Editor's note: Tes Sewell is the sport director for Red Bull X-Fighters.
As the Red Bull X-Fighters rolls into Madrid this week five riders still have a mathematical shot at the 2013 title. Tom Pagès sits at the top of the standings and is hoping for another great podium run to put him in an almost unassailable position for the final round Sept. 7 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Pagès has -- as people here have come to say -- turned things "Right side up." His initial refusal to return to the back flip created a space in which he forced himself to find other ways to demonstrate his skill and creativity aboard his two-stroke Yamaha and the results have been more than dramatic. Now other riders seem challenged to change things up a little as Pagès has gained reward for his innovative, hard-charging runs.
Pagès, however, is not a selfish human being and this was illustrated during Wednesday evening's track test session. Australian rider Josh Sheehan has spent the past week at Pagès' home in France and surprised the assembled crowd by pulling Pagès' signature flair 540 trick off the Madrid quarterpipe. Though Sheehan had traveled to France initially to practice his double flip, hanging out with Pagès just presents too many opportunities to enjoy the experience and obviously the affable Aussie took every advantage of that.
Sheehan has the double back flip and the 360 comfortably in his arsenal and when you add the flair to his already massive bag of tricks, he could easily be a spoiler to Pagès' quest for the victory Friday night. Pagès is also under threat from home course hero Dany Torres (the X-Fighters Dubai winner), Rob Adelberg (Glen Helen winner) and Taka Higashino, who recently beat Pagès for the win in his home town of Osaka, Japan.
The track in Madrid also has some radical changes, which is difficult when you consider the tight confines of a bullring. Somehow eight ramps are shoehorned into a circle just 200 feet in diameter, including a new elevated ramp that allows for a jump direction not before seen in the Spanish capital. This should all excite the knowledgeable and passionate Spanish crowd. After 12 years in one space, these people know their freestyle and are almost rabid in their enthusiasm for the sport.
So what does all of this mean? A real headache for the judges. X-Fighters head judge Jason Moriarty shook his head and tried to outline the daunting task.
"Our job of judging and fairly choosing a winner this week in Madrid is going to be tougher than any round so far this season - possibly of any FMX event we've ever judged," Moriarty said. "The field is so stacked and the riding level is really high across the board with almost anyone in the field capable of taking the win. Madrid's layout and tunnels allow riders to pace themselves and to set up fully for every trick so there should be no holding back at all."
The South African native said the sport has continued to advance in the past 10 months. The skill level of this roster of elite FMX riders, which includes Adam Jones, David Rinaldo, Clinton Moore, Javier Villegas, Maikel Malero and Todd Potter, will likely produce tight results in the head-to-head rounds.
"The final round last year in Sydney delivered the most next-level tricks in a single FMX contest we had ever seen," said Moriarty. "Looking at the riders coming into this event, I expect Madrid to exceed what we saw in Sydney and once again set a new benchmark for our sport. It's great for the fans and progression -- but a tough assignment for our judging crew."
The sudden change in styles presents difficult challenges for the judges because, Moriarty said, no two riders or runs even slightly resemble each other.
"[It] is a great sign of the health of FMX, but this means we're now figuratively comparing apples with oranges. To weigh up a run filled with big flip tricks and 360s, versus a run with body varials and spins, then there's a run with new technical right side up tricks and rock solid flips means we have to look at the smallest of details to separate this high-caliber field.
"At least the top eight riders in the field are likely to have tricks in their runs that have recently won X Games Best Trick gold medals, some with three or four of these in a single run! Plus there are several riders who have brand new tricks they're unveiling in Madrid."
All of this, of course, boiled down to one thought in Moriarty's mind: "I think I may just age a few years between now and Friday night."