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The Ramp

Surely there's never been a more insane idea than freestyle motocross

Motorcycling has always had its truly psychotic niches, but surely there has never been anything more insane than freestyle motocross. Jumping 40ft high the air, freestylers twist their arms and legs into impossible contortions in lunatic bids to out-trick each other. So, naturally enough, we thought we'd have a go...

JOHNNY'S STORY...

Um, it's just possible that this wasn't infact my best idea to date. I'm not entirely sure what triggered this particular spot of genius, but I do know it was all my doing. Alex and myself have done any number of off-road features in the past for various bike mags - it's something we've both always loved - but this is different. Freestyle motocross. Nac-nacs. Heel Clickers. Candy Bars. Confused? Don't be - all we need to know is that this has the potential to hurt like hell.

So here's what's happening. We've enlisted the help of one of the UK's top freestylers, Frazer Swanson, to teach Alex and myself at least one proper freestyle move over the next couple of months. We'll run probably three features over the next few issues on our progress. This will culminate in a jump-off between myself and Alex and (perhaps) a guest appearance at a freestyle show. But hopefully not.

Why do this? We're both far too old and frail to be doing this at our age. But every time I watch one of the Crusty videos or a supercross round on Eurosport, it just looks sooooo cool. So I want to give I a go. And the way I figure it, if we can learn to do some basic freestyle moves, then so could you. Not suggesting that you should actually give it a go or anything, especially if you have kids or a happy home-life, but Alex is 33, I'm 31, and if pottering dinosaurs like us can kick out mean moves on a motocross bike 20ft up in the air, then anyone can. Besides, I've always had a deep desire to know what both my femurs look like on the outside. Of my legs.

First of all, some suitable iron. Alex spoke to the lads at Yamaha and chose a YZ125 as his weapon of choice. Yamaha's blue motocrossers are always right up the front, and after terrifying experiences with a Kawasaki KX250 a few years back, Alex quite correctly went for the easier-to-handle 125cc option. Which is what I should have done, except my ego got in the way and I persuaded my mates at Honda UK to loan me the freestyler's weapon of choice - the awesome CR250R. 56bhp delivered instantly through a chassis weighing just 95kg is an appetite for destruction, as I'm sure I'll be finding out the hard way. A call through to Alpinestars in Italy netted us matching motocross gear - one set red, one set blue - and there we were. All dressed-up in colour-matched outfits, looking like the Bill and Ben of freestyle motocross. All the gear, no flamin' idea. At all.

Frazer's brother owns Milton Malsor moto parc in Northampton. It's no coincidence that behind every great motocrosser is a motocross track that they have unlimited access to. The track is perfect for learning on, heaps of monstrous jumps with both easy and tough landings, three big table-top ramps, a triple (for when we get really cocky and need a good slapping-down) and an excellent surface. After three weeks of perfect weather in April, obviously we picked the one Friday when the heavens opened for our first session. Frazer rocks up with his freestyle CR250 on a trailer. It's a 2002 model just like mine, but unlike mine it reeks of hard use and bad-ass attitude. I expect Frazer to be the same, but he's dead down-to-earth. No big tattoos, no dustbin-lid piercings, no enormous ego. Just a 25 year-old bloke who happens to do impossible things on motorcycles.

"First-up, I want you guys to just ride round for 15 minutes so I can get an idea of how you ride." Off we set, and both come back in after two laps, dry-gagging for water and exhausted. I had forgotten how physically monstrous motocross tracks are. "Alex, your body position is all wrong but the way you hit the jumps is right. John, your body positioning is good but you're attacking the jumps without carrying any speed." Frazer sets off to show us how it's done, and the learning is under way.

In this first session, all we want to do is nail a 50-foot table top (50ft long jump with an up-ramp, a plateau and then a down-ramp) to teach us the basics. After that we can move on to headier things, like taking feet and hands off the bars. There's nothing really scary about a table-top jump, because when you under-jump - land short - you just land on the raised plateau, and not into the up-face of another jump. So off Alex and myself set, under-jumping to our heart's content. The CR250 can't even be bothered to laugh at my pathetic efforts, although it's running very rich which actually makes it easier to ride in the midrange without disturbing its ferocious top-end too much. It's all about confidence-building. At the moment I'm hitting the ramp in third gear with the bike just coming into its proper powerband, which is making the bike a bit frisky to control. Frazer suggests hitting the ramp in fourth gear and maintaining a steady throttle all the way, rather than accelerating suddenly at the base of the jump. A few attempts and bosh! I nail it, landing softly on the down-slope of the landing ramp. It's amazing how A) good it feels when you do this and B) how much easier it is on the body and bike when you land where you're supposed to land.

So, that's the first hurdle crossed and no injuries as yet. I banged my head a bit and bent the bars on one small crash, but no big horrors. Next time, we'll be frying far more serious fish. I promise to hurt myself then. Here's Alex's version of events...

ALEX'S TALE

It's a tragic irony that I've got sucked into this freestyle have-a-go jamboree. Like Johnny, I love dirt bikes and as a relatively recent convert to nosing head-first into the mud I'm still at the bottom of a very steep learning curve. However, if there's one thing you wouldn't - until recently - find me at the bottom of it's a jump. Simply put, I'm scared of 'em. More precisely, I'm scared of heights (I get the shits at an altitude of more than six feet) and, as I've got older, scared of breaking any more bones thanks to stupidity (mine) and motorcycling.

So having stated the above, why oh why then did I rock up at a wet and windy MX track with a shiny new Yamaha YZ125 clutched in my sweaty mitts? And spend half an hour eyeing up what looked to me like a precipitous wall of clag, with a 'landing' ramp equally as suspicious 50 feet (yes, 50) after?

