Darkness Falls

By Chris Denison

Any freezing-cold wintry night, it is best to try and keep warm. Escaping the icy temperatures by going somewhere indoors is usually a good start. Sitting down next to a warm fire with a hot beverage is also a smart idea when it’s chilly outside. Toss a blanket over your lap while you’re at it. But where you definitely should not be on a frosty evening is sitting on a dirt bike, wearing only a few layers of thin motocross gear and an icy helmet. And when the sun goes down-and the temperature along with it-you should never take said dirt bike and huck it upside down over a perilous 90-foot ice jump, only to turn right around and do it all over again. Doing so on such a frigid, hostile night would be completely unnatural. But luckily for the sport of freestyle motocross, doing the unexpected and being out of your element just so happens to be what the Winter X Games are all about.

From the minute you arrive at Winter X, it is apparent that the Moto-X contest is a bit out of place. Snowboards, snowmobiles, snow skis…dirt bikes? The sight of someone doing a kiss of death next to a chairlift just doesn’t look right. But as odd as moto in the snow may seem, it just may be the most popular sport of the Winter X Games. And despite the abnormal conditions and frozen extremities, the riders are still able to throw some pretty good tricks over the Aspen powder.

Since freestyle’s introduction to the Winter X Games in 2000, the task of running an event in snow has been a challenge. The first tricky mission is always finding a way to get the riders into the sky-and back to the frozen ground-in a somewhat safe manner. This year, the promoters decided to bring in IFMA freestyle pro Jesse Olson, who not only built the jumps, but tested them, as well. “I was really skeptical about doing the job because I had never built a snow jump before,” remarked Jesse. “It’s nicer to use snow because you can carve out smooth, consistent lips, but it’s hard to get it to act the way you want it to as far as when and how you want it to freeze. It is really dependent on Mother Nature.”

And that it was. With warm temperatures the whole week leading to the Games, Olson had his fair share of problems keeping the track from rutting up and melting. Still, on the day of the first moto practice, things went together as planned and ten riders took to the track seeking X Games glory.

For Arizona’s Jim McNeil, glory was not exactly the best way to describe practice. Upon committing to a 75-foot backflip, Jim found himself under-rotated and frozen more than 20 feet above the snow. “I felt like I was a little rushed since we didn’t get much practice. I just pulled a little too late on the flip, and it didn’t want to come around. I jumped off, hurt my shoulder a little bit and knocked myself out, but fortunately I was alright,” Jim said of the crash. Practice also claimed Metal Mulisha front man Brian Deegan, who landed off-axis on a huge flip-whip and was tossed off onto the snow. Fortunately, Deegan rolled right back up to his feet and made it back to the warmth of the riders’ tent to get his bike straightened out.

By the time the contest rolled around, the once bright Colorado sunshine had been replaced by an icy, moonless sky. To combat this, ESPN rolled in a multi-million dollar lighting system, which worked wonders as far as illumination goes, but did nothing to warm the frigid night air. The rider roster for the evening was quite impressive, but three big names were missing from the lineup: Nate Adams, Jeremy Stenberg, and Mike Metzger were all on the injured list for crashes resulting from backflip nac-nacs. But even with the three big names on the sidelines, there was no lack of talent in Aspen. One of the most anticipated events of Winter X was the hype surrounding Chuck Carothers’s crazy new trick, the body varial. If you remember, Chuck busted the trick-dubbed the “Carolla”-at last year’s Summer X Games in the big air contes grabbing a gold medal in the process. Winter X was Chuck’s first major contest since then, and the crowd was dying to see the trick. We will let Chuck explain what happened:

“The conditions were really rough. My gloves were soaking wet…I was wet. It was snowing pretty hard at the time, too. But I went for it. I didn’t really have the hang time that I needed, and my bike got a little crooked, so I couldn’t get back on. I had a nice sample of the snow at that point. I was able to stand up and walk away, but I am really disappointed in myself. I know that if I had been on a super kicker rather than snow, I could have ridden it out.” With Chuck out of the mix, it was anyone’s game in the finals. Drake McElroy started things off on the evening with a crazy new trick: the seat-grab dead body, something never before seen in competition. “I did one trick that I knew was pretty tough,” Drake told us after the event. “The conditions were kind of shitty for it, but I knew that I wanted to do that one good trick just so I could see how the judges would score it.”

