Freestyle motocross rider Dan Whitby casually pulls his crash helmet on and taxis to the end of an empty Newcastle Arena. Before him is an eight-foot ramp, then a 21-foot gap, followed by a huge landing base. He rides towards the launch ramp on a Honda CRF 450cc motocross bike, not travelling very fast, but as he meets the wooden apparatus he yanks back on the throttle. His bike’s finely tuned suspension compresses and he’s catapulted 40 feet skyward. Mid-air he completely lets go of his handle bars, pushes the bike away from him and grabs the back of the seat with one hand just before it gets away from him completely. He later tells me that he practises these moves so much he feels in complete control at all times, but that’s not how it looks from where I’m standing. As gravity starts to do its thing he hauls the 100kg bike back towards him, regains his riding stance and lands. This all happens in the space of about two seconds. It leaves me astonished.
Minutes earlier Dan was talking me through the jumping technique. ‘We’re in second gear as we approach. I’m on a four-stroke machine, which is great in arenas like this where the floor’s quite slippy – I get traction the whole way through. I’ll approach relatively slowly – we don’t have any speedometers on the bikes so I couldn’t tell you an accurate speed. We wind all the power on at the base of the ramp, which compresses the suspension, consequently giving you the rebound which gives you that height. While we’re up there we let go of the bike, move around and do what could almost be described as gymnastics on a motorcycle.’ All while flying through the air.
I take the opportunity to ask a question I’m sure Dan and the other riders field on a regular basis: do you have to be crazy to do this kind of thing? ‘People say that all the time but I’m really calculated. I hate roller coaster rides. I’m just your standard guy. I like to think I’m pretty grounded.’
What you don’t see are the countless hours of practice the riders put in away from the arenas. He trains in a facility with an Olympic-sized swimming pool packed with foam cubes that enables him to perfect backflips and other dangerous tricks before performing them in front of thousands of spectators without a safety net. He’s showcased his skills in front of Arab sheiks, Russian oligarchs and English aristocracy, and he tells me that he’s just returned from India where he performed as a stuntman for a Bollywood film. ‘I was doubling as the lead actor in a film and I also did an advert for an Indian soft drink company. I jumped over a crashed water tanker, raced through traffic and jumped over a central reservation with cars travelling below. It was relatively tame in comparison to what I do at Arenacross events.’
Between Dan and the freestyle riders attempting to out-do each other in the air, motocross takes place on a special track set up around the jumps. While the freestyle jumps are big and bold, the racing is short and sharp, with plenty of thrills and spills unfolding as riders negotiate triple jumps, mogul sections and fast, banked corners in the battle to be crowned Arenacross Champion at the end of the tour. After a morning of practice the riders race in qualifiers to determine who gets to ride in the main event, a final race which determines the points they earn towards the Arenacross Championship.
A rider to look out for in these races is 32-year-old Brad Anderson, a legend of UK racing and a local lad too. Hailing from Tow Law, the Newcastle date on this seven-round Arenacross tour is Brad’s hometown gig. Brad is a former European youth BMX champion who graduated to motocross as a teenager. Over the course of his 12-year motocross career he’s picked up four British Motocross crowns.
The local interest doesn’t end there. In the youth classes are brothers Joele and Buster Hart from Wallsend. Eldest brother Joele is a 15-year-old pupil at Lord Lawson Academy, and he’ll be competing in the Rookies division, racing on a 250cc machine. ‘My dad got me a PW50 bike when I was three,’ he explains. ‘I found a couple of local tracks like PJMX [in West Sleekburn, Northumberland] and I’ve just taken it further since then.’ His younger brother Buster is 10 and started even earlier than Joele, riding his first motorbike at just two years old. He’ll be racing in the 65cc class on the 2014 tour and is seriously fancied as Champion in that category when the series finishes at Wembley Arena.
The tour kicked off at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, in January. That was the same venue where Buster won another event in front of thousands of fans last year. He remembers it well: ‘I crossed the finish line and everyone was screaming. It was amazing. It was the best moment of my life.’ It was even more emotional for father Sean, the man who funds this hobby. ‘That was awesome,’ he tells me, describing Buster’s win in Belfast. ‘It was the best feeling ever. To see him up there made me so proud. I was crying and throwing him in the air.’ It was made even more dramatic by the fact that the boys nearly didn’t make the Belfast race at all. Missing the ferry from Liverpool they didn’t arrive in Belfast until 8am on the morning of the race, with practice scheduled for 8.30am. ‘Without a doubt, racing can take over your life,’ says, Sean, a self-employed MOT Technician. ‘It’s non-stop. It’s like a bottomless pit. I would like the boys to make a career out of it. Buster’s won a brand new machine before, which was worth £3,000 – it can be done. We have some good sponsors now but the goal is to get some bigger sponsors, and hopefully one day earn a living from it.’ This three-hour racing and jumping extravaganza is unlike any other arena sport you’re ever likely to see, so you should jump at the chance to see it.