Gone are the lazy days of the holiday season…

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…and the 2011 Supercross season is now upon us.

The onset of the upcoming season offers a stark contrast to the 2010 SX season. Heading into last season, perennial favorites veteran like James Stewart, Chad Reed, and Kevin Windham were hungrily eyeing up the youngsters.

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Yet who could expect the surprises that lurked around every turn?

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Well before the series even left the fabled West Coast swing, high flyers Reed and Stewart…

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…would already have their wings clipped.

Reed wouldn’t make it beyond 2 rounds, and Stewart would last but 3 before their title hopes were dashed.

With Kevin Windham left as virtually the only veteran in serious title contention, the youth movement would prevail. Guys like Ryan Dungey, Ryan Villopoto, Josh Hill – and even Trey Canard on loan from the Lites class – seized the spotlight with weekly podium finishes. In the end, one of the youngsters soared higher than the rest…

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…as Ryan Dungey joined Jeremy McGrath as the only rookies to reign supreme as the Supercross champ.

But as we head into the 2011 season, the landscape of the Supercross world has changed dramatically. The offseason is always quite eventful as teams and riders jockey for position for the upcoming season. While the field is always deep with talented riders, only a few are generally considered true contenders for the title. Thus, fans have grown to expect an annual bidding war amongst the factories for those few available favorites. In fact, many fans are appalled at the large dropoff in salaries once you get past the chosen few, as profoundly talented riders who regularly qualify for the main event seem to draw minimal reward – largely incommensurate with the bodily risk they undertake to participate in the grand spectacle that is Supercross.

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This year more than any other, the economy has exerted its influence on our sport.

Reality has hit home, and gone are the rose-colored glasses.

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In lieu of the bidding wars for the top talent, this past offseason has turned into a buyers market with top-tier riders desperately shopping their wares – seemingly grasping for any team that will have them.

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Nothing sums up the status of the motocross industry better than the sagas of a couple of the hottest free agents on the market. Coming off a 2008 Supercross championship and a 2009 outdoor national championship, Chad Reed should rightfully remain one of the hottest commodities. He reportedly had a deal with Honda, who has traditionally had the deepest pockets in the industry, virtually locked up. Rumor has it that Josh Grant swooped in with an offer that was too good for Honda to pass up, a deal that was heavily reliant on performance bonuses rather than a large base salary. With budgets tight and other factories having sealed their lineups, Reed was still without a ride just a couple months before the start of the new season.

As fans fretted about the possibility of a season without one of the sport’s greats on the starting line, much less in a factory rig, Reed took matters into his own hands and in the waning moments assembled his own team.

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While one would imagine that Reed would be hard pressed to assemble a top-notch effort with such limited time and resources, it’s also a given that Chad Reed could show up with a stock bike in the back of a pickup truck and – as long as he makes it to the starting gate on time – be a major contender.

Even more bizarre is the fate of Christophe Pourcel. Following a catastrophic crash in 2007 that would have ended most careers, Pourcel rebounded with back-to-back Lites Championships in ’09 and ’10. Considered by many to be the second coming of Jean-Michel Bayle, the gifted Frenchman is probably the most highly touted Lites graduate since James Stewart. While few could argue his right to practically write his own ticket to the big leagues, his rumored hardball tactics proved in hindsight…

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…to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

In todays economy the factories apparently have the riders right where they want them, and as all signs indicated…

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…the factories had the upper hand.

To the dismay of the fans, it appears that the gate will drop in Anaheim with Pourcel absent from the starting line. For a talent of Pourcel’s caliber to emerge from the offseason without a ride has to be unprecedented in the annals of Supercross.

Back in the fray, of course, is the inimitable James Stewart. While his rehab and absence has been lengthy (save for a brief yet inglorious return late in the outdoor season), anyone with a television knows that life goes on in “Bubba’s World.” Has the time away refueled the hunger of Stewart?

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Or has the once-feared beast been tamed by the outside distractions of his growing empire?

Once the most heralded rider to enter the sport, Stewart has never quite met the expectations of those who assumed he would surpass the heights achieved by the G.O.A.T.

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Yet Stewart still has many good years ahead to achieve his goals, and one has to think that losing his title to a rookie does not sit well with the fastest man on the planet. Given the disappointments wrought by the 2010 season, I think both Reed and Stewart enter 2011 with one goal on their minds…

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Another veteran sure to be in the mix is Kevin Windham. Kdub showed the most consistency of any rider near season’s end with 5 consecutive podium finishes, including back-to-back wins in Seattle and Salt Lake City, on his way to yet another runner-up series finish. And in the event of any races held in wet conditions, Windham is sure to be the favorite since he always has a knack for riding well in the water.

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Kdub may not be the favorite to win many races, but if he can maintain some consistency he is sure to be in the points race, as the heated battles among the fastest contenders are sure to result in injuries and DNFs along the way. Kdub knows when to say when, and thus was one of only a handful of riders to finish in the points at every round last season.

Andrew Short is one of the more intriguing contenders heading into the new season. Shorty followed iconic manager Roger DeCoster to KTM this year, and aboard the 350 may finally answer the age-old question…

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Does size matter?

Though missing much of the season due to injury, Short was almost always in contention last season, finishing in the top 5 in 7 of his 10 rounds. Some may forget how close the lap times are between the top 250 vs. 450 riders, and the 350 may just be the ideal blend of power and handling. If the smaller displacement doesn’t hinder Shorty’s historically excellent starts, he may be the surprise of the 2011 season.

One of the more enigmatic contenders is Davi Millsaps. One of the most decorated amateur riders in history, Millsaps has had many ups and downs in his professional career. One week he’s fighting his way to the top spot of the podium, and the next, seemingly…

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There’s no denying his talent, though, as proven by an overall 3rd place finish in the series last year.

Thumpa’s personal pick for the 2011 title is newcomer Trey Canard. Joining the 450 ranks in his cameo appearances during his Lites break, Canard was just as impressive – if not more so – than Dungey was in the same capacity in 2009. After a rough initial foray into the Supercross class, Canard reeled off an impressive string of 5 straight podiums. And no doubt his phenomenal late charge to overtake Pourcel for the 250 outdoor title has done nothing but increase his confidence.

In the expanding tradition of fast redheads, if there is one secret ingredient to the 2011 season…

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….Canard just might add a little ginger spice to the recipe.

The most obvious contenders are the Ryan duo. Ryan Villopoto actually notched more wins than his counterpart last season, with his 7 victories edging Dungey’s 6. However, his title hopes were beset by a couple crashes and one seriously bad break at round 14.

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As for Ryan Dungey, the youngster was the only one left smiling after 17 rounds.

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Dungey was not immune to crashes, but escaped the injuries that befell most of his rivals. While some may wish to attach the proverbial asterisk to his title in the absence of Reed and Stewart, he clearly showed in the first few rounds that he had the speed to hang with any and all challengers. In typical bandwagon fashion, everyone is on board the Dungey train as we head into the new season.

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So as the Anaheim opener fast approaches, questions abound. Will the old guard return, or will youth prevail once again? With so many riders capable of winning, the championship will likely come down to who remains healthiest throughout the long SX season. With the fastest riders pushing each other to the brink each week, crashes are sure to follow. A Supercross season too often becomes a battle of attrition, and in the end the title may fall to the most consistent lurker and not necessarily the fastest guy on the track. But one thing is certain: you better bring your “A” game. In fact, you better bring more than your A’s, bring your double-D’s – cause this year the field is stacked.

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