Never before have the Red Bull X-Fighters faced a track like the gigantic amphitheater that has been carved out of the hills of Southern California. With the most intimidating step-up jump in the history of the sport, the FMX aces from around the world will need all their skills and maybe a prayer just to get through it.
So intimidating and perilous is the 60-foot-high step up jump at the heart of the Glen Helen track that many of the world’s top FMX riders opted to leave it out of their programs in Qualifying on Friday while those brave enough to flip up and down the canyon-like wall were rewarded for their courage.
The massive track measuring 300 feet by 750 feet is more than twice as big as the next-largest FMX track in the 11-year history of Red Bull X-Fighters and is a dream-come-true for track designer Dane Herron. “We carved a bowl out of the hillside and created an amphitheater for the ultimate FMX track,” he said ahead of Saturday’s 2 p.m. competition, the second stop in the six-stop 2012 World Tour.
The riders were duly impressed, although some admitted to being scared out of their riding boots the first time they saw the track on a walkabout through the canyons created by Herron’s team of bulldozers. The vast area features more than 30 different riding options with a bowl-curved wall, quarter pipe, wall ride and a 160-foot jump. The step-up is simply awe-inspiring. Riders have to race up a dirt jump at the base of the hill and launch themselves more than 60 feet into the air to the top of the cliff. If they fall just an inch short of the landing, they can end up falling back down the steep cliff all the way to the bottom of the hill.
“It’s the biggest track we’ve ever ridden,” said Levi Sherwood of New Zealand. “It’s challenging, that’s for sure. The step-ups and step-downs are nuts. We haven’t seen anything like this before. When you first come to look at this track you get pretty nervous. But once you get on your bike and get all the jumps done it’s not too bad.”
Sherwood along with Spain’s Dany Torres and some other top favorites opted not to include the step-ups or step-downs in their repertoire for Qualifying while Thomas Pages of France, Eigo Sato of Japan and Todd Potter of the United States all did and ended up 1-2-3 in Qualifying.
“It’s big and bad and it’s got a little of everything,” said Potter, clearly enjoying the home field advantage over many of the Europeans who he said are accustomed to jumping on tracks that resemble “flat little parking lot with two ramps”. He said he could understand why some of the riders were skipping the step-ups. “You’d be in trouble if you didn’t make it all the way up to the top,” he said. “You’d fall back down and break a bone maybe.”
Javier Villegas of Chile said he had a lot of respect for the course. “Yes, of course the step-up is scary. It’s human nature to be afraid of the unknown. I’ve never done a step-up or step-down that big. I’ve done a lot of FMX but nothing compares to this. This is taking the sport to the next level.”
American Wes Agee believes the step-up and the massive leaps up the cliff are going to electrify the crowds: “There aren’t many times in your life when you’re going to see something like that. A tractor-built 60-foot step up. It’s pretty intimidating when you first look at it. It took a while to get used to just getting up it. But now a couple of us are out there flippin’ in now so it’s exciting stuff. The crowd’s going to be super pumped on it.”
Nick Dunne, another American first-timer in the field, was also looking forward to the step-up. He admitted he has fallen back down hills nearly as large when his bike just missed the rim but said he had never seen anything quite like this one. “If you don’t make it all the way up you’re screwed,” he said. “You’d hit the wall and just slide all the way down to the bottom. The thing is there’s nothing to slow you down going back down so you’ll just get faster and faster by the time you hit the bottom. It’d probably hurt a lot too.”