Levi Sherwood ready to conquer Madrid

By Trevor McKewen

Levi Sherwood stood on top of a five metre high pile of compressed dirt in Spain contemplating a world championship earlier today.

The Kiwi daredevil was 24 hours away from putting life and limb on the line in the Red Bull X-Fighters championship event.

He's not the first man to have done so in the infamous venue he gazed out upon while posing for publicity photos ahead of the Thursday night qualifying session for an event that will decide the freestyle motocross (FMX) champion of the world.

Infamous because the Plaza de Toros venue, built in downtown Madrid in 1929, is a bullfighting venue.

The bloody sport remains a national obsession in Spain. In fact, the huge pile of dirt in the centre of the battleground will be emptied out just hours after the X-Fighters is completed on Friday night and will play host to a bullfighting showdown just 24 hours later.

But come Saturday morning NZ time, it will be mechanical creatures that captivate the passionate Spanish crowd as Sherwood and 11 other riders seek fame of a different kind to the matadors who have preceded them.

And when it comes to FMX, it is the word "iconic" that is used far more often than infamous when it comes to describing the Plaza de Toros.

The X-Fighters, first conceived in 2002, is the world´s premier freestyle motocross event and the Madrid stop has long been considered the Wimbledon of the series.

The event is played out in front of 20,000 passionate fans who know the sport as intimately as an Eden Park audience understands rugby.

The compressed circular venue has stands that almost seem directly vertical as they pierce the Madrid skyline.

It makes for a dramatic landscape and an event that is at the cutting edge of the dangerous but breathtaking sport.

Because it the stadium is smaller than most X-Fighters venues, there is a greater emphasis on high flying tricks. Therefore the Madrid round has regularly proved the breaking ground for dramatic new moves every bit as dangerous as land-bound matadors dodging the horns of enraged bulls.

The first-ever backflip was performed in Madrid, for example.

How the competition works (Click for larger view)

The spectacle is dramatic. With the surging crowd in full voice in the concrete stands rising high into the Spanish evening, riders shoot out of the bullring's labyrinth of tunnels into the packed stadium before soaring up to 15 metres in the air via raised platforms.

Performing staggering gymnastic-like moves while often holding onto their powerful machines with just one hand, if not several fingers, the spectacle is unique in world sport. Spills draw the same anguished reaction from the crowd as when a bull gets the better of a matador.

Adding more tension to this year´s showdown is the significant change to the X-Fighters format. Previously, the world championship has been fought out over five or six events, all in various exotic stops around the globe. But this year there is only one round and it will decide the world championship.

Sherwood neatly summed it up today.

"It´s all or nothing in Madrid," said the 24-year-old from Palmerston North who won here in 2012 en route to his only world championship and the bulk of the million dollars in prizemoney on offer that year.

When Red Bull sat down to decide which city would host the one-off event that would decide the 2016 world title, it was a short meeting.
Madrid won hands down.

Frenchman Tom Pages, who has won in Madrid the last three years, says the enthusiastic crowd and gladitorial surroundings are what sets the event apart and made it the logical choice.

"Madrid is special because it is the home of FMX," said Pages who described completing the first-ever bike flip trick in Madrid two years ago en route to winning the world championship that season as the most memorable moment of his career.

"Everyone is so focused to win Madrid. The setup is perfect to be able to express yourself. The crowd always inspired me here too. So much great FMX history has happened in Madrid and it has to continue. The Spanish crowds really love the new tricks. They know what to look for."

Sherwood initially had to overcome the passionate Spanish supporters before sealing his reputation as a crowd favourite with the locals via a combination of his silky riding style and traditional Kiwi grit.

He won here in 2012 but was booed when he narrowly beat Spain's Maikel Melero in the semi-final and then local superstar Dany Torres in the final.

"If you beat the Spanish boys they don't really like that but in general the Madrid crowd loves the event and all the riders," said Sherwood.

"The best tricks happen in Madrid because is the event when it comes to Red Bull X-Fighters. It's got the best atmosphere and the course is basic so it's designed for best tricks. It's still a challenge but just easier to do the best tricks than on a bigger course.
"There is no better place to ride for the atmosphere and the crowd in Madrid. You can't describe the energy out there."

American cult hero Travis Pastrana was crowned the winner three times in Madrid but not consecutively, unlike Pages, while Torres has won it twice. Other winners in Madrid include Spaniard Edgar Torronteras, Australian Robbie Maddison, Swiss Mat Rebeaud and Americans Nate Adams and Kenny Bartram.

The event, to be held tomorrow morning New Zealand time, is also the 15th anniversary of the Madrid stop.

With the world championship riding on it and amid a maelstrom of spectator fervour, it promises to be potentially the most dramatic yet.

* Trevor McKewen travelled to Madrid courtesy of Red Bull.

- NZ Herald

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