By Eric Johnson
Photos | Monster Energy
On the first day of August 2009, Australian Blake "Bilko" Williams impressed the judges making the calls at Summer X Games 15 enough to earn Moto X Freestyle gold medal. The historical apex of the sport as far as global popularity and wealth of rider talent, Bilko thrilled the overflow crowd present that night in the Los Angeles-based Home Depot Center and flew out of LAX the next morning with the satisfaction in knowing he was the world's best freestyle motocross rider. Seven years later, the charismatic, extremely likeable 31-year-old is still at it. Hopping off the arena rock touring Nitro Circus tour for a fortnight, Bilko will apply his FMX skill set this Saturday afternoon and the premier Monster Energy FMX contest set for the parking lots of UNLV Sam Boyd Stadium. With 30 of the world's finest freestyle motocross competitors prepared to face off for a purse of $100,000 – four desperately sought 2017 Summer X Games FMX invites will also be up for grabs at the FMX High Rollers will serve as the official X Games qualifier – it's a new event that has the entire sport humming. An event dreamed up by Monster Energy's Mitch Covington, Ash Hodges, Aaron Quesada and Josh Hill, FMX High Rollers will feature Freestyle Motocross (FMX), Dirt Shark Biggest Whip and FMX Quarterpipe Big Air and five-time X Games medalist and Nitro road warrior Bilko was bent on getting us up to speed on the entire shooting match.
Bilko, your name is on the rider roster for the inaugural Monster Energy FMX High Rollers set to go down outside of UNLV Sam Boyd Stadium this Saturday at the Monster Energy Cup. What's this High Rollers thing all about?
Well, basically, I think it all speaks for itself. Las Vegas, High Rollers, it's at the Monster Energy Cup which is basically a high stakes supercross event. It's not sixteen rounds for a championship; it's everyone going out for $10 Grand. In light of that, we basically have a High Rollers freestyle motocross contest that's a roll of the dice where the best riders in the world are coming out to compete for a larger purse than X Games has had in a long time. It's going to be the best of the best coming out to Vegas to roll the dice and put it all on the line for not only a lot of prize money, but a spot in next year's X Games.
So it's also a 2017 Summer X Games qualifier?
Yes, correct. The top three are already qualified for 2017 Summer X, but the next four spots are still open and with the depth of the field with all of the events going on in Vegas, there are a lot of people ready to go and ready to throw it all on the line to get those spots. Our sport is basically defined by the X Games and major contests and it's been a while since there has been a qualifier, so now is the chance for everybody to come out and throw it all on the line. This is it. One shot. And what better place to do it than Vegas?
So getting one of those four '17 Summer X Games entries would be peace of mind for a guy such as yourself, wouldn't it?
Yeah, definitely. You know if you go there and get a top four, then you're automatically in for X Games and you don't have to worry about a selection committee or any of that stuff. If you get in that top four and get that guarantee, it's quite a weight off your shoulders for the next nine months until X Games roll around.
Going back to my X Games judging days, I've known you for quite a while now and we've all been around the sport for a number of years. Having said all that, up until last summer freestyle motocross was out of the X Games for a spell of time and most of the major, high profile FMX contests around the world have gone away. What's your of state of the freestyle motocross nation right now?
For a while there it went a little bit stale. We used to have huge courses at the L.A. Coliseum and the Home Depot Center and it kind of lost a little bit of spark when they crammed it all into a small stadium at Staples and just made it a little bit of a loop track with a couple of jumps. From all that, it really lost a little bit of its spark and obviously died off a little bit. I think this High Rollers contest can be the thing that kick starts it all back off again and really makes it what it used to be and gets everybody really amped and excited. With a new venue next year (Note: the 2017 Summer X Games will be held at the new U.S. Banks Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota), I think everybody is excited to not have a small, little course in an indoor arena for the biggest freestyle contest of the year.
What did you think of the Summer X FMX contest that ran last year at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas? The track appeared to be small and the jumps were kept to 75-foot single ramps.
