The future of freestyle motocross in the United States -- the country that pioneered the sport -- might just rest on the shoulders of three men: Nate Adams, Adam Jones and Wes Agee. Of the 10 athletes invited to X Games Austin for Moto X Freestyle this week, they are the only riders representing the U.S.in this year's competition. And despite their many prior successes at X Games, picking an American to win or even to medal in this event isn't a sure thing anymore.
The conversation about who invented freestyle motocross is a debate for another day but there's no questioning where the sport originated. Americans created and dominated the ramps from the late '90s to the late 2000s, especially at the X Games. The first X Games Moto X Freestyle contest roster at San Francisco in 1999 was 100 percent American until Mike Metzger was injured in practice and Canadian Kris Garwasiuk was plucked from the alternate list. The 17-year-old from British Columbia blew off a high school term paper to be in California and finished eighth overall.
Between 1999 and 2007, 27 medals were awarded in X Games Moto X Freestyle, every one of them to an American rider. In 2008 Switzerland's Mat Rebeaud earned silver and in 2009, the 11th running of the event, Aussie Blake Williams officially ended the streak of American domination and won.
Since 2009, non-Americans have taken half of the 18 FMX medals awarded at X Games. And it's not just X Games. The past three overall Red Bull X-Fighters champions have been from France, New Zealand and Spain, and no American has won since the second round of 2012.
Former XG FMX gold medalists Adams and Jones may be medal contenders this week, but at 30 and 29, they are the oldest riders in the field, and they're part of an aging group of American riders who live in a country where freestyle competitions are almost nonexistent.
The scene that was once populated by so many contests and series that promoters competed for rider participation has now dwindled down to one major U.S. contest annually. With properties like the FreeRide Moto-X Championship, Dew Tour, IFMA, LG Action Sports Tour, Air MX, Gravity Games, X-Fighters and X Games, riders used to have their pick of where they wanted to compete. Today, those 10 spots for X Games fill up quickly.
While the old guard of American riders is aging and settling into riding domestic exhibitions out of financial necessity, up-and-coming foreign riders have gained ground with more opportunities to compete internationally. In Australia the zeal was originally fueled by the popularity of the Crusty Demons of Dirt Tour and most recently the Nitro Circus tour. In Europe the Night of the Jumps series is still very popular.
To get a sense of how Americans rank on the international scene, look no further than last weekend's Freestyle of Nations, a multi-discipline FMX and motocross competition where teams represent their home countries. The American team of Mason, Todd Potter and Matt Buyten finished fourth behind France, Czech Republic and eventual winner Spain.
"Since there are not a lot of contests, there are not a lot of opportunities to make money and the competitive spirit dies because of that," Drake McElroy, former XG Freestyle medalist and a judge for both X Games and X-Fighters, said. "Your life isn't funded while you train and progress. You get in this role of consistency [doing shows] and you say, 'Why push it anymore?'"
On Saturday night in Austin, Adams, Jones and Agee will bring their experience and manicured routines but foreign riders like three-time champion Taka Higashino (Japan), two-time silver medalist Levi Sherwood (New Zealand), the mercurial Tom Pagés (France) and former Best Trick champ, Jackson Strong (Australia), will bring the excitement and suspense that is the lifeblood of a sport which relies on progression to survive.
Higashino's mastery of the sport and his relentless pursuit of perfection and innovation has kept him on top, and he has the opportunity in Austin to become the first athlete in all of X Games Moto X history to win four consecutive gold medals, a streak four riders before him have failed to complete, including the great Travis Pastrana.
Higashino's Rock Solid backflip has separated him from the competition for the past two years, and in Austin he will bring that, along with two new tricks: a mini flip, or a backflip off a small dirt kicker, and a seat-grab body varial that he calls a Kaeshi, or a variation of his signature Takoyaki Roll. When asked to explain what kaeshi means he says, "F---ing English is so hard!"
Higashino pulled off both tricks at X-Fighters on May 25 in Osaka, Japan. He also wanted to try a 540 off the quarterpipe feature but he said he was not able to practice it into a foam pit first.
