Perfection isn't perfect

Chris McPherson for ESPN The Magazine

Kyla Loza landing his bike flip at the X Games is one of Los Angeles' big "ifs."

This story appears in the June 25 Debate Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

WHEN THE X GAMES hosted a freestyle motocross competition for the first time in 1999, a 15-year-old Travis Pastrana took first place by performing an electrifying 90-second run filled with tricks that, today, no self-respecting rider would bother including in a warmup. Compare that with ice skating's triple axel: 53 years after it was first recorded in 1957, Evan Lysacek included it in his gold-medal-winning Olympic routine.

The reality is, most freestyle motocross tricks have the lifespan of a pet hamster. The sport's stars have always been pioneers, guys willing to sacrifice their bodies to be the first to land a trick. Their constant one-upmanship moved the sport ahead at hyperspeed, from its first competition backflip (Carey Hart in 2000), to back-to-back flips (Mike Metzger in 2002), to 360 (Brian Deegan in 2003), to double backflip (Pastrana in 2006). The price for that progress was a gruesome tally of broken bones, ruptured organs and concussions, all of which riders say was worth it. "That was the heart of freestyle," says Deegan, now 37. "To be the guy to go for a trick no one has ever done."

But like many of its young competitors, the sport grew up too fast but never matured. Tricks became so complex and so dangerous, it's become impractical for riders to invent a new trick in the short time between contests. "The limits have been pushed so far, something has to give," says 2011 X Games Moto X Freestyle silver medalist Adam Jones.

Which is why motocross now finds itself at a crossroads. As the sport slows to a safer speed, it's splitting into two factions: progressionists, like Pastrana, and perfectionists, who hone what the Pastranas of the world have created.

Chris McPherson for ESPN The Magazine

Going into the finals, Nate Adams details his runs in a notebook.

At the heart of this divide is freestyle motocross veteran Nate Adams. Or, more specifically, Nate Adams' notebook. Sometimes it's blue, sometimes it's red, but it's always nearby. On its pages Adams draws out course maps and plots contest runs, scribbling his formula for gold. "Some guys plan out their run an hour before a contest. I plan the day before," says Adams, 28. "Going into finals, I don't have one run. I plan two or three runs in my head and then write them in my notebook." That level of preparation is almost unheard of in FMX, where most riders rely on spontaneity and in-the-moment inspiration.

Adams applies that same level of detail to every trick he attempts. He's never been the most progressive rider, but once a rider introduces a new trick, Adams takes it, engraves it with his own signature, then performs it better than anyone else in the world, including its inventor.

But to many of his peers, Adams' notebook symbolizes everything that's wrong with the future of freestyle motocross. They balk at the thought of their sport embracing a guy who calculates every detail and then spends a 90-second contest run making complex trick combos and backflips over 110-foot gaps look clean and choreographed.

"If freestyle moves toward focusing on perfection, I disown the sport," Pastrana says. "We aren't gymnasts. It's not about you and me doing the same trick but me doing it with pointed toes. It's about me doing something you can't do and then you coming back the next week and doing something I can't do. Freestyle is about innovation and what's possible. It's not about being perfect."

And yet Adams has sustained a successful 14-year career believing practice makes perfect, which has the added benefit of limiting injury timeouts. In February, Adams had the second of two surgeries to repair a separated left shoulder and a torn axillary nerve, caused by a trick he landed less than perfectly. It was the first time since early 2009 that he suffered a significant injury, and it left him antsy to get back on the bike just two months before the X Games. "At the end of the day," he says, "my sponsorships aren't based on friendships, they're based on performance."

In a sport built by huge personalities riding at the edge of possibility, being perfect has always been the biggest knock on Adams. He's been called a cyborg, been compared with robotic NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth and, worst of all, told to take up gymnastics. "Guys would say, 'This is freestyle. You shouldn't be so serious,'" Adams says. "But I don't go to a contest shaking in my boots. I go there knowing my tricks will be consistent every time. I'm a perfectionist in everything I do." And for the past three years, Adams has won more contests than any other rider.

