It should have surprised Robbie Maddison when he forgot to hook his foot on the shifter of his Yamaha during practice for X Games 15 in August. He'd done thousands of no-handed backflips and it's not a trick you can learn if you forget basic things like keeping your body attached to the bike while upside down.
As he plummeted to the dirt at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, part of him was angry that he was about to knock himself out of the X Games before it even started. Part of him was anxious about what was certainly going to be a very painful crash. But no part of him was surprised -- he'd been warned.
It looked worse than it was, giving friends and competitors uncomfortable flashbacks to Cam Sinclair's recent catastrophic crash at X-Fighters Madrid and Jeremy Lusk's fatal crash in Costa Rica five months earlier. But Maddison only suffered a dislocated shoulder. The other shoulder he'd dislocated the left one six weeks earlier, at Red Bull X-Fighters Fort Worth.
The crash ensured that he'd remain without an X Games medal, and put his chance at an overall victory on the X-Fighters tour in jeopardy. And it proved his physical therapist, who had recently completed a six-hour full body assessment of Maddison, correct: he needed a break or he was going to kill himself.
"I don't know how to take that, as an insult or what," Maddison snaps. He's sitting on the floor of his home in Temecula, Calif., still jet lagged from a two-day trip to Europe. A native of Sydney, Australia, the 28-year-old is normally intense and cheerful. To see him intense and ticked off is disconcerting.
The question that sets him off is about his competition results in 2008 -- a season of events bookended by two New Year's Eve stunts that have cemented him as the rightful heir to Evel Knievel's legacy. But as spectacular as the stunts were, he had still failed to win an X Games or X-Fighters event.
I kind of don't want to say it, but some people have said, 'You've got his power now.'
-- Robbie Maddison
"Making my schedule's so busy, for sure I've robbed myself of a whole lot of top finishes. I could have done a lot better," Maddison no longer looks ticked off -- just tired. "I don't want to miss out on these [stunts], but I don't earn enough from them, so I have to ride freestyle, too. And if I just rode freestyle, I wouldn't be as well-recognized. So you're damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Of course, having a schedule packed with competitions and distance-record attempts and never-before-seen stunts isn't some coincidence of fate. It's exactly how he set it up.
In Australia, Maddison was a teen racing phenom known for banging bars with Chad Reed before he missed out on the growth spurt that the rest of his competitors enjoyed. At 16, he traded his bike for a career as an industrial electrician and may have never ridden again if he didn't pick up a magazine four years later and see some of his former competitors making a go of it as freestyle riders.
A freakishly quick study, Maddison learned many of the basic freestyle tricks on natural jumps that he and his friends rode in the bush. By the time he arrived at the Planet X Summer Games in January of 2003, the freestyle community was buzzing about an unknown rider who was supposedly one of the few people in the world with a backflip. Maddison had one -- at least, he had one off his friend's rickety jump. He'd never hit a super kicker like the one at Planet X, but that didn't stop him from pulling flip after flip through practice and right to the top of the podium.
"No one else in Australia was doing that," says countryman Blake "Bilko" Williams about Maddison's confidence with what was still the sport's cutting-edge trick. "Robbie had a 'go for it' attitude. Once he sets goals, there's not too much that's going to slow him down."
By the time Maddison moved to the U.S. in 2006, he was a fixture on the Crusty Demons of Dirt freestyle tours and holder of both the 125cc distance record and the longest jump with a trick. He was making incremental progress on the freestyle competition circuit, as well. But two years later, the words "Robbie Maddison" and "incremental" would stop having any relation to each other.
In December of 2007, Maddison went to Butte, Montana, to attend the funeral of Evel Knievel. "I went there to pay respect, because this was a man who started something insane," Maddison says now. "When I sat there, something hit me. It was crazy. I got a feeling I never had before, and I kind of don't want to say it, but some people have said, 'You've got his power now.'"
On New Year's Eve, just three weeks after Knievel was laid to rest -- and 40 years to the night that Knievel jumped the fountain at Caesar's Palace -- Maddison blew through the parking lot of Las Vegas' Rio Casino at nearly 95 miles an hour. His goal was to jump a football field, and the millions of people watching the ESPN broadcast of the jump didn't care that a stiff head wind would wreak havoc with the attempt. Maddison came up short of his 360-foot goal, but at 322 feet he nevertheless shattered the existing record by nearly 50 feet.
Evel Knievel was a daredevil. Robbie's doing stunts with expertise and professionalism. He makes the impossible possible.
