At long last we'll get Freestyle at X Games
If there was a story thread that ran through the world of freestyle motocross for 2013, it has to be the weather. In a three-month period, three major events were canceled, leaving riders and fans anxious and frustrated.
The expansion of X Games promised big, creative courses from builder Jesse Olson, but other than Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, none of these tracks ever got to see any competition. Since Foz, there has also been the promise of an epic battle between gold medalist Taka Higashino and the rest of the freestyle field. But Higashino has had to wage his wars on the X-Fighters battlefield, and can only wait and hope for a chance at another X Games gold.
Originally Freestyle wasn't planned for X Games Los Angeles, but with the removal of the Best Trick competition and with the cancellations at the previous two stops, we can all be relieved that the athletes will get to show who really deserves the Freestyle crown under the protective cradle of Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. True, this will be a much tighter and smaller course than some of the others that Olson had planned, but it is freestyle competition nonetheless, and time for the best in the business to step forward and be counted.
"The course design is limited due to the size of the footprint, so you have to stay with the standard three-jump, figure-eight style course," Olson said of the challenges he faced. "On the build side of things, it's the timing of the dirt trucks coming in and out of the Staples Center that can be difficult. I am also limited to the size and amount of equipment I can use on the course build. Safety, safety, safety first."
While Higashino is the runaway favorite again for this event, some notable additions and subtractions have had an impact on the freestyle field. Spaniard Dany Torres will not be present; neither will freshly crowned X-Fighters champion Tom Pagès. Many were looking forward to the clash between the revolutionary Frenchman and the skillful Japanese rider, who have had two such battles already this summer. They both claimed a victory -- Higashino in Osaka, Japan, and Pagès in Madrid. The FMX world will have to wait for the decisive matchup.
The Europeans may be missing, but all eyes will be on Nate Adams to make his bold return to Freestyle, which he won at X Games L.A. in 2004 and 2011. Adams has been challenging for the top spot in Speed & Style this season, with bronze medals in Barcelona and Munich, and he showed some of his old flair during those amalgamations of racing and freestyle.
Adams, like all of the other riders, sat on the sidelines watching wind and rain ruin the past two X Games stops, and has not had the opportunity to see where his skill level is, and if the X Games judges will reward him for what he does, as opposed to what they know he could do. There is no doubt that Adams' shoulder injury slowed him and changed some of the methodology in his tricks, but he is a master of the sport and adapted some of his trick mechanics while increasing the magnitude of his big guns, such as the 360 combos.
Other X Games gold medalists in the field also are aiming to slow Higashino's charge. Adam Jones has a renewed focus and energy and can slay almost any track with his masterful, technical trick roster. The 2007 Freestyle gold medalist has found X Games to be hot and cold for him, but there is no denying he is on top of his game. A misstep by Higashino could be all that Jones needs to leapfrog to the top of the podium once more. Staples Center only allows for a tight course, and this means an increased focus on the size and quality of the tricks -- an area where Jones excels.
It has been a while since Australian Blake "Bilko" Williams saw the flash of gold around his neck (2009) and he has been notoriously absent from competition this summer because of his contracts with the Nitro Circus tour. Williams has the ability to surprise and is a huge crowd favorite, but the question is whether his months spent riding the Circus have allowed enough time to practice his arsenal of tricks.
All of the riders mentioned above are known quantities and riders who have proved their mettle with X Games Freestyle gold. The one big wild card in the bunch this week is Aussie Jackson Strong. "Jacko" came out ... well, strong in Brazil and started his Freestyle run by nonchalantly landing a front flip right out of the gate for the first time in X Games Freestyle. Then, theoretically overcome by the excitement, he mistimed the short jump onto the elevated ramp platform and under-rotated his flip on the 75-footer, sending him home with a broken tibia and a concussion.
Strong, who had won the previous two Best Trick golds at X Games L.A., is back and said he's healthy and ready to tackle this Staples Center course. If he can land the front flip and then go on to stomp his many flip and regular trick combos, it may be enough to romance the judges into awarding him he top prize. Focus is sometimes Strong's challenge and he is inconsistent to the point of being wild, but he has amazing skill and creativity on the bike -- attributes that the X Games judges have been known to reward.
The questions finally will be put to rest Thursday night in Los Angeles (9 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN). Tight spaces and pent-up energy should result in some of the best performances seen to date. Everything is laid on the table in the quest for 2013's final glittering gold.