In a land of tea, scones and tight-lipped refinement, the gritty façade of Battersea Power Station was once seen as a blight on the landscape. Now the moneyed citizens of Chelsea and Mayfair are clamoring for a seat at the hottest ticket in town as Red Bull X-Fighters rolls back into London.
Those British "toffs" will find plenty to rattle their jewelry at this Saturday with a new, bigger course and a battle royale brewing in the X-Fighters series between at least four top contenders.
Andre Villa has sat atop the tour ranking since his win at the first stop in Mexico City, and comes to London a marked man. His competitors need to knock him out as quickly as possible Saturday if anyone else is going to wrest the top spot from him. The leader of that charge is Robbie Maddison, a favorite at X Games, who suffered an unfortunate get-off midflight in a body varial. Maddison is having perhaps his best competitive season ever, but is dealing with a nagging wrist injury that may limit his ability to ride to his potential for three full days at Battersea.
The next name on the list to watch is Nate Adams, who returns to X-Fighters competition after sitting out the Madrid stop to prepare for X Games. The X-Fighters tour format allows for one "throw out" event, which is normally reserved for a rider's worst performance of the tour. By no-showing Madrid, Adams doesn't have the luxury of a poor performance in London. Of course, he's still the reigning champion at this event -- his most recent major competition victory came here last year. Adams rolled into London on Wednesday looking fresh and confident. No doubt disappointed with his bronze-medal performance at last month's X Games, Adams is looking for redemption high above the River Thames.
The real dark horse in the Championship charge, however, has to be the rubber kid, Levi Sherwood. There are some arguments in the judging camp that Levi should have taken the gold at X over Travis Pastrana, based on a run that used less of the course but also featured bigger, more technical tricks. The X-Fighters judges are well aware of Sherwood's riding at this point, though, so no other rider can expect a "Pastrana Effect" to handicap his results in London. He already has one X-Fighters win this year, in Moscow, and there's no reason to think he can't do it again.
Beyond the battle for tour ranking, another story out of Battersea is about the Jesse Olson-designed course. Significantly bigger than last year's course, thanks to a move to the more spacious North side of the property, the course features two superkickers. While Cam Sinclair has nothing left to prove after completing one of the great action sports comeback stories by winning X Games Best Trick gold gold less than 12 months after emerging from a double backflip-induced coma, the course layout leaves many wondering if he'll add the double to his freestyle run.
Of course, there's always the story of the judging -- a story Clint Moore hopes has a better ending as he returns to X-Fighters competition. "He just did not understand the system here," head judge Jason Moriarty told me back in Madrid. This time the young Aussie is well versed on what the judges are looking for and can be a spoiler to the old guard if he unleashes his body varial and his huge 360's while still putting in a solid run. The course here will allow significant variation of tricks, which is 20 percent of the judges' scoring at X-Fighters.
Another judging criteria unique to X-Fighters is the "Show and Spectators Voice" vote. Last year, the British fans proved they were anything but reserved, with their loud chants and infamous glowstick fight (think: neon rain). The rider that captures their hearts could gain all the edge he needs for the win.
Wednesday night, the riders all sailed down the River Thames on a dinner cruise that carried an air of English civility. At last report, no one ended up in the river and everyone was in bed before midnight. In the good old days of freestyle, they all would have gone to Soho, partying until the final whistle blew. All you need to know about how much things have changed in these days of training regimes and high-risk, high-reward tricks is that the gift each rider received upon arrival this year? It was a big, thick bathrobe.
Everyone's resting comfortably at the Battersea Hotel. The serious business begins Saturday.