In the climactic scene of Nuclear Cowboyz, a new theatrical freestyle motocross production featuring fire, fetching female dancers, and 16 of the sport’s top riders, the leaders of two rival tribes (Nate Adams and Jeremy Stenberg, respectively) face off in a fierce trick battle. With apologies for spoiling the ending: They soon realize their freestyle skills are equal, and unite to become stronger.
The fact the competition concludes without a winner serves as a handy metaphor for major changes sweeping freestyle motocross in the United States, where the number of contests has declined, replaced by demonstrations and choreographed shows such as Nuclear Cowboyz, which finishes its 15-city tour April 18 at Allstate Arena outside Chicago.
Last year, NBC’s Dew Tour switched from a season-series format that awards a championship, to demonstrations at a few select stops. The Red Bull X-Fighters tour, which begins April 16 in Mexico City, will not come to the U.S. this year. That leaves the X Games, and the ASA FMX World Championships in October, as the only major freestyle competitions.
Riders and other industry figures cite a variety of factors for the shift, from a poor economy, to stale contest formats, to concerns about safety leading to a lag in trick progression. Whatever the causes, fewer competitions leave FMX as more of an entertainment spectacle, and raise questions about the sport’s future.
“It’s definitely in a transition,” said Ronnie Renner, a veteran freestyle competitor and two-time X Games Step Up winner. “It’s an all-been-done theory. It takes a lot these days to impress people and raise eyebrows.”
Do we need more options to capture the attention of the audience through music, dancers, pyrotechnics, and a compelling storyline? Are the freestyle events going to take over because we are so television dependent? If you go to X Games, it’s built for television, so they start and stop and wait for commercials. If you go to a race, it’s full blast for a couple of in your face hours.
Once backflip combinations and body varials became common in recent years, competitors were forced to take tremendous risks to win contests, often leading to serious injuries.
The death of X Games gold medal winner Jeremy Lusk following a crash at a contest in Costa Rica during February 2009 underscored the potentially terrifying consequences. Lusk attempted a Hart Attack backflip but failed to fully rotate while soaring more than 20 feet through the air. He landed on his front tire and crashed face-first into the dirt, sustaining serious head injuries. He died three days later.
Serious injuries contributed, in part, to the Dew Tour dropping freestyle competition. Still, sponsors insist that riders perform at major competitions like ESPN’s X Games, where their brands get maximum exposure on TV.
To remedy the situation, several leading riders and industry figures founded the American Freestyle Motocross Association (AFMXA) in 2009, to increase safety in the sport and grow opportunities for riders at the grass-roots level through amateur competitions, the first of which was held in November 2009.
Should we take out an obituary?