Metal Circus: '80s flatland pro Chris Lashua
In the late 1980s, Chris Lashua was one of the most well-known BMX freestyle riders in the world. He'd been featured in all the major BMX magazines, and even scored several covers. He had a full-factory sponsorship with Mongoose, and toured the world doing shows and competing. In a time when nearly all the big name freestyle riders lived in California, Chris had made it to the top from an unlikely suburb of Boston.
The freestyle scene in the Northeast in the mid '80s revolved around a group of riders put together by Ron Stebenne called the Mountain Dew GT Trick Team. Ron organized early freestyle events throughout New England, and recognized local talent like Chris Lashua for his touring show team. "I first met Chris at a contest when he was about 15 years old. I could see he had drive, natural talent, confidence, charm, and was bright" said Stebenne. "He was always on the lookout for an opportunity."
Some years later, Lashua purchased the Trick Team from Stebenne, and it became the Mountain Dew Freestyle Performance Team. The crew continued to perform around the country, and throughout the world. That performance-oriented lifestyle ultimately landed Lashua a gig in the world renowned Cirque du Soleil and ultimately paved the way for him to start his own touring group -- Cirque Mechanics. The new shows he's created are currently touring around the world, and have been featured in the New York Times.
There's an obvious parallel between the show oriented flatland riding Chris was doing in the '80s and the acrobatic, theatrical shows he's involved with today. And recently, Chris was kind enough to sit down and tell his side of the story.
ESPN.com: In the mid-'80s Southern California was where you lived if you were a sponsored pro freestyle rider. But 3,000 miles away, there was a crew of riders that had transcended that. How were you guys able to get to a sponsored level being outside of California at that time?
Lashua: There were a handful of small regional contests at that time. At the first contest I went to, I met up with a group of riders headed up by Ron Stebenne and Steve Macomber. I went every week, and that was the start of a long relationship with Ron and the bike team that evolved into the Mountain Dew GT Trick Team. It was Ron who put together the Mountain Dew sponsorship. He lined up a season's worth of shows and then went to GT and locked them in as a sponsor. We were getting paid, which, of course, was a joke to us, because we all would have done it for nothing.
Outside of contests, your riding had a bit of a street edge early on, and you had pictures in Freestylin' and Homeboy magazines riding legendary street spots like Turtles in Boston. What drew you to that style of riding?
In those days there was no division. It was just natural to ride flat, and ramps and street. We didn't really have the option of specializing at first. Now, of course, these disciplines are so specialized it's hard to imagine being able to master them all. We'd ride to a parking lot to practice flatland, and on the way we'd ride on, over, and under everything on the way. In Boston, we'd ride Turtles, Devotion banks, and Boston City Hospital. We brought all the visiting riders to these fun spots when they'd come to town, including the magazines when they come to feature the Boston scene.
Was there ever a "I have to move to California" moment for you during those days?
Yeah. Many riders wanted to be in California since that is where the parks were. It was where the magazines were, and the bike companies. It seemed like in order to get sponsored or get magazine coverage you needed to out there. But there was a period of time when I think we benefited from that. When we came on the scene, those of us from the northeast, with our own style and approach to riding, there was an appreciation -- a kind of respect that we got from the other riders who knew how hard it was to train and ride when it was 20 degrees outside.
Freestyle went through its lean years in the early '90s and a lot of guys like yourself faded from the scene. Was that a slow evolution for you?
Sponsors were drying up, which was part of it I guess, but I was a senior at Boston University in 1990. For me, it was difficult to balance college and the competitive side of riding. I was graduating from school and still riding, but I was trying to find a job in advertising at the same time. Ron Stebenne called out of the blue one day and connected me with Tim Holst of Ringling Bros. Tim was looking for a bike act to bring to a festival in China. Most of us in competitive freestyle had no interest in circus work. Full-time touring would've cut into our training time, but Tim just wanted to send us to China for two weeks.
It was at that festival in China that I met one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil. He asked me to put a bike act together for a touring show of Cirque du Soleil the following summer in Japan. I had never heard of them; nobody had. They had one show called "Nouvelle Experience" at the time and it was airing on HBO all month, so I checked it out and was blown away. I wanted to be part of that. The idea of taking freestyle and combining it with live music, theatrical lighting, and featuring it on a stage was something entirely new.
After that summer I wanted to find a way to stay involved with Cirque. I ended up following some of the Japan show cast to Vegas where Cirque was setting up shop for a year at the Mirage. I worked for the year as a stage tech, and during this time, a friend showed me a picture of a guy in a large metal wheel called the German Wheel. I built my own, and started training. It was familiar territory, and has a feeling similar to biking or skating. It is a German gymnastic discipline but I blended my bike / street style with the technical wheel training and found my way back onto the stage as the opening act of Cirque du Soleil's touring show "Quidam."
Is the German Wheel something there are groups of people around the world doing in a flatland sort of way? Is it something you just had to figure out using the skills you already had, or were there other people to learn from?
It is kind of an underground sport, which has regular competitions and demos. I knew none of this when I built my own and began to train. I didn't see a video or know any of the proper technique for the first two years, which I think worked to my advantage in the long run. This allowed me to not be constrained to accepted technique.
So eventually Cirque led you to create your own touring show?
I toured with "Quidam" for nearly five years until I left in 2000 to continue working on a new mechanical performance apparatus, which eventually led me to start my company, Cirque Mechanics. I had built a trolley device, which cradled the German wheel. To this trolley I affixed a gear, lever, cranks and a winch. By rotating in the wheel I could create lift of an aerialist on the other side of the stage. The trolley and the spin cycle were both built from bike parts picked from the dumpster or off of old bikes in the garage. This interaction between acrobat and machine is a kind of extension of all those years with bikes, and became the central theme of Cirque Mechanics first show, Birdhouse Factory, which we opened in San Francisco in 2004. Birdhouse Factory, is a circus show that mixes mechanical contraptions, circus, theatre, and choreography. It is a show set in a real world and time -- a 1940's factory -- as opposed to the fantasy setting of many of the modern Cirque inspired shows. We have been touring Birdhouse Factory for the past four years, including runs in Montreal, off Broadway in New York, and overseas as far as Istanbul and Dubai. Our second show "Boom Town" opened this past October at the Broadway Center for the Arts in Tacoma.
Did you have a theatrical background in any way outside of what you'd learned from doing flatland shows?
Nope, I didn't have a theatre background, just lots of experience on two wheels in front of audiences. The work with Cirque du Soleil really sparked my interest for theatre and the idea of mixing so many of these theatrical elements with the acrobatics.
The old world circus has sort of almost a "freak show" connotation, but Cirque du Soleil really seems to have changed all that.
Touring with Cirque was pretty cushy. They really know how to take care of their people. They created a whole new art form, and made it possible for us at Cirque Mechanics to do what we do. They raised people's expectations of what circus can be and it was great to be part of that. But what we get to do with Cirque Mechanics is more in line with what we did with the Mountain Dew GT Trick Team. We put the shows together, we get to work with the people we want to work with and create the content.
Outside of the mechanical contraptions, when was the last time a BMX bike played a show roll for you?
At this point, both of our shows have bicycle contraptions in them but it hasn't been since my time with Cirque du Soleil in Japan that I actually performed classic flatland, and I'm more than a bit rusty.
Check out more about Chris' new Birdhouse Factory project at http://www.birdhousefactoryshow.com/