When the 28-year-old Australian is not competing in the Red Bull X-Fighters freestyle motocross series, he uses his dirt bike to jump over various landmarks – including the raised section of Tower Bridge. We talk to the world’s greatest stunt rider.
What was the scariest thing about jumping up and down the 29 metre Arc de Triomphe replica in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve?
If I screwed up the jump on the way up I'd be falling ten storeys with the bike on top of me. When I went to do the jump during a practice run, I hit the ramp so hard that my front wheel went through it. During another run I came up short and hit the edge of the roof. I just managed to get enough traction to get over the edge. On the night we were meant to do it for real, we changed the landing ramp to make the drop look more impressive and when I got up on the roof and looked down, the bit I was meant to land on looked tiny.
Which of your jumps has freaked you out the most?
The scariest jump was the world record distance jump [106.98 metres] I did in Australia in March 2008. There were three jumpers that night and there was a lot of competition to jump last because you could see what mistakes the previous guys had made and rectify it when it was your turn. The guy who held the record at the time got to go last but I was thinking, ‘I don't care – I'll jump so far it won't matter what position I'm in’. I jumped about 170 metres in practice, but during the actual jump my bike wasn't running that well and I hit the ramp too slow – 96mph when I needed to go 102mph. I could see the arse end of the landing coming up towards me. I managed to make the jump by a couple of inches. I wasn't happy with that so I had another go, starting further back to get more speed. The next time I broke the world record but I landed on the back wheel like Evil Knievel used to do – real ugly. I still wasn't happy so I decided to hit it a third time and managed to do it clean. The fear didn't really hit me until I got my gear off in the pit afterwards. I started going weak at the knees and was sick. I was so determined to do the jump well it overrode my fear and I didn't want the 40,000 spectators to think I was a pussy.
What goes through your mind before you do a massive jump?
Normally my heart starts beating really fast, my stomach knots and then this calm comes over me and this feeling that I really need to spend the next few minutes with my family and tell them that I love them. I accept that these could be my last moments. I can do that because I'm living my dream and if anything goes bad I accept that it's my fault. The calm comes from shutting my mind down, which I do using meditation and breathing techniques. At first it's hard to create this mental void but it gradually becomes easier. Your mind just keeps throwing images at you but you keep fighting them and eventually it stops and you have total stillness.
What techniques do you use to stay calm at big motocross shows?
When you see a massive crowd at an event like X-Fighters you have a tendency to be awestruck. You take in a huge breath and forget to breathe out. When you finally do, you have to suck in really hard to get enough oxygen in and suddenly you've massively elevated your heart rate and you haven’t even started riding. I concentrate on breathing from the diaphragm and squeezing the core to really get the air out. Breathing in using the diaphragm also helps get oxygen into the blood and brain quicker, which makes your mind work in a more focused way.
How big a role does fitness played in your success?
I do lots of off-bike training – normally four sessions a week. We do kettlebell squats, pull-ups, chin-ups, use cable machines and do loads of stuff on gym balls so we're constantly having to stabilise ourselves. We stand on gym ball with a kettlebell in one had and a wobble bar in the other. We also throw medicine balls to each other so every single stabiliser muscle gets used – you need them for motocross. We do two days a week of that and two days of outdoors stuff normally. The outdoor stuff tends to be cardio circuits – ten one-minute stations comprising army crawls, medicine ball squats, cross lateral throws, box jumps and that sort of thing. We don't run because I don't have anterior cruciate ligaments and for motocross you just want to develop the core and keep the heart rate up.
Can you party hard and still win competitions?
When I first started riding big comps I didn't train too much and I'd be at every after-party, drinking harder and longer than everybody else. Now I have a balance – it's OK to party at certain points, when you win a competition for example, but I wouldn't get pissed if I got second. You have to train and look after yourself to regularly do well consistently. The guy that trains hard will kick the party dude's arse almost every time. All the training and nutrition helps build your confidence so your mind is in the right place. If you party too much you fall apart mentally.
How much longer can you stay at the top of the freestyle motocross game?
My body is falling apart but I think I can still operate at the top level for a couple of years. I see my future revolving around designing and launching off huge high-consequence jumps. I want to hit the Grand Canyon on a street bike at 300km/h – with a parachute of course.
If a rider bails on a trick will he automatically get injured?
If you’re out of control in the air and don't know where you are, probably. All motocross riders need excellent spatial awareness to minimise this. But sometimes you get lucky and can run out of a failed backflip, other times you'll take a simple corner wrong and break something. It's 50/50 that you're going to injure yourself if you mess up a jump. The fitter and more nimble you are the more chance you have of getting away with it.
Would you ever drop out of doing a stunt at the last moment if it didn't feel right?
By the time I get to the stunt proper we've normally worked out any kinks and everything feels right. Having said that, if there's money on the table, it's live TV and there's a massive audience you might still go for it even if you’re not 100 per cent confident. When I jumped the American football pitch, I had put so much energy into setting it up that when it got to the time to do the jump I had convinced myself it was my fate to do it no matter the outcome.
Is there a rivalry between you and fellow stunt jumper Robbie Knievel, Evel’s son?
I feel like I’m doing a different level of stunts to him. He’s doing jumps in the old style where you take the same jumps to different locations so you always know your exact trajectory and the speed you need. We build bespoke obstacles each time we do a jump at a new spot. I did the Vegas jump on the 40th anniversary of Evel’s death. Robbie didn’t like that and did a rival jump on the same day. He said he was jumping the famous Vegas Volcano, but from a bird’s eye view you could see his ramps were positioned to the side of it. He had three people at his jump and I had like 300,000 – but as far as I’m concerned that beef is in the past. We’ve talked about it and it’s cool now.
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Nick Hutchings worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Nick worked as digital editor from 2008 to 2011, head of content until 2014, and finally editor-in-chief until 2015.