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27 February 2024

'You make a mistake, you die': Daring but deadly world of freestyle motocross

Taka Higashino (AFP)


"It's crazy what we do, there's no limit. If you make a mistake, you can die."

They are the chilling words of Japan's Taka Higashino, one of the stars of freestyle motocross, the daring but not always death-defying sport which is gripping a worldwide audience.

After performing a series of high-risk jumps off ramps set up inside an arena in the French city of Tours, the 33-year-old Higashino, a veteran of the X Games culture, warned the sport is not for the faint-hearted.

In 2009, Jeremy Lutz, a 24-year-old Californian and an X Games gold medallist the previous year, was killed after a fall in competition.

Five years ago, Eigo Sato of Japan died after a training accident.

Sato's death almost pushed Higashino to the brink of quitting.

"But as soon as I got back on the bike, I felt great. I know only that this sport makes me smile," he said.

The more dazzling the tricks on their bikes, the better. And the packed house in Tours got their money's worth as riders flew more than 10 metres off the ground.

Once airborne, they take their hands and feet off their machines while allowing their bikes to somersault around them, twisting and turning at 180 degrees.

The dramatic shapes they make are reflected by their names - 'Tsunami', 'Kiss of Death', 'Cliffhanger', 'Shaolin', 'Superman'.

French star Tom Pages, one of the leading exponents of the sport, admits it's a tough addiction to shake.

"Every time I go to the X Games or Madrid (where the high-profile RedBull X Fighters event takes place) I ask myself: 'What am I doing there? I tell myself that this will be the last time," he told AFP.

"It's too hard a life, the knot in your stomach, the urge to vomit."

The sport of freestyle motocross - or FMX - enjoys a global circuit, boasting bright lights and dancing girls, and is run under the supervision of the international motorcycling federation.

There are two major centrepieces - the RedBull X Fighters in Madrid in front of 25,000 fans and the long-established X Games.

Other events run in parallel - in Mexico, the freestyle stars pull in crowds of 45,000.

Not bad for a discipline which has only been in existence for two decades.

It all started in 1997 when riders headed out to the deserts of America, leaping over sand dunes.

"They were real freestylers, tattooed, real trashers, people who had a high level in motorcycle racing but who preferred to party and do anything in the dunes, people who lived their lives," said Charles Pages, the brother of Tom.

Charles Pages is a former rider himself but after a serious injury, now acts as a judge.

He fell heavily competing at the Bercy arena in Paris in 2010, suffered a head injury and was in a coma for a number of days.

But he was still hooked and three years later he was back in the saddle before another accident in 2015 left him with a shattered ankle.

"I was depressed like never before, I couldn't see the point in getting up in the morning, to eat, breathe, to live," the 37-year-old recalled after realising his days of competing were over.

"Everything I did in my life was in relation to this sport. Today, things are better, but the adrenaline I had when I was riding, I know I'll never find it again.

"There has to be risk because that's where the adrenaline is."