In the climactic scene of Nuclear Cowboyz, a new theatrical freestyle motocross production featuring fire, fetching female dancers and 16 of the sport's top riders, the leaders of two rival tribes (Nate Adams and Jeremy Stenberg, respectively) face off in a fierce trick battle. With apologies for spoiling the ending: They soon realize their freestyle skills are equal, and unite to become stronger.
The fact the competition concludes without a winner serves as a handy metaphor for major changes sweeping freestyle motocross in the United States, where the number of contests has declined, replaced by demonstrations and choreographed shows such as Nuclear Cowboyz, which finishes its 15-city tour April 18 at Allstate Arena outside Chicago.
Last year, NBC's Dew Tour switched from a season-series format that awards a championship to demonstrations at a few select stops. The Red Bull X-Fighters tour, which begins April 16 in Mexico City, will not come to the U.S. this year. That leaves the X Games, and the ASA FMX World Championships in October, as the only major freestyle competitions.
Photos: No contest
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FMX contests aren't as abundant as they once were -- but the show must go on. onClick="window.open('http://espn.go.com/action/fmx/gallery?id=5067854','Popup','width=990,height=720,scrollbars=no,noresize'); return false;"> Gallery »
Riders and other industry figures cite a variety of factors for the shift, from a poor economy, to stale contest formats, to concerns about safety leading to a lag in trick progression. Whatever the causes, with fewer competitions, FMX becomes more of an entertainment spectacle, raising questions about the sport's future.
"It's definitely in a transition," said Ronnie Renner, a veteran freestyle competitor and two-time X Games Step Up winner. "It's an all-been-done theory. It takes a lot these days to impress people and raise eyebrows."
Todd Jendro, senior director of operations of the two-wheel division at Feld Motor Sports, which produces Nuclear Cowboyz, said that rather than relying on riders one-upping each like they would in a contest setting, his show provides more options to capture the attention of the audience through music, dancers, pyrotechnics and a compelling storyline.
Jon Freeman helped kick off the freestyle movement during the mid-1990s with his Crusty Demons of Dirt videos depicting free riding in the desert around southern California. Since 2000, he has produced Crusty Demons arena tours in Australia, accentuating the personalities of the individual riders and offering nonstop action.
"If you go to X Games, it's built for television, so they start and stop and wait for commercials," Freeman said. "If you go to ours, it's full-blast for three or four hours, in your face."
This year, the International Motorcycle Federation (FIM) will hold a nine-stop contest series throughout Europe and Brazil. And although the events draw large crowds, "they are in midsized venues, with a basic two-ramp set up, and the top riders in the world aren't really running out of their houses to get to them," X Games gold-medal winner Adam Jones said in an e-mail.
American audiences likely would not flock to watch such scaled-down competitions. Some riders acknowledged that following years of fast and furious innovation, trick progression in contests has stalled, already leaving spectators feeling shortchanged.
Once backflip combinations and body varials became common in recent years, competitors were forced to take tremendous risks to win contests, often leading to serious injuries.
Many riders dialed back the danger. "If someone wants to compete in contests these days, they have to take so many chances," Renner said. "They have to be able to deal with it mentally. Once combinations came in, I knew I had done my time in the freestyle contest scene."
I've heard that the sport had hit a plateau before Carey Hart did the first flip. 'Oh, it's done.' I've been hearing that for so long. So when I hear that, I get a chuckle.
-- Nate Adams
The death of X Games gold-medal winner Jeremy Lusk following a crash at a contest in Costa Rica in February 2009 underscored the potentially terrifying consequences. Lusk attempted a Hart Attack backflip but failed to fully rotate while soaring more than 20 feet through the air. He landed on his front tire and crashed face-first into the dirt, sustaining serious head injuries. He died three days later.
Serious injuries contributed, in part, to the Dew Tour's dropping freestyle competition.
"What we saw after the first few years, the competitions weren't really consistent," said Chris Prybylo, general manager of the Dew Tour, where this season between six and 12 riders will perform demonstrations at the final three stops, in Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. "There were always a lot of injuries and we were just losing our field throughout the year. In working with the athletes, we would also have continual issues with weather and different things that affected the competition."
Several riders welcome the shift to increased shows over competition. "You don't have that same type of pressure like you do at a contest," said Ronnie Faisst, a freestyle pioneer and performer in the Nuclear Cowboyz. "It's a lot of pressure at X Games, especially if you're doing something you haven't done before.
"You're at the most risk when you're doing something on dirt that you've never done on dirt, and that happens a lot in Best Trick," Faisst added. "And it happens a lot in freestyle."
Still, sponsors insist that riders perform at major competitions like ESPN's X Games, where their brands get maximum exposure on TV.
"Honestly, my sponsors, all they care about is X Games, because they get TV time," said Faisst. "It's ESPN. They want you on the Dew Tour because it's NBC."
For Red Bull, competitions and demonstrations are complementary.
"Winning a Red Bull X-Fighters or X Games gold is what riders are known for," Jordan Miller, a Red Bull Motorsports spokesman, said via e-mail. "Winning shows excellence and there's something to be said for that, but demos allow riders additional opportunities to perform for thousands of fans throughout the year, and there is definitely value in that."
With fewer contests, all of which are invitational, up-and-coming riders struggle to gain recognition and coveted invitations to shows.
Honestly, my sponsors, all they care about is X Games, because they get TV time -- it's ESPN. They want you on the Dew Tour because it's NBC.
-- Ronnie Faisst
To remedy the situation, several leading riders and industry figures founded the American Freestyle Motocross Association (AFMXA) in 2009 to increase safety in the sport and grow opportunities for riders at the grassroots level through amateur competitions, the first of which was held in November. "Once they prove themselves, they can get an invite to come to X Games," said Faisst, a founding member of AFMXA's board of directors.
Nate Adams cautioned against writing an obituary for freestyle motocross.
"I've heard that the sport had hit a plateau before Carey Hart did the first flip," Adams said about the first backflip, attempted in 2000. "'Oh, it's done.' I've been hearing that for so long. So when I hear that, I get a chuckle."
"Even when guys like me and [Jeremy] Stenberg are old and aren't hanging it out," he said about his rival in the Nuclear Cowboyz shows, "there are kids waiting in line for the chance to huck themselves on X Games."