On a sunny day in 2000, Mike "Rooftop" Escamilla stood at the top of a sketchy wooden ramp in the backyard of a complete stranger near Lake Elsinore, Calif., and sized up the loop (think roller coasters, but built for skateboards and bikes). He knew it was doable — Tony Hawk had successfully pulled one on a skateboard three years earlier, and Escamilla had built a career translating skateboarding into BMX. Still, the parallels between Hawk's loop and this were pretty much nonexistent.
Hawk did his on a carefully constructed ramp, in a carefully controlled environment, for the most anticipated skate movie of the '90s. Escamilla was looking at a scrap-wood approximation of what this friend of a friend had seen Hawk hit in the famed final scene of 1997's Birdhouse video "The End." There was no safety padding, no warm-up runs, and no real idea of what he was getting himself into. He spent 15 seconds psyching up before strapping on a helmet and throwing himself down the in-run.
Escamilla came off the pedals less than halfway around, backflipping toward the bottom while the bike completed the loop successfully, just in time for him to land on it. A peg jammed him in the ass and his neck snapped backward on the handle bars. Even if he could walk, which he couldn't, there would be no second attempt because the front wheel of the bike was destroyed. Several hours later, as the swelling in his neck increased, he would temporarily lose all sensation in his feet.
"Looking back, that was the best thing that could have happened," Escamilla says now. "A lot of people saw that -- it became a conversation piece. If I had pulled it off, that would have been the end of it."
If it sounds like bravado, that's because it is. If it sounds like a strangely brilliant form of self-promotion, that's because it is that, too. And the combination of the two goes a long way toward explaining why, nine years later and 15 years into a pro career in BMX, there's no end in sight for Mike Escamilla.
Escamilla grew up in La Habra, a generic suburb in Orange County, Calif. Born in 1977, he comes from the second generation of action sports, and his teenage years coincided with the plummeting participation in skateboarding and BMX. In those days, what you rode was less important than the fact that you rode at all, which is how Escamilla fell into a crowd consisting more of skateboards than bikes.
"They were riding rails, jibbing stuff, and I took that approach because that's what I rode," he says. "It didn't seem like we were creating anything new. We were just excited about the next thing without knowing it was the next thing."
In 1994, a gritty BMX video called "Dirty Deeds" featured an Escamilla segment that was most definitely the next thing. Littered with all manner of grind variations down handrails short, long and dangerous — not to mention a few heart-stopping, roof-gap jumps — it quickly became a blueprint for hard-core street riding.
"It was pretty groundbreaking," says John Povah, BMX team manager for etnies, the footwear and apparel company. "There were various people doing different tricks, but not on the level Mike was doing it. The caveman tricks where he was jumping off stuff, or crooked grinds, people hadn't seen that stuff before."
1994 was also the year Escamilla earned the nickname "Rooftop," which, contrary to popular assumption, did not come from his propensity for riding roof-to-roof. The name was bestowed upon him by pro Keith Treanor who, during a long car ride to a contest, became fed up with Escamilla's inability to shut up and threatened to duct tape him to the roof of the car. No one at that point realized Escamilla would eventually be known as much for his mouth as for his riding.
It was pretty groundbreaking. There were people doing different tricks, but not on the level Mike was doing it. People hadn't seen that stuff before.
A year earlier, Escamilla opened his mouth to one of the biggest companies in action sports, setting off a chain of events that resulted in something arguably more significant than the "Dirty Deeds" segment. Having discovered that footwear giant Airwalk used a photo of his clearing a roof gap in its catalog, he contacted the company hoping for a pair of sneakers in return. "I was told I wasn't good enough for the team," he recalls.
