The Red Bull X-Fighters in the motherland of freestyle motocross: crazy days in California of tricks, broken bones, and a couple of nice little lips for Mom.
Wednesday, 6.30pm, LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Into the rental car and out onto Interstate 10 where streams of cars speed east. Better keep to the speed limit. The Highway Patrol don’t mess around. The drive to Glen Helen Raceway takes just on two hours. This storied motorsport arena hosts Red Bull X-Fighters, which, for the record, is freestyle motocross – or gymnastics on a motorbike: double backflips, 360-degree spins in the saddle, jumps with 30m of air. Why Glen Helen? Because freestyle motocross was born here, dude!
Thursday, 9.00am, GLEN HELEN RACEWAY
Over an area as large as three football fields, quarter-pipes, ramps and kickers tower out of the earth, offering more than 30 jump options, the most ever before at a Red Bull X-Fighters event. The meanest challenge is the ‘step-up’ – a 6m-high ramp that catapults riders up to an 18m dirt plateau. Those who dare to make the leap are shot up to the seventh storey of a high-rise. Freestyle veteran Ronnie Renner takes one look at the offroad playground and comes over all poetic: “You can draw lines here, like an artist with his brushes.”
10.30am, FIRST PRACTICE
When Eigo Sato crashes on the back of the kicker, things go quiet around the course. His motorbike – a Yamaha YZ, 250cc – rolls on riderless for a couple of metres and tips over. Sato lies still on the ground. After a few seconds he slowly starts to pull up his legs. He stands up carefully. Sato, black helmet, red trousers, beats the dust off his chest. He trots to the bike, climbs stiffly onto the seat and kick-starts the engine. Then he heads off towards the pitlane. The course has just shrugged off its first rider.
10.40am, IN THE PADDOCK
The crashed pilot Sato sits on his camping chair, sipping tea. “When you notice something going wrong during a jump, you have two choices,” he says. “You throw the bike away or you hold onto it. I kept hold of it and that was the right decision.” How do you know that, Eigo? “Look at me, I’m still sitting here.” Beneath Sato’s chin, a crescent-shaped scar runs from one side of his face to the other. A pea-sized cut next to his left eye is a reminder of another injury. At 34, the Japanese is still one of the top players. He’s the oldest athlete on tour and perhaps the toughest of all. What his damaged back doesn’t allow, Sato offsets with blood, sweat and tears.
“As preparation I visualise my rides a lot,” says Sato. When he lies in his hotel room at night, he flies over the circuit, tests out ascents, plans his next landing. Right now he fishes a piece of paper out of his trouser pocket and makes notes for his qualifying run. As well as a few sentences, he draws some stars – only he knows what they mean. He wants to continue riding for a couple of years. His dream is, “to do backflips until I’m 40”.
Read the full story in July's issue of The Red Bulletin.