Last year's inaugural Enduro X competition proved that slamming all the elements of a three-hour off-road race into a basketball arena for a 10-minute, 10-rider endo-fest is something a lot of people will pay money to see and turn their televisions on to watch.
Enduro X is back in 2012 with the favorites, a lot of new faces, an even more difficult course and the same promise of crashes, bottlenecks and athletes being stranded amongst nature even though they're 100 feet from luxury boxes and hot popcorn.
X Games is the biggest event on the AMA/Geico EnduroCross calendar's eight-race series and most riders want the same thing -- a win. Ask 2011 champions Taddy Blazusiak and Maria Forsberg what they want, and they say the same thing but with two completely different meanings. Blazusiak wants to dance all over his competition. Forsberg just wants to dance.
Blazusiak is a relentless competitor who went undefeated in the 2011 Geico EnduroCross series, and he's pouring everything he has into winning another X Games gold medal in men's Enduro X. With a season that is only eight races long, he said he's still uninterested in the lure of other popular American off-road series such as GNCC, WORCS or the Rekluse National Enduro Championship. He's happy where he is and he wants to make sure he doesn't just win; he wants to crush.
"I did a lot of homework over the winter," said Blazusiak, a native of Poland who won so convincingly at most of his eight races last year that finding more speed doesn't seem like a priority. "Nothing comes for free. The year you're not improving is the year you start losing."
Forsberg, the 2011 women's gold medalist, is the favorite to repeat as Blazusiak is in the men's division. She likes winning also but she's really hoping another gold medal will get her an invitation from ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."
"That's my goal in life," said Forsberg, a Seattle resident who works at Boeing as an electrician with Union Local 191 during the week. "If you ask my husband, I'm the worst dancer but I love to dance. I just love it."
That seems like the last place to find someone like Forsberg, a personable young woman who performs well in the spotlight but doesn't crave it. That's the part she likes the least.
"I'm not good at the introductions when they introduce me to the crowd at the X Games or other indoor races. I found out I'm not good at that because I don't do it for attention. I'm really just addicted to racing," she said.
Like SuperMoto back in 2004, Enduro X is a sport that brings together talent from several different disciplines. It's also becoming clear that riders with the best chance of winning are those who specialize and focus on this sport the most. The 2012 lineup is filled with trials riders, desert racers, extreme enduro specialists, hare scrambles competitors and a few like Blazusiak who make EnduroCross their No. 1 priority.
EnduroCross prides itself on being unpredictable, and it mostly is. Except for the fact Blazusiak has won 19 of the past 23 events and only two other riders on the 30-man invite list have ever won a final. On May 4 at the 2012 opener in Las Vegas, Colton Haaker became the first rider in 18 months to beat Blazusiak. At Round 2 he finished 10th and Blazusiak was back on top.
The riders who have the best chance of beating Blazusiak at X Games are two riders who have never won a final -- his teammate Mike Brown and extreme enduro rider Graham Jarvis. Brown is last year's silver medalist and England's Jarvis is making his debut at X Games. The Brit has been winning every major extreme enduro in the world over the past two years, including the Red Bull City Scramble, an EnduroCross-style event in Auckland, New Zealand.
Gary Sutherlin of Bakersfield, Calif., has been trying to beat Blazusiak for years. The second-year X Games competitor believes it can be done but has yet to make his strategy stick.
"You've got to be rough with him, make him work for it," Sutherlin said. "He's a phenomenal talent with more bike skills than I'll ever have but that doesn't mean we can't beat him. If you're with him the entire race you can beat him."
Forsberg hasn't been quite as dominant in the new EnduroCross women's division but she's still the clear favorite. The women race the same course as the men and upper body strength can be a rider's best friend when a front wheel gets lodged between two rocks. Forsberg has been spending time at a CrossFit facility working on strength and endurance while 2011 bronze medalist Kacy Martinez of Sunol, Calif., has been working on an old standby: pushups.
Louise Forsley has been the only rider other than Forsberg to win in EnduroCross competition, doing it twice in the past four races. Forsley, who is from Bernardston, Mass., is a national trials champion who didn't start riding a full-size enduro bike until less than two years ago. Without experience, she didn't feel ready for X Games last year. Now she's the best hope at a new champion.
Before anyone can daydream too much of winning a gold medal they'll first need to figure out a course that will be designed to trip, stop and stump. The basic combination of strategically placed logs, rocks, tires, water and dirt will return but with a few major design changes. The most notable is the addition of The Matrix, which is like the whoops section of a supercross track. Instead of dirt bumps, they're made of redwood logs that are 3 to 4 feet in diameter and spread straight across the entire track.
And they're hell for the riders. The spacing between them doesn't allow the motorcycles to be either in between them or to straddle them. Riders get one wheel stuck between two logs or they charge them hard enough to stay on top of them. At Round 2 in Sacramento, Calif., Blazusiak jumped over all five logs during a qualifying lap. The distance and spacing changes at each track and course builder Shane Schaefer has not released measurements for X Games.
For Schaefer, it's a difficult obstacle to build. "We have to screw in braces and angles to lock the whole thing in," he said. "That section takes abuse and we can't have logs coming loose. It locks together like a puzzle."
Other changes to the course will include a rock climb instead of last year's rock downhill. Overall, Schaefer believes the lap times will be slower this year. "The rocks will be more difficult because they will get wet. We try to build what we think is going to be entertaining."
The Enduro X finals will take place at Staples Center on July 1 and will air on ESPN2.