On the last night of X Games Barcelona in May, during the BMX Big Air finals, Zack Warden ascended the elevator to the top of the MegaRamp for his second to last run of the competition. In April, Warden, 24, had secured his first X Games gold medal in Brazil at X Games Foz do Iguacu, and the pressure was on to repeat. Prior to his third run of the night, Warden sat in fourth place.
A television camera veered in on Warden as he sat atop the MegaRamp, contemplating his run. Warden looked at the camera, pulled his full-face helmet down to reveal his mouth and said, "Happy birthday, mom, I miss you."
He pulled the helmet back down and began his descent down the roll-in. Then he went on to land the world's first backflip bike flip to late tailwhip over the gap part of the MegaRamp, followed by a triple tailwhip at 13 feet, 6 inches on the quarterpipe.
Fellow competitor Chad Kagy rushed out to hug Warden, the crowd erupted in applause and the judges awarded Warden a score of 92. Warden had done what no other BMX rider had in the history of BMX Big Air. In the span of five weeks, he had won back-to-back gold medals and unveiled never-before-seen jump combinations.
But none of that mattered to Warden on that historic night in Barcelona. His thoughts were on his mom. "My only thought was, don't get hurt on your mom's birthday," Warden said. "Being as I was halfway across the world, all I wanted to do was walk away from the contest."
Warden didn't just walk away from the contest. He claimed another X Games gold medal and dedicated it to his mother. Soon after, he was en route to his adopted home at Woodward Action Sports Camp in central Pennsylvania. He bought his mother a belated birthday gift and shipped it back home to O'Fallon, Ill.
THE EARLY YEARS
Zack Warden discovered BMX riding in 1997 while watching the X Games on television. "It was mind-blowing to me," Warden said. "The riders were competing against themselves more than anything else. When I saw that, I knew action sports was for me. And then when I got a bike, I just couldn't get off it."
In his hometown of O'Fallon, 20 miles east of St. Louis, Warden discovered a burgeoning BMX scene. "All the locals knew the older BMX riders in the area, so it really held me down to this almost old school, 'just have fun on your bike and ride everything' approach. We all pushed each other," Warden says.
At age 13, Warden began traveling to Woodward Camp during the summer, but would return home for school while riding the local skatepark, Ramp Riders, in his spare time. "Ramp Riders was where it all originated. We had nothing before Ramp Riders, and that became the perfect clubhouse for BMXers in the St. Louis area," Warden says.
Soon, clips of Warden riding at an early age began to surface in the BMX media, including Props Video Magazine, and Warden began to travel to amateur competitions. "My parents were super supportive. They didn't have much, but they handed me a gas card and told me to try to make it happen. I ended up hopping in the car with my friends and going to all these amateur contests in the Midwest and on the East Coast," Warden says.
At 16, Warden entered his first pro contest. Not long after, he was offered a sponsorship from Mat Hoffman's Hoffman Bikes brand. Then, a unique opportunity presented itself to Warden.
Warden had been returning to Woodward every summer to ride as much as possible, working as a dishwasher in the cafeteria in exchange for room and board. After signing with Hoffman Bikes, Woodward owner Gary Ream, a X Games Big Air gold medalist, and Woodward pro Kevin Robinson invited Warden to relocate so he could focus on riding.
"He was just a little kid, hungry for BMX, and he had the right attitude: to ride for the progression of himself and the sport. He wanted to move to Woodward, and he wasn't old enough to move on his own. His parents asked me to be his legal guardian if he moved, and I agreed," Robinson says.
Warden had saved $6,500 in contest winnings and made the move east to Milheim, Pa., seven miles up the road from Woodward Camp. He found an apartment for $300 a month and enrolled himself in Penns Valley High School at this behest of his parents.
"Next thing I know, I'm finishing my senior year of high school at Woodward. I would go to school, get out at 3, go straight to camp, and as soon as I got there, Jamie Bestwick, Kevin Robinson, all of the local pros would be in the middle of a session," Warden says.
Robinson didn't take his new role as legal guardian lightly. "He would come to the vert ramp, and I would ask him if he did his homework first," Robinson jokes. "But he made the move to camp on his own. And he dove in headfirst, putting in the hard work with the determination that he's had since he was a kid."
For Warden, Woodward presented opportunities not available to him in the St. Louis area. A longtime fan of Hoffman's exploits on a BMX bike, Warden was attracted to vert riding and MegaRamp riding, but lacked access to both styles of ramps at home. Woodward allowed Warden that access.
Riding with the likes of Kagy, Bestwick, Steve McCann and Robinson on a daily basis, he quickly picked up on vert riding. And in 2007, he was offered the chance to ride a BMX Big Air qualifier at X Games in Los Angeles.
Warden missed qualifying by 0.25 of a point. Finishing directly in front of him was his hero, Hoffman, who had recently returned to X Games competition for Big Air. "I didn't think I'd be anywhere close to qualifying, and then I was right behind my hero," Warden says.
This made him ponder the possibilities. "I thought, 'Wow, this is real. Maybe I should see where I can take it.' "
Warden began focusing more of his time on the few MegaRamps in existence. He continued to compete at X Games, but with disappointing results. In 2008, he was invited as an alternate, and in 2010, he finished in seventh place. At the 2011 X Games, Warden repeatedly rolled the dice during the finals, but was unable to land even one run. He finished seventh again.
After that contest, with the help of Woodward, Warden decided to travel to several West Coast extensions of the camp, including Woodward West in Tehachapi, Calif., Woodward Tahoe in Tahoe, Calif., and Woodward Copper in Colorado. Tahoe and Copper offered MegaRamp foam pits to hone tricks on, while Woodward West possessed an actual MegaRamp. With more practice, he became more comfortable.
Then X Games Los Angeles 2012 came calling.
During Warden's first two runs, he attempted the backflip bike flip and landed it both times. But heading into the quarterpipe section, he couldn't land the triple tailwhip. Then, on run three, everything clicked. He landed the backflip bike flip over the gap and successfully rolled away from the triple tailwhip on the quarterpipe. He scored a 92 -- good for second place -- and walked away from L.A. with his first X Games medal.
GOLD MEDAL RUN
In April, Warden was able to one-up his own performance to earn his first gold medal at X Games Foz do Iguacu. So when he traveled to Barcelona with a new trick up his sleeve -- the backflip bike flip to late tailwhip -- and earned his second X Games gold, he knew he had hit his stride.
Before this year, Big Air at X Games had only been won by three riders: Robinson, Kagy and McCann. Warden changed the game.
But he is quick to acknowledge the trio's influence on his riding. "Riding with Kagy, Robinson and McCann for so many years, seeing all of their hard work and how they handled everything, it helped me," Warden says.
Robinson, a mentor in various ways, sees Warden's meteoric rise in a different light. "The first time Zack rode MegaRamp, he was scared. To see him go from that timid kid to what he's doing now, it's ridiculous," Robinson says. "He's only begun to scratch the surface of what he can do on that ramp. I'm very proud of him. And I love him."
Warden clearly benefited from the support of his parents in his BMX career, but in leaving the nest early, he founded upon a new form of guidance -- the kind that pulls 20-foot no-handed flairs on the MegaRamp and can say "I love you" at the end of a session.