A motor bike and rider soar 40 feet into the air. Mid-flight the rider detaches himself from the bike, flipping it and spinning it around his head in mid-air like a spacewalker playing with a satellite toy. He keeps the bike in play by the tip of his fingers holding the back tail light as both man and motor stretch across the air. He then effortlessly pulls the machine back toward him and resaddles and straightens up just in time as the motorbike comes down and lands on its back wheel, then front wheel and he rides away. It’s a graceful display of man and machine in gravity defying unison, a trick at which any moment with the slightest mistake would see the rider painfully crash to the ground with his ride on top of him.
Yet crashes, bruises, and broken bones are all par for the course at the X Games. This jump jamboree is the Olympics of extreme sport and has its own A-list of fearless superstars such as snowboarder Danny Kass and skateboarder Shaun White, known as the Flying Tomato for his shaggy red hair and mid-air antics. They may not be household names among ordinary sports lovers but they are skatepark heroes among the youth subculture that flocks to this annual event held in different locations around the U.S., but mainly in Los Angeles and Aspen. The Colorado event is the winter version, with skiers and snowboarders thrilling the crowds with aerial acrobats. Skinny guys in baggy pants show their youth was not wasted when fooling around with a board in the local park. Organizers are constantly introducing new mutant endeavours such as Ultracross, a ski and snowboard relay race, and Snowmobile Snowcross, described as Nascar on snow. Two hundred-fifty athletes take part, including several dozen Olympians, and crowds of up to 130,000 spectators form 2-hour queues around the block for the 3-day events. An event village is created where an X Fest takes place, showcasing the participants to the background of live rock music and interactive video games. Though it may look as though the athletes are having all the fun, the fans, in watching all the tricks and stunts, experience their own adrenaline rush.
The first event took place in 1995 and has grown exponentially since. Some initial experiments included bungee jumping and shovel racing but it soon became apparent that it was the core sports of biking and boarding that excited the crowds and got the most from its participants. Owned, operated, and promoted by the sports channel ESPN, the X Games has proved a masterly exercise in marketing, with high octane sponsors attracted by the young, predominantly male audience and their potential spending power for accessories and video games. Such clever promotion is evident when another well known biker, Danny Way, launched himself over the Great Wall of China and it is all too obvious in the amount of video clips of X Game tricks frequently downloaded by the YouTube generation.
Initially spurned by the sporting establishment, extreme sport is losing its counterculture swagger and is slowly being accepted into the fold as a genuine sport. The success of BMX riders in the Beijing Olympics is evidence of this. Much of this approval can be put down to the X Games showcasing this new generation of G-force gymnasts and what they can do with a chopper. The BMX Superpark is one of the most popular arenas used during the summer event. The smooth, dune shaped court has domed walls, extreme curves, ramps, and pits. Riders skoot about the assault course with practiced ease, sliding along high wall edges, spinning over ramps, and flipping in the air with an audacious confidence that says the future of sport is here and it is extreme. —CO’M
When to go: Summer games Aug; winter games Jan/Feb.
Los Angeles, Aspen, or Denver.
Aspen: $$$ Limelight Lodge, 355 S. Monarch St., Aspen, CO 81611 ( 1/970/925-3025; www.limelightlodge.com). $$ Hotel Durant, 122 E. Durant, Aspen, CO 81611 ( 1/970/925-8500; www.durantaspen.com). Los Angeles: $$$ Omni Los Angeles at California Plaza, 251 S. Olive St., Los Angeles, CA 90012 ( 1/213/617-3300; www.omnihotels.com). $$$ Elan Hotel Modern, 8435 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048 ( 1/323/658-6663; www.elanhotel.com).
Note: The X Games are scheduled in Aspen until 2012.