With the weather-created absence of freestyle at the past two X Games stops in Spain and Germany, the Speed & Style contest took on a whole new level of attention as the event that satiated the appetites of the FMX community. Plenty of big tricks were being thrown in the tight arenas of Barcelona and Munich, but it was the racing that really set things apart in this amalgamated format.
Mike Mason is on a roll. He is now heading for his third consecutive gold medal in the Speed & Style event and is the runaway favorite as Los Angeles looms on the horizon (9 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN and WatchESPN). Mason is a seasoned veteran in the world of Arenacross racing, where banging bars with fellow competitors on a tiny indoor track is commonplace. He knows how to squeak every inch of speed out of each turn and jump and looks peacefully smooth each time he approaches the takeoff ramps to do his tricks. Mason gave all of this race nonsense up some time ago to become one of the country's top freestylers, so it is a strange circumstance to ask about life coming full circle, where Mike Mason has to think about being a dominant medal winner in an event that became an add-on to his former quest for Freestyle gold.
"I never really saw it coming, that's for sure," Mason said. "Speed & Style has always been an event I'm confident I could medal in, but with guys like Nate Adams doing threes [360s] I always figure I'd be outscored when it came to the gold medal. It's been an awesome year, that's for sure. I'd really like to get this gold in L.A. and end the year right."
To get his wish, Mason is going to have to hold off some pretty major talent, and he knows his fourth gold medal out of the past four Speed & Style events at X Games (he skipped Brazil) isn't a certainty.
"I always say Nate Adams is my biggest threat; he's had some weird luck at these last two events, but I know Nate can turn it around and be fighting for a gold," Mason said.
Adams has certainly not reaped the rewards his efforts deserved over the past two rounds, but even though he is not fully recovered from his shoulder injury and back to the Nate Adams who dominated Freestyle for so many years, he has some massive tricks and some really impressive speed on the small tracks.
Then there's the Speed & Style "specialist" Andre Villa who has also had some weird luck this year at X Games. Recently announcing his retirement from Freestyle to help him concentrate on Speed & Style, the Norwegian will not be pleased that he had to sit out Munich and will be coming in to Los Angeles ready to do battle.
Just having the speed and the jump skills might not be enough to get the hardware in this sport, however. We saw some epic battles at the last round in Munich, and a couple of standouts seemed to have no fear when it came to tackling with their opponent on the track and taking the chances to find the open door.
Javier Villegas of Chile and Mat Rebeaud of Switzerland enjoyed a very physical competition, in which they both worked the track hard to find the space to pass. In Munich it was Villegas who celebrated the slight victory over Rebeaud and then went on to claim silver behind Mason after a misstep by Adams allowed Villegas an easy win in the semifinals.
In Barcelona, the silver went to Rebeaud, who gave Mason a real run for his money. Rebeaud and Villegas are unafraid of diving for the corner and Rebeaud is especially fast on the track, while Villegas has some huge combo tricks that can wow the judges. Besides these possible spoilers, X Games Foz do Iguaçu gold medalist Lance Coury, Spaniard Edgar Torronteras and Australian Blake "Bilko" Williams round out the field of eight in the event.
Even though there is a massive target on his back, Mason is quietly taking it all in and preparing for the whirlwind of events at Staples Center during X Games week.
"I'm still taking the same approach that I have all year, nothing too special, just a lot of riding laps and doing a little road biking and running," Mason said. "Our motos are so short and quick in Speed & Style that you don't need to be super crazy about training. I just like to make sure I'm comfy on my bike."