Time has a way of slowing down when you first see a motorbike rocketing 35 metres into the air, its driver floating away into an acrobatic sequence. What happens next within that moment is the crucible of Red Bull X-Fighters, a travelling motorbike stunt tournament that turns recklessness into an art form.
These midair pauses are a window of opportunity for competitors to soar beyond their comfort zone before jumping back on and landing safely. They may decide to back-flip over the handlebars or sail behind the bike like Superman. But they may also misjudge a manoeuvre at the last moment, crashing to earth in a graceless display that can lead to broken backs, concussions or worse. In February 2013, Japanese rider Eigo Sato died after sustaining injuries while training for the Red Bull X-Fighters tour.
Though the event is highly-regulated and everyone recognises the risks involved, a prize of $1m means that competition to develop novel tricks is fierce. Only the best freestyle motocross (FMX) riders are invited to participate at X-Fighters, which began in 2001. As a six-leg tour taking in Mexico, South Africa, the US, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Europe, the stakes for showmanship are high.
The spectacle of 2013’s finale begins when 23,000 spectators file into Madrid’s Las Ventas bull ring, its rows of concrete seats still smouldering from the day’s 36° heat. A matador scurries out at dusk, climbing atop a giant landing-ramp made of dirt, doffing his hat and waving his capote to a sea of fluttering Spanish flags.
When the finalists thunder into the arena, re-enacting the Pamplona bull-run with motorbikes, it becomes an assault on the eardrums. The crowd breaks into a feverish ‘Olé, Olé, Olé’, fireworks roar to a crackle overhead and the delirious voice of an announcer booms breathlessly over proceedings.
The previous day, when the riders battled for qualification in the afternoon sun, the coliseum-like arena lay empty. It’s a relatively compact space that brings the audience closer to the action but leaves the riders little room to manoeuvre. They have to execute as many moves as they can across five ramps in 90 seconds, speeding along short corridors backstage just to gain enough velocity for take-off.
A slight miscalculation can mean an early exit. After kicking his feet over the handlebars and twisting into a 360-degree spin, Australian Clinton Moore loses control of his bike and seems lucky to walk away. When his compatriot Josh Sheehan sticks his toes beneath the handlebars in mid-air before attempting a no-hands landing, the crash breaks his collarbone.
In the final’s frantic atmosphere, however, mistakes are scrutinised in slow-motion replays from helmet-mounted cameras, the riders’ strained nerves exposed. Even when disappearing into the tunnels for a run-up, you can see them trying to catch their breath and figure out what to do next.
Some dart out standing on the saddle, others try to stand upright in midair with the bike upturned above their head. For emphasis, these displays are typically punctuated with a fist-pump or a click of the heels, followed by a cloud of dust and a blast of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’.
By the quarter-finals, the last eight riders are paired into head-to-head feats of one-upmanship where maintaining momentum and concentration can prove difficult. What follows is an array of stunts with suitably forbidding names: the Cliff-hanger, the Kiss of Death, the Hart Attack Indian Air Backflip, the Flatliner and the Oxecutioner flip (invented by another rider who died after sustaining injuries).
Once the last wisp of exhaust fades from view, each pair of riders scramble atop the landing ramp in the centre, remove their helmets and strike high-fives as the scoreboard spins like a fruit machine. The performances are gauged in five categories, with a separate judge for each one: variety, execution, use of course, style and energy. The crowd greets these individual tallies by erupting with a deafening consensus, whether it’s cheers or boos, creating the ambience of an extreme-sports game-show.
But tonight the results don’t matter. Tournament leader Thomas Pagès, who claims that some tricks are so scary that riders don’t enjoy doing them, has already built an unassailable lead and his place as the competition’s overall winner is guaranteed. To the 28-year-old Frenchman’s credit, however, he decides to pull out some new stunts he’s been saving, including one called the “Flair Tsunami” – a wild 540-degree spin off the quarter-pipe.
The payoff is another first-place finish, this time pipping the diminutive Japanese rider Taka Higashino. To celebrate, Pagès immediately runs to hug his parents and grabs a Japanese flag to wave in tribute for the late Eigo Sato, not just as a mark of respect but as a gesture of solidarity in the art of recklessness.