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Friday, August 3, 2007
Updated: August 9, 10:38 AM ET
Step Up, Men

By Brian Kamenetzky

ronnie renner
When the aliens come —and they will —should they arrive during the Moto X Step Up competition, it's a good bet that they'll wonder exactly what sort of planet they've discovered. It is, after all, one of X Games more peculiar events. High jumping on motorcycles. But step up, with it's mano-a-mano format, unspoiled by the arcane rules of judging, is a massively popular show. Or at least it can be. Because despite the skill of the riders and the horsepower of their bikes, there's one guy who, more than anyone, guarantees that the crowd will see the action they crave.

His name is Dane Heron.

Dane is a dirt man, responsible for crafting the ramp that, done well, can facilitate history. Done wrong, and everyone goes home wondering why they bothered paying for parking (as many did after X Games' two most recent step up comps). "You need a really good lip," said five time step up medalist, Tommy Clowers. "It's got to be steep in the right place. The transition can't be too quick, like a wall. Then you hit it and can't finesse the bike. That was the problem last year. If it's not built right, it's hard to ride."

Heron, who perhaps not coincidentally is returning from a two year X Games ramp building hiatus, knows it's hard to give the riders what they need to perform. "There's definitely pressure involved. I'd be lying if I told you I didn't feel any," he said. "It's the exciting part, to know that the way it's going to happen rests on me and my crew." And it's busy crew, at that. Moving that much earth takes a lot of oomph, and a little finesse.

The step up ramp is formed from the remains of the Moto X Best Trick landing. Machines and shovels carve out a transition of about 85 degrees, scraping away the soft, sandy landing created for the freestylers to reveal a firm, packed clay center, able to withstand the punishment of repeated runs and spinning tires. "We candy coated the outside," Heron said, smiling.

tommy clowers

It takes about four hours (on top of the six required to build the best trick setup) to build, and about five secondsor about one practice runfor Heron to see if his crew has done well. "You know if you're screwed or if you're close," he said. The idea is to make the ramp steeper than it needs to be in the beginning and work from there. If it starts off too shallow, not a lot of molding can be done to it. In practice, Heron and the riders work together to shape and tweak the takeoff until it's in optimal shape. Once the comp starts, it's almost impossible to make any substantive changes.

Heron was stoked from the outset. "The biggest thing is when the guys come in and they're excited. That's the Holy Grail." 35 feet for Tommy Clowers, an X Games record, was set on a ramp Heron built. Add another six inches, and you've got the ultimate record of Ronnie Renner. (Yes, records set outside of X Games still count.) When it came time for the comp to begin, Heron was confident the five riders present would have a crack at breaking both. He wasn't alone. "It's gonna be a record show," said step up vet Brian Deegan. "People in practice were airing it."

matt buyten
The bar started at 26 feet, and Clowers, Renner, Deegan and Matt Buyten all blew through the early stages, easily upping the ante above 30 feet. Only Jeremy McGrath went out early, missing twice at 28 feet and becoming the night's first casualty. When the remaining foursome cleared 32 feet, it looked like Heron's ramp might indeed facilitate a record.

The bar reached 33 feethigh enough that placing it atop the support poles required a hand steadier than it takes to remove the breadbasket in the Operation game. (After the pole tumble back to Earth a few times, the crowd actually booed the pole wranglers.) One by one, the competitors dropped out: Clowers. Deegan. Buyten. Only Renner cleared it, clinching the gold. He wanted more. "I was ready to break my record," he said. "I think I had another couple feet in me. I still had a lot of juice left."

After it was over, Heron looked at his ramp with satisfaction. "The only thing that would have been better was if we got to the world record. But going that high is pretty crazy deal," he said. But if the riders had it in them, so did Heron's work. "It lasted, and guys were able to hit it and do whatever they wanted to on it. We could have three or four more contests on it, the dirt's so good."

brian deegan

•Ronnie Renner took the only medal of the night. With only five competitors in the field, silver and bronze seemed a little excessive.

•Though he cleared it on his second tries, Brian Deegan looked like he'd be the first rider out, after he hit the bar on his initial attempts at 26 and 28 feet.

•Renner was the only rider who used the more powerful 450 bike. He considered using his 250 (like the rest of the field), but after practice felt the bigger bike set up better.

•Scott Murray, Moto X Best Trick hero of the common man, was on the floor sporting a large bandage on his severely swollen right elbow. He spent a lot of time chatting up Jeremy McGrath, who had a lot of it to kill after bowing out of the competition early. McGrath signed the back of Murray's credential.

•Renner's kids, Nate Racer, 7, and Joshua Rider, 4, joined Renner at the medal ceremony, sitting on his bike. Rider even donned a rather wicked Mexican wrestling mask as he flexed for photographers.

•There was a guy in the front row who looked as much a guy can look like Alec Baldwin without actually being Alec Baldwin. Uncanny.

•Renner, after winning the gold: "I thought we were going to break some records tonight, but I'll take it just like I did. I like doing things my own way, and I think it showed by bringing out a 450 tonight. Everybody doubted me until about the second jump, and then they knew I was serious business. I love Step Up because it's all bike skill."

•McGrath, on the failed second attempt at 28 feet that bounced him from the competition: "I went to lean on it, and my wheel slipped into a rut. I almost wrecked it."

•Deegan, on his rhythm: "At first, I couldn't get in my groove. I had to figure out that I just had to hammer it, and not finesse it. I had to get it all the way."