In the world of modern action sports, a single name rises above the rest, does a double backflip, then gracefully repeats the feat on a toy tricycle.
Travis Pastrana has been gleefully wreaking havoc on television and film screens the world over since his Nitro Circus took flight nearly a decade ago, and last week he passed his high-octane torch to rider Josh Sheehan, who accomplished a feat even Travis himself has steered clear from: the first triple backflip on a motorbike, ever. Just days after his miraculous jump, I sat down with Josh and Travis to discuss where action sports are headed in the near future, if Australian drop bears are a thing, and how they prepared for "the biggest action sports stunt in history."
First off, Josh, congrats on the landing the world’s first triple backflip on a motorcycle. How do you train for something like "the biggest stunt in action sports history," without…well, killing yourself?
Josh Sheehan: When (riders) first learn to backflip, we use foam pits. But this was a bit of a custom setup, we had a bag jump set up at the top of a hill—which is basically just a giant air bag.
Almost like a “blob” from summer camps?
Travis Pastrana: Yea, exactly, it’s about 40 feet by 60 feet, and 10 foot deep. But still, not totally safe. I mean, he hit the edge of the bag one time and got hurt pretty badly. A lot of us have have gotten injuries like concussions on the bag. A lot of people are like ‘Oh, if I had a bag I’d try this, and this...’ but, no, you wouldn’t.
It sounds like it’s still super dangerous...
TP: Well it's good if you land on your back, the problem is when you are learning these types of tricks, you land upside down a lot, and a 250 lb motorcycle can land on you. Or, if the bike lands first, it takes a lot of the air out of the cushion so you could go straight to the ground.
JS: Or if you land on your wheels, the plastic tightens, and if you are not quite straight, you get slapped down. And the bike would have pulled the plastic pretty tight at this point, so you’d be hitting quite a hard surface. You still have to be very careful.
A few riders, including both of you guys, have landed double backflips before. A triple is unheard of. How do you bring yourself to specifically bring it to that extra level?
JS: There’s a big mental step needed...to commit to that third rotation, the first time I did it, I think it was ‘the bad one’, I landed front wheel first and it smashed me, I was coughing up blood, and pretty sore for a couple weeks.
"A lot of guys saw the ramp, and said ‘There's no way in hell I’m hitting it.'"
How long were you out of commission after that?
JS: Well, thankfully that was the last day there...or that at least made it the last day there. It was at least a week 'til I started riding again. My lungs were bruised and they tend to take a little while to heal...and it just played on my mind for a little while.
Understandably. How long was this jump in the works?
JS: We started with the bag jump set up in October 2013, but we’ve had a lot of tours and competitions since then, so I came back around mid-2014 to try out some ramp combinations and changes, trying to find a ramp that worked better and was safer. It was just ridiculously high when we were first jumping it.
So you were testing out some “Nitro Physics,” as Travis has called it in the past…
TP: (Laughs) I wasn’t the best on that...but this had been a project of ours for about two and half years before Josh said he wanted to give it a shot…
So it wasn’t originally planned with Josh in mind?
TP: Well Josh is the only one who’s been doing double flips consistently...we invited all the top guys in the world—most of them said no. A lot of guys, even like X Games Gold Medalist Kenny Bartram, saw the ramp, and said, “There's no way in hell I’m hitting it.” After that, it was basically the three of us: Thomas Pagès, myself, and Josh. Thomas wasn’t physically strong enough, he couldn’t pull three around. At the end of the day, Josh was the only one who could actually pull the triple around.
What's going through your mind while you are doing something like this, Josh? Or is it over too quickly for anything to register?
JS: It’s surprising how much you can think about when you are up there. When you first try it, it’s over quick; but the more you do it, the more you understand. The first rotation goes quick, and my feet lock into a specific position...I make sure my body is right. The second rotation comes around quick [too], not quite as quick as the first, but I can figure out if I have enough for the landing or if I need to give it more. By the third, I think I just sort of glance down at the landing to see if I’m inline, and where I am in the landing and I start to concentrate on opening up and bracing for the landing. I guess adrenaline makes you think a lot faster [and] time slows down.
I remember going off bike jumps in my driveway and having time slow down right before my face would hit hot pavement. I guess it’s like that, on a much smaller scale…
TP: No, that’s totally it...some people say, “I don’t even know what happened, I kind of blacked out,” most people in action sports have all these thoughts, and it’s like, how did you have all that experience, in like two seconds?
How did you feel when you landed? What's going through your mind?
JS: Too surreal; a lot of hard work finally paid off; several years of wanton experimentation. Relief, really. And I was 100% fine, all was good.
