A new year of distance jumping

Robbie Maddison on the in-run at Red Bull: "New Year. No Limits." And hugging Levi LaVallee post-jump. Garth Milan/Rich van Every/Red Bull

On Saturday night, about 10 minutes past midnight on the East Coast, there was a crash over California's San Diego Harbor. It wasn't the kind that leaves machines in tangles and bodies in need of repair, but it was eye-opening just the same. It was a collision between old techniques and new technology, of an old way of thinking and a new way of doing.

When Levi LaVallee and Robbie Maddison touched down safely during the fourth installment of Red Bull: "New Year. No Limits" on ESPN -- LaVallee crushing his own world record in the process -- they did more than usher in a new year. They ushered out a style of distance jumping that has, indeed, reached its limits.

"I'd like to think that the days of looking at a jump and going, 'I think we should hit 'er faster, buddy,' are over," says LaVallee, who jumped his snowmobile 412 feet, 6 inches on Saturday night, more than 50 feet farther than his previous record of 361 feet. "We know my engine has more speed, but we don't know what more miles per hour means in the air. Right now, the only way to test these distances is to go out and do it. But soon, we'll figure out a way to simulate these jumps without having to get on the bike. That is how we will advance distance jumping."

Red Bull: "New Year. No Limits"

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Levi LaVallee and Robbie Maddison's New Year's jump in photos. GalleryPhoto Gallery

With science. With models. With mock-ups, wind tunnels and theoretical physics. It's a different world from the days of Evel Knievel crash-landing his Bonneville in distance jumps over fountains and rows of cars. But these are different distances with much higher consequences. So future jumps will require more than gumption and a world-record-sized set of cojones if they are to be executed while ensuring the safety of the rider. They will require more forethought, more off-the-bike testing and a change from the current way of thinking about what it means to be a stuntman.

"What we did worked back in the day, but we were the old school," says longtime stunt jumper Spanky Spangler, who was on hand for Saturday night's jump. "These guys are the new school. They're the best in the world at what they do. And they're jumping in a different world." The change is already apparent. Maddison says he took only eight practice jumps in preparation for this world-record attempt. He says that's about 75 percent fewer than he took preparing for his 2007 jump. "If anything goes wrong, it's a done deal," Maddison says. "We can't afford trial and error anymore. The cost is too high."

But until now, trial and error is exactly how the sport progressed. After LaVallee's near-fatal crash while testing for this jump last year, he and his mechanics swapped out his old engine for a fuel-injection engine and he gained both security that his bike wouldn't lose power mid-jump and extra speed on the takeoff. In the final test for this year's jump, Maddison blew the spokes on his front tire. After watching slow-motion video of the jump, his crew realized they had stiffened his suspension too much in an attempt to compress less on the takeoff and landing. "We learned a lot on that jump, but we were incredibly fortunate Robbie walked away," says event director Tes Sewell. "These guys are the test pilots, the Chuck Yaegers of the modern day. Now we have to question how we will continue to push these distances with even safer results."

Expectations in the sport of distance jumping are right there in the name of this event: No Limits. If there is one thing people on both sides of the fence -- the athletes who want to push the limitations of their bodies, minds and machines, and the scientists who just want to see how far a bike can fly -- agree on, it's that there are no limits. At least none a new piece of equipment or techy modification can't overcome. But bodies are different. With each new year, Maddison and LaVallee have edged closer to finding the one limiting factor in a sport like distance jumping: themselves.

"At a point, the equipment is no longer the limiting factor," says Andy Walshe, Red Bull's high performance director. The human becomes the limiting factor because the body can only withstand certain forces and tolerate certain conditions. That's why most of the new planes don't have pilots. They're an extra component the designers prefer to get rid of. We're a long way off from automated flying sleds and bikes, but on the way there, these two sides will have to blend and evolve together."

Because, for men like Maddison and LaVallee, distance jumping is not about simply pushing the limits of how far a machine can fly. It's about proving how far they, themselves, are willing to go.