- Associated Press - Friday, July 11, 2014

When defending champion Ryan Villopoto was knocked out of the motocross season, the list of contenders figured to be short and filled with the usual suspects: Dungey, Stewart and Reed.

Instead, a young German rider is leading the pack - in his first season at motocross’ top level, no less.

Finishing no worse than third through the first six races, Ken Roczen has powered his way to the top of AMA Motocross’ 450cc class in a very short time.

“I expected to battle for wins, but I’m definitely surprised that I have a points lead this big,” Roczen said. “It hasn’t been easy by any means, and all of my competitors have forced me to dig deep and really fight for the results we’ve gotten.”

Villopoto has been the dominant rider in motocross, winning four Supercross championships and two outdoor titles. He became the first rider to win four straight Supercross titles earlier this year, but will miss the outdoor season due to knee surgery.

With Villopoto out, the favorites were former champions Ryan Dungey, James Stewart and Chad Reed, with a handful of up-and-comers figuring to push them, though not necessarily contend for the title.

That changed quickly when Roczen raced out to the front and stayed there.

The 20-year-old from Mattstedt, Germany, finished second in the 250cc class last season and was a surprising third in Supercross this season, his first racing on a 450.

Using the knowledge he picked up in Supercross, Roczen has been dominating so far, winning six of 12 motos (qualifying races) and four of the six overall titles.

Roczen enters this weekend’s race at Budds Creek MX Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland - the season’s midpoint - with a 26-point lead over KTM teammate Dungey.

“I learned a lot during the Supercross season that has helped me get off to a really great start outdoors,” Roczen said. “Speed isn’t really the focus (outdoors) because all of the top guys in the 450 Class are fast and can win at any time. Because of that, the key is finding a consistency that puts you a step ahead of everyone else.”

Roczen’s quick rise has turned KTM into the top team in motocross.

KTM pulled off a huge coup in 2011 when it signed five-time motocross champion Roger De Coster as its team manager and landed Dungey, his protege.

Now that Roczen is racing 450s, KTM has the top two riders on the circuit and an intriguing battle between teammates.

“We’re just that tiny bit off of his pace right now and we’re going to keep fighting to close that gap,” Dungey said. “He’s been really impressive this year and he’s not making things easy on any of us (in the 450 Class) and for me it’s definitely an added challenge knowing he’s my teammate. We’re on the exact same bike so finding those adjustments to gain an edge is that much harder.”

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