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Bike riding on a higher ground

When riders learned to build bikes and started their own companies, that's when bicycle stunt riding soared.

By the late 1980s, bicycle stunt riding was nearly dead.

"Promoters were running things," Steve Swope said. "They had no passion for the sport."

Things were looking bleak for Swope, riding partner Mat Hoffman and a handful of other extreme athletes who couldn't imagine doing anything else for a living but jumping half-pipes on little bikes.

Then the tide turned, practically overnight.

"Riders began starting their own bike companies," Swope said. "We knew what we needed. We knew what we wanted. And that made all the difference."

Stunt bikes, variations of BMX bikes, are extremely technical vehicles. They must be able to withstand a three-story drop (with a 160-pound rider) and keep moving.

"The big problem was the front forks kept breaking," Swope said. "That is how people get hurt. You can handle a fall, but if the bike breaks and you are not ready for it, it can be a problem."

So Hoffman, who turned pro at 16, and Swope put their heads together, formed Hoffman Bikes, and decided to build stunt bicycles that could take a beating and keep competing.

"As the sport evolved, the bikes had to take more abuse," said Hoffman, who won the Bicycle Stunt Vert final on Saturday. "We started off with 6-foot ramps and jumping 6 feet in the air. And over the years the ramps got bigger and we kept going higher and higher."

Today, the average vert (short for vertical) course, also known as the half-pipe, is about 12 feet high. On Saturday, Hoffman jumped about 12-15 feet off the lip (the edge of the ramp) when he won the vert final.

But Hoffman has gone higher. Several years ago he and Swope built a 21-foot high ramp to see how far they could push it.

"Steve towed me on a motorcycle going 60 miles an hour," said Hoffman, known as "The Condor." "I hit the ramp and got about 27 feet off the ramp, about 48 feet in the air just our own little personal record."

It is doubtful anybody will be jumping as high as Hoffman's PR in the X Trials and X Games that follow, but one thing is for sure, as bikes get stronger, the athletes grow bolder.

The standard stunt bicycle has relatively small, 20-inch wheels, because tires any larger couldn't take the pounding.

The frames, made of 4130 chromoly steel, weigh about 30-35 pounds. They are built small so they are easier to control. A recreational stunt bike costs about $300, but the top-of-the-line models the pros ride cost $1,000.

As the bikes grow more technical, so do the riders' tricks.

To win in the vert, Hoffman's specialty, a rider needs to catch good "air" or get high up off the lip, complete a series of technical maneuvers along the lip such as a "stall" or "grind" and perform more creative moves in the air such as "360s" or "tailwhips."

This weekend's X Trials also feature two other bicycle stunt disciplines: the flatland, in which the riders perform a choreographed "dance" with their bicycles, and the street course, where riders navigate a series of obstacles and are judged on both time and technicality.

Rob Nolli, a 6-2, 195-pound five-year pro from Orlando competing in this afternoon's bicycle street preliminaries, looks more like an NFL wide receiver than an X Games athlete.

"People are always surprised when I tell them what I do," said the 27-year-old. "They always have a lot of questions."

The main one usually being how long will he do it?

"As long as I can," he said. "The sport has had its ups and downs, but I think it is here to stay."

With the ratings for ESPN's X Games getting stronger year after year, sponsors are getting behind athletes like Nolli, who once worked at Publix to pay for rent and bicycle parts.

"I make a living," he said. "This is still a relatively new sport. My guess is that it will just keep on growing."

Bicycle stunt riding terms

BOX JUMP: Jump used in street competitions consisting of two ramps on either side of about a 10-foot deck.

FUN BOX: A four-sided box jump (ramp on every side) that is included in street courses.

QUARTER-PIPE: Used in street competitions. The quarter-pipe is like a single wall of a vert ramp (or half-pipe). Called a quarter-pipe because it is one-quarter of a full radius.

STREET: An event consisting of different types and styles of ramps positioned so they can be approached in many different ways. Competitors plan their runs through these ramps according to individual style, combining different tricks and ramps to create the most impressive runs possible. There are two categories of tricks in street: aerials and lip tricks.

VERT: The half-pipe event. A half-pipe is like a big U with two transition areas at either end that extend to vertical stands, separated by the flat bottom in between. The half-pipe is entered from a platform that allows the rider to gain speed before leaving the other side. The smoother the rider, the higher the rider will be able to go. Riders have to be careful not to land on the lower part of the transition or the flat bottom or they probably will crash. There are two categories of tricks in vert: aerials and lip tricks.

BURLY: A big trick. When a rider goes for something big. John jumped a 20-foot canyon _ now that was burly.

COOKING FISH STICKS: Something easy. Table Tops are like cooking fish sticks.

CURBED: When a rider has crashed hard; or when you're drunk; or how you feel after a hard day of work; or when a girl shoots you down.

LOOPY: After a rider crashes hard and he's a bit dazed.

McCOY: Doing whatever it takes to pull a trick. From rider Dennis McCoy.

PACK O'NEWPORTS: Something harsh or rough. The vert ramp at the X Games was like a pack o'Newports.

PIMP VESSEL: A bike that a rider has kept in tip-top shape.

PULLIN' A McCOY: When a rider runs into the crowd. From an unfortunate tendency exhibited by McCoy.

YO MADD PHAT: Translation: "That was a cool trick."

Source: extreme/xgames/xspeak