Red Bull X-fighter Jams in Madrid
Some things you really do need to see for yourself. As a bright-eyed young kid I remember that running the length of a football time took a great deal of time for me. At the other end, I'd be sweaty and breathless. And yet, right now, I'm standing with Robbie Madison, who now holds the world record for jumping a motorcycle through the longest distance. A staggering 107m. I've seen the YouTube video - you should too - but I'd have liked to see it for myself.
Freestyle motocross is like that. Most of us have seen the images. An impossibly colourfully clad rider in some weird anatomic contortion that most of us would find hard to replicate on a yoga mat. And this person is doing it mid-air. The photograph usually puts your eye at his level. That's a lie. You won't know that till you sit in a stand and hear the tearing two-stroke engine on the motocrosser explode out of a narrow access tunnel on to an impossibly sloping ramp. The momentum will fling the motorcycle and rider into the waiting sky. The violence and impact of the moment is the same as a nuclear explosion I imagine, but with consequences that are infinitely easier to deal with.
The laws of physics set up an elegant trajectory, the rider comes off his seat and proceeds, in the five-odd seconds he has before gravity overcomes momentum to show us what appears impossible. Over the course of the two and a half hour Red Bull X-Fighters finals at Madrid, I saw the motorcycles upside down, leaned over to horizontal, pointed the wrong way, in a 90-degree wheelie position.
What kind of madmen are these?
I hear FMX evolved out of boredom. As the motorcycles got better and faster, these riders began to find themselves up in the air for increasingly larger amounts of time. As their skills grew, they learnt to begin turns in midair, to use the throttle and brakes in the mid-air to position the bike as they wanted to. But they found that playing cards up in the air was impossible as a way to pass the dead time. So they decided to see, literally, how far they could push their machine control and the laws of physics. I think we can safely say that they've made considerable progress.
FMX is a spectacular sport. Riders often spend as much time showboating and inciting the crowds to cheer as they do for their 90 second routines. But like all of these youth-oriented things, the older guardians of the sports tend to take their time about formalizing the sport. FMX, thus, remains a private preserve, FIM is yet to approach what seems to me a legitimate pursuit and give it their blessing.
And Red Bull, always on the lookout for a new way to promote their energy drink has gone and brought a whole host of these activities into the limelight. It is at their behest that I ended up on the stands of the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid. A 90-year-old bullring that's regarded as one of the iconic arenas of the sport to watch X-Fighters, the world's foremost FMX exposition and competition.
Red Bull likes to draw parallels between bullfighting and FMX. Both involve rings, bravura action, loads of courage and incredible pigheadedness in the face of forces of nature. The toreador overwhelms the bull's incredible strength and destructive potential with studied, flashy elegance. The FMX rider overcomes gravity with ludicrous amounts of work perfecting tricks, an almost inhuman imperviousness to physical pain and when it comes to it, brute strength.
Robbie Madison is a good example. He isn't some pint sized MotoGP race type. He's a sturdy, ruddy, powerfully built athlete. His face is a mish-mash of strong features - striking but not what you'd call handsome. You get the sense that if he ever forgot the key to his house, he'd smash the door long before the idea of a locksmith would appear to him. During the course of my chat with him, I also gathered that he's also an articulate human being who happens to love two-wheeled flight. He first saw this sport as a boy and knew that this is what he wanted to do. The long distance jumps and the records came as a natural extension.
As happens in any competitive group of riders, the FMX boys are perpetually pushing the limits and in the process each other. Madison's latest show-stopper is what he calls a body varial. He hits a steep ramp going 60 to 80kmph and once airborne he - get this - leaves all contact with the motorcycle for a fleeting moment while he gathers up his legs and hands and performs a full airborne 360 -degree circle with his spine as the axis just above the seat of his bike. After which he calmly grabs the handlebars, extends his feet back down to the footpegs and makes a soft landing on the downslope of the 20-foot or more high mound in the middle of the arena.
And before you think it's the motorcycle, I am still reeling from the stock-ness of the bikes. They have tuned suspension and engines - nothing special there. The other mods are laughable. A set of flip-up bars that allow the rider extra leverage on the forearms for some tricks. A lowered seat - the usual tall flat MX seat is cut down in height. Some cut plastic on the side panel to create a grip point. And liberal application of grip tape (a black tape that looks like adhesive sandpaper) on the fork tops and spars to allow stable, secure gripping in mid air. That's it.
And then, when the lights turn on, the crowds start yelling and screaming. When chainsaw motors echo madly off the bricks of the arena, these riders explode into the arena. When the wheels leave the ramp, you stop breathing. Your hair stands on end when you see how high the riders are and how fast they're going. And then they pull a trick and sometimes land with their hands held high up. Then they powerslide around the arena into another access area for the next flight.
It's real. Japanese rider Aigo Sato botches a jump and lands square on top of the mound. The impact throws him clear of the bike. But not before breaking his left wrist. The audience goes silent. You could hear a pin drop in a place where a moment ago you couldn't hear your thoughts. Then the action resumes. Next up is Cameron Sinclair in his first outing since he broke his neck doing a double backflip six months ago.
In the paddock area, with their shirts off, you won't notice their bevy of stunning girlfriends hanging around. The rider's scars grab a lot more attention. There's not one unmarked body in the paddock. Stitches, scars, bruises and tattoos seem to be the accessories of the day.
The stories of how they got there are all gory, varied and invariably involve a fall from two or three stories up. Not pleasant dinner conversation but easily a fascinating insight into what makes these riders tick. We live to ride the next new motorcycle, to drive the next supercar. These kids live for adrenaline. Their favourite injection is a mad leap in the air on a motorcycle. Hours pass in creating new tricks and routines. Trips to the ER are as frequent as you imagine they would be, but this is their life, a path they've chosen. Thank god humanity doesn't subscribe to herd mentality. Imagine the chaos if everyone were doing this. Or worse, if no one was.
The evening goes off swimmingly. We made Spanish waves, sang "Ole, ole, ole" the stadium song, screamed "Torrerro, Torerro, Torerro..." till hoarse. And sat in complete silence when the rider was airborne. White handkerchiefs were waved furiously - a bullfighting tradition - to acknowledge the riders. On their part, Sato was the only one with serious damage on him. The rest was just bruises - a fair number of ice packs were carried into the paddocks. But substantially, the medical crews outside the arena more or less smoked their way through the two days of practice, qualifying and the event itself.
What was a lukewarm practice session on Thursday turned into a spectacular final on Friday. Friday? There was bullfighting coming on Sunday so the extra earth in the arena had to be moved out in time.
As the crowds streamed out, the faces looked happy, flushed from the excitement and there was, surprise, romance in the air. The buxom girl kissed the boxer-faced Spaniard on the mouth passionately - a telling thank you for a great romantic date. I'm telling you Spain has to be one of the most intriguing countries there is. The colour and the people are just incredible.
Meanwhile back in the paddocks, kit bags were being closed. The colourful jerseys were being swapped for shorts and tees. Suddenly Robbie Madison looked like a normal teen with funny hair. When the Red Bull after party started, you could almost forget that they were the stars of this show.
And that's the beauty of it. FMX as a sport is in its fledgling state. Its spectator draw and action tell me it will become huge. It will be portable, ever spellbinding and there's tricks to come that would give Newton a right aneurism. And that we will get to see all this happening in front of our very eyes on June 30 at Rajpath. Be there, don't miss the show.