"As the sport's progressed, it's become more important to be perfect than out of control," Jones says. "Anyone can throw 10 tricks and have people on the edge of their seats wondering if they'll land their run. But it's hard to throw 10 tricks perfectly."

Chris McPherson for ESPN The Magazine

Adams smoothly practices routine tricks to dirt.

The perfectionist philosophy comes to some riders slowly -- and often only after being forced to face their own mortality. Cam Sinclair, the first rider to land a double backflip in a 90-second freestyle run, under-rotated the move at a contest in Madrid in 2009, breaking his shoulder, fracturing his cheekbone, lacerating his liver and suffering severe head injuries that put him in a coma for seven days. But as soon as he could ride again, Sinclair put aside every other trick in his repertoire and focused on perfecting the double backflip. No longer was he willing to show up at a contest with a trick he wasn't landing regularly. A year after his crash, Sinclair returned to competition and landed the trick flawlessly to win Moto X Best Trick at the 2010 X Games. "Perfection is the key for me now," says Sinclair. "I've had so many injuries. Now it's about pushing myself to the limit to be 100% with every trick I do. It's not worth it anymore."

But pushing limits means everything for riders like Kyle Loza. He specializes in Moto X Best Trick, an event added to the X Games in 2001 to showcase the most progressive riding in the sport. The affair quickly became one of the most popular, ratings-grabbing contests at X and, until recently, featured the same riders who competed in the Moto X Freestyle event. But as the Best Trick ante was raised, it became difficult for riders to practice the ever-evolving list of tricks required to be competitive in Moto X Freestyle and also carve out time to invent a trick progressive enough to win Best Trick. Slowly, specialization crept in, with the most well-rounded riders competing in the 10 to 15 freestyle contests held each year and the most progressive corralled into this once-a-year X Games event.

Loza won Best Trick in his 2007 debut with a brain-twister of a body varial he called the Volt, then again in 2008 and 2009 with another body varial dubbed the Electric Doom. "It changed my life when I won those contests," says the 26-year-old. He took home about $50,000 in prize money each time and also signed lucrative sponsorships and demo deals -- all for landing one trick a year. Loza has missed the past two X Games with injuries, however; and although most of his sponsors have stuck around, he knows they won't wait for him forever. "There's pressure," he says. "I ride to support my family, but I also ride because I love creating tricks nobody in the world has done and then proving them possible. I love making a new reality."

For now, that has Loza focused on one trick, over and over, day after day: the bike flip, a little gem he began dreaming up in 2008 but didn't start attempting seriously until a year later. To date, he's launched the move upward of 600 times into a foam pit, landing rubber-side down about 95 percent of the time. He knows he has to land it on dirt only once -- on June 29 at the X Games. If he does succeed -- with a trick so difficult and dangerous no other rider is even attempting to learn it -- he will likely walk away with his fourth Best Trick gold medal. More important, he will prove it can be done.

That, after all, is the progressionist's goal: to shift the perception of what's possible. In 1999, the idea that a person could backflip a 250-pound dirt bike was unthinkable. Fast-forward 13 years and a triple backflip isn't far off. "If our sport was based only on perfection, then every rider would throw basic tricks that look good," says Jackson Strong, 2011 Moto X Best Trick gold medalist and the first rider to land a front flip in competition. "The sport wouldn't move forward, and no one would watch."

In reality, the sport needs both types of riders. A freestyle motocross world populated only by impossible-proving Pastranas wouldn't have enough athletes healthy enough to compete on a regular basis. (Pastrana is competing only in Rally Car Racing at this summer's X Games and is still recovering from shattering his right foot and ankle on a botched 720 attempt during last year's Best Trick competition.) And one overrun with notebook-wielding Adamses would quickly lose its sparkle. NASCAR needed Dale Earnhardt, but it needed Matt Kenseth too.

"To win contests today, you have to bring something new, use the course differently or go bigger than the last guy. But what sets you apart is your consistency and perfection," explains Adams. "It's about progression and perfection."

What a mature thing to say.

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