Do you think you guys are more like a Matt Hoffman (action sports icon) or an Evil Knievel (stuntman), because Nitro Circus as a group tends to blur the line between that spectrum?
JS: That's a tough one. We deal with a few different areas, you know? We have shows, where we do tricks and competitions where we are judged, then of course there are stunts like this where we try to bring something totally new…
What do you prefer? Do you like shows and competitions or would you rather train for these massive stunts and put all your energy into ‘the next big thing’?
JS: Well, I like to change it up. If you focus on one thing too much, you need a chance to relax. A tour is good to have some fun with your friends and perform for crowds all over the world. It's an amazing feeling when you can make ten to twenty thousand people cheer and love what you are doing, but at the same time, competition leaves you motivated. And to do these one-off tricks takes a lot of work, and time, and experimentation. But these are the things that define your career. It’s so cool to be able to write history and be a part of that.
Travis, does seeing Josh do something like this make you a little bit jealous, seeing as you’ve only done a measly double backflip? Do you want to top it?
TP: Absolutely not. I tried for a very long time to be the first to do this, but my job now, as “ringleader,” is to try to make it so we can progress action sports. My goal is to give kids a place that is safe but still pushes their boundaries and makes them better. My goal right now is to make Nitro Circus a place for these kids to shine. Having said all that, it’s all about risk/reward. I almost passed out when Josh was about to go. I’m sweating through my gloves. Am I willing to die to do this? No. So Josh, ‘It’s all you.‘ (Laughs)
"These one-off tricks take a lot of work, time, and experimentation. But they’ll define your career."
On that note, where do you see the sport going in the future? What do you say to parents who think action sports are too risky for their kids, because of the perceived danger?
TP: Look, everything has inherent risk. I’m sure you know of someone who got hurt, or even killed, in a crash, or even walking down the street. It’s worth the risk, in that case, to drive to work, to get into your car. For me, this is my life; it’s what I do. I was very fortunate that my parents allowed me to go for it. They said ‘Look you do well in school, get good grades, you can go jump your motorcycle or whatever.” Most action sports athletes are very individual people, they don’t do well with a lot of rules and boundaries. It’s the kid that may normally be involved with art and music. It’s for the kid that wants to be the ball in golf.
What's the most Red Bulls you've drunk in one day?
JS: You mean Monsters, right? (Josh is sponsored by Monster, while Travis is team Red Bull)
TP: (Laughs) Energy drinks have a place. I love Red Bull, I use Red Bull. It’s not how many, it's how you use it. With action sports, low energy means you can’t do your job. You can’t treat Red Bull like water.
JS: I agree, I drink what I need and don’t overdo it. You need to be 100% focused out there. It does its job.
Josh, as a native Aussie, give us the straight, definitive answer on drop bears: are they real?
JS: (extended laughter) No. But, there are bears who live in trees, so if one falls on you, I guess they'd technically be drop bears.
Time for the big questions guys: would you rather smell like farts for a whole year, or constantly have the smell of farts in your nose, at all times?
TP: I’m a selfish person. I would prefer to always smell like farts…
JS: But you’d probably get used to it, wouldn’t you? If that’s all you smelled?
TP: I think I smell like farts most of the time, anyway; Josh you didn’t really answer the question…
JS: No, I’ve been to smelly places before, and you usually get used to it. But is it my own fart? Because your own farts always smell better to you.
Would you rather eat nothing but hot dogs for the rest of your life, or wear a single suit, made entirely of hot dogs, for the rest of your life?
JS: I’d be happy eating hot dogs forever, as long as there's some onion on there and a bit of sauce.
TP: Could I go naked if I chose the suit? I feel like after a while..I’d just...man, I don't know, that’s a tough one. None of the above?
Would you rather never ride your bikes again, or have the entire population of the world turn into chickens (you could still ride your bike in this chicken-world)?
TP: Well. I define myself by my motorcycle, but man, it would suck to just be riding with only chickens around. Honestly without smart people, providing gasoline and making ramps, and mechanics, I wouldn’t have a lot of use for my motorcycle because I'm not good at that stuff. So, at least with option one other people can enjoy bikes.
JS: I love bikes but...I hate chickens. Love eggs though. If something hurts me, but makes other people happy, I’d rather do that.
Besides the Nitro Circus Tour this summer, what do you have planned for the future? How are you going to top this last stunt...I mean...four flips? Anyone? I had to ask.
JS: Oh...well we’ve talked about that, of course. We once said that a double flip was impossible. A quad...it's possible to get rotation, but to land it, the jump would be so massive it would be almost impossible. What’s next? Who knows. We need to just play around with different ramps. Only time will tell. Maybe there will be ramps and tech in the future that will make something like that possible. Only time will tell.