As we’re wrapping up a photo shoot in Robbie’s front-yard FMX park, I can tell that Maddo has something on his mind—something by the way he stares into the distance with a glazed look on his face is a dead giveaway. “I’ve got something big in the works, mate,” he says. “I can’t really tell you about it, but it’s big. If you pay attention to my social posts, you’ll get an idea.” Scrolling through his Instagram, I discover a few posts that feature lakes and captions about testing. “Are you going to jump over a whole lake or something?” I ask. “No,” he answers with a laugh. “I’m going to ride on water.”
The concept of riding on water is not a new one. From the early days of moto video, we’ve seen guys hydroplaning across bodies of water at top speeds, with perhaps the most notable being Kevin Windham ripping across a Mississippi pond on his works Honda CRF450R in the TransWorld Motocross production, Crush. That, however, is child’s play in comparison to the idea Maddison cooked up for Pipe Dream. Thinking two steps ahead is a gift/curse that Maddison is burdened with, and he didn’t simply set his sights on riding across water but on riding a wave in the ocean. And, of course, not just any wave would do, it had to be the legendary Teahupo’o reefbreak in Tahiti, French Polynesia. Renowned for the consistent number of barrels it delivers, Teahupo’o is characterized by its shallow coral reef, which lies only 20 inches below the water’s surface and is largely responsible for the desirable shape of the waves its famous for.
A year later, I question Maddo about the progress of his water-bike project, but I mostly want to know where the idea came from. “I spend a lot of my summers in Australia with family, and over there we spend a lot of time in and on the water,” Maddo says. “The way a boat creates a wake or how the water flows has always fascinated me: ‘What’s happening to propel it?’ ‘How much water is it displacing?’ Processing all of those thoughts in my head made me think of how to make a bike float on the water. One night I put together some sketches and called up one of the guys who developed the snow bike and asked for his opinion. He said, ‘Yeah, we could totally make this work,’ and a few months later I took a trip up to Idaho and rode on a frozen lake that had pretty much just thawed out.”
Maddison’s early attempts involved a Honda CR500R, outfitted with two skis: one beneath the front wheel and a larger one that extended from beneath the frame back to the rear wheel, which was outfitted with a paddle tire normally used for dune riding. With no existing “water bike” projects to learn from, Maddison and his team experimented with a wide range of options, including dozens of different ski and tire options, and even a booming KTM 450 SX-F four-stroke. “Contrary to what you might assume, the overall power output of the bike didn’t have that much effect on its ability to ride across the water,” says Maddo’s mechanic, Buddy Morgan. “Instead, it was the shape and angle of the skis and the number of paddles on the rear tire that made the most difference.” As one might think with such a project involving so much trial and error, sinking the bike was a very real part of the learning curve. “I’d say that through the entire project, we sank the bike 30 to 40 times,” explains Morgan, who was faced with a five-hour workload every time the motorcycle was submerged. Thankfully, switching back to a two-stroke for the final setup—a KTM 250 SX—simplified the teardown and rebuilding process.
“We’ve got an exciting project in the works, and we’d like you to come along to document it,” says Nate Hawley, DC Shoes’ motocross team manager. At first, I have no idea what the meeting I’d been invited to at the DC headquarters is about, but as Hawley begins to explain, I realize that it has to do with my friend Robbie and his top-secret water bike. With the resources and production team to produce a truly amazing cinematic masterpiece—DC’s AIR.CRAFT production of 2013, for example—I knew that Maddo’s dream was going to become a very big reality. Needless to say, I eagerly accepted the invitation.
One of the biggest challenges the team faced in Tahiti was the feel of the ocean water and how the water bike handled in it. “Freshwater is much harder and more dense,” Maddo says. “Saltwater is softer and offers less traction for the tire, and the bike is more buoyant here, too.” Upon arrival in Tahiti, Maddo and the DC crew spent a few days scouting locations and, most importantly, getting a feel for the famous surfbreak. “When we first got here, I pretty much jumped in the deep end so that I could get comfortable with the wave,” Maddo says. “They claimed that it was a seven-foot wave, but it was easily double that. That’s how they measure surf, though, from the back of the wave. I got out there and got a feel for the size and speed of the wave, and it was amazing. I also learned about the power of the wave when I was held down underwater a few times. It was at that point that I decided to wear a flotation vest beneath my gear.” Maddison also rode Teahupo’o on a personal watercraft several times to gain a feel for the wave on a motorized vehicle, and it was on the Jet Ski that the whole project nearly unraveled. Maddo launched himself into the air off of a wave and landed with such force that the impact dislocated his famously tender shoulder. For the remainder of the trip, Maddison soldiered on in familiar pain.
When I arrive in Tahiti, the first thing that hits me is the humidity; it feels a lot like Loretta Lynn’s, only with thousands of bugs that love the taste of my blood. The first Tahitian I meet is Raimana Van Bastolaer, Tahiti’s most famous and respected surfer. Everyone in the crew tells me that he’s the unofficial mayor of Tahiti, and I have no reason not to believe it. Raimana is welcoming and friendly, and I feel completely at ease in the unfamiliar country with him as my host. Raimana is instrumental in helping the DC team execute every step of the project, and it’s crystal clear that without his guidance and influence, none of it would be possible. When I first make it to the beach, my good friend and former co-worker Garth Milan tells me a story about stepping on a sea urchin, and Raimana rushing up and peeing on his foot to help relieve the pain. Through the rest of my time in Tahiti, I double-check everywhere I step, so as not to require the same treatment.