I mean with all of the complications over the last couple of years with weather, the people that pay the money to put on X Games, they saw the sport as a little bit of a risk with how it had been cancelled. I think, on a positive note, it was great to have freestyle motocross back as a stepping stone to building a future, but I don't think they wanted to spend too much time, effort and money in building some huge course with all the shortcomings and cancellations and weather delays of the last few years. They did build a really basic course and it did kind of suck because there was a lot of flat track riding between jumps, but in saying that, the fact that the sport actually did make an appearance again at X Games and the contest went pretty damn well - some of the biggest tricks were thrown: double back flips, body varial and front flips - it kind of just cemented that freestyle motocross is back and will be on the rise.
You know going back to the late 2000s, the sport of freestyle motocross really was very prolific and popular around the entire world, wasn't it? So many great riders, contests, events...
Yeah, definitely. It was definitely when the sport was at its peak. I think we had a sixteen rider field at the Home Depot Center that year and we went through two rounds of qualifying. Then we had to break down to eight, and then break it down to four. It was like a supercross where you had all the heats and the finals. It was back when it was everybody against everybody.
How good are you now, Bilko?
Reasonable. Reasonable. For me, on a personal level, from what I was in 2009, I take fewer risks now and remain injury-free. I mean when you mention 2009, I spent so much time laid up from injury because I was pushing the limit the whole time. Now it's about making it through the twelve months of the year and riding every show and every event I'm scheduled to and walking away happy at the end of the year. It's not about throwing it all on the line for that one trophy.
What's it going to take to win or snag one of the X Games qualifying spots at this Vegas contest?
It's hard to tell right now how much the judges emphasize the Quarterpipe as opposed to the big jumps. You've got guys like Adam Jones that probably have the cleanest, smoothest, best executed upright tricks in the business and if he doesn't hit the Quarterpipe, how hard will the judges penalize on a something like that? You do have to have the mixture. You're going to need body varials, for sure, you're going to need something big off the 120-foot ramp. The course has got all the elements. You're going to have to excel in all areas. I mean the course looks amazing. They've got the big landing for the 120 ramp and they have a 75-foot jump that's jacked up as well as two Quarterpipes in each direction. You'll have to be creative and use every aspect of the course.
Who will be the contenders come show time on Saturday?
You can see the fire in Clinton Moore's eyes. He's already qualified for the X Games, but he's coming for the big prize purse. He's flying all the way from Australia because he wants that first prize check. Taka, I mean that guy rides every day. Adam Jones has been on Nitro Circus for the last few months doing trick after trick and just blowing everybody's minds. Levi Sherwood, he's been in New Zealand this whole time just flying under the radar. You've got no idea of what he's been practicing and what he's been doing. He always comes out swinging and he's got the best style and execution in the sport. To win, I think it's going to be the guy that makes the least mistakes and executes everything perfectly.
How about you? Can you win?
I don't know if I can win. I definitely want to out on a good show for the fans. It would be awesome to get a top four. Let's just go there and get out of there in one piece. There are a lot of guys out there with a lot of huge tricks and I'm playing catch up a little bit. We'll have to see how it goes, but I'm definitely aiming for that top four so I'm in for next year's X Games.
How about Quarterpipe Big Air and Dirt Shark Biggest Whip? Are you entered in those events?
I'm not much of a whipper. I mean I can do a little bit of a whip, but compared to the guys that competed in that event last year, I think I'll just leave it up to those guys to wear-out their rev limiters. And that Quarterpipe Big Air is going to be pretty gnarly. I think that'll push things to new heights and new levels. That's going to be pretty cool to watch.
You've been all over the world throughout the last year spreading the FMX gospel. What's your overall take on the sport and where it's at? Are there still a lot of fans who really like it? Is there still some energy out there?
There is s till a lot of energy and still a lot of fans who support it. It's just been hard because we haven't had a real event to showcase what we can do and what our sport is. I think this High Rollers contest at the Monster Energy Cup will be something to give it a little fire and bring it back. And the X Games are looking good, as well, with a new indoor venue and no restrictions on weather and risk, I think they're going to go all out and do a proper freestyle course like we used to see. I think all of this is just going to ignite the fire. I think this is all just going to start a new chapter, to be honest.