Undeterred, he put together a sponsor-me video aimed at etnies, which at the time was a quickly growing skate shoe company with no BMX program. The company flowed Escamilla product and was sufficiently impressed with the coverage he received to make him its first BMX pro in 1995. He soon convinced etnies to assemble a team of riders with a common dedication to taking the sport beyond the established ramp-and-dirt contest venues of the time. Taj Mihelich, Joe Rich, Mike Griffin and Dave Freimuth weren't just the most well-rounded riders in the sport. They, along with Escamilla, became the prototype for BMX just as action sports began its well-documented takeover of global youth culture.
"Before that, there was no DC, no Osiris, no DVS — none of those companies were doing anything with BMX," Escamilla says now. "We helped spark the idea that bike riding is getting coverage, that these dudes are doing something amazing. I definitely feel like I helped create that market."
Escamilla's spectacular crash on the loop became one of the opening shots in his segment for etnies' first team video, 2002's "Forward." If "Dirty Deeds" inspired a generation of riders to follow him into the streets, "Forward" had the strange effect of convincing many of those same riders that Escamilla was somehow over BMX. The response was strange because the level of riding was somewhere beyond the sport's cutting edge.
Along with the complete dissection of a new wave of concrete skate parks, technically impressive ramp riding, and smooth lines through tight backyard pools, the segment included a series of crazy stunts. Some were ballsy, like his backflip over a helicopter with its rotors running, or the custom-built grind rail designed to backflip him into a ditch. Some were just bizarre, like the shots of his biking through the Snow Summit terrain park in the middle of winter, or the mini-ramp session where both he and the ramps were on fire.
A lot of people looked at him ... and were like, 'He's not taking this seriously anymore.' He segregated himself from a lot of people at that moment.
"A lot of people looked at him riding on snow and riding on fire and were like, well, he's not taking this seriously anymore," says Jason Enns, a longtime pro and Escamilla's team manager at Demolition Parts. "I think he segregated himself from a lot of people at that moment."
"At the time, it didn't fit BMX," Escamilla says. "It wasn't what people were looking for, but at that time in my life I wasn't willing to do what people were looking for. I was doing what I wanted to do."
Following "Forward," Escamilla was increasingly viewed as disparate from the greater BMX community. Between a circle of friends that included few BMXers and large crossover sponsors like Hurley and Nixon, he found himself with opportunities to do things like snowboard in Alaska or surf in Fiji. In addition, he began doing stunt work for commercials and Hollywood features.
He developed a reputation for having unrealistic expectations when it came to the money he felt companies should invest in him and his teammates, which was compounded by the fact that he went through three bike sponsors between 2000 and 2006. When he received a small windfall for his participation in the original Mat Hoffman Pro BMX video game in 2001, and then bought a flashy Cadillac Escalade, it fed rumors that Escamilla was all about the money.
"I was pushing to get guys paid more money, pushing to get pro shoes sold in different places, trying to get people to look at BMX in a different way," he says now. "When they said this guy's going to make $200 dollars a month, I'd say no. They're not going to make $200 dollars a month, because you're paying a skateboarder $2,000 dollars a month to do the same job, and they're doing less. So I spoke up."
"If he sees something that's wrong in his eyes, he'll definitely tell you how it is," says Brian Castillo. A company owner who is both a former sponsor of Escamilla (with Volume Bikes) and a current sponsor (with Demolition Parts), Castillo has known Escamilla since they were teenagers. "He wants special attention — to go on extravagant trips, have ramps lined up, jump through fire and do all the crazy s--- only Mike would do. He wants to go above and beyond. I don't blame him, but we're a rider-owned company. There's only so much we can do."
By the end of 2006, BMX was very much shaped in Escamilla's image. Hard-core street riders like Van Homan and Edwin Delarosa had taken the spotlight from high-profile vert riders like Dave Mirra and a tougher, DIY aesthetic began to prevail. But after more than 10 years of groundbreaking video parts and dominating magazine coverage, Escamilla was less visible within the sport and more visible outside it.
