PARIS -- In mainstream sports, the pinnacle of the fan experience comes when two of the best meet head-to-head. Last weekend at Supercross Bercy in Paris, freestyle motocross fans were treated to such a meeting when Thomas Pagès and Taka Higashino showed their superior skills for a sold-out crowd of 11,000 on each of three consecutive nights.
Though it wasn't a formal competition, the significance of Pagès and Higashino in action together was on par with a matchup featuring LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning or Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. It was also rare. In the past year, the two faced each other in competition just three times at Red Bull X-Fighters stops in Osaka, Japan, Madrid and Glen Helen, Calif. And the Glen Helen round was uneventful because high winds caused it to be canceled after qualifying.
Meetings such as Bercy are ones for the ages as the sport's two elite stars are in their prime (both 28, born just 12 days apart in March 1985) and competing on the same stage. They should also be savored, as it's hard to know how many more times fans will see this matchup because of different competition and touring schedules and the looming reality of injury in FMX.
"Thomas is crazy, more crazy, like one more level [than me], so I want to follow Tom. But, I don't know, I wish I was head-to-head more [with him]," Higashino said.
The significance of the meeting wasn't lost on the French fans, who filled the Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy for three consecutive nights. They saved their loudest cheers for native son Pagès, who won this year's Red Bull X-Fighters world tour title.
"Taka and Tom are the two best riders in the world," said André Villa, who was also on the FMX bill in Paris.
Along with his older brother Charles Pagès, Thomas has been increasing the French fans' awareness of FMX with his smooth, athletic style. Thomas said he feels a responsibility to give his best, and he reciprocated the fans' sentiments by doing tricks like his special flip and the volt as if it were a major competition.
"People [who] know me know what to expect from me, know that every time I push myself in Bercy and so I have a goal that … I don't want to disappoint [the fans]," said Pagès, a native of Biarritz in the southwest coast of France.
The attraction of the Red Bull-sponsored Pagès is a major reason why X-Fighters is rumored to be planning a round in France in the yet-to-be-released 2014 schedule. Pagès dutifully made the media rounds in Paris all week to promote his sport.
While Pages is the poster boy for French FMX and X-Fighters, Higashino has dominated X Games Moto X for two years. He won three consecutive Moto X Freestyle gold medals (Los Angeles 2012, Foz do Iguaçu 2013 and L.A. 2013) and a silver in the last Moto X Best Trick at L.A. 2012.
"I think Taka is the best rider in the world. I don't like him …" Pagès said with a laugh, making sure Higashino heard him. "It's awesome. It's really good. It's a pleasure [to ride with] Taka because this guy is so incredible. He's so good in everything."
Besides their mutual friendship, respect and admiration, Pagès and Higashino share a close connection to Eigo Sato, who died in a February training accident near his home in Japan. Sato, who was 34, mentored his countryman Higashino, and Pagès said Sato was like another older brother to him, influencing how he approaches riding freestyle for the rest of his career.
"Whatever the show is, Eigo was the same. Whatever the show is, he just pushed and did his best," Pagès said. "And every time, [Higashino] is at the best level, and Eigo was exactly the same. It can be the smallest show in the backcountry, whatever, or the biggest -- he would ride the same because the people have paid and are here to just see freestyle."
Just as Pagès pushes his limits to please the crowd and challenge himself, so does Higashino. He could have taken a pass in Bercy after injuring his ankle during a film shoot in California last week, but he sucked up the pain and made the trip to Paris.
"I don't have time to go to the doctor because I crashed and the next morning I flew out," Higashino said. "The next morning was terrible. I couldn't touch my foot, and I just walked on one foot and then I got on an airplane. The first day, [I couldn't put any] weight on it, second day better, the next better."
He dismissed it as a bad bruise and a twisted ankle but said he tweaked it again when he missed a foot peg on a landing Friday and acknowledged a fracture might be possible. Later Saturday, he still pulled off his signature rock solid backflip among many others for the appreciative French fans.
They were fortunate to see Higashino and Pagès riding together, as it will be about six months before these two top athletes are again riding in the same arena.
Higashino is set to begin rehearsals Dec. 7 for the Nuclear Cowboyz U.S. tour that begins Jan. 4 in Lexington, Ky., and runs through April.
"I have to practice now. But I don't know, I'll see about my ankle. Maybe [I'll need] a little bit of a break for a couple weeks," Higashino said.
Higashino's Cowboyz obligations will take him out of at least the first two X-Fighters rounds, just as it did this year. He still managed to finish third in the overall standings, 15 points behind Dany Torres of Spain and 115 points behind Pagès. While Pagès is more calculated and selective in his scheduling, Monster Energy-sponsored Higashino seems to be at all the major FMX events and demos around the world.
"I think busier is better," he said.
After Cowboyz wraps up, he is free to fly as he chooses, and it should set up a perfectly timed showdown in June at X Games Austin and the remaining X-Fighters rounds. Pagès, who has zero medals in five X Games appearances, never made it to any of the four X Games summer events this year to go head-to-head with Higashino (although the Barcelona and Munich Freestyle events were scrapped because of poor weather anyway).
When they do meet again next year, they'll both try to expand their extensive bag of tricks. Higashino said he has some ideas he would like to try and wants it to be something special. He wouldn't say exactly what he plans but said he wants to learn from what Pagès is doing and speculated a little about what the newest FMX tricks will be.
"I don't know, a combo, backflip combo, a body varial combo, a flair, a quarterpipe," Higashino said. "I don't know, lots of things, but everything is very hard."
While Higashino will be preparing for Nuclear Cowboyz, Pagès has two Nitro Circus Live stops in Europe and the Geneva Supercross this year before he resumes training for the X-Fighters tour start. He said he hopes to have two or three interesting new tricks in 2014.
"Am I gonna keep progressing the way I do and [trying to be] perfect every time with the same tricks and trying to have another consistent season next year? Or am I going to just change a little bit? I want to change," he said. "I need new challenges because doing the same again for next year would be a little bit boring for me."
Whatever tricks he and Higashino come up with, it won't be boring for audiences. If everything lines up so both riders can take part in more than three big competitions around the world, that would constitute progress for FMX and its fans.