Friday night at X Games Los Angeles has to be one of the toughest nights on the FMX calendar. Though the competition is fierce for the Best Whip and Step Up competitions earlier that same night, the fear will be palpable as everyone turns their focus to the Best Trick competition.
The idea is quite simple: Eight riders get two chances each to show the craziest possible stunt on a dirt bike to the assembled judges. The challenge comes in the fact the most likely move to win a Best Trick competition is something unique that the judges or fans have not seen before.
When I asked ESPN announcer and freestyle "OG" Cameron Steele what he usually feels on that night, his answer was one-word simple, "Nervous." Best Trick holds a very high risk to reward factor. Since its inception in 2001, where Carey Hart fell from the sky attempting his second ever backflip, Best Trick has always been a bit of a "crash watch" and X Games head judge Regis Harrington explained the critical part that danger plays in the process: "What we are looking for is innovation and then secondly that 'danger factor.' Potential for danger weighs heavily in the decision. Say you are trying to decide between a landed 720 and a landed bike flip the judges would look at who had the better escape route if things were going wrong and that would theoretically be the less dangerous of the two tricks. It's so gnarly, so scary."
Of the eight riders slated to attend X Games Los Angeles, at least four of them will be bringing tricks never previously landed in competition: Kyle Loza is determined to complete his bike flip where the bike does a full vertical rotation while the rider is holding only the bars, off to one side. Loza took Best Trick three years in a row from 2007 to 2009 but the bike flip took him out in the past two years in training accidents and was aborted at the halfway point during the Monster Cup best trick competition in Las Vegas last fall. After seeing the attempt in Vegas most of the haters actually have to agree that the trick looks at least possible.
Clinton Moore will be hoping to land a trick that has taken the best in the business Travis Pastrana out of the competition twice. The loudly heralded "Pastranathon" screeched to a halt on Day 1 of X Games last year when Pastrana under-rotated the final part of the trick and shattered his lower leg on the Staples Center landing. Moore was watching that event intently and has put more work into perfecting the trick than anyone would consider rational.
Many agree that the challenge of this trick is to control the rotation and move the sideways motion into forward motion on the landing. Moore's manager, Steve Sommerfeld, walked me through the process of Moore's 720 attempt: "If he uses the power of the bike on the ramp to get the spin and flick it, it's too hard to control the bike for landing, that's when the bike pans out and goes flat. If he goes a little slower and uses his body to control it, it's harder to get the rotation but he can guide it in for landing and stay on top of the bike.
The only drawback is he could land 90 degrees to the down ramp. Clint was saying it is a very fine balancing act of just enough momentum from the bike to get the rotation almost there, and then he needs to keep his body on top of the bike for the last rotation -- which needs to be slower."
The other two unique tricks come from Japan's Taka Higashino and Canada's Bruce Cook. Both riders have an idea to do some form of "let go" backflip. For sure Higashino, the wily veteran of the pair, will be attempting the Rock Solid backflip that he has so far landed successfully to dirt. Cook is not only new to X Games, but completely new to any kind of competitive freestyle event, so the big question will be whether he can survive the intensity of the Staples Center pressure cooker? He does have some impressive coaching help in the form of Pastrana who has been helping Cook through the learning process and housing him at his Maryland facility for many weeks of foam pit training.
For the past two years the Best Trick gold has gone to Australia and last year the whole podium was from Down Under. Cameron Sinclair can rightly be called "Mr. Double Backflip" having performed more double flips than any other rider to attempt it and it was this trick that won him the Gold back in 2010. Sinclair plans to bring a variation of the double into X Games Los Angeles, but even though he is one of only four riders to ever land the trick it is doubtful that the lack of innovation will be enough to take the top spot.
Sinclair's former mechanic and fellow Aussie, Mark "Monz" Monea is also planning to bring a trick that has been seen before, the front flip 360 or "Carry-On." Monz was successful in landing the trick and claiming victory at the Monster Cup, but crashed out last year at X. His no-handed version of this crazy looking trick will certainly appeal to the crowd, but should not prove to be a threat to one of the new tricks landed rubber side down.
So this leaves us with the last two riders in the competition Frenchman Tom Pages and last year's gold medalist, Jackson Strong of Australia. Strong wowed the crowd and judges in 2011 with the first front flip landed in competition, but this year he and Pages are rumored to be working on a body varial variation. Varials have been kind in Best Trick, winning for Chuck Carothers in 2004 and all three years of Loza's gold medals. A new type of varial might prove shocking enough to really wake up the judges, but spinning above or next to a 220 pound dirt bike has always been a major challenge and one with major opportunity for disaster.
Friday night at X Games, the insanity returns to Staples Center. The only real shame is that they make you pay for a full seat, because we can guarantee you will only use the edge of it.