Los Angeles is a tangle of freeways and low-slung concrete bungalows, punctuated by the occasional cluster of steel and glass high-rise buildings. Few are of any particular architectural merit or interest. None would catch your eye driving up the 405 freeway from San Diego on a balmy, sunny day.
Unless, of course, you happen to be Robbie Maddison.
“I was driving northbound into LA at 65 mph, and passing this big building,” says Maddison. “And I thought, ‘With the right ramp and at the right speed, I can jump a 10-storey building.’ And the idea was there.”
A few months later, it became reality. In front of thousands of revellers in Las Vegas last New Year’s Eve, the Australian freestyle motocross rider and heir-apparent to daredevil Evel Knievel rocketed up a ramp set at 68 degrees, flew 40m into the air and landed neatly on top of a 30m-tall replica of the Arc de Triomphe. Then he turned around and dropped back down, sticking the landing and driving into the arms of his immeasurably-relieved girlfriend, Amy.
Millions watched via a live telecast; more than a million have since watched the footage on YouTube. Most were probably asking the same question: What was he thinking?
“The excitement before a jump – the build-up, the suspense – is almost sickening,” says Maddison. “It’s really hard to turn the mind off, because with the big jumps, all your mind wants to play over is what could go wrong… when all that’s gone, there comes a calmness about the whole situation, and you realise that physics proves it’s possible. So, once you avoid all that, it’s the most amazing feeling ever.”
Since the New Year’s Eve jump introduced Maddison to the world, he’s jumped Tower Bridge in London, and will return to England again in a few weeks to battle it out with the world’s top 12 freestyle motocross riders on a course of big jumps built for the occasion at Battersea Power Station, the finale of the X-Fighters freestyle motocross tour.
Three decades after Knievel’s last jump, the 27-year-old from Kiama, New South Wales, is heading a new generation of wannabe Evels who are bringing big-jump spectacles back. Maddison’s New Year’s Eve jump came a year after he set the long-distance jump record, again on New Year’s Eve, again in Las Vegas. With the family of Evel Knievel looking on, less than a month after the daredevil’s death, Maddison jumped 322ft and seven inches (98.32m), setting the world record at a length Knievel himself said could never be managed.
It’s not just the more powerful and lighter bikes – the new generation of big jumpers are better trained and more methodical in their approach.
“It’s not just winging it, like it used to be,” says Cameron Steele, a longtime rider and motor sports commentator for the American sport network ESPN. “A lot who have been successful in past four five years, are aware of the science of it. It’s become more of a profession. These guys aren’t daredevils, they’re athletes.”
The late morning wind whips up dust devils, and cows lumber slowly across the parched ground in the hills near Valencia, greater LA. It’s hard to believe the waxed Porsches and bronzed, botoxed skin of Wilshire Boulevard and Malibu are just an hour’s drive away – depending on traffic, of course – to the south. In the arid hills separating southern California from the breadbasket that makes up the central part of the state, two sizeable motocross courses, with moulded jumps and ramps, have been carved into a small valley just down the road from a shooting range.
Maddison sits in the shade of a blue tarpaulin, slowly pulling on his gear. Two carbon-fibre knee braces go over a pair of leggings. He pulls a jersey over his narrow and muscular frame, covered in scrapes and surgery scars. Maddison guesses he’s broken more than 30 bones in his body, not to mention suffering concussions, skull fractures and a laundry list of various other injuries not for the faint of heart.
His mechanic fiddles with the blue Yamaha bike, zip-tying down the throttle and brake cables so that Maddison’s feet don’t catch on them while he’s upside down in mid-air. A beefy fellow with a sartorial taste rarely diverting from black T-shirts and baseball caps, Vernon ‘Buddy’ Wagner became Maddison’s full-time mechanic last year. An almost constant travel companion, Wagner has coaxed the best out of Maddison’s bikes, and serves, along with Amy, as a confidant and sounding board.