While Higashino is the man to beat in Austin, he will arrive hobbled. In practice at X-Fighters Osaka he slipped a peg, spiked his right foot into the ground and sprained his ankle. He skipped qualifying, was seeded last and faced Sherwood in the quarterfinal. Repeat-tricks and mistakes knocked him into a disappointing eighth-place finish. He said he's sore and swollen but it will not keep him from competing in Austin.
"If I get a perfect score, then [I'll be] happy," he said. "But I [can] never be happy with my tricks, and that's a good thing [to] keep motivation. I have a plan. I want to be more clean."
Higashino has lived with both Ronnie Faisst and Jeremy Stenberg and they tell nearly identical tales about their Japanese friend -- a guy who rides all day, doesn't withhold his most difficult tricks in practice and then continues his preparations with simulations and video-room sessions.
"When Taka lived with me he would sit on his bike for two hours a night in the garage with his eyes closed and just [mimics riding with his hands] 'braaaap, braaaap,'" Stenberg said. "I'm like, 'What are you doing?' He's like, 'Oh, I'm practicing for tomorrow.' I'm like, 'Wow, you really want to learn this trick!' For me, that just shows his dedication to the sport and what he'll go through to learn stuff."
"That dude does nothing but sleep, breathe freestyle," Faisst said. "He never stops thinking about it. Guys like that are hard to beat."
If Pagés lands the bike flip, which he's proven he can do, and finishes with a solid run, he's almost sure to end France's X Games Freestyle medal drought. But while Pagés champions new challenges and progression over a perfect routine, he's fickle. After qualifying sixth in Osaka, he withdrew from the competition. According to an X-Fighters news release Pagés "did not feel comfortable on the course and decided to sit out, feeling that due to his riding style and level of difficulty of his unique tricks, the risk of injury could be too high."
Pagés' manager, Sebastien Billault, tells a slightly different story. "He didn't ride because sport management consulting for Red Bull X-Fighters understand nothing about FMX new school," Billault said via text message. "I asked [for] 5.5 meters for [the] bike flip landing and there was 4 meters [landing height]. In Austin, if the track is good he'll do [the bike flip] for sure."
Pagés, who rarely performs backflips, also has two body varials and a strong quiver of upright tricks. He's the 2013 X-Fighters overall champion, but in five X Games appearances he has never won a medal, and in the Freestyle competition specifically, his record stands at two 12th-place finishes.
The hottest rider in freestyle at the moment is New Zealand's Sherwood who, at 18, lost to Pastrana in Freestyle in 2010 by a single point. He landed his first backflip to dirt at age 15 and is the youngest winner of an X-Fighters event. With eight X-Fighters victories, including both 2014 contests so far, he's the all-time leader on that series.
"Even if you didn't know much about what was going on in this sport, he stands out," McElroy said. "He works well with the bike and holds tricks for a long time with lots of snap. And you don't see him do a bit of everything. He only does what he wants to do."
While Sherwood's competition pursued the exhibition scene over the winter and spring, appearing on tours such as Nuclear Cowboyz and Nitro Circus, Sherwood stuck to his massive riding compound where he claims he worked on new material he plans to bring with him to Austin. While his stripper, cordova and tsunami flips are extended and held, he doesn't have new material (that we know of) to bring to Texas, and he'll need that if he's planning to become the first New Zealander to win X Games gold since John Howard in the 1997 XVenture Race.
Australia brings the biggest hand to Austin, with four riders represented in the FMX field. Jackson Strong will throw a front flip and he will do it early in his run in order to stay ahead of fatigue. He also has "The Jack" body varial and enough guts and bravado to try something unproven in an attempt to win. Josh Sheehan is one of the four people in the world to have landed a double backflip and, while it was good enough for silver in Best Trick in 2011, he's hoping that and a Special flip body varial will add another medal to his collection.
No matter which flag is being waved at X Games Austin, there won't be a concern that boundaries are not being pushed. Riders from three continents will bring new material, and it's up to a trio of talented Americans to either up the ante to stay afloat or watch from the shore as an international field brings FMX into the next decade of progression.