The trick went over well with the judges, but it didn’t stop several other riders from attempting to best Drake with something fancy of their own. Troy Lee Designs rider Ronnie Renner pitched out a mean whip, but it was not enough to stomp Drake’s trick, leaving Ronnie in second. IFMA star Beau Bamburg-who made it into the finals with a combo trick-decided to get upside down in the main, throwing an unexpected flip off the middle ice jump. Unfortunately, Beau made the same mistake that Jim did earlier in the day, dangerously under-rotating his flip and falling onto the ice. Luckily, Beau was uninjured, as was evidenced when he jumped up from the snow and grabbed the nearest camera lens with both hands, screaming, “You can’t hurt me!” Don’t mess with this guy. It was then Dustin Miller’s turn, and the quiet kid from Reno looked a bit nervous as he sat waiting for his cue. With Johnny Cash blasting over the massive speakers, Dustin hit the jump and threw one of the most mind-boggling tricks to date: a one-handed-Indian-air-to-switch-one-handed-Indian-air-to-no-hander-lander combo! As soon as he rode it out, Dustin dropped his bike and fell to his knees. The crowd went nuts, but it is doubtful that any of the spectators-save the riders-realized how crazy Dustin’s trick was.

All eyes then turned to the score tower, with everyone waiting to see how Miller’s trick would do with the judges. In the end, the low-90’s score seemed a bit low to some, but Dustin took it like a champ. “I don’t really care how the judging goes anymore, I am just excited that I got a good crowd response. After all, I pulled a trick that I was sure I was going to crash trying!”With only two riders remaining, it was up to the Metal Mulisha to out-do Dustin. Jeff “Ox” Kargola came out and nailed a 75-foot-flip-no-footer-to-one-hander-lander, which placed several points above Miller’s trick. It then came down to the last rider, Brian Deegan, who carved out his own long flip-no-footer-to-one-hander, only without the one-handed landing. Deegan’s trick was the favorite with the judges, as he was awarded the higher score, and the gold medal. Beau Bamburg was standing nearby and offered his thoughts:

“I don’t know how Brian just beat Ox’s no-footed-one-hander-lander with a no-footed-one-hander. But you know, my hat is off to both of those guys for at least being able to flip the damn jump, because obviously I couldn’t! (laughs) Honestly, I thought that Dustin’s trick should have beaten both of them, but it’s hard to say. It’s pretty gnarly to flip an ice jump, but it’s also pretty gnarly to do something brand-new to a no-handed lander off of a 90-foot ice jump.”

It was awesome to see Deegan come back to take the gold medal after having such a horrendous crash last year, and with more X Games medals than any other freestyle athlete, Deegs is definitely more than deserving to be on top of the box. Still, several people wondered how the judges came to the decision that they did regarding the top three. For the answer to this, we went straight to the head judge, Regis Harrington:

“I think the reason Deegan was scored higher than Ox-in talking to my guys-was because, if you notice, they were taking two completely different lines. Deegan’s gave him a lot more amplitude-a lot more height-and his rotation was a lot slower. Ox was coming at the jump wide open, and it seemed a little rushed. I know that he did the one-hander lander, but just comparing them back to back, it just didn’t give him the edge over Deegan.”