The bike he wheels out onto the edge of the course is the same one he used for the New Year’s Eve jump and the Tower Bridge jump, and it will hopefully guide him to victory in the X-Fighters event in Battersea. “Comfort means a lot to him,” says Buddy. “We’ve got a new bike in, but Robbie keeps asking for the blue Yamaha.”
The bike pops and growls as Maddison twists the accelerator, the understanding between man and machine obvious as he guides it around the course, dust clouds trailing. He hits one ramp over and over again, whipping his bike to the side in mid-air or hovering horizontal above it and grabbing the seat. He pops a backflip; then another one. Amy, sitting at a picnic bench under the tarp, breaks off conversation when she hears the sudden rev of the engine in mid-air. She waits for the sound of the bike landing and Maddison accelerating again, and then walks out to get a better view. Maddo hits a double jump facing the hillside, and whips the bike to the side, cutting a beautiful arc in the blue sky. “Oooh,” she says, clapping. “That was good.”
The two met five years ago, at a time when Maddison was adrift, recovering from injuries and spending a bit too much time enjoying the nocturnal exploits of the party-heavy motocross scene. Amy provided stability and structure. Maddison likes to say that she also brought out his inner show-off. Of course, it was always there.
He was three years old when he pulled his first stunt, riding full-speed down a hill next to a school bus filled with his cheering kindergarten classmates. He hit the brakes, laying down a nice long skidmark right next to the waiting parents at the bottom of the hill.
His mother gave him a hiding; his father gave him a motorcycle helmet.
A year later, he got his first motocross bike. Shortly thereafter, he snapped it in half.
By age five, Maddison was jumping a two-tiered car park near his family home, flying 10-12m in the air. By eight years old, he was competing in motocross events all around Australia, his father waking him at 3am for the 10-hour drive to dusty tracks far from home. On the technically-demanding motocross tracks, his ease on the bike was noticeable; his penchant for going big on the jumps, more so.
“I just kept wanting bigger bikes so I could jump bigger and bigger,” he says.
At 16, he gave up a promising career in favour of a more stable future as an electrician’s apprentice. After two years of nine-to-five work that give him the money to buy a house but did nothing for his happiness, he reconsidered.
“I walked away from that, and my mind told me I was wrong, but my heart told me I was right,” he recalls. “When I listened to that, and had the courage to follow that, my mind couldn’t make sense of it.”
Maddison spends a lot of time ignoring what his mind tells him. It’s what enables him to do things on a bike that most of us cringe watching, let alone try ourselves. The community of freestyle motocross racers is a tight-knit one, owing both to its relatively small size and to the shared understanding among the riders that few people can truly fathom what drives them.
Recent months have found Maddison in an especially reflective mood. The death of his close friend and X-Games Champion Jeremy Lusk in an accident during a competition in Costa Rica in February shook the entire community of racers and drove home the danger inherent in their sport.
“How does Lusk pass away, doing what we do every single day, when I just went with the biggest risk of anyone, jumped a building and just walked away – how is that even fair?” says Maddison. “It was hard to understand.”
Since the incident, Maddison’s become more careful, more in-tune with the voices telling him when it’s time not to ride. A FMX rider’s professional life is spent treading the fine line between courage and lunacy. Maddison keeps balance by striving to live in the moment, thankful for each opportunity he gets on a bike.
“I know a lot of people are afraid to die. I’m not,” he says. “ Not that I want to end anything, but it’s important to get everything out of life – and that’s what I’m doing.”
One wonders where it can go from here. Maddison sometimes gets the feeling that he’s peaked too early, hitting two massive jumps within a year. But then there are always riders pushing him to jump higher and set new records as he breaks old ones. Mostly, though, it is the adoration of the crowd and the spectacle of the big jumps that proves far too addictive for him to resist.
In a matter of weeks, Maddison will rocket out of an empty window at the Battersea Power Station, hitting a carefully designed course, jockeying with his fellow riders for bigger airs and crowd reaction.
“If you’re not seeing Robbie the showman, you’re not seeing the real Robbie,” he says. “That’s just who I am.”