Ten of them line up at the start. Ponytails stick out from full-face helmets, body armor protects from impact and mud-splattered motorcycles rev their engines. It's June at the X Games' third global stop in Munich on the starting line of the Women's Enduro X race.
These 10 women will head out on a six-lap journey through a dirt track filled with boulders, logs and mud pits. The first one to the finish line takes home gold. Any of them could win this thing, but chances are it'll be one of two women.It could be Laia Sanz, the 27-year-old Spanish trials rider who's been on a winning spree this season, with victories at her debut X Games appearance in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, in April, and then again on her home turf in Barcelona in May.
Or it could be Maria Forsberg, 26, the Seattle native who's a two-time X Games Enduro X gold medalist, but in this year's first two stops, she's had to settle for second place.
Sanz and Forsberg are an unlikely duo.
Sanz, the 2012 Women's Enduro European champion who's won 12 of the past 13 FIM Trials World Championships, is one of few women in the world who makes a living competing on motorcycles. When she arrived home from winning her first X Games gold in Brazil, she was swarmed at the Barcelona airport by hundreds of fans.
And then there's Forsberg. Back home in Seattle, Forsberg is a full-time electrician at Boeing who races her bike on the weekends (although she's taken a few months off from work this season because of her hectic X Games schedule). Forsberg got recognized once while shopping for a door for her house -- a guy asked her, "Are you the X Games girl?" -- and she was flattered and surprised.
At 5-feet, 11-inches tall, Sanz stands 5 inches taller than Forsberg. But Sanz and Forsberg are built strong as steel -- they've both been riding bikes with engines since they were 4 years old. And they've both spent many years racing against men because there weren't yet divisions for women.
These two competitors have met only three times in person, at the three X Games stops this year, but a competitive friendship is brewing between them. Neither is fierce enough to call it a rivalry. After Sanz won gold in Barcelona, a group of the Women's Enduro X racers went out for drinks together.
"I look up to Laia so much -- she has massive talent on a motorcycle -- and it's an honor just to race with her," Forsberg says. "I don't have a rivalry against her, but obviously, everyone wants to win."Sanz is equally polite. "Maria and I have a good relationship and a lot of respect for each other," Sanz says. "Obviously, during the race we are opponents but then afterward, we talk and joke."
When Forsberg showed up in Munich, she says she felt she had something to prove. "I really wanted to show that I still had it in me," she says. "I wanted to prove that I'm still capable of winning."
Eight minutes and 12 seconds from that starting gate, Forsberg proved she still had it. She was in second for the first half of the race and pulled ahead by climbing up a steep, rocky embankment that she'd tried and failed to conquer cleanly four times during practice. It was arguably the most difficult line on the track -- a lot of the men were having trouble on it, too -- but Forsberg rode it swiftly and launched into the lead, winning her third career X Games gold medal.
Sanz took silver, 20 seconds behind Forsberg. "In Munich, I was disappointed," Sanz says now. "Not because of the silver -- it's always nice to get a medal -- but because I didn't ride my best. Every time I tried to pass somebody, I had problems, but I fought until the end."
At the finish line, an elated Forsberg hugged her husband, Ted Hahn, also a competitive motocross racer, and her mechanic, David Cripe, who everyone calls Hollywood. Then, she walked over to Sanz and gave her a hug, too.
After the race, dozens of fans waited along the sidelines for a chance to get Forsberg's autograph and to collect souvenirs. Forsberg loves this moment in the spotlight, mainly because she's still not used to it. "I'm just a hometown Washington girl," Forsberg says. "Who would want my jersey and my hat?"
When she started giving away her jersey and other parts of her outfit to fans, Hollywood, her mechanic, reminded her, "Don't forget. You've got to wear something back."
Enduro X racing isn't that different from life itself.
You'll hit unbearable obstacles along the way; you'll feel defeated and lost. But then you'll see a clearing, a way out, and you'll charge ahead. Plus, you can't win if you follow someone else's path.
"Even if you're dead last, you've got to push through, because you can still win," Forsberg says. "You've got to push even when you think you've screwed up."
Men's and Women's Enduro X debuted at the 2011 X Games in Los Angeles. Until then, a women's endurocross class didn't even exist. Forsberg and a few other women had competed in men's divisions in a couple of races, but no women were properly prepared for the event.
ESPN let the invited Enduro X athletes know they'd be included in the contest in April of 2011. They had until July to get ready for their prime-time television debut. "We didn't know how to train for it," Forsberg says. "But I hunkered down and trained my butt off."When the off-road racers showed up at X Games that first year, they had no idea what hit them. At traditional endurocross races, they're lucky to have a few hundred spectators. Now they had thousands in the audience and a race that was beamed to millions of televisions around the world.
"Us off-roaders don't usually get much attention, so when we showed up at X Games and there was this athlete lounge, all of the Enduro X athletes are like, 'Free food! Sweet!'" Forsberg jokes. "We're not used to fancy stuff like that."
Forsberg won that first year, beating the silver medalist by more than 60 seconds. But it wasn't pretty: Every female competitor, including Forsberg, crashed and stumbled during the race, which was slow and admittedly painful to watch. The footage from the women's finals became a viral laughing stock, with TV personalities George Lopez and Daniel Tosh cracking jokes about it.
"I think we were all a little embarrassed," Forsberg says about the attention in 2011, "but I'd like to see someone laugh at us now. We've come a long ways since that first year. All the girls are so talented."
Now in its third year and part of the X Games global tour, the Enduro X competition among the women is more heated than ever and there's a long list of competitors talented enough to win.
But as Women's Enduro X makes its final stop of the year the first week of August at X Games Los Angeles, just two names are at the center of that competition: Maria Forsberg and Laia Sanz.
Forsberg has been training harder than ever, with a mix of riding and CrossFit and although she's humble -- "I'm not saying I'm for sure going to win in Los Angeles," she says -- she admits that she's feeling strong and confident heading into this final stop.
And now Sanz has something to prove, that her wins weren't lucky one-offs. "The goal now is try to win in L.A.," Sanz says.
When Sanz and Forsberg line up at the starting gate in Los Angeles they will look ahead at a literal field of hefty obstacles in front of them. Then they each will look down the line and give a nod to the other woman they know is capable of winning, a woman who is a friend and rival.
They will both be thinking, "I've got this. I can do this." And then they will charge ahead into the unknown.
Men's Enduro X at X Games L.A.
While the women's event is a two-person battle, the Men's Enduro X field has broken open after previously being dominated by Taddy Blazusiak and Mike Brown.
Blazusiak won his second X Games gold medal in Foz do Iguaçu and Brown won his second gold in Barcelona. But at X Games Munich it was Taylor Robert who surprisingly captured gold. Though that gave hope to the rest of the field for X Games L.A., it also fired up Blazusiak, the four-time AMA Geico EnduroCross champion and four-time FIM SuperEnduro World champion.
"I guess after six great years, when just about everything has gone well, I'm overdue a few problems, injuries and some bad luck. But I'm not going to let it last any longer. I want to get back to performing like I know I can," he said.