One of the judges was none other than freestyle badass Jeremy Carter, who is on the mend from a recent injury. After talking with Miller for a few minutes, Jeremy walked away and Dustin came over to talk. “Did you see Carter’s clothes?” Miller asked. “He was wearing shants with long johns and work boots. Jeremy Carter rules!” Dustin is right; Carter does rule, and it is sweet to see more riders up in the judges’ tower.With the event over and the crowd going home, the freestylers all began to load up their gear and head in separate directions. The bikes were now cold, the air was freezing, and more than one rider was eager to get back to a warm hotel, maybe to nurse a bruise or two. With three guys going down doing the backflip at X-and three more crashing beforehand-it seems that our sport, as popular as it is, also happens to be getting quite risky. With the riders gathering their paychecks, as well as their bikes, I found after the event to be a good time to talk with Paul Taublieb, X Games Moto X Event Manager, about his thoughts on rider rewards versus compensation:

“It’s a perilous sport,” Taublieb said. “I think that all the athletes in all the sports should get more money. They take a huge amount of risk, and they should get as much money as possible. It’s a business-driven paradigm, let’s put it that way. If you look at all the different kinds of compensation-the exposure, the athlete’s benefit-it’s a tough question. Should they get more? I don’t know. I would like to see the guys get as much money as possible. It’s a very dangerous thing that they do. But at the same time, I know that ESPN is investing a huge financial risk and is taking huge financial exposure in supporting and building these sports, so luckily it’s a question that I don’t have to answer, I just have to run the events.”

With that, the lights were shut down, and the Winter X Games came to an official close. With the cameras put away, the bikes hauled off and the hordes of screaming fans long gone, Buttermilk Mountain-which only a few hours before had been rocking-was finally at peace. All that remained were a couple of motorcycle tire tracks in the snow, a few fluttery pieces of trash blowing about, and the frigid midnight air, which-if you stopped long enough to notice-still carried the faint scent of two-stroke race fuel. ll, several people wondered how the judges came to the decision that they did regarding the top three. For the answer to this, we went straight to the head judge, Regis Harrington:

“I think the reason Deegan was scored higher than Ox-in talking to my guys-was because, if you notice, they were taking two completely different lines. Deegan’s gave him a lot more amplitude-a lot more height-and his rotation was a lot slower. Ox was coming at the jump wide open, and it seemed a little rushed. I know that he did the one-hander lander, but just comparing them back to back, it just didn’t give him the edge over Deegan.”

One of the judges was none other than freestyle badass Jeremy Carter, who is on the mend from a recent injury. After talking with Miller for a few minutes, Jeremy walked away and Dustin came over to talk. “Did you see Carter’s clothes?” Miller asked. “He was wearing shants with long johns and work boots. Jeremy Carter rules!” Dustin is right; Carter does rule, and it is sweet to see more riders up in the judges’ tower.With the event over and the crowd going home, the freestylers all began to load up their gear and head in separate directions. The bikes were now cold, the air was freezing, and more than one rider was eager to get back to a warm hotel, maybe to nurse a bruise or two. With three guys going down doing the backflip at X-and three more crashing beforehand-it seems that our sport, as popular as it is, also happens to be getting quite risky. With the riders gathering their paychecks, as well as their bikes, I found after the event to be a good time to talk with Paul Taublieb, X Games Moto X Event Manager, about his thoughts on rider rewards versus compensation:

“It’s a perilous sport,” Taublieb said. “I think that all the athletes in all the sports should get more money. They take a huge amount of risk, and they should get as much money as possible. It’s a business-driven paradigm, let’s put it that way. If you look at all the different kinds of compensation-the exposure, the athlete’s benefit-it’s a tough question. Should they get more? I don’t know. I would like to see the guys get as much money as possible. It’s a very dangerous thing that they do. But at the same time, I know that ESPN is investing a huge financial risk and is taking huge financial exposure in supporting and building these sports, so luckily it’s a question that I don’t have to answer, I just have to run the events.”

With that, the lights were shut down, and the Winter X Games came to an official close. With the cameras put away, the bikes hauled off and the hordes of screaming fans long gone, Buttermilk Mountain-which only a few hours before had been rocking-was finally at peace. All that remained were a couple of motorcycle tire tracks in the snow, a few fluttery pieces of trash blowing about, and the frigid midnight air, which-if you stopped long enough to notice-still carried the faint scent of two-stroke race fuel.