Madrid's Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is a bullfighting ring, but its cultural heritage includes both Hemingway and AC/DC. In other words, it's just the sort of place where an FMX rider from the south of France might try to write a bit of history if 23,000 fans were there cheering him on. That was the scenario in mid-July for 28-year-old Charles Pagès, who has been chasing the action-sports dragon that is the front flip on a motocross bike.
Twice, Pagès launched off the jump that serves as a kind of theater-in-the-round for the first European stop of the Red Bull X-Fighters tour and threw himself over the bars. And twice he failed -- crashing hard on the first one but very nearly greasing the second. The big night ended with fireworks of all kinds -- local favorite Dany Torres of Spain won, Australia's Cam Sinclair wrecked horribly on a double backflip -- but nothing changed with respect to the front flip. No rider has ever landed it in FMX competition.
The first time Jim DeChamp tried the front flip to dirt, he crashed so violently it caused a diagonal compression fracture in his T12 vertebra. Three months later, with his back still technically broken, DeChamp made history.
DeChamp's failure was broadcast on live television at X Games 14 one year ago. His success, while shooting for Travis Pastrana's "Nitro Circus" TV show, went viral instantly on YouTube. And both attempts were viewed with particular interest by Pagès and his brother Thomas, as well as Minnesota's Paris Rosen. The Pagès brothers are both well-regarded pros on the FMX contest circuit. Rosen is a complete unknown without much freestyle experience. All three saw DeChamp's footage and started working on front flips of their own.
"Nobody ever tried the front flip because every rider just thought it was impossible," Charles Pagès says in an interview with ESPN Action Sports. "So when DeChamp did it and we all saw the video, we were like, 'Yes, it is possible.' You see it, and then you do it. That's just how it goes -- same for the first backflip, nine years ago. That was supposed to be impossible because the bike was too heavy. Then Carey Hart did it. And today everybody does it."
It's like, that is awkward, that is wrong. It feels like it's not supposed to happen.
As of today, only two riders have landed the front flip outside of competition: DeChamp and Charles Pagès. Thomas Pagès has come very, very close but will not yet claim the trick. Rosen has a convincing-looking flip into a foam pit but as of publication has not yet taken it to dirt.
And the four riders are trying three very different front flips. DeChamp's documented efforts were straightforward rotations on a modified 125cc bike over a 45-foot gap. The Pagès brothers employ an off-axis rotation on competition-standard 250cc bikes over a 66-foot gap. Meanwhile, Rosen's foam pit jumps are straight rotations on a 250cc over the competition-standard 75-foot gap.
Compared to a backflip, a front flip ranks as more difficult and dangerous for a few reasons. One is that, while a backflip doesn't actually rotate a full 360 degrees (the angle of the takeoff and landing remove a percentage of the spectrum), a front flip requires more than 360 degrees of rotation for the same reason. On top of that, the rotational momentum of the motor and spinning rear wheel makes the 200-pound bike want to flip backward, forcing the rider to overcome that challenge of physics. Then there's the small problem of not being able to spot one's landing.
"You're completely blind every single time," DeChamp says. "You hit the ground before you see the ground. So it's not a natural beauty trick -- it's like, that is awkward, that is wrong, and that's why I like it. It feels like it's not supposed to happen."
From January through April, Charles and Thomas Pagès spent whole days practicing front flips into a foam bit back home in France. At first, they borrowed DeChamp's bike design, with its cut-down forks and suspension, but neither felt comfortable off their day-to-day bikes.
"We thought at first, 'How is this possible?'" Charles says. "But once my brother starts with his normal bike, then I'm like, 'S---, now I have to go with my normal bike, too.' So it became a little game for us. And that's probably why we've been able to do it with the normal bike."
The Pagès also part ways with DeChamp regarding their technique. While DeChamp uses a little front brake to initiate his forward rotation, the Pagès use their shoulders, which in turn adds the off-axis spin to their flips.
"I go to the front of the bike in the right moment," Charles says. "I don't feel like I have to do anything special -- finding that moment took a little while, but then it happens. Maybe for someone like Travis Pastrana, he's going to find that moment in two jumps. For someone else, it'll take two years."
For underfunded, under-the-radar Rosen, the moment is still officially to come. He moved to Phoenix two years ago to train full time and started working on his own front flip in March. Footage of his foam-pit flips hit the Internet in May, which resulted in a spot as an alternate for X Games 15. With Cam Sinclair still hospitalized following the double backflip that went wrong at X-Fighters Madrid, Rosen went from X Games alternate to X Games competitor.
Rosen, whose limited bag of tricks doesn't include a backflip, did not want to discuss his techniques before the event. But he did explain that while he feels ready to bring the front flip to dirt, he plans on waiting until the X Games to actually try it. "Might as well do it there," he says. "I've been training on setups identical to X Games, and I'm going to be prepared for everything. Before I found out I was in, I was just going to do it practice. But now I only have to do it once instead of twice -- how that's for confidence?"
Going into the X Games, the song remains the same. Only DeChamp and Charles Pagès have landed a front flip to dirt. DeChamp and Charles and Thomas Pagès have all tried -- and failed -- to land the front in competition. (Thomas attempted one last month at Red Bull X-Fighters Texas, wrecking hard but walking away.) And while DeChamp did not receive an invitation to Los Angeles, both Charles and Rosen are entered into Best Trick and Thomas will have an opportunity to try the front in his Freestyle run.
But the most significant question isn't whether any of these riders will land a front flip at the X Games. It's whether a landed front flip will even be enough to win the X Games. Considering the depth of other progressive tricks rumored to be in the pipeline, that's far from a safe bet.
Top FMX rider Nate Adams, who swears he does not have a front flip, sums it up this way: "If we see it pulled in Best Trick and it's smooth -- a legit, fluid front flip -- it'll do really well."
Really well, but not a lock by any measure. First, defending champion Kyle Loza apparently has a top-secret concoction he plans to unveil in Best Trick. And then there's Travis Pastrana, who will return to the Best Trick for the first time since his history-making double backflip in 2007, reportedly with a no-handed backflip 360.
Says Charles Pagès, chuckling: "I'm almost scared to go over there and just do a normal front flip. Because every rider there is so good and has some special trick of his own. Maybe I need to find another trick?"
Not exactly, but feelings -- to say nothing of bodies -- could be hurt. Adams sums it up for everyone when he says, "I'd hate to be a judge this year."