From the moment the iconoclastic, riding-the-margins sport of freestyle motocross made its big global splash—literally—into San Francisco Bay during the summer of 1999, this writer has been present at each and every X Games up until recent years. And for 15 consecutive years, whether motocross bikes competed on or above dirt or snow, I was an X Games judge.
It is now July 2018 and many, many motocross fans the world over have mixed emotions about the radical offshoot of motocross. In many ways during the 2000s, FMX was a godsend to motocross to the masses. (In other words, to millions of fans around the world, FMX was motocross.) But that was then and this is now.
With the X Games about to launch in Minneapolis tomorrow, one has to wonder whether the electricity and verve that has always reverberated around FMX on the eve of the X Games had been, well, unplugged. Why? Good question. The big stars, or big personalities, who all worked together to define and promote the sport are long gone. That’s not knocking today’s guys—they too are showmen that blend taking huge risks with huge riding talent—but perhaps they are too professional, polished, and far too advanced to where any of us who like to ride a motocross bike from time to time can even relate to.
Has the sport moved on? Have the fans moved on? Has the industry moved on? Has the sport become so specialized and so dangerous that risk and reward just don’t seem add up? And of all the FMX disciplines that came and went and came and went… One is left to wonder about the continuity of such things. Still, it’s a very good thing that freestyle motocross is still in the X Games. Millions of people still watch and admire all of the athletes who will try and make a run at precious metal, and to our way of seeing things, none of them are as cool, brave, aor stylish as the FMX guys.
I’ve gotten the chance to catch up with the big dogs of FMX and ask them about their iconic moments at the X Games. There was a time when every eye in this industry was locked onto these athletes and their version of the sport. Such moments are unforgettable, especially to the athletes involved.
2002: Mike Metzger wins the gold medal in freestyle by doing two consecutive flips over two 80-foot gaps
“It was just fun. Before I arrived in Philadelphia, I had been on a few tours and was riding all over the place. When I got there a few days before the event, I walked the course and saw the two big jumps and I knew that I could backflip over both of them. I knew that if I didn’t flip over both of them by the end of the end of the X Games, that I would be a pussy. I made myself sick thinking about it so much, but I did it in the end.”
“Winning that gold medal meant everything to me. It meant that I had food, shelter, having an automobile that I could drive from point A to point B. Before that race, Mitch told me it was a one-race deal and that I was done when it was over. However, I looked at it like I was going to be the Big Dude for that one week because I didn’t know if I would ever get the opportunity again.”
2008: Jeremy Lusk wins freestyle X Games gold medal
Jeremy “Twitch” Stenberg: “Me and Lusk, we were tight. When he won the 2008 X Games, it was sort of bittersweet. My bike broke with just a little bit of time left in my final run, and I was pissed and walked out of the stadium kicking shit and swearing. But then when I found out that Lusk won, I was pumped. It was great to see a brother win. We were so close. We rode together so much. We rode together all the time. He motivated me so much. He motivated all of us in the [Metal] Mulisha. He motivated all of us: Me, Deegan, Potter. He was such a positive dude.”
EJ: “Back in the day, Mike Cinqmars was the FMX rider who I was the closest to. Mike had an attitude and an edge and wasn’t afraid to run his mouth when he felt he was right (or wrong). We became good friends. Sadly, after Mike retired from the sport, he soon fell off the radar screen and eventually ended up in a bad way. In December 2009, sadly, Mike succumbed to an accidental drug overdose. But back to 2002. Mike, off the bike due to an injury, sat next to me in the judges’ booth (and as a fellow judge) at the X Games in Philadelphia. A rough-and-tumble, skinned-knuckle American town notorious for showing (and voicing) its ruthless impatience and unabashed hatred (when even the simplest things go wrong) to its own sports team, the great Philadelphia unwashed was in true form at the Philly X Games.
"During the FMX finals, the 15,000 or so fans on hand were not happy at our judging decisions, and by the time it was all over with, every one of them was booing us at the top of their lungs. Personally, I felt like I was in front of a firing squad. Cinq, well, he looked a little shook, as well. At one point, a group of skinheads drunk on beer approached the booth threatening to beat the shit out of us. I’ve seen those looks before, and they meant business. There was no way in hell that either Cinq or I (or any of the judges) were leaving that booth. ‘Man, this is fucking crazy,’ he said in slack-jawed awe. Security and a few police officers—thankfully—provided a barrier, and after a while, the Nazis knew they were not going to be able to kick us in the head with their jackboots, stumbled away. Nonetheless, the whole episode ranks right up there with one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. I miss Cinq.”
2001: Carey Hart attempts to execute the backflip, crashes, and suffers grave injuries
“I buckled under the pressure there. You know, I shouldn’t have not even been riding, as I had surgery on my shoulder two weeks before the X Games. I gave in to the pressure and made a really bad decision and got hurt. It was definitely my decision. There was a lot of hype about if I had really landed the first backflip I attempted and made at the Gravity Games beforehand. I wanted to go to the X Games and do it and shut everybody up. In the end, I ended up shattering my foot and broke my tailbone and a bunch of ribs. It was awful.”
