Vert's New Breed: Zack Warden

X Games 14 practice whip. Shazamm/ESPN Images

The first 900 was pulled by Mat Hoffman on March 25, 1989. Five days later, Zack Warden was born. There might not be a direct relation between the two events, but it seems as though vert legend Mat Hoffman has had an influence on the lifestyle Zack has chosen to lead.

At the young age of 8, Zack Warden was introduced to vert via the X Games. Astonished by Mat Hoffman's ability to take first place in vert with a broken foot, Zack picked up a bike and started riding in and around the St. Louis, MO area. While still in high school, Zack moved (on his own) to Milheim, PA to be close to Woodward Camp. He finished high school in PA, riding Woodward as much as possible, quickly adapting his style and technique to the vert ramp. Along the way, he picked up a handful of sponsors, including Levi's®, Rockstar Energy Drink, Nike 6.0, Tree, Camp Woodward and appropriately, Hoffman Bikes.

Clearly, Zack's drive and all or nothing approach to BMX had to come from somewhere. And I'm going to have to chalk it up to a healthy serving of Hoffman-esque influence throughout the years. Zack's not jumping out of planes or base jumping his bike of cliffs, but he's got the skills and diehard motivation to take vert into the next generation. And just like Mat Hoffman before him, no one is going to be able to stop him.

This is Zack Warden, a vital part of the new breed of vert.

How did you get into riding vert?

When I first saw BMX, I saw vert on TV and I was so amazed, Mat Hoffman especially. The first time I saw BMX was the '97 X Games when he broke his foot, and then he put a piece of foam in his shoe, and he won. He dominated everyone, and I was so star struck by the fact the he broke his foot, but still wanted to ride his bike so bad that he rigged his shoe and rode. I was so used to watching football players, not competing because they pulled a muscle, and I was like, wow, that dude is a true badass. He just won a contest with a broken foot. So I started riding, and I couldn't get over that memory in my head of how awesome Mat did. It's always been my motivation to ride.

Is it weird to ride for Hoffman Bikes now?

It's a dream come true. It's so wild. He's my hero, but he's just an average person. Last night, we were at his house and his dog pooped in the living room, and even Mat Hoffman gets to clean up poop, ya know? But it's awesome being part of the Hoffman Bikes team. It's an honor that I could never ever explain.

Was there a vert ramp around you growing up?

No, I grew up riding mostly street and park. I went to Woodward as a kid though, and thought the vert ramp was awesome. And I just started riding it. I had rode for four or five years beforehand, and as soon as I got on the vert ramp, I started to work out how I could do my tricks. I did one, and I got hooked, and I couldn't stop riding.

So you started because of Woodward?

I started riding vert because of Woodward.

Did any of the other vert guys push you to jump on the vert ramp with them?

They didn't push me, but they definitely were very supportive. There have definitely been a lot of times where you show up at a skatepark and start riding, and there's that minute where it's tense and you're still introducing yourself to everyone, and everyone is kinda stand-offish. But when you go up to a vert ramp, everyone is saying "Hey, what's going on! What's your name?" Everyone is so friendly and nice that it made me feel welcome. Feeling welcome, and then riding with the world's best; those are the two perfect things. You couldn't ask for anything else.

That's funny. I know that skatepark moment usually sucks.

Yeah, you know what I mean? There's all these guys here, they're not talking to each other, they're riding, and it's just kinda awkward. But it's not like that at all with vert. You show up and everyone is super friendly. The vert riding community is so tight, and everyone knows each other. Everyone is just super pumped when a new person steps it up.

Is vert your main focus now?

I enjoy riding my bike. I go through phases. Right now I'm going through a big vert phase because I just learned 540s, so everything I'm trying to do is 540s. I know last year though, I went through a big tech phase where I just wanted to ride a mini ramp. I'm one of those people where it just depends what's going on at the time. I think I'm a little more focused on competing in vert, just because I really like the idea of just one rider and one ramp. You're out there, you can't avoid it and everything is equal. For 45 seconds, it's just you and the ramp and how well you can do.

Can you explain your process for learning tricks on vert? Is it different from park or street?

You just gotta be a lot more careful on vert, because one fall could mean a whole year off your bike. Living at Woodward and going to Woodward, I use the foam pits and resi to my advantage. There's just certain tricks though, that you can't learn into the foam. 540s are one of those tricks that everyone does, or just about everyone does, straight up and down. To me, alright, if I try a 540 on the regular ramp like everyone did 20 years ago, I might get hurt and I might be out for a year. It's really hard trying to justify trying stuff on the ramp, but at the same time, this is BMX. BMX means going for it. So you just gotta throw caution to the wind sometimes.