-- Dane Herron
The jump established him as the farthest-flying man in motorcycling at the time (three months later he'd establish a new record at 350 feet), but little else changed. "At that point in time, I still wasn't earning a set wage," he says. "So I had to go out there and ride demos all over the world. Wherever I can earn some money, I'm packing my bags. It kind of limited how good I could get at finishing an event."
Maddison slogged his way through the competition season, repeatedly being edged out due to tricks that the judges deemed just slightly shakier than his competitors. "It became painful after a while. They'd say, 'We marked you down for this trick,' and I'm like, 'If you only knew! I've done three of those tricks in the last two months -- that was a good one!'"
As the competition season wrapped up in August, Maddison knew he had to stop burning the candle at both ends. But he also knew his sponsor, Red Bull, was cutting a deal with ESPN for another New Year's broadcast. He should have been thinking about how to lighten his load; instead, he was driving down a freeway and thinking, "You know, if I had a ramp right now, I could totally jump over that building over there ..."
Maddison's jump on December 31, 2008, was completely without precedent: 100 feet straight up to the top of the Paris Casino's Arc de Triomphe, followed by a U-turn and a 70-foot plunge down to a landing ramp. The only thing that even came close was decades-old stunt by a peer of Knievel named Spanky Spangler, who used to jump into nets held aloft by cranes, which would lower him gently to the ground.
"When I saw the setup, I was like, 'This is stupid,'" says Bilko. "It was crazy enough to step up, but to step down to that landing? With that margin of error? The jump down was a whole 'nother level."
Dane Herron, who was heavily involved with the design and construction of the ramps for the Arc jump, has worked on countless moto stunts -- including Maddison's distance record the year before. But nothing could prepare him for the jump he helped prepare: "It was the most nervous I've ever been," he says. "As soon as Robbie hit the ramp, I actually blacked out for two seconds. My friend nearly had to catch me."
Maddison admits it was scariest thing that he'd ever done -- he caught the last feet of transition on the landing by inches and was still convinced he would splat even as he found himself skidding into the corral at the base of the landing. But as the last champagne corks popped and the sun rose on 2009, his euphoria over simply surviving one of history's great stunts gave way to something even more profound.
"Some people can ride awesome in practice, but when the event happens they can't handle it in their heads," he says. "That's a demon that's been following me a long time. After the Arc jump, I got to a place in my head where it was like, 'I can do this now.'"
Increased sponsor support allowed him to spend the months prior to the competition circuit focused on training, rather than flying around the world for demonstration events. Still mourning the loss of his friend Lusk, Maddison skipped the first stop of the 2009 X-Fighters tour. But at the second stop, in Calgary, Canada, he finally broke through for his first major competition victory. "I had my head on straight and I went out there and won. I beat Nate head to head in the first round. I beat Rebeaud, I beat Sato, Twitch -- everyone."
But as soon as his head started working, his body stopped.
After the crash at X Games 15, Maddison didn't take his physical therapist's advice -- at least, not immediately. The X-Fighters final stop in London remained, and he was still in position for an overall tour victory. He gutted his way to the semifinal, where Nate Adams took him out en-route to both the event victory and the tour championship. Still, his showing was strong enough keep him in second place overall and cement his reputation as one of the top competitors in freestyle.
"We were both in the running for the X-Fighter Championship until the last stop," says Adams. "If Robbie hadn't washed out coming around a corner, it could have been a different story. He does the distance jumping, the stunt jumping, but he's an awesome freestyle rider. His results this year were a big step up."
Finally, at the end of August, Maddison came to rest. He spent six weeks back in Australia and surfing in Bali. He assessed his major injuries -- the two shredded shoulders, the missing ACLs in both knees, the countless deep tissue contusions and sprains and tears -- and accepted that it's time to let things heal. As he stares down the rest of 2009, there is no ground-breaking stunt to plan and no dance with death to mentally prepare for. There's just rest.
And after he's rested?
"I want to win X-Fighters, and after that I want to increasingly work on these projects," he says. The talk of missed opportunities has passed, and speaking of the future makes him both reflective and excited. He's back to being intense and happy. "There are things that I've realized I can totally do. They might not be achievable with the bikes I have in my shed, but there's some smart guy out there who can build me something gnarly. The Arc jump was just a taste of what's next."
It sounds like he's channeling Evel Knievel himself, but there are a lot of riders with claims to the legend's legacy these days; current distance record-holder Ryan Capes for one, Knievel's own son Robbie for another. They can have it. Robbie Maddison is a different animal altogether.
"Evel Knievel was a daredevil -- somebody who tries something beyond their capabilities," says Herron. "Robbie's doing stunts with his abilities and experience and expertise and professionalism. He makes the impossible possible."