Remember when a bunch of dudes from California dominated the sport of freestyle motocross? These days it's truly a world stage -- a reflection of just how far and wide the sport's reach has grown -- and just in time for X Games Foz do Iguaçu, where the field of Moto X Freestyle competitors is stacking up as the most international group in X Games history.
Metal Mulisha rider Wes Agee of Temecula, Calif., and Bryce Hudson of Vista, Calif., both X Games rookies, are the only U.S. riders on the roster for the April 18-21 event. They'll be up against the likes of Japanese rider Taka Higashino, who won his first X Games gold in Moto X Freestyle at X Games Los Angeles 2012 (and picked up a silver in Moto X Best Trick), and Australian rider Jackson "Jacko" Strong, the X Games Los Angeles 2012 Best Trick gold medalist.
"It's getting to where FMX is arguably more popular in places like Europe and Australia and South America than it is in America, so in a way it's fitting to be making my X Games debut in another country," says Agee, who was an alternate at X Games Los Angeles 2012 but didn't get to compete. "I got a last-minute invite to go to Brazil after my Mulisha teammate Todd Potter couldn't make it and immediately shipped my bike down there. It was still dirty when I packed it up!"
Still, it wasn't an easy decision. Agee had to skip out on the final stops of his gig with the Nuclear Cowboyz tour, a traveling stunt show which will be in Monterrey, Mexico, the same week as X Games is in Brazil, and says shipping his bike to Brazil was a cost he wouldn't have been able to bear without support from his sponsors.
"X Games is no longer the only game around and everybody's bummed that there won't be ... Best Trick in Los Angeles this year, so some of the guys have had to make some tough decisions this year to focus on X-Fighters and some of the other shows and tours they're riding in," Agee says. "But for me, X Games is still the big prize, and I've heard the fans in Brazil can be out of control. I couldn't say no."
Also in the mix in Brazil Swiss sensation and three-time X Games medalist Mat Rebeaud, Norwegian rider Andre Villa, French rider David Rinaldo, Australian rider Rob Adelberg and Czech rider and former FIM champ Libor Podmol. Reigning FIM Freestyle MX World Champion Rémi Bizouard planned on coming to Foz, but broke his leg Thursday in a qualifying session at X-Fighters Dubai.
But there are also some big names missing in action, like 2012 Red Bull X-Fighters champion and X Games Los Angeles 2012 silver medalist Levi Sherwood, of New Zealand, and French rider Tom Pagès, the current leader on the 2013 X-Fighters tour. That, too, is a reflection of the international explosion of FMX over the past decade. Sherwood and Pagès are both competing at the X-Fighters event in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Friday, just one week before X Games Foz do Iguaçu, while other top-tier competitors such as three-time X Games gold medalist Nate Adams have cited schedule conflicts with lucrative tours like Nitro Circus Live in Australia.
For Pagès and other riders, the decision to skip the trip to Brazil was also deeply personal.
"It's hard to explain exactly why I'm not going to Brazil," Pagès says. "After Eigo Sato passed away, I didn't feel like riding much."
The Japanese rider, friend to just about everybody in the FMX scene, died in February while training in Japan for the X-Fighters series. Pagès competed at the X-Fighters opener in Mexico City just a few weeks later, wearing Sato's jersey and dedicating his win to the fallen rider, and will be competing at the X-Fighters event in Dubai on Friday, but he says X Games Foz do Iguaçu was just too much to add in to the mix when decision-making time came around.
"I went to the Red Bull X-Fighters in Mexico with anger and to honor my friend Eigo as good as I could, then after that I had no more power and wasn't in a competition mood anymore. I needed time. … It was just the feeling I had at this moment," Pagès says, noting that he does plan to return for the remaining X Games events. "There is still Barcelona and Munich to ride, so let's focus on those events and go big!"
The increasingly crowded FMX calendar could force more tough decisions next month around X Games Barcelona, May 16-19, just one week after many of the top riders will be competing at the X-Fighters event at Glen Helen in California and one week before the final contests of the Freestyle MX European Championship series in Hamburg, Germany.
"No matter what, I think you're going to see some good contests this year, and the podium finishers are going to be tough to predict at any given event," Agee says. "You look at a list of competitors stacked with guys like Jacko and Taka and all these international riders and realize any one of them could come out on top."