I hate stunt riding. I might even hate stunt riders. The so-called sport of stunting competition has, since its inception, been populated by uncultured sociopaths intent on destroying our sacred 120-year history of motorcycling. Stunt riders are basically highway criminals who’ve found a means to monetize their anti-social and illegal behavior. They threaten our motorcycling freedom and culture. And they dress funny.
Okay, maybe I don’t personally feel that way, but that’s how a likely majority of motorcyclists perceive stunt riders and their noisy, irreverent sport. And the sad thing is, the nasty things I’ve just said are the attractive, compelling and exciting qualities of the sport. What’s worse is the bore of it all. Unending contests of slowest wheelies, longest stoppies, biggest smokies, noisiest engines, baggiest pants… Yeah, we’ve seen it. And then we’ve seen it six more times. We’ve seen it on TV. We’ve seen it pretend to be clandestine. We’ve seen it as a sideshow at racing events. We’ve seen it in the local plaza parking lot. We’ve even been forced to explain it to friends in cars who wear shirts with buttons. That last part really hurt.
So, it was with trepidation of boredom and anticipation of annoyance that I attended the XDL stunt competition in Portland, Oregon. And it was with immediate and great appreciation that I was proved wrong in my perceptions of the sport.
To put stunt riding into its historical context, we can blame it all on Englishman Gary Rothwell, who brought the sport to the States in the mid-1990s. At the time, his performances were a shock of skill to even the best professional racers. When he performed at AMA Superbike events, the racers ran to the pit wall to watch. Foot-on-the-pegs burnouts were unheard of before him. Four-up wheelies were crazy. Sideways burnouts the length of front straights had been thought impossible. But then it got all out of control. Within months, every kid with a VHS player and a pocket full of moving violations was suddenly a professional stunt rider.
Rothwell turned out to be the alfa-infection of a disease that swept across motorcycling in America. A legion of young enthusiasts bought Rothwell’s tapes, and overnight, we were flooded with disturbing videos of bad behavior. And not just bad behavior on motorcycles, but some seriously bad behavior in general. Such as the StarBoyz, with their indiscreet “FTP” (f#*k the police) videos; you meet the nicest ne’er-do-wells on a motorcycle. Sonny Barger suddenly looked as wholesome as a senator. Topping it off, all this was promoted by a couple of renegade magazines and a dubious motion picture.
Organizing stunt riding into an actual sport had many bad starts and failures, finally coming to fruition under the guidance of Randy Grube’s XDL, which started out as a car event with bike stunts as a side attraction. In 2006, Grube met with riders and was convinced to launch the XDL as a national series hosting five events each year.
“I wanted an event that reached a younger audience than the aging motorcyclist demographic that seems disconnected from the new generations,” said Grube. “So, we set up good prize money, free booth space for riders selling products and tapped into urban venues. We purposely set it up like a racetrack event with hot pits, cold pits, paddock and so on. XDL originally stood for Extreme Drift League, which referred to cars, so we didn’t talk about what the initials meant. It’s funny how drifting has now become a popular motorcycle stunt event, showing that we had the right name in place before its concept happened to arrive.”
As the sport has grown, it has come to attract riders from around the world, such as Triumph- and Icon-sponsored Julien Welsch from France and Japanese rider Hiroyuki Ogawa. Welsch, who has competed widely in Europe, said, “The European riding style is much different. Over there, the riders are very exact and precise. Here, the riders are more concerned with style, with showing off.” On the other hand, Ogawa has a uniquely Japanese style that’s highly graceful, and his motorcycle is more of a dance partner than machine.
Initially, stunt events in the States had been all high-speed shows, eventually morphing into slow-speed stunts. Today, with the XDL, it’s become moderate-speed stunts, a program that fits well into venues while maintaining a necessary level of excitement.