Travis was as dominant that day in the Coliseum as he was in San Francisco in 1999. He also pulled a double backflip during his run.
“It was funny. I all started with a bet I made with Bilko. I had been riding a lot. I was riding on the Nitro Circus Tour and things like that. I had been riding the bike a lot. Then it came time to do the 2010 X Games. I took to the course right away. Both the course, and myself, were not as good as they were three years before. The course was perfect—it was good for a motocross rider like me. The course had big gaps in it, and I raced really hard from obstacle to obstacle. It was one of those deals where you didn’t have to be great, but where you could dazzle the crowd with bullshit. My whole approach there was to keep the crowd entertained. Whether if it was a backflip over a small jump or even the double backflip I did, I just wanted to keep the crowd on their feet.”
EJ: “Freestyle motocross was invited to be a part of the Winter X Games from 2001 through 2006. They would build this huge-ass jump out of snow and frozen water. It was actually really cool. The riders and their mechanics would screw spikes or screws into the tires and the bikes would have plenty of traction. In 2001, we landed in Vermont in a blizzard. When the day of the FMX jump came, there were just two judges: Me and this dude named Roger. I knew Mike well, and before the event started, he pulled me aside in this big white tent all the riders were working out of and told me he had this really amazing new trick and that he was going to kick my ass if we didn’t score it high. Mike was the full-on, undisputed wild man of FMX then—I mean, it was a rolling circus wherever he went— so I didn’t know quite what to think. But Mike went out there and pulled the Kiss of Death perfectly and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he deserved the gold medal. I didn’t get my ass kicked, but man, he led the charge at the party in some ski lodge bar that night. If I remember right, it turned into a glass- and bottle-throwing riot.”
1999: Travis Pastrana jumps into San Francisco Bay
“I guess it was a moment that defined who I am. What I did in 1999 showed that I like to have fun and go against the grain. It was an awesome moment, and what made it even more awesome is that we [freestyle motocross] were on the big stage. I got in a lot of trouble for the move, and I guess you can call it ‘the move that never happened.’
“I would say my greatest moment at the X Games was when I pulled the first 360 to dirt in the L.A. Coliseum. I was the first one to do it to dirt. That was my moment. Just like when Metzger did the double flip and Travis Pastrana did the double backflip, those were their big moments – the 360 was my moment.”
2002: Brian Deegan’s X Games step-up with a cigarette in his mouth
“That was funny. That was with the open-face helmet. I honestly wish I had that helmet. Somebody broke into the office and stole it. Going out there with an open-face helmet and with a cigarette in my mouth was part of my brand of image. I loved to play it up to the cameras and crowds. It was all entertainment to me. That was my moment to be different. I mean, man that would never happen in supercross! In X Games back then, you could just do what you wanted to do."
2004: Nate Adams defeats Travis Pastrana
“Travis had won the gold medal in freestyle in 1999, 2000, and 2001. When I finally beat him in 2004, it was crazy because that’s when Travis was so hyped—there was all this hype for someone to beat Travis. Also, to win the gold medal, you had to get by Travis. To win the gold medal AND beat Travis Pastrana was very special. I’d say it has been the highlight of my career.”
Adam beat Pastrana for FMX gold. He's also proven quite successful in Speed and Style.
2006: Travis Pastrana does the double backflip
Blake “Bilko” Williams: “While growing up, Travis Pastrana was my favorite rider. My favorite freestyle trick of all time is when Travis did the double backflip. And I was there to see it.”
2004: Jeremy McGrath Wins His First Gold Medal in Step-Up
“To win an X Games gold medal was certainly on my bucket list. I won it in 2004 when I had that epic battle with Matt Buyten. That’s when Buyten’s shoulder kept popping out. Winning that medal was kind of weird for me. When the X Games people asked me to show up and compete, I was like, ‘Whatever. I’ll do it.’ But after I did win it and a little time went by, it all became much more important to me. I didn’t really care too much about the X Games then because I cared so much about my supercross image, but when I did win, I was like, ‘Wait a second. This is pretty cool!’”
2009: Ronnie Renner and Ricky Carmichael battle to twin gold medals
“We got to the 34-foot level and Ricky crashed out. After that, he said he was not going to go again. I was set to, and at that point, they were going to move the starting area back five feet, which would make it a lot easier to jump. I thought the show was still going and I heard Carmichael said, ‘I’m going to go congratulate Renner.’ While he was on his way over and someone from the X Games said, ‘Hey, we’re stopping the contest and going to give gold medals to both of you guys.’ I was pretty mad because I knew I could make it over the new height and win the gold medal myself. I mean, nobody wants to share. Sharing with RC certainly isn’t bad, but I wanted the gold medal for myself.”
“Freestyle being a part of the X Games in 1999 was like that quote that astronaut Neil Armstrong said when he stepped on moon: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ That’s what it was like for all of us – and for all of freestyle motocross—in 1999.”