Editor's note: Tes Sewell is the sport director for Red Bull X-Fighters.
Taka Higashino is excited to ride Red Bull X-Fighters Madrid. Though he is the reigning X Games freestyle gold medalist, he has never ridden in the event that is often described as the "Wimbledon of freestyle."
Madrid's event takes place in the historic Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, a historic bullring in the center of Madrid. This beautiful red brick building played host to a bullfight Sunday and will be the site of another bullfight this Sunday, as is the tradition here. This causes a significant challenge for the organizing team, who must build the event in readiness for riding on Thursday, the event on Friday and then completely tear it down by Sunday.
Higashino is one of 12 riders who will take the stage in front of what is probably the most educated audience in the freestyle world. This being the 11th consecutive year that Las Ventas has been a host of X-Fighters makes it one of the longest-running event sites in the history of the sport.
The Madrileños have been watching this sport evolve for a long time and they celebrate it with the utmost Spanish gusto. White scarves wave and chainsaws [yes, chainsaws] howl whenever a great performance is witnessed and at this level of the game, in this electrifying setting, almost all performances could be categorized as "great."
The affable Japanese rider will have a real challenge on his hands in this tight circular arena as he tries to combat the home country advantage enjoyed by Spaniard Dany Torres. Though it could be argued that Torres faces a lot of pressure and expectation here, when the crowd of 25,000 countrymen all start chanting, "Daaaany, Daaaany," the effect must be profoundly uplifting. Torres, the reigning X-Fighters World Series champion who won last year's Madrid event, is of course still recovering from surgery to his foot. It will be interesting to see which version of Spain's greatest hope will show up Friday night.
Hoping to foil Higashino and Torres is New Zealander Levi Sherwood. Fresh off a second place at X Games, Sherwood is hunting a win in Madrid to return him the lead in the X-Fighters tour point standings. This course is all about tricks and the judging system at X-Fighters benefits those with the greatest variation of big, technical tricks right side up and upside down. The Kiwi's distinctive style separates him from many of the riders with similar tricks and has been a major factor in catching the eyes of the judges.
Others in this field also hope to be spoilers. Tom Pages is fresh off a frustrating trip to X Games where he thought his Best Trick performance should have been judged much higher. He is unique in this field in that he no longer back flips, but has an arsenal of other tricks including the volt body varial and the "special flip" varial trick that he unleashed unsuccessfully at X Games. This week gives him a chance to add both in his freestyle run and perhaps better his second-place finish in Glen Helen, the second X-Fighters stop.
What is for sure is that all of these riders are gunning for the series leader, Todd Potter, in this fourth stop on the tour [although round 3 last month in Istanbul was canceled because of poor weather conditions]. Potter, like Higashino, is also a Madrid rookie and the question is whether his bag of tricks aboard the big 4-stroke Honda is enough to hold off the other raging bulls. Las Ventas is a magical place and may be just the sort of encouragement to pull out a picture-perfect run from the American. With only five points separating him from Sherwood, Potter cannot afford a single slip or the lead will likely change hands.
In the blistering 90-plus degree heat of the Madrid afternoon I ran into Swiss rider Mat Rebeaud. Definitely not a Madrid rookie, Rebeaud is a former champion of the series, and I asked him about his Las Ventas experiences.
"In 2005 I rode for the first time here and I finished third and it was my first X-Fighters. My first podium," Rebeaud said. "Since 2005 I rode [here] six times and I have five podiums. Only one year, 2009, I didn't finish on the podium and I think I finished five. The last time I was here I finished second."
Given Rebeaud's recent injury-plagued history and poor showing the last time out in Dubai, another podium finish isn't a certainty.
"I'm pretty happy to be here. I'm riding way better, I will let everybody be surprised and see how it goes," Rebeaud said before laughing as he recounted his 2008 win over Torres on Spanish home turf and how he quietly put his helmet back on and safely rode out of the bullring.
At 9:30 p.m. local time Friday night, the siestas will be over and each of these riders will be charging toward their own imaginary red cloak. Will Dany Torres be able to hold off the horde and slay his foes like the great toreros of Las Ventas? All I know for sure is that each of his massive tricks will be greeted with a resounding "Olé!"