Four-wheelers do it just as fast
During slopestyle qualifiers at the third annual Crankworx international mountain-bike festival in Whistler, British Columbia, rider after rider slams their frame and face into the dirt, their botched back flips, tail whips and 720s replayed ad nauseam on a 30-foot big-screen posited under the takeoff of the course's final drop.
I'm chillaxin' with the three biggest names in fourcross (4X): American up-and-comer Eric Lindsley, and local champs Stacy Kohut and Johnny Therien, owners of R-One, a Whistler-based four-wheel downhill mountain-bike manufacturer. We talk shop and shoot the shit after racing in the Jim Beam Air Downhill event earlier that afternoon. We all come from bicycle motocross (BMX), downhill (DH), skateboard and racing backgrounds and all have snapped our spines, and we're doing something that's never been done: marketing an extreme sport for both able and disabled adrenaline fiends.
"Here's the thing," says Kohut, a former Canadian Paralympic sit-skier and 1994 Super G gold medalist at Lillehammer, "the roots of 4X are in the adaptive endeavors [like quad ruby or "murderball"] of the early '90s, but today this is not an adaptive sport. Nothing against those who did or do, but we don't fly the wheelchair flag." The only "adaptive" part of 4X today is that the bikes have four wheels instead of two, and while that allows people with limited use of their legs to ride, it also is developing into a different kind of extreme sport.
4X began in the early 1990s when John Davis, also a former Paralympic sit-skier, teamed up with MIT engineer John Castellano to create an off-road wheelchair. Over the next 10-plus years several different designs emerged under a variety of manufactures: Davis' Cobra Ace, Michael Whiting's Phoenix, the Parapros Spyder and, most importantly, the Grove.
Built by Grove Innovations, this bike was the first design aimed at developing off-road wheelchairs for sport, blending full-suspension mountain-bike technology with a motocross aesthetic and relatively high levels of production. After producing 30-plus bikes, in 2002 Grove sold the jegs (the engineering blueprints) to Kohut, who, after further refining the design with Therein, began manufacturing R-One's own rides later that year.
Their bikes grab your eye — Chris King headsets, custom Phil Wood hubs, flashy pink, green, gold and yellow paint jobs highlighting four expertly tuned Vanilla RC Fox Shox. You ride in a fitted fiberglass go-cart seat situated above the rear axles, giving stability on high-speed hairpin turns and a weight ratio that allows you to pop your front end off the ground to aid airs.
Kohut and Therein have tried to market their four-wheel bikes to ski-resorts-turned-summer-bike-parks from their B.C. backyard to Big Bear, but they keep running into the same problem: Resorts only want to buy the bikes with money allocated from their adaptive programs, and those bikes would only be available to disabled riders.
Whistler Blackcomb Mountain Bike Park manager Tom Pearl says he wants more disabled riders out on the trails, but fears that expansion may be risky business. "These bikes cost $10,000," he explains. "Forty thousand dollars [the cost of four bikes] can build a lot of trails. [Expansion is] possible, but as a service to get disabled people out, it's cost prohibitive." Perhaps his trepidation is justified. Though Lindsley and I are recruiting ambulatory talent to start racing in summer '07, there are currently no competitive able-body riders — Whistler Blackcomb has not purchased any of R-One's bikes.
Regardless, 4X riders are giving the downhill community a run for their money, though on drastically different equipment. 4X bikes, while running much of the same high-end mechanics as the pro two-wheelers, have no drive train, and are powered primarily by gravity and periodic arm pushes. Even so, when compared side by side with the other pros, our times keep up.
Kohut swooped first in the Jim Beam Air Downhill with a 5:35.62, only 76 seconds behind pro two-wheeler champ Brian Lopes, and 35 seconds ahead of Coakley Jopling, the last-place pro.
After the race, Kohut, Therien, Lindsley and I sit working on our rigs at one of the festival's entry points. Plenty of people stop — everyone stares. The only way to see these things rail is to get out on the trail. You can't watch us from your seat, so there are frequent misconceptions about how our bikes work.
"You should put a motor on that thing." "Where's the roll cage?" "My neighbor's dog was in a wheelchair once." About half of them drop the "I" word — inspiration. "You guys are a real inspiration; it's good to see you out," says one man. Kohut is not appreciative. "It's good to see you out, sir," he retorts, "are you on a field trip from the home?" As the man shuffles off, Kohut adds, "Some people just don't get it. It's not about a guy in a [wheel]chair racing; it's about people that race who happen to be in chairs."
I remember watching Lindsley trying to huck a 25-stair gap at UC Santa Cruz last October. He wasn't getting up to speed quickly enough, so he grabbed onto the back of a bro's bike. He did a nice job clearing the better part of the first set of 12 stairs, but his precision and poise as he "endo-ed" down the next set before landing on his head was especially adept. After he hit the deck, he flailed his arms. "I wanted to make sure I could still move them," he recounts. He could.
Lindsley is turning into what Kohut calls, "a junkie"; a rider with a downhill addiction. You gotta have guts to downhill period, but when you decide to strap yourself into a 65-pound piece of metal and descend double black diamond runs on a hybrid go-cart, you gotta be mental. At Crankworx '05 he became the first four-wheeler to hit and land Whistler's nine-foot GLC drop, and though he didn't crash, it's something you have to be prepared to do. 4X is a splinter of two-wheel downhill, and crashing is inherent to both sports. Besides, chicks dig scars — right?
Non-4Xers are beginning to show more than a fleeting interest. Scott Hart, the editor of Decline, a mountain-bike sports and culture magazine, rode Therien's R-One bike down B-Line and plans a review in a forthcoming issue. Earlier this summer at Monterey's Sea Otter Classic, Lindsley and I met up with American X, a Tahoe-based extreme-sports production company, who, after filming us at the event (and with some coaxing from Lindsley), funded our Crankworx trip and sent two cameramen to film the events for a forthcoming DVD. "The hope is that through this increasing publicity, the sport will continue to develop and grow to the point where the price of these things will drop," says Lindsley. Right now an R-One ride will set you back $10,000, and though that's not much more than the $7,000-$9,000 you'll spend on a top-end two-wheel ride, it's still steep — especially for a "new-extreme" sport.
"If people are interested, they'll pay," says Kohut. To develop to the next level, the sport needs more riders, and he thinks it's just a matter of time. "4X is a blend of skateboard attitude and BMX style, on a downhill course." At the suggestion that the X-Games could be a potential future venue, Kohut says, "The X-Games are in city centers, not really conducive to 4X, but if they want to hold it on a course where we can perform like the showmen and -women we are — it's on!"
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