PRETORIA, South Africa -- When the Red Bull X-Fighters wrapped up their global tour in Pretoria, South Africa, the first-time host proved to be an appropriate and thrilling venue for the series finale. A capacity crowd gathered on a sunny African winter afternoon in front of the country's seat of government and the Union Buildings to witness the final round of one of the best X-Fighters seasons in history.
The riders battled some unpredictable winds and the toughest course of the season, where some of the favorites would make uncharacteristic mistakes. Madrid winner Tom Pagés and series leader Levi Sherwood both crashed themselves out of the running, which left the path clear for Australia's Josh Sheehan to take the win.
Adding this win to his last round win in Munich gave Sheehan his first World Tour championship.
"To look up to these guys when you are younger and to think how awesome it is -- what they do. Just to be able to ride with them is awesome, but it's really like a dream come true to be able to win a series. It's not just one event you know? It's over five events and it's tough because you have to keep it together and you have got to be consistent," Sheehan said. "I couldn't be happier with this year, it's been amazing. Absolutely stoked, blown away and I don't think it's quite fully sunk in yet. It sucks that Levi almost handed it over to me in the end, would have been even more amazing if I had to battle with him and to take it that way, but still pumped overall."
Though South Africa seems like a remote location for fans of a sport that was born in the hills of California, the crowds built up a line over half a mile long around the Union Buildings event site before the event even started. Many wore moto-branded gear, and X-Fighters logo wear was in abundance. This event had taken over three years to come to fruition on the African continent, and this crowd was out to show just how passionate they were about the sport. After the competition, the fans stormed the course in a peaceful celebration of what they had just experienced. Many climbed the tall landing hills and took selfies of themselves in front of the amazing backdrops.
What was also unique about this event is that it included two African riders up against the best in the business: South Africa's own Nick DeWit and Botswana's Alastair Sayer. Both DeWit and Sayer are veterans of freestyle motocross and both had ridden X-Fighters competitions in the past, but being so close to home, this one was a little bit different. DeWit hopes bringing X-Fighters to South Africa will inspire African riders.
"I definitely think it's going to influence the African riders. To start with, most of the African riders here have never seen big tricks like the flairs and the 360s and all that kind of stuff. I think that now, being able to see it in real life, it's not just something you see on TV," DeWit said. "Now the African riders have also got something to aspire to, with X-Fighters being in South Africa. They will say, 'Hey I want to come and join Nick and Alastair up there' and be able to ride with us. I think they are going to now realize it's actually a real sport and there's a real series behind it. Having this scale of event here is definitely going to make them push and grow our sport in South Africa."
Though it is remote in geography, there is a passionate motocross community in South Africa and the country has long had an influence in the world of FMX. X-Fighters head judge Jason Moriarty is a South African native and is always a staunch supporter of taking big events into his home country. Moriarty was a generous host to all of the visiting riders and teams, even enlisting his family to tour people around the animal parks and the historic township of Soweto.
On the final day of X-Fighters Pretoria, as he gazed out over the course up the hill to the massive statue of Nelson Mandela, tears came to Moriarty's eyes.
"I felt pride and a bit of relief," Moriarty said. "There have been a lot of ups and downs, promises and then last minute let-downs ... So when it was about to happen on Saturday, I thought, 'Finally!' Saturday was the pinnacle of over 12 years of hard work, more than a decade of building and aiming for a world-class event in South Africa. A lot of sweat, tears and personal sacrifice has gone into trying to build FMX in South Africa, by myself and several others, all doing their bit in their own way to try to push the sport to what we saw [two weeks ago]. [The event] was a tip of the hat to everyone who has poured their passion into FMX locally, more often than not without any reward or recognition -- just pure love and dedication."
Judging from the reaction to the event, the love and dedication was finally rewarded.