That's what I love about vert ramps. You do two airs, and whatever is on your mind is gone and you're just focusing at hand on what you're doing. Even if it is just a 5-foot air.

--Zack Warden

Going off of that, do you think you've gotten more injuries as a result of riding vert?

No, I've been really lucky. I've only had one broken bone, and that happened this winter riding vert. I competed riding vert for almost four years, so to go four years and only have one broken ankle, I can't complain. When I ride park, I fall just as much and I get just as hurt. So it's a catch 22. When I ride park, I feel a little more relaxed. But when I ride vert, it's like, just a normal air, if you don't pay attention to what you're doing, it could come back and it could ruin your day. So you've gotta be so focused when you're riding vert... I'm really into just getting lost in it. That's what I love about vert ramps. You do two airs, and whatever is on your mind is gone and you're just focusing at hand on what you're doing. Even if it is just a 5-foot air.

Do you set your bike up differently for vert?

No. When I started riding vert though, I switched to a lower bottom bracket height, and that helped me out a lot. But other than that, I ride the same bike that I ride on street, dirt and park. I have my one bike and it's my baby.

Does the rest of the Woodward crew harass you for being the young guy?

No, but sometimes it's a little weird. I show up at camp, and there's Kevin Robinson, Jamie Bestwick and Tom Stober. They're adults and they have their adult lives with families, kids and responsibilities. And here I am riding with them, and they're my best friends, and I'm 20. At night, they go home to tuck kids in bed and I go to hang out and party.

How hard is it to work at getting the height factor up?

It's definitely hard. I think mostly it's been hard for me, because when I started riding vert, I could already do double tailwhips and I could already do flairs on 8-foot quarters. So I just really focused mainly on transferring my tricks, because I was so used to them anyway and that's what was fun for me. And now, I'm doing all these tricks, but I was doing them lower. So I thought I've gotta take a step back and learn how to air. I skipped a step, but I'm happy with my riding and I have fun doing it, so I can't really complain.

Can you talk about some of the newer tricks you've brought to the vert ramp?

Because I have a street and park background, I knew that as soon as I get to the vert ramp, I would just wanna put my fingerprint on it. And I'm thinking, "I can do downside whips on a 4-foot quarter, but I'm on a 14-foot quarter. What can I do?" I'm a bit of a dreamer and I have ridiculous ideas. The majority of them don't work, but occasionally I'll come across one that does.

Does anything scare you about vert riding?

I think I'm mostly scared about it being misunderstood by the general public and BMX in general. And I'm really scared that vert contests are going away. I think a lot of people look at it as a jock jam; vert riders competing against one another. But if you ask any vert rider, it's not like that. Whenever vert riders are on the deck of a ramp and looking serious, it's because they're focused and they want their dream run. Most of the time, if you ask anyone, if they have their dream run, they don't care whether they get first, second or third. They pulled their dream run and that's what matters to them. That's why people train. And that's why Kevin Robinson is as big as he is. He works hard at doing his dream run all the time, and when he falls, he falls. Falling on a double flair is no joke... To do certain things, you've gotta do some things you might not wanna do. And if that means being healthier and stronger, that's part of the game. But when it comes down to it, BMX is the main point of it all. I think a lot of people misunderstand that... Similarly, the ramps are getting bigger. And they're more intimidating for a younger person to get into vert riding, but at the same time, it's safer. Back in the day, when people would sprocket hang on a 10-foot ramp, they're flying straight to the flat bottom head first. Now, you hang on a 14-foot, and you're headed into 6 feet of transition to slide out on. So the bigger the ramps get, the safer it is. In moderation of course. I'm not saying that a 25-foot quarter is safe, but a 14-foot is way safer than a 10-foot.

Where do you see the future of vert going?

I know there's some talk about it going to the Olympics, and I think that would be the best thing for vert. I think it would be better represented. It's really hard for people to understand vert, and with the Olympics, it would help show the spectrum of all the riders, all just going for it. That would be it. Throwing caution to the wind and just going for it in the Olympics. I think that would be really good. I know people have a contest line, where they hold back because they don't wanna get hurt. By having one big contest like that though, it would change everything.

What's next for Zack Warden?

I'm moving a vert ramp, then headed to X Games, and this year I should hopefully be buying a house. I got a couple Levi's trips I'm doing, so I'm keeping busy.

Look for Zack Warden on the vert ramp at X Games 15.