His stunt work landed him a role alongside skateboarder Mike Vallely in the feature comedy "Mall Cop," and his friendship with reality TV star Kat Von D (a.k.a. Katherine von Drachenberg) resulted in several appearances on her show "LA Ink." He produced Web videos that were as likely to feature B.A.S.E. jumping as BMX. After years of being considered disparate from BMX, it increasingly looked like he in fact was. Then he made a move that might dwarf all his other contributions to the sport, combined.
"We started Huck Jam Bikes because the only people doing basic BMX bikes at the retail level were Schwinn and X Games, and they weren't really quality bikes," says Tony Hawk. In addition to his status as a skateboard icon, Hawk's Huck Jam brand is dedicated to promoting skateboarding, BMX and Motocross to mainstream audiences. "I thought we had an opportunity to get kids started on authentic BMX bikes, and the first person I called was Mike."
In late 2006, Hawk brought Escamilla to a manufacturer that produces many of the price-point BMX bikes available at places like Wal-Mart and Target. For years, they built bikes for mainstream brands with no BMX involvement at the core level and no clue what a real bike would look like. Within two hours, Escamilla had explained how simple changes in things like handlebar and crank design would create lighter, sturdier bikes without increasing the cost.
"He walked in, sat down at the computer, and all of a sudden these guys thought he brought them designs from the future," says Hawk with a laugh. "All the designs did was represent modern BMX bikes, and to see him convey that to someone, not a lot of people can do that."
When Huck Jam Bikes debuted at the bike trade show Interbike in 2007, the backlash in the core BMX community was immediate. What business did a skateboarder have getting into BMX? Why were the bikes so cheap? And what was Escamilla doing letting himself be associated with what looked like toys?
He wasn't immediately on board with the idea. Still bearing the scars from the previous fights he'd had with his own industry, Escamilla had no illusions about what the reaction would be to the cartoonish graphics and bright colors on the bikes. And he knew that despite his involvement as a consultant, he would immediately be associated with Huck Jam Bikes as a sponsored pro. But the more he thought about it, the more he remembered that he doesn't care what anyone thinks.
"The mass market sells 10 million bikes a year," Escamilla says, "and our core industry sells zero of them. People are so scared of making a cheaper bike, but they don't realize there's a customer at every level. If they can go to Target and get a bike that looks like what guys are riding at the X Games, gets them stoked to ride and good enough to move on and buy a better bike, we've done our job. Everything I've done in BMX, this is actually the thing that gives back the most — whether people agree or not."
Even as the BMX community wondered if Escamilla had finally moved on or "gone Hollywood," he was as busy behind the scenes as he had been since the early etnies days. But what about the Escamilla who was willing to plow into loops blind or leap running helicopters?
In July of this year, as the BMX world gathered in Los Angeles for X Games 15, Escamilla and the lunatics behind Travis Pastrana's "Nitro Circus" show gathered nearby in a Compton warehouse. After several days of work, he found himself staring down a whole different kind of loop.
Engineered from steel by master ramp builder Nate Wessel, the grind loop is essentially a rail that curves 360 degrees up and around. It requires Escamilla to engage his pegs before it throws him through the same gravity-defying move that nearly paralyzed him nine years ago. Compared to that sketchy ramp, the grind loop is a well-built marvel. In every other way, it's a monster.
For one thing, his entire weight would now be balanced on two small pegs. For another, the friction created by the grind meant the speed needed to complete the loop was far harder to calculate. The grind bar required a precise lean to one side in order to remain engaged throughout and, finally, there's the small point that he's never successfully completed a normal loop before.
Escamilla began hitting the loop the night before the shoot. He figures he made between 50 and 60 attempts at it before the peanut gallery — including Hawk and BMX legend Mat Hoffman — gathered for the show's taping. Before it was all over, he'd broken ribs, severely sprained an ankle, and stabbed himself in the stomach with his bars so badly, it bruised his abdominal wall. So, did he make it?
"You'll have to watch the 'Nitro Circus' episode," he replies.
Bravado? Check. A strangely brilliant form of self-promotion? Check. Looks like BMX is going to have to put up with Mike Escamilla for a while yet.