I didn't race MX as a foetus, was too busy eating mud (rather than riding it) as a preteen and have no real desire to suffer the indignity of getting lapped repeatedly by psychotic lunatics as an adult, so therefore haven't the basic understanding, ability or fitness from a lifetime spent on the lumps and bumps. But I don't care. Right now I want to jump. So am prepared to battle my fears, as listed above. And accept it may go horribly wrong. Actually, if there's one thing me and John agreed on at the start of this was the certainty that it would go horribly wrong.

I opted for a 125 simply because once I had a 250. And, on more than one occasion it quite genuinely tried to kill me. It was just too much of everything, and definitely too much for me. I learnt my lesson - hard -that until I'm better at riding a motocross bike any 250 is off limits. The YZ125 still packs a 30bhp punch, but the overall package is simply easier to deal with than a 250 - lighter, much less savage and much less work to (literally) stay on top of. The Yamaha YZ seems universally recognised (by people that know) to be one of the nicest 125s around, so seemed an obvious choice. Plus it's a very smart shade of blue.

It would be fair to say I felt a real fraud resplendent in mint Alpinestars riding gear, with an equally mint (and run in around the TWO office car park) YZ125 underneath me as Frazer strapped on various battle scarred pads and - surprisingly - a pair of shorts. "You're much more mobile in the air with these on, and my knee's properly knackered..." He showed us, and it is. Horrible mess of a knee from a massive freestyle knee-inversion a few years back. But in his matter-of-fact, laid-back way he then proceeded to walk, talk and ride us through the basic anatomy of a simple jump. I listened, watched, and tried to take it all in. Then, there was nothing for it, I had to get on with it, so YZ wailing, heart enmeshed in my gnashers, I threw myself at the foot of the table top we'd spent so much time studying.

And landed like a sack of shit with string tied around the middle, a good 30 feet from the down ramp. But it felt good. I did it again, same result. And again, and so on. Sometimes I got it really wrong, landing hard on the back wheel, sideways or heavy on the front but with each pass I felt a little more comfortable. After some advice from Frazer about body position, "Keep central and fluid, move with the bike" I worked on consistency - trying to get the same take off point, speed and attitude every time. Frazer, John and photographer Paul went to the local boozer to get some lunch - I didn't.

I kept on, back and forth. I'd started the day hitting the table top in third gear. I tried fourth, carrying a lot more speed. It was starting to feel right, although I was still erratic and still a good 10 feet short of where I needed to be touching down, though my confidence was growing with every run. And it was sheer, unadulterated fun, an utter, utter gas.

On and on, pass after pass. I wasn't going to stop until I had this sucker nailed. And, by late afternoon I'd cracked it. I could hit the up ramp at the top of fourth gear and, 70ft later land gently on the down ramp. It was starting to feel right, and was so much easier both on the bike and my body. Johnny had the job sussed, and the pair of us roared back and forth like demented kids, just happy to have crossed the first hurdle. Then Frazer pulled out a beautiful Heel Clicker on the table top we'd spent all day learning just how to survive on. And did it at least a dozen more times for the camera. It was awesome to watch. I was inspired all over again.

We've a long way to go and will certainly never get to where Frazer's at, but after just one day jumping a motorcycle I can tell you that it's damn well worth trying for - because anything this intoxicating is usually sold by the gram. Freestyle is the biggest legal high in history, and I'm now a registered addict. Next? The Big Ramp. I'm there.

ANATOMY OF A FREESTYLER

Frazer Swanson is 25. He's been riding motorbikes since he was 3 years old, and took up freestyling properly last March. He's one of the best stunt freestylers in the UK, so what's his story?

"I was just three when my dad got me a little Italjet, and then I had a YZ50 motocrosser and entered my first race when I was 5, so riding dirtbikes is in my blood. I won my first British Championship when I was nine. Between the ages of nine to 16 I was never out of the Top Three in National motocross, did Internationals as well. Then when I got to 16 I had this massive crash, smashed my femur into little bits, and that was me. All through my schoolboy career I'd been braking bones - probably snapped about 25 in my time - so I decided to stop racing then.

Didn't ride a bike for 3 years after that. Didn't really miss them, to be honest. Then one day someone asked if I fancied a go at a club race, so I was like "oh, alright then. Good for a laugh." And went out and won it. So got another, but even though I was racing again my heart wasn't really in it, I wasn't prepared to smash myself to pieces for the sake of first place. I was about 21 then, and that was when the first Crusty Demons of Dirt video came out. I couldn't believe what those guys were doing on bikes, so decided to give it a go, and got serious with it March 2001.

It's the size of the jumps that's the real shocker with freestyle. You'd be surprised how slow the ramp approach is, but the ramps are built so they flip you right up into the air. Performing the tricks is not about being all athletic and that - I'm about as athletic as a brick myself. It's about learning to jump properly first, hitting the same point time and time over, then you can start to relax and start moving your legs and arms about a bit. It's all relative - when I go to learn a new trick now it's like me doing my first one-hander jump again, I get The Fear going. You can do a whole show and not get worried, then it gets towards the end and you start getting all freaky because you know you want to do something a bit special. Every rider I know thinks about what can happen if you get a big freestyle jump wrong - but that's part of what keeps you alive. If you just went for it without thinking, you would really muller yourself. Because you're scared of it, you respect it.

At the end of the day, sad to say that motocross and broken bones go together hand-in-hand unless you're really lucky. You can smash anything. With road-racing, you tend to have specific injuries with certain types of crashes, be that a collar bone or a scaphoid or whatever. But with motocross it can be absolutely anything, because you end up flying in all directions, often with a 100kg motorcycle landing on top of you. Just pot luck where and how you're going to land!"