Commentary

Maddison's obsession a long-running affair

Updated: December 31, 2008, 10:03 AM ET
By Alyssa Roenigk | ESPN.com

The obsession started early.

Robbie Maddison was 4, as best he can remember, when he first heard the sound. "Brrraaap … braap braap … " He and his family had just moved from the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, to Kiama Downs, a beach town, and the sounds of his new neighborhood intrigued him.

"I would run to the window when I heard it," says Maddison, now 27. "I was totally captivated."

The sound was a neighbor kid riding by on his dirt bike. Maddison would smell the two-stroke fumes and drop everything he was doing to catch a glimpse of the kid on the two-wheeled machine. "I got addicted at an early age," he says.

"I kept telling my parents, 'Only a motorbike. That's it. Nothing else,'" Maddison says. "I didn't want Santa to get confused."

--Robbie Maddison

That Christmas, there was only one thing on Maddison's list.

"I kept telling my parents, 'Only a motorbike. That's it. Nothing else,'" Maddison says. "I didn't want Santa to get confused."

Fortunately, Santa came through, and Maddison unwrapped his first ride. Immediately, he and his dad started hitting the local tracks. At 6, he began racing competitively and quickly worked his way up the Australian circuit. But the cost and stress of the sport wore on his family. "My dad worked two jobs for 10 years so I could ride bikes," Maddison says. "It put a lot of pressure on him."

At 16, Maddison decided he was spinning his wheels trying to keep up with rich kids whose parents built racetracks in their backyards, and he dropped out of the sport. "It was depressing," he says. "I'd show up, hang with the top guys and take a few races from them. But if I had what they had, I know I would have dominated."

When he quit racing, he quit riding altogether. That year, Maddison graduated from high school (or, as he puts it, "I got my ticket"), got a job working as an electrician's apprentice and forgot about bikes entirely. "I wasn't an athlete then," he says. "I ran off the rails for a while. Dirt bikes never crossed my mind."

Until one day, four years later, when a friend showed up at Maddison's house with a new bike. "I hopped on, rode down the street and popped a wheelie," he says. "That was when I started thinking about riding again."

Not long after that day, Maddison bought a new bike and started riding with friends on the weekends and after work. But this time, it wasn't just racing that interested him. He'd been reading the moto magazines, and he marveled at the tricks guys like Dayne Kinnaird -- riders he had beaten on the track -- were doing over dirt jumps. He wanted in. He'd always liked hitting the biggest jumps at the beach or on the track, and he was excited by a new challenge. At 20, he did his first Superman seat grab and was hooked. "I started taking days off work to ride," he says. "After I did my first backflip, everything started to snowball."

Maddison was invited to Europe to perform in demos and was the first rider to land a backflip combo in European competition. He competed in a couple of contests as an amateur and, in 2003, won the first contest he entered as a pro. Within a couple of years, he'd gone from an unknown electrician to a freestyle rider with a Honda factory ride who was gracing the cover of Aussie moto magazines.

"That pissed a lot of people off at first," he says.

He joined the Crusty Demons of Dirt, an Aussie freestyle motocross tour, and in 2005 set a world distance record, jumping 246 feet while doing a Superman seat grab. He was quickly earning a rep as one of the few triple threats in the sport. He moved to the United States later that year to focus on his freestyle career -- he and his fiancée, Amy Sanders, now live in Temecula, Calif., down the street from fellow FMX riders Twitch Stenberg and Nate Adams -- and he competed in his first summer X Games in 2006, finishing sixth in freestyle.

Last December, 22 years after receiving that first bike, Maddison set another record. On New Year's Eve in Las Vegas (live on ESPN), he jumped 322 feet, 7.5 inches, nearly the length of a football field from goalpost to goalpost. He says the moment he landed, he knew he could jump farther; he and fellow distance jumper Ryan Capes believe 400 feet is on the horizon. (On March 29, Maddison bested his own record, jumping 351 feet in Australia.) But he wanted a new challenge. Something besides freestyle comps and distance records.

"I was born to jump distance," he says. "With freestyle, I enjoy the competition and the friendships. We push each other. But just doing freestyle or just jumping records would get boring."

So, shortly after last year's jump, Maddison began dreaming up a new stunt, something more creative and innovative and even more of a nod to his childhood inspiration, Evel Knievel.

"I was about 6 and at a birthday party for my mum," Maddison says. "Robbie Knievel was jumping on TV, and they were flashing back to some of Evel's jumps. It was the first time I ever saw them, and I was a fan from the start. He was a role model."

But, unlike Knievel's dream-it-up-and-do-it method of crash-and-burn stunt riding, Maddison is maniacal in his preparation. He says he was riding along a Los Angeles freeway when he began envisioning this stunt.

Says Maddison: "I saw a tall building and started thinking, 'If I got the right angle and the right speed, I bet I could land on top of that."

Which is precisely what he will attempt to do this New Year's Eve, again live on ESPN. Maddison will attempt to jump his bike 96 feet in the air and land on top of the replica of the Arc de Triomph at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, and then bomb drop 50 feet to a landing ramp below. In preparation, Maddison has spent six months working with mathematicians, engineers, stunt experts and a Hollywood stunt director, as well as ramp builders and fellow motocross riders, to help him pull off the jump as flawlessly, and as safely, as possible.

On a hot day in early December, Maddison was out at the Red Bull Compound, a new state-of-the-art training facility in the Santa Clara River Valley just northeast of Los Angeles. (It's just past the AM/PM and the shooting range and just south of the cattle farms.) On this morning, he was suiting up for his third day of practice. By the end of the day, the platform -- a giant erector-set replica of the Arc in Vegas that rises in 6-foot, 6-inch increments -- was at 78 feet, and Maddison was clearing it almost too easily.

"Only 18 feet to go," Maddison said after his last jump of the day. "The final five will be the toughest." Not to mention that 50-foot drop back to earth.

Alyssa Roenigk

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments covering action sports, Olympics and football have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. In 2012, she joined the X Games TV broadcast team and ordered additional pages for her passport. Follow her on Twitter at @espn_alyssa.