Editor's note: Tes Sewell is the sport director for Red Bull X-Fighters.On Friday the temperature will be pushing 95 degrees in Dubai, but the Thursday night qualifying rounds already pushed the mercury through the roof. The second round of Red Bull's premier FMX series is in the United Arab Emirates for the third year in a row, but this year has moved to a new location, away from the beach and right into the heart of downtown Dubai. The reason for the move is to catch the awe-inspiring back drop of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building.
If you thought there was any kind of recession going on you would not notice it from the frenetic activity in this Arabian Gulf nation where construction continues at a breakneck pace. The Emiratis are known for their love of motorsports and this particular motorsport extravaganza always seems to pique their curiosity for the seemingly insane activity of the FMX riders in an otherwise conservative country.
Leading the charge here in the desert is current tour leader Tom Pagès. The affable Frenchman put on a dazzling show of freestyle prowess in Mexico City one month ago to take the win and give him a confident stance coming into round two. Pagès has a seemingly unending arsenal of tricks to bombard the other riders with and here in the practice and qualifying sessions he really showed an impressive array of flying dirtbike weaponry. The most exciting new move in Pagès' repertoire is the variation of his Flair 540 where he adds a Superman Indian air -- hanging off the back of the bike and scissor kicking his legs as the bike falls vertically back toward the quarterpipe landing. He took the No. 1 spot in the qualifying round and sits in the catbird seat for the Friday night showdown.
Hard on Pagès' heels is the Spaniard Dany Torres. Torres had to be content in Mexico with second place after laying down a run that would have been a dragon slayer against any other competitor. In Dubai he is yet to unleash the Flair that he is rumored to be testing, but he is fiercely working the quarterpipe being the only rider so far who is transferring across the entire face of the feature and showing the bottom of his motorcycle to the judges. The real question is that with such an amazing run, what extra can Torres bring that will take down Pagès? The margin for that win could be very small because Pagès beat Torres by only .8 of a point (in a head-to-head round it would have been three judges to two for Pagès).Worthy of note in the qualifying were the runs of Josh Sheehan and Mat Rebeaud. Sheehan looks terrifyingly fit and was riding comfortably until his first attempt at a double backflip came up short. He managed to muscle the bike through the landing and wash out to the dirt, but was a little shaken by the incident. In his second run, 'Sheeny' had enough power to bring the bike all the way around twice, but landed slightly sideways and was again thrown from the bike. Two failed double flip attempts that a rider walked away from -- amazing.
Late in the evening, Sheehan spent some time in the TV truck watching slow motion of his crash and trying to analyze what slight mistake might have cost him a shot straight through to the quarterfinals. Now the Aussie will have to compete in Round 1 of X-Fighters which is the no-rotation round -- no flips, no 360s, no varials. Does he have enough right-side-up tricks to beat the other three riders and earn the final spot in the quarters?
Swiss rider Rebeaud is a former champion of the X-Fighters series but has struggled in the past few years after a femur break took him out of competition. This week, Rebeaud (after a surgery to take out a rod that was exacerbating his problems), looked 110 percent better and ready to ride. For a guy who has been limping for the past year or more, it was amazing to see him running through the riders garage to catch the rider shuttle.
Then Rebeaud got on the bike and had a wonderful surprise for everyone when he executed a perfect Flair in practice. His first run of qualifying was good enough to advance direct to the quarterfinal round, but crashing the Flair on Run 2 caused him to jam his leg into the dirt and left him with a painful looking limp as of late Thursday evening.
The saddest news of the day was for Remi Bizouard who crashed while also attempting the Flair and was transported to hospital with a leg injury. The current FIM World FMX Champion was a dark horse contender in the competition and also looked forward to next week's X Games freestyle comp in Brazil. This was a sad end to his Middle East trip.
Friday night, the Burj Khalifa will not be the only thing around here that dominates the skyline. The 11 riders competing in this X-Fighters stop are sure to turn heads and stop traffic faster than an Italian exotic supercar on UAE's Shiekh Zayed Highway. Hop on your Gulfstream jet and come check it out -- like a G6.