The first few days of riding the water bike took place in a secluded lagoon north of Teahupo’o, where Maddo and his team tested different skis, ski angles, and even final gearing ratios. All the while, the DC film and photo crew documented the process. Robbie would blast off the beach, rip across the calm water, and re-enter land on the other side of the lagoon with relative ease. Because starting from the beach, riding a Teahupo’o wave, then returning to shore was a task that not even Maddo could fathom, the team devised an ingenious plan to get Robbie and the water bike out into the waves: launch and catch barges. With Raimana’s assistance, two large barges were rented for the project. While the catch barge required only a simple “landing” ramp to be added to one end, an elaborate launch ramp that lofted Robbie and his bike several feet above sea level was constructed on the larger boat for Robbie to gain speed on before splashing into the ocean. When all was said and done, the launch ramp looked like something out of a Mad Max movie had there been a water-based sequel.
“It’s a different kind of danger,” Maddison says as we chat on the beach at the end of day five. “This project has a lot of the same danger as all of my other stunts, plus I’m really afraid of coming out here and drowning. Over the past two years of working on this, I’ve dislocated my shoulder, broken my ankle, and had a few concussions. You wouldn’t think that you could get hurt riding on the water, but I’ve been thrown off the thing and onto the shore more than once while testing.” More often than not, I catch Robbie with that faraway stare as he sits on the beach, and it’s obvious that he’s going through every possible scenario in his head. If there’s one thing you could never accuse Maddo of, it’s jumping in headfirst without a calculated plan. In contrast to the carefree, reckless image that freestylers portrayed in the early years, Maddison is a true technician of the sport.
Taking the show to the ocean proved to be trickier than anyone on the team imagined, and the first attempt ended with bike and rider sinking in the white water when the timing of the launch wasn’t just right. Furthermore, the power of the wave sucking the water out to sea produced a treadmill-like effect, robbing the bike of its forward momentum. Gearing changes were in order after Morgan drained the bike of all the saltwater, and after more testing it was determined that fourth gear would be perfect for outrunning the massive Teahupo’o wave.
The second attempt in Teahupo’o was successful for the most part, as Raimana read the incoming swells perfectly and gave the signal for Maddo’s launch at the precisely right moment. Maddo did a start off the launch barge that could have yielded a holeshot at any National MX, ripped through the water at the base of a good-sized wave, and rode toward the catch barge with success at his fingertips—nearly. “I was nervous when I made the first wave, but I had tunnel vision on success,” Maddo says. “After I made it, I started to celebrate before I landed on the barge, and a swell hit me when I was 10 feet from the door and I crashed face and chest first into the corner of the boat.”
As Morgan drains the water bike on shore, Maddison is filled with a mixture of emotions: happy because the mission was a relative success, but dissatisfied because as a perfectionist, he always wants more. While lesser men might pass out high fives and declare it a wrap, Robbie knows that he can do better. “This entire project has consisted of constant surprised spankings and disheartening lessons,” he says. “At this point I’m letting the shortfalls bounce off me like water on a windshield. The team was concerned about my impact with the barge, but to me it was a success because I wasn’t hurt.” It isn’t spoken out loud, but it’s obvious that a third attempt at sea is in store for tomorrow.
By all accounts, the third attempt was flawless as Maddo and the water bike rode into, through, and out of Teahupo’o without incident. The film crews got the shots, the bike stayed out of the water, and Maddison was safe. All the ingredients for an amazing video edit were in place, and again, most men would have declared the project a wrap. But not Robbie Maddison. With huge swells on the horizon, Maddo convinced a skeleton crew to stick it out for a few more days in order to get an even bigger wave. At its peak, Teahupo’o is known to produce waves upward of 20 feet, and that was exactly what the wave reports called for. Surfers from around the world converged on Teahupo’o, flying in to ride the massive swell, and this led Raimana to move the Pipe Dream project north to Papara—another popular, albeit less popular, surf spot. In order to achieve maximum impact with the premiere of Pipe Dream, absolute secrecy was a must, and the crowd that would gather at Teahupo’o would be impossible for even Raimana to control.
The waves at Papara were massive, but there was no convincing Maddo that “one last ride” in search of epic footage was a bad idea. “We were all a little nervous about the last wave,” Morgan says. “The swells were giant, and I worried that the bike might not have gone fast enough to outrun those monsters.”
Morgan, it turned out, was right. After dropping in, Maddo realized the same as he peered over his shoulder at the massive wall of water that was closing in on him. “I knew that clicking into fifth in the water wouldn’t have the same effect that it has on dirt, but I had to do something,” Maddo says. As soon as the transmission flicked into fifth, the water bike lost forward momentum and Robbie Maddison was swallowed up by the angry Tahitian sea.
Time dragged on at a viciously slow pace after the crash, and the radios between all the DC support crew remained eerily silent. All told, Maddison was missing for four to five minutes, and many in the crew feared the worst. “When I went down, the bike hit me in the back and knocked the wind out of me,” Maddison says. “Then I was sucked under and tumbled around beneath the waves. Wave after wave pounded me, and each time, just as I was about to take in a big breath of saltwater, I’d pop up for just a second to grab a breath of air.” When the rescue crew finally spotted Maddo, they raced to his side with a Jet Ski and dragged him aboard. Thankfully and finally, the Pipe Dream project was a wrap.
On their way to a well-deserved Hawaiian vacation, Robbie; his wife, Amy; and their children, Cruz, and Jagger, are boarding a plane when I call. “What went through your head when that last wave took you down?” I ask, having not spoken to my friend since returning from Tahiti. After a few moments of silence, Maddo replies, “To be honest, when I saw that wave closing in on me, I thought that it could have been the end. As I was sucked under the water, I did my best to remain calm, but the thought that it could have been the end of me was racing through my head. It’s as close to a near-death experience as I’ve ever come. But even as I was being dragged onto the Jet Ski when I finally surfaced, I was thinking that the whole project was a success. You’ve got to push your limits to learn where they actually are.”
“But, hey, I’ve got something really big in the works, mate…”