Editor's note: Tes Sewell is the sport director for Red Bull X-Fighters.
The posters dominating the convenience stores and light poles of Southern California's Inland Empire this week proclaim, "Progression never quits," but after last year's astounding event at Glen Helen it seemed like there was very little room to progress. Enter Red Bull X-Fighters Glen Helen 2013 and a course that got bigger while the sport of freestyle motocross got gnarlier.
Saturday's event is stop No. 3 of 6 in the world tour and things are really beginning to heat up in the global chase for a championship. It will also serve as a good preview of the Freestyle event a week later at X Games Barcelona as Thomas Pagès, Dany Torres, Javier Villegas, Rob Adelberg, Taka Higashino, Wes Agee and Adam Jones are scheduled for both competitions.
An unfamiliar mistake at the last stop in Dubai caused Mexico winner Pagès to miss out on the finals and dropped him one spot down the rankings, behind tour leader Torres. Nipping at Pagès' heels is 2012 X-Fighters champion Levi Sherwood, so the Frenchman knows he has to step up his game again in California.
Speaking of stepping up, the step-ups on the Glen Helen course were certainly the theme of the 2012 inaugural stop here. The course is literally carved out of the California hillsides and has impressive vertical reach. For 2013, course designer Dane Herron also added an extra little step up that takes the riders up and over into another massive vertical bowl, perhaps 70 feet above the course below. Not a ride for the fearless.
But it is not all about Torres, Pagès and Sherwood this week as the proverbial cats are thrown among the pigeons. Glen Helen sees the return to competition of Jones who has been absent since his disappointing finish at X Games in Los Angeles last year. Jones is primed and ready to claw his way up the hillsides to plant his flag in the dirt. He is skilled and technical and might show the judges just enough new "sparkle" to earn him a podium.
Then there is Higashino, the recent X Games Freestyle gold medalist at Los Angeles and Foz Do Iguacu, Brazil. He showed his mettle just two weeks ago in the middle of the Brazilian jungle and though unfamiliar with California's wild terrain, the Japanese rider looked like a natural during Wednesday's test session on the competition course.
"I saw YouTube video from last year and I thought 'It looks pretty hard there,' and I was pretty nervous," Higashino said about his initial concern at riding this daunting track. "I rode this morning and it was so much fun. I don't know -- I didn't do tricks. It was so much fun I just didn't want to do tricks, just flow like a freerider, like MX vs. ATV video game. I'm just enjoying it and having fun. This is the best track!"
If Higashino can figure out how to pull his big tricks over the massive jumps then he will be a real force to contend with, but the smart money on this course has to go to 2012 event winner Todd Potter. Potter is a native of the area and cut his moto teeth on just this kind of vertical dirt playground. Given the predominance of hills, technical dirt take-offs and just plain gargantuan gaps, Potter is the most naturally comfortable.
"I would have to say that this course is better than last year. I have to admit that I did not know how the X-Fighters folks were going to do it, but they definitely did it. Dane built an excellent course," Potter said as he rode out of the test session. "It's just got a lot of options. When I first rode out there I was looking around and it's just confusing until you start figuring it all out, but we did the test session today and jumped a bunch of the jumps and it is just going to be unreal."
Potter is currently languishing in eighth place in the X-Fighters rankings and he reflected on the performances that had put him in this unenviable spot.
"Mexico City, for me, I don't really like riding there so much because the bikes don't run the same as they do here, so you have to change your riding style," Potter said. "I was just on cruise control for the first stop of the season, I had a hurt elbow and I kind of just wanted to get back into place.
"Then on the second stop there was confusion between me and the X-Fighters people because I don't ride a 2013 Honda yet. They tried to locate me a 2012, but they don't have any new ones because they are outdated now that the year is rolling through. So I got kind of a piece of crap you could say (laughs)."
Potter said he chalked up his poor riding to jet lag as he tried to work through it, but he later discovered his bike had a bent lower triple clamp that caused uneven landings.
"I was having a hard time flipping and was just like, 'Oh, maybe I'm tired.' And we got into it and the clutch was kind of fried -- probably from being out in the dunes," he said.
Now, he's happy to use Glen Helen as a home-field advantage.
"It's an hour away from my house and the course is absolutely out of control. A lot of the fans, I feel like they are here for me and I just feel good," Potter said. "You know I was thinking about it the other day and thought, 'Am I going to feel pressure?' Now I'm like who cares about that? I just want to gear up like I am in Beaumont or something and ride with all the guys. The first session was that. It was just a lot of fun."
On Saturday afternoon the Flat-billed baseball caps and black socks of SoCal's FMX scene will be gathered at Glen Helen to see if the American can hold off the attack from the overseas hordes. As in any victorious battle, knowledge of the local terrain might prove to be the key.