When the starting gates clank down Saturday night inside the Staples Center for the Moto X Racing finals at X Games Los Angeles, 12 riders will lay into their throttles with an X Games medal at stake for the first time in two years -- and the last time in Los Angeles. The chance to score some rare hardware and make a splash on live TV could make for some of the best racing of the year.
"Not many people in the world can say they have an X Games medal," says GEICO Honda's Wil Hahn. "It's definitely one to check off the bucket list."
Though women's Moto X Racing has remained in the X Games lineup since the event's introduction in 2007, organizers say the global X Games initiative created an opportunity to bring men's and adaptive racing back.
"We thought it would be a good fit for L.A. because it's very relevant to the culture," says Timothy Reed, senior director of content strategy for ESPN. "Going forward, it'll depend on the market and the facilities we're in."
Men's Moto X Racing medal contenders include Hahn, Tyler Bowers, Josh Hansen and Tyler Bereman, but the conditions in L.A. will also be favorable because of who won't be there. With the outdoor Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship season heading into its final three-race stretch, the sport's biggest names, Ryan Villopoto and Ryan Dungey, are forgoing the trip to L.A. to prepare for the Aug. 10 Unadilla National in New Berlin, N.Y.
"It's very important to our team and manufacturers to win the championship," says Red Bull KTM's Dungey. "I feel like it's wise to accomplish what we set out for, but after racing's done, I would very much like to compete in Step Up and Best Whip. If they bring back Supercross, that would be great, too."
While fans will miss seeing the two Ryans, every invited rider knows that his absence only heightens the drama on the track.
"Those guys are like aliens from another planet," says Moose Racing's Bowers, the defending Arenacross champ. "But everybody else is pretty close, so it's not gonna be easy."
The X factor just might be the smaller course at Staples, which will feature jumps, whoops and rollers throughout six 30-second laps -- a setup that'll play to the strengths of guys with pedigrees in Arenacross. "I'll be looking to capitalize," says Bowers, who collected his third consecutive Arenacross title this spring. "In a tight space, you have to be pretty impulsive to make passes. I'm looking forward to banging bars with some guys."
Monster Energy Kawasaki's Hansen -- a three-time X Games Moto X Racing medalist (gold in 2008 and 2009, bronze in 2010) -- agrees: "There's not going to be a lot of room to do anything that everybody can't do. But you can't just go balls to the wall either -- you've got to stay away from problems and crashing into people."
The inevitable jumble-ups are where the mental and physical stakes -- as well as the excitement -- will ramp up. Nobody ever plans to get tangled up in a crowd and go down, but when it's unavoidable, getting back in the race is one of the trickiest challenges there is.
"The biggest thing is to try to breathe," says DC Moto's Bereman. "You have to try not to overreact or your heart rate will go through the roof. There'll be a million things running through your head, but you have to block them out because when you hurry and you're clustered, more bad things happen. Breathe, get up, get back on your bike."
After that, the chipping away begins, hopefully without any more mistakes, but the catch is that on a short track, there's a major temptation to hang it out there even more to move back up.
"You'll have to make aggressive passes, put your wheel in there on some turns that you wouldn't normally," says Bereman, who's been practicing for X Games in Temecula, Calif., at freestyler Ronnie Faisst's smaller speed and style course. "People are gonna be trading plastic and banging each other off the track, but that's racing."
Given the huge spotlight that'll be on the sport and the riders, spectators can definitely expect to see that kind of intensity. Hansen, for one, says it's the best possible exposure for motocross racing, which could use a boost every now and then.
"The X Games are a good way to branch out," he says. "Dirtbike people are in their own bubble of thinking our industry is bigger than what it really is. A lot of riders think that too -- some of them think they're Brad Pitt on a dirtbike -- but that's not the case. You've got to be realistic. Look at your bank account. The whole world doesn't watch motocross the way they do skateboarding. But they'll be tuning in during the X Games to see multiple events. Things are getting better, but we always want to strive to get more."
Carmen R. Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, and you can follow her on Twitter at @CarmenRThompson.