With the recent deletion of the Best Trick category for X Games Moto X, there is now a lot more focus on the performances and innovation in the freestyle competition, as the expanded X Games summer editions kick off next week in Foz do Iguacu, Brazil.
Foz will be host to an international field of 10 riders, and though some of the usual suspects are missing because of contractual conflicts with stunt events such as Nitro Circus, this is a field that promises one of the most wide-open freestyle contests in recent memory. Almost anyone can win, and a clear favorite among this group is hard to define.
Many consider the front-runner to be reigning X Games Los Angeles 2012 gold medalist Taka Higashino of Japan. Higashino has all of the big tricks, plus the Rock Solid Backflip that no other rider in this field has been able to master. He is calm under pressure and rides with a constant smile and electrifying energy that will wake up the Brazilian crowd and certainly be a positive influence on the judges.
Without Best Trick competition to distract him, Australian rider Jackson Strong can set his sights on Higashino and a chance to get some hardware in a freestyle competition. Strong has really concentrated on the Best Trick discipline over the past few years, and it has paid off royally, with back-to-back X Games golds.
All of this singular trick focus came somewhat at the cost of his freestyle career in the past -- his previous X Games freestyle result was a painful 16th after crashing in practice -- but an encouraging performance at Red Bull X-Fighters in Sydney last year showed that he has the potential to get another gold. Strong has the front flip and some impressive body varials that set him apart from the other riders. "Jacko" is known as a wild child, and lack of focus has cost him in the past. If he can bring the full arsenal to Brazil and dial it slightly back from 11, he could finally score the most precious metal in the freestyle discipline.
Hoping to act as a spoiler for this pair will be Jacko's friend and fellow countryman Rob Adelberg. He has not had a good run at X Games so far but took a second place at Dubai X-Fighters in 2012 and showed a podium-level run in Mexico City X-Fighters last month before a small mistake on the superkicker caused him to lose to Josh Sheehan. Adelberg is smooth and holds his extensions just a little bit longer than seems sensible, which will get the attention of the judges.
One of the biggest potential surprises for seasoned X Games viewers will be the European charge led by Frenchman Remi Bizouard [note: this story was published before Bizouard broke his leg Thursday in a qualifying session at X-Fighters Dubai]. Bizouard has competed at Best Trick in X Games before with unsatisfying results, but this year he comes into Foz as FIM World FMX Champion for the third time. This is the sort of course that will benefit Bizouard's trick-heavy style. He is fit and seems confident aboard the new Kawasaki four-stroke machine.
"I feel better to ride the Freestyle competition than the Best Trick. It's what I do all year, like runs," Bizouard said from Dubai, where he is preparing for Friday's Red Bull X-Fighters Round 2. "So I feel more confident in that thing than Best Trick. I'm going to just try to have fun and enjoy the course there, because it looks pretty awesome. Of course I will try my best. I saw [the field] is Rob, Libor [Podmol], David [Rinaldo], and many good riders like Jacko [are] also there. It is going to be really tough to judge. You know judging is different in every competition, X-Fighters, X Games and Night of the Jumps, so I better get used to it."
Awaiting Bizouard and all the other dirt bike kids will be a significantly bigger course than we have seen at X Games for a few years. Course designer Jesse Olson is already in Foz, crafting the best canvas to allow the riders to express themselves.
"The benefits of building an FMX course in a big open venue like here in Foz is the ability to have room for more creative lines and flow. We are using the natural dirt at the venue, and it is an endless supply of very clean, good dirt," Olson said. "I have added 60-foot step on to an elevated 75-foot comp ramp going to a massive landing shared with a 115-foot ramp jump because I had so much dirt. It has been a fun build because of less restrictions with course size and an awesome amount of Brazilian dirt."
The remote location of Foz do Iguacu is not without its challenges for the build team.
"Some of the difficulties are finding good equipment and water trucks to be able to build an X Games event," Olson said. "You have to set your equipment standards a little lower and give yourself a couple extra days to deal with any unexpected problems because there is not a CAT dealership down the road that can swap out a piece of equipment if there is a problem."
There is one thing that even the best builders and organizers cannot control, and that is Mother Nature. In this case, preparation is perhaps the best solution.
"Here in Foz, the weather is the real wild card," Olson said. "It is the rainy season, so you always have to be proactive with drainage and keeping your finished jumps covered, but so far the weather has been amazing and I am ahead of schedule. I am looking forward to a great contest and watching the riders shred this course!"
We are all looking forward to sunny skies and epic shredding from the freestyle field. Be sure to tune in to ESPN and ESPN3 on April 19 and 21 for all the high-flying action.