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Friday, June 6, 2008
Updated: May 1, 2:19 PM ET
Dollar Dollar Bilko

By Jeff Foss

Bilko has been called a lot of things: gifted, energetic, one-of-a-kind, borderline crazy ... camera-shy isn't on that list.
Flash back to mid-April: It's day one of the 2008 Moto X World Championships, a rowdy X Games offshoot at twice the volume. The world's best riders are casually tossing 115-foot backflips over a meticulously bulldozed dirt landscape inside Qualcomm Stadium. For the next two days, San Diego will be the tattoo-emblazoned center of the motocross universe.

The camera pans to a press box high above the action: A laptop computer, an empty seat, a nervous moderator making calls on his cell phone. EXPN has a "Live Athlete Chat" cued up and read to rock, but the athlete is nowhere to be found. Questions from viewers are pouring into the system and going unanswered.

Then, out of nowhere, Blake "Bilko" Williams appears. He's got a big smile, a large bag of ice, and a painful-looking limp. "Mate!" says the man of the hour—er, 40 minutes as he slides into his seat. "Hey mate, I'm Bilko," and then, without so much as a breath: "We all good then? Let's do it!"

And, scene.

"Yep, that's Bilko," says Nate Adams of Williams' patently Australian enthusiasm. "The guy is basically a little ball of energy—you should see him when he wants to ride.

Bilko is at his best when he's pumping up the crowd and hucking back-to-back tricks with barely enough time in between to switch gears and get his bearings.

In a sport like moto, enthusiasm is key. It takes enthusiasm to emerge from a tiny Australian outpost like Baxter, Victoria (population: 1,873) and win several State and National Supercross titles. It takes enthusiasm to make the switch from Supercross to Freestyle on a whim, especially when you should be home nursing your broken leg. Enthusiasm can make you do crazy things, like mocking up fake credentials and sneaking backstage during the Crusty Tour to meet your favorite freestylers ("I still have the photos on my laptop," says Williams. "I look like I'm about 12 years old!") And when you find yourself competing against and beating those very same freestylers just three years later, enthusiasm deserves a portion of the credit. So does raw, unbelievable talent.

"Bilko's riding at Crusty last year was literally blowing people away," recalls motocross filmmaker and producer Adam Barker. "He was doing insane combos: First a nac-nac to heelclicker to no-handed-lander flip, then a ruler flip—I mean, his bike looked like it was stapled to the ceiling and he's just hanging off the bars—straight into a cliffhanger flip on the Superkicker and finally a big one-handed 360 to finish. We were like, 'Who the hell is this kid?'"
Cliffhanger flip, Bilko-style, on the way to a bronze medal at the 2006 X Games. If all goes to plan, soon he'll be doing them bigger and better than ever.
To paraphrase Millhouse, everything's coming up Bilko!

But right after the tour wrapped up, almost exactly a year ago this week, the aw-shucks Aussie let his confidence and enthusiasm get the best of him. It was the first stop of the Dew Tour in Baltimore, and Williams was sitting comfortably in second place with one rider to go and a guaranteed medal. With a few seconds left on the clock, he decided to throw one final ruler flip—a little extra treat for the fans—and that's when things got ugly.

"It's called 'Freestyle,' you know? You want to put on a show for people," says Adams. "It's easy to get all fired up and let your guard down—I did the same thing in Italy in 2004 when I broke my femur. As soon as I saw him leave the lip, I knew it was going to be bad."

Williams crashed hard, stood up, and took several steps. There was grinding sensation in his boot—it felt like a bag of nuts and bolts. Then he went back to the ground. "Everything happened so fast," Williams remembers. "I realized that in those 30 seconds, I pretty much threw the whole year away."

Propped up in a Baltimore-area hospital bed, the kid they call "Bilko" learned that his left knee and ankle had pretty much exploded in place. He immediately went under the knife.

Then insult got added to injury. First, somebody stepped on his foot while it was still in a flimsy half-cast. His lower leg swelled up like a water balloon, and the rounded ends of the pins in his flesh started looking like the buttons on an overstuffed sofa. Then, after the pins were finally removed, his foot became infected.

"They had to take out the screw and scrape the bone to make sure it didn't go that deep," he explains. "It was one thing after another, and it kept postponing my knee surgery."

It wasn't until November, five months later, that Williams was able to climb back on a 50cc bike. By December he was back on his 250, riding with the enthusiasm of ... well, of a scared kid from a bucolic outpost in Victoria. "It's been hard finding my balls after that crash," he admits. "It's taken me a long time to get over it, and I'm still getting over it. Every time I get on the bike."

Bilko never lost the 360, but he's still struggling with his flip tricks. "I know I can do a reasonably good run in a contest, but I may not fully extend them ... yet."

The Moto X World Championships were Williams' first big contest back in the US after his injury, and that was nearly two months ago. To spectators, the young Aussie looked top-notch: His 360 heel-clickers in the Best Trick contest were smooth and perfectly flat, and there was even a rumor going around that he was looking to attempt a no-hander. "Bilko doesn't get nearly enough credit for that 360 he does," commented Greg Hartman on what amounted to a fifth-place finish. "I think he should have medaled."

As for Williams? He was just happy to walk away under his own power (the limp he had in the press box doesn't count—that was just aggravation from slamming down on an ankle that hadn't fully healed). "In San Diego I was on American bikes and ramps for the first time in a long time," he says. "It was a test, and it gave me some confidence. There are so many things that can help my confidence before the Dew Tour and X Games."

Adams sees a full comeback as inevitable. "Bilko is still wild and full of energy, but he's smarter now, more calculated. After a big crash, some guys just mellow out. But then you have guys like Metzger who never calm down their whole career. They've always done it and they always will. I kinda see Bilko as one of those guys."

Barker's got faith in Bilko as well: The seasoned filmmaker chose an image of the down-but-not-out sensation from Down Under throwing his physics-defying ruler flip for the cover of the new Crusty video. "The guy got hurt pretty much as soon as he arrived in the States—right when he was doing so well—so I really don't even think people here even know what Bilko fully capable of yet. I don't know if anybody does—not even Bilko."