Ronnie Renner doesn't need to be concerned about hitting the ceiling in the Step Up competition at X Games Foz do Iguaçu. There isn't one. Last June in the Staples Center, as the bar went above 40 feet for the first time in X Games history, then above 45 feet and then 47 feet, the audience couldn't help but look at the ceiling to see if Renner and Matt Buyten would hit their heads on a rafter or get tangled up in one of the many championship banners the Lakers have on display.
When Renner cleared 47 feet, he blew away the previous XG record by 10 feet. He also cracked his wrist, bent the forks on his motorcycle and crushed his No. 1 rival, Buyten, to win a third career gold medal. On Friday night, Step Up comes to the open-air Centro de Convenções de Foz do Iguaçu (CECONFI), and the event will be missing two things: four-time gold medalist Buyten and a takeoff lip that gets riders past new record heights. The course designers will not be sending dirt bike riders to the moon, or even past 47 feet.
"If that's the way it's going to be, it'll be my last year doing it," Renner said when asked if he wanted to go higher. "It comes to a point where you say enough is enough."
In Los Angeles last year, the riders were clearly in pain each time they landed attempts when the bar was higher than 40 feet. Renner's left hand blew off the bars on one landing, and he said his tailbone and padded seat came together so hard on his final run that he felt a moment of paralysis. An MRI later revealed that he had trashed cartilage and ligaments in his wrist around the scaphoid. Still, had Buyten been able to clear 47 feet, Renner doesn't see any reason why they couldn't have reached 50 feet.
"I never thought I couldn't go any higher, but I wasn't sure my body would be able to. But nobody comes to X Games hoping to break records," Renner said. "They come for the competition."
For the first time since 2008, when he was injured with a broken left elbow and wrist, Buyten will miss a major XG Step Up event because he is a featured rider on the 13-city Nuclear Cowboyz tour. Renner will still have competition as a group of fresh and talented contestants will be eager to outvertical the champ, but heights of 50 feet will be unrealistic.
The 16-foot wall sport organizers unveiled last year in the Staples Center will be tamed to somewhere between 12-16 feet. Final build depends on the conditions of the dirt and how well it packs down. A taller landing will give them flexibility on height. The ideal top height cleared is 40 feet. but the blood-red dirt in Foz is so tacky that wheel spin may not be an issue and they'll be hitting the takeoff with much more speed than usual.
Of the six riders invited to XG Foz Step Up, only Renner has a medal and only one other has even competed in this event: Massimo Bianconcini, who was the first rider eliminated last year on the very first height. Supercross rider and three-time Moto X racing medalist Josh Hansen will compete in Step Up for the first time and Deft Family's Brian Foster, 22-year-old Bryce Hudson and the Czech Republic's Libor Podmol make their first X Games appearances.
Renner is the favorite to win but counts no one out, no matter if they've been here or not. "It's a fact that Buyten has been my main rival for years now, but I can go back to the days of Ricky Carmichael, Jeremy McGrath and Tommy Clowers and guys who want it as bad as I do," Renner said. "You can't take anyone for granted. Hansen is a talented dude. He will figure it out. He's one of the most skilled bike riders out there, and I've got to put in the work."
Hansen's racing career has faltered since his gold medal years of 2008 and 2009. His brightest moment was two years ago when he won three Supercross Lites races and was a favorite for the title until a hand injury hampered him. Now he's on a Suzuki with help from Cernic's and Jeremy Stenberg, and he said he's going to Brazil to "break the ice."
"I'd never thought of trying this in the past," Hansen said. "I really don't know what to expect. It's not like racing, where I know where my skills are. I'm open-minded about the whole deal."
Racers have done well in Step Up. Carmichael and McGrath won gold on their first attempts and Clowers and Renner were professional motocross racers before they made career moves. No matter how many personal or motivational or preparation issues Hansen may be cited for today, nobody expected him to finish top 10 in Moto X Racing in 2008 and he won the whole thing. It's hard to count Hansen out of anything.
Bianconcini became only the second non-U.S.-born rider to compete in Step Up last June in L.A., and his 2012 invite was because of video from a Night of the Jumps competition he won in Italy with a height of nearly 38 feet. The first rider out at XG LA 2012, he couldn't clear 32 feet when he used a unique seat bounce method on the takeoff. He went high but had no forward momentum. A little more practice and a switch from a two-stroke 250cc to a four-stroke 450cc, and the Italian will stick around longer in Foz.
Bryce Hudson is the youngest in the competition. His only experience with step up is from a 2011 CX3 competition where he said he went 37 feet and finished second to Myles Richmond. Podmol has Night of the Jumps experience along with Bianconcini and he will be the lone two-stroke in the event. Brian Foster will leave the office of Deft Family, a company he founded with Nate Adams, to compete in his first XG.
"I'm not sure who will be answering the phones," said Foster, who is also Deft's brand manager. He said that although he doesn't specifically practice for it, he's ready. "I've ridden this kind of stuff my whole life. It doesn't scare me too bad. I just hit cliff jumps."
The sport organizers will be unveiling a new bar system in Brazil. Instead of the slow two-man circus act of trying to place a skinny bar on even skinnier ledges with wobbly 20 feet long-plus poles, it will now operate as a pulley system and look like a vertical clothesline. One man on each side will pull the ropes to send the bar back to its height.