims. "I remember how lucky I am to be in a position with a great motorcycle to ride and other people around you. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and realized I had things that a lot of other people wished they had."
While much was made about the decision to leave Baker's training program at the time, Cianciarulo exudes no ill will when explaining his reasoning. "You want to be certain that you are making the right decision, but you have to add in the aspects of what other people are going to think and that the team or other people around are okay with it. There is no easy way to do it," he says a few years after the split. "Aldon and his family were like family to me and I had worked with them since I was 13 years old, around the same time that Ryan Villopoto started with them. I had been there a long time and really wish it could have worked for me. I enjoyed being with that group, they're elite and fun, but at the same time, the program wasn't working for me specifically. And that's when I had to make my decision."
"I wouldn't really blame anyone for me getting Epstein-Barr. I don't want to put that on anyone," Cianciarulo goes on to clarify. "It was just at a time when I got through the offseason and felt bad, which was frustrating, but it had been building up to that. It was something that I thought about a lot before I came to the conclusion."
Shortly after this, Cianciarulo approached close friend and fellow former Baker client Ken Roczen about working together. "I was a little lost after I parted ways with Aldon. I went to California from Anaheim I until the East Coast started, so that gave me time to figure things out," he says. "I contacted Ken and asked if he minded that I wanted to use his trainer, Peter Park, and he was kind enough to let me into the program. It was a time when I wasn't setting the world on fire, but they saw that I needed help."
While there is no good time to have an injury, Cianciarulo's most recent setback came at the very end of the 2016 season. In comparison to some of his other crashes, the high-speed slam he suffered at the 2016 MXGP of the Americas in Charlotte was one of the hardest and it resulted in another shoulder injury, but he details the injury and recovery as if it were not an important matter. That positive outlook and his results through the 2017 season are no doubt products of the program he is now a part of. "I had a crash at the Charlotte GP last year, so I was off of the bike until December. When I got back on the bike and got ready for Supercross, everything came along really well," he boasts. "It started off slowly, but I worked back into it. I felt like a rookie again because it had been a long time, since 2014, that I had raced Supercross."
"I was able to get a win at my home race, Daytona, which is something I'll never forget and is the highlight of my racing career to this point, and then another win in the Shootout at Las Vegas," he continues. "It was crazy how it came to the wire and was exciting for me. I would consider it a good building season and I don't think I was at my peak because I was getting better even though there were down races when I left a lot on the table. It was fun to be back at the races and learning weekend to weekend as I tried to get better."
Although some will calculate Cianciarulo's worth as a person with race results, he has made it clear that the tough times have a much larger impact on his life than the success. "Up to that moment in Toronto in 2014, everything had gone to plan. My whole life was going to plan. I knew everything that was going to happen and I had it all planned out," he declares. "But when that all happened, for a 17-year-old kid, my whole existence felt like it shattered. The dream I had for so long and was so close, a Supercross championship, it was devastating. That moment alone changed me as a person, and then I had a few more of those moments. I wondered what I did wrong and what was happening."
"If you were to ask me would I rather have this perspective on life or that East Coast championship, I'd tell you I'd rather have the perspective," he promises. "I'm a more happy and optimistic person in life now than I was then. That sounds weird because I've had a lot of things not go perfectly for me, but it's completely the truth."
Per past conversations we've had with people in the paddock, it sounds as though Kawasaki planned for Cianciarulo to be under the factory banner and in the 450 class by this point in his career. Clearly, that has not come to be but the brand has stayed with the rider through the stages of his career and even inked a contract extension in 2015, which runs through the end of the current race season. "It's been amazing to have Kawasaki, Mitch Payton, and Pro Circuit behind me. I have been with Kawasaki since I was seven years old and with Pro Circuit since I was 12 years old. They have gone through the process and seen me at my highs or lows," Cianciarulo notes. "I know they want me to succeed and will do whatever it takes to make it happen. I respect and appreciate that. They are a genuine group of people and to stick by me with my struggles, I appreciate that. I know how much they have invested in me and there's not a day that goes by when I'm not grateful for it."
It's worth noting Cianciarulo has zero animosity to those who professed he would be the next big in motocross. "If you watch any sport, there is always some kid coming up that has their every move watched. That's the nature of the game. If you're going to be that good, then you have to be able to back it up. To this day, I'm okay with the expectations. I like being held to a high standard, it separates me from the rest," he maturely says. "I put a lot of pressure on myself and want to do well, but at the end of the day, what will people do to me? I'm the one waking up each day, going to the track, and going on with my life. It's not the end of the world either way and I don't mind the pressure. Looking back now, I have no regrets or resentment towards anyone for putting high expectations on me."
PROGRESS AND MOTIVATION
At his core, Cianciarulo is a super fan of the sport. He can recall moments in motos from years past and recount the excitement in vivid detail. That enthusiasm has been a huge asset to his outlook on racing, even when things are less than ideal. "It's always been about taking myself out of my position and remembering how it was when I was a kid, when I was in awe of racing," he says. "At Southwick I had two terrible starts and ate sand the whole time, so it wasn't the most fun I have ever had on a dirt bike. But I take myself away from that and think about the little kid that watched [Jeremy] McGrath and [Ricky] Carmichael on TV, and would he mind getting roosted at Southwick? I don't think he would. In the moments when it's not so fun, you have to think back to where you came from and remember the reason you got into it at all."
Cianciarulo's lighthearted personality is apparent at the races, and it's normal to see him interacting with fans or people in the industry just moments before the gates drop. It's drawn some ire from critics, but he says he won't abort his positive attitude just to appease others. "I am who I am and I know that I put enough focus into the races. I don't mind joking around on race day because I like to have fun. The two can go hand in hand. I think that sometimes people in this sport take themselves too seriously," he declares. "When I meet people at a race, be it a little kid or someone much older, I like taking a moment to talk to them and ask about themselves. They seem so grateful that you took time to talk and are appreciative. I'm just a guy that rides a dirt bike so that I can make someone's day by giving them a high-five or just talking is something I think is so interesting. It's one of the highlights to the job."
Even though Adam Cianciarulo has experienced countless obstacles over the last five years, his career intentions have never wavered. "I have goals to be the best and that has never changed. The way I have gone about things or the way I look at things has changed, but I feel like I'm trending up to be that. I'm only 20 years old, and yeah, I would like to have some championships under my belt, but I'm very proud of the way that no matter what I do, it's to the best of my abilities. I'm not lazy or going through the motions because everything has a purpose," he asserts. "I could always do better and I realize that, but I'm at a good place in life. From the outside looking in, there may be people that feel bad for me because I was supposed to be winning, but I wish I could tell them that my life is amazing. If they took a step inside my world, they'd know how happy I am and how much fun I have during the week. I want to succeed and I won't stop until I get there, but from where I've been to now, I'm happy with how things are going."