Fresh starts in Moto X

Naim Chidiac/Red Bull Content Pool

Levi Sherwood soared to first place at the Red Bull X-Fighters 2012 opener in Dubai. Now he has his eye on X Games gold.

Defending X Games champion Nate Adams won gold in the Moto X Freestyle and Speed & Style events in 2011 and will be the man to beat as the Moto X Freestyle action gets under way Thursday in Los Angeles. But Adams, 28, has been conspicuously missing from competition in 2012, sitting out this year's Red Bull X-Fighters tour to rehabilitate an injured left shoulder, and his absence has helped pave the way for a crop of rising newcomers and an increasingly international field of younger riders. Could we be in store for a changing of the guard?

"X Games will be my first contest this year," Adams says. "I had my last operation on my shoulder in February and it's feeling pretty good. I'm definitely not 100 percent but I've been back on my bike for the last six weeks and I feel like I'm strong enough to go out and get a medal or maybe even another win. You've got to be in it to win it, so that's what I'm going to go and do. There are a bunch of hungry riders out there, and guys like Todd Potter and Levi Sherwood are looking really strong this year, but I try not to concentrate on what anyone else is doing. I'm just there to do the things that I can do, the best that I can do them."

We asked Sherwood, a 20-year-old rider from New Zealand, to size up the competition and assess what it will take to topple Adams and other X Games veterans.

"I think it's going to be close, and it's not just Nate I'm looking out for," says Sherwood, who claimed a silver medal in his X Games debut in 2010 but missed last year's competition with injuries. "By my count there are at least five people with a good chance to get on top in Moto X Freestyle this year. Obviously Nate's going to be a tough competitor, I hear Adam Jones is riding really well, and Taka Higashino's been riding well. But I think if you're trying to make X Games predictions you really should be looking to the leaderboard on the 2012 X-Fighters tour."

Jörg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool

Todd Potter, left, and Levi Sherwood hold the top two spots on the Red Bull X-Fighters tour. Can they take down defending Moto X Freestyle champ Nate Adams at X Games?

Sherwood is No. 2 on that list, thanks to a win at the X-Fighters opener in Dubai in May, ranking just behind Potter, an American who won the follow-up last month at Glen Helen, in San Bernardino, Calif. Rounding out the X-Fighters top five are Chilean rider Javier Villegas, Australian rider Rob Adelberg and French rider Tomas Pagès.

"They're very different games, but I think if you look at X-Fighters you'll get a good sense of what's happening in FMX right now," Sherwood says. "The main difference is that at X Games you really need to bring your 'wow' tricks to win it. At X-Fighters there's a whole different judging criteria and you can ride it strategically, but at X Games you really need to go out there and impress them from the first jump. I think you're going to see guys like Todd Potter really going for it this year to bring the challenge to Nate Adams."

Potter, 27 -- an X Games competitor since 2007 and a three-time Best Whip gold medalist -- isn't exactly a newcomer to the sport, but he's just coming into his own as a freestyle competitor and will be a podium threat this year thanks to new tricks, new energy and a new quest to go bigger than anybody else out there. Watch for him to let loose on the course: The Metal Mulisha rider will be the antithesis to Adams' calculated perfection. Potter will also be a favorite in Friday's Best Whip event: He won silver in 2011 and will be looking for redemption against his former teammate, defending champ Jeremy Stenberg.

At 29, Villegas is the oldest of the "young guns" and something of an unknown quantity on U.S. soil, where's he's relocated his family to focus on FMX world domination. But he's been killing it in international competition, taking the 2011 FIM Freestyle MX World Championship title and earning a berth on the 2012 X-Fighters tour. He's ranked third overall on the X-Fighters tour after a third-place finish in Dubai and a fourth-place finish at Glen Helen. Watch for Villegas, a consummate showman, to pull out all the stops in pursuit of winning over X Games fans and judges.

"I think it's awesome that the Moto X competition is more international now," says Sherwood, who, like Villegas, has relocated to California to be closer to the heart of the FMX scene. "Having events like the Red Bull X-Fighters and the FIM series has really helped introduce a lot of foreign riders and bring them to the attention of the X Games. I think it's really shaken things up."

Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

Javier Villegas and Rob Adelberg, shown practicing at the [canceled] X-Fighters event in Istanbul, are ranked third and fourth on the X-Fighters 2012 tour and are looking to make a big impression at X Games.

Adelberg, 23, is another young international contender ready to rattle the old guard. He finished fifth in Moto X Freestyle in 2010, and 2012 just might be his year: He surprised just about everybody with a second-place finish at the X-Fighters opener in Dubai, ultimately losing out to Sherwood in the head-to-head final, and is ranked fourth overall in the series. "Rob's one to watch, for sure," says Sherwood. "He'll come out and give you a run for it every time." The same could be said for Pagès, 27. He has been an X Games competitor since 2008 and has never been seen as a podium threat before now, but a second-place finish at Glen Helen, just behind Potter, has changed all that.

Still, X-Fighters rankings won't necessarily translate to the X Games podium, and if you're looking to make predictions, then last year's Moto X Freestyle podium list might be just as instructive: Adams, an X Games vet since 2001, has seven Moto X Freestyle medals in his collection, two of them gold. Jones, 27, picked up the silver medal in 2011, bringing his Moto X Freestyle medal tally to four (including a gold medal grab in 2007). And Spanish rider Dany Torres -- fresh off bumping out Adams to win the overall X-Fighters title in 2011 -- will be striving to make a bigger mark at X Games to follow up on last year's bronze medal.

"It's going to be a fun one to watch and I'm looking forward to everything at X Games, really," says Sherwood. "After my injury last year and having a lot of time off my bike, I feel like I've found the fun again. I've been practicing with a lot of the guys this week and everybody's riding so well. X Games is going to be interesting this year, for sure. The thing I'm most excited about is that Moto X Freestyle is up first, on Thursday. I'm looking forward to hanging around and watching all my friends ride Speed & Style and Best Trick and Best Whip and all the rest of it. I get to come in and do my work on Thursday and then just relax and enjoy being at the X Games for the rest of the week."

Adams won't have that same luxury: He'll be wearing a target on Saturday, too, as the Moto X Speed & Style event kicks off.

Speed & Style crowns the best all-around rider, combining freestyle skills with bona fide race chops, and Adams -- who has long nursed Supercross racing ambitions -- was fired up about his first win in 2011. Last year's race came down to a head-to-head battle between Adams and Mike Mason, while Ronnie Faisst beat out Carey Hart for the bronze. Hart, one of the originators of the Speed & Style event, has said he's formally retiring from competition after Saturday's race and will be looking to go out on top. Also watch for a strong showing from Stenberg, the Speed & Style bronze medalist in 2008 and 2010: Stenberg has stepped back from freestyle competition this year to focus on filming and freeriding, but he will be putting his all into the Best Whip and Speed & Style competitions.

"There are some great riders competing this year, but it doesn't really matter to me who I'm going up against," Adams says. "Line me up with whoever and let's go. I'm there to ride my bike and have fun and compete. I love freeriding, I love motocross, I love supercross, and I love freestyle, and the X Games' Speed & Style race is one of my favorite events of the year, the perfect matchup of all of it. Whenever I can be on my bike and ride real fast and throw some tricks and crank some whips, I'm about it."

Markus Paulsen/ESPN Images

Nate Adams grabbed gold in Moto X Freestyle and Speed & Style in 2011.

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