Grube explained that within the half-dozen years that the XDL has existed, the events have evolved from around 20 riders competing in just one local event each, with only about five or six doing the entire season. Now there are maybe five or six local riders at events and nearly 20 doing the full slate. “Local guys saw that the level of competition had become too high for them to have any chance of doing well,” he said, “so we don’t see many one-event riders any more. But because the level of riding is now so elevated, it attracts the best nationwide and even from around the world. It’s the only full series with mature and proven rules. It brings its champions respect. The XDL is probably even more respected outside America.”
Unlike in Europe, the freestyle performances in XDL are only a two-minute format rather than three-minute. So, even if a rider sucks, it’s like ’50s-70s radio: The act is over before you have time to get pissed off at Jeremiah being a goddamn bullfrog. The XDL show includes wheelie and drifting competitions, which are fast-paced and fulfilling for the spectators.
In the States, Triumph and Icon have taken the lead in promoting the sport, featuring Team Empire and riders Ernie Vigil and Nick Brocha in videos, events, catalogs, posters and all sorts of marketing material. Triumph even did a tie-in video with Vigil and Brocha and AMA Daytona SportBike rider Jason DiSalvo, which logged over two million views on YouTube.
Brocha is the 2008 XDL champion who’s also been featured with Vigil in Icon’s “Car vs. Motorcycle Drift 2” video. Vigil was Jim Carrey’s motorcycle stunt double in “Yes Man” and rides a bike in the “Police Car” episode of “Top Gear USA.”
Working with Vigil and Brocha here in the States, as well as Welsch in France, has allowed Triumph, Icon and others to connect with a new generation of enthusiasts whose global perspectives are defined by the worldwide information expressway that they’ve never known life without. The global village of motorcycling has arrived, and these guys ride it with their engines pinned to the rev limiter.
Heck, these kids don’t know that most of us reading this magazine grew up on motorcycles that didn’t even have rev limiters. For most of us, the last decade was just another 10 years of riding, but it was the teenage years of these riders, during which they formed their enthusiasms. Vigil and Brocha, as 14-year-old kids, grabbed every bike publication and video that featured stunt riding, promising themselves that as soon as they owned a bike, they’d be abusing the crap out of it, perfecting wheelies, stoppies, developing their own tricks and storming the world with professional-grade antics on sportbikes. By comparison, all we did during the last decade was watch reruns of “Easy Rider” and purchase the box set of “Then Came Bronson.” No wonder we’re confused.
So, are stunters like Vigil and Brocha the portal to the next generation of enthusiasts? Are they the soon-to-be heroes of opening economies half a world away? Could be both. With our knee-jerk history of wanting them incarcerated, it’s going to be hard for us to find the applause button.
Giving the XDL this close look woke me up to the stunning quality of today’s stunts. Doing wheelies while sitting backward on a bike is impressive. Doing stoppies while facing backward is yet more impressive. Doing stoppies while facing backward with no hands on the handlebars (by using a brake lever hidden under the tailsection) is fantastically impressive. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. But it’s a stunt that XDL champion Bill Dixon performs maybe a little better than I ride with my front tire on the ground and my body facing forward.
Suffice it to say, the last thing these kids need are some angry guys old enough to be their fathers slamming the garage door in their faces. Not that that would or could ever be me. But some stunt haters are sitting in coffee shops wearing full leathers and steaming their sweaty noses over lattes. Others are riding two-up and chatting on headsets. Some are proving that they’re the fastest up the mountain from Bat Cave to the Buncombe County line. We can find enough haters of any of us and enough hate to give back at any moment. So, maybe these kids are all right.
Like with any questionable endeavor of man, once you get close enough to see the white of their eyes, smell the sweat of their efforts and feel the warmth of their handshake, you realize the personal passion involved. The XDL is no joke. As we’ve all experienced, everyone’s a fool from a distance. But up close enough to taste the smoke is where the abstraction fades and choices become grounded. Or does the smoke obscure?
My eyes are smarting.