A small BMX store just outside of London is not necessarily the kind of place you’d expect to meet Mat Hoffman.
But the figure hobbling his way, on crutches, over from the Hoffman Bikes van to the makeshift throne that’s been set out for him in the shop is unmistakably the man himself. He moves with a precision born from spending many hours on crutches. His entrance says a lot about his career; you don’t become king without fighting a few battles first.
For Hoffman, injuries have become near normality by now.
“Earlier this year I separated my collarbone, compound fractured my rib, collapsed my lungs and had four lacerations on one side of my lung as well,” he says, laughing it off with the indifference of a man who has been through some serious slams.
Over the course of his career, Hoffman has had more operations on his ACL than any other BMXer – and probably anyone else in the world. He underwent one of these without anaesthetic, and, amongst other things, was once hit by a truck travelling at 50mph. Each time he has somehow bounced back strong.
He shows me a picture of his latest bruising on his iPhone, and it’s gnarly as hell.
“I bruised my pelvic bone, got a small fracture and tore a tendon, all from hitting [BMX legend] Dennis McCoy’s handlebar,” he says. “We collided when we were riding a couple of weeks ago.”
He obviously still pushes himself hard but, he explains, perhaps not quite as hard as he used to.
“All I need from riding now though is my garden and my ramp. I’m lucky I got to perform and compete for as many years as I did, but I ride differently when it’s only through my eyes.
“I had a rough crash at the beginning of the year, but I still love riding by myself. I found this thing to put on my helmet too, so that when I hit my head hard enough to knock myself out, it sends a text message to my wife and daughter saying that I’m unconscious.
“It wasn’t made specially for me, but it should’ve been! It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen – now I feel like I’m being responsibly irresponsible when I ride by myself.”
The man known as the Condor has certainly earned the right to fly casually these days after a career that pushed the possibilities of BMX to its very limits.
His love for riding and persistent pursuit of progression took him to the top at an early age.
Hoffman recalls: “When I was 11 years old I went to a contest in Madison Square Gardens.
“I had come from Oklahoma, learned on my own and didn’t have anything or anyone to reference. I didn’t know how big the sport was or that I was doing anything that would set me apart.
“I was just doing my own thing, but when I got to that contest I went ‘woah, I guess I am going higher than everyone else’.”
He certainly was, and after turning pro at just 15 years old, Mat would win the first ever pro event he entered, claiming a cheque for $2200 as his prize.
Fellow BMXer Mike Dominguez convinced him to spend the money on wheels for his car. “It was probably the worst thing I could’ve done but you don’t say no to Mike Dominguez man!”
Not that it mattered in the long run, because there were more winner’s cheques where that came from. With that victory, a 10-year plus period of Hoffman domination was well and truly under way.
As he cleaned up at contest after contest, it became increasingly clear that the American teenager was something special. Not only was he winning, he was dismantling the ‘one step at a time’ philosophy that was guiding the sport at the time.
Hoffman was going higher than the established pros and inventing new tricks for every contest.
The flip fakie went where no rider had dared before. The flair, a 180 backflip, made flipping in modern vert riding possible. And the 900 simply defied the realms of possibility.
“This was before foam pits,” continued Hoffman. “But I found that thrift shops would throw away the mattresses they couldn’t sell, so I’d go out to dumpsters and find old mattresses and put them on my ramp.
“It’s funny because I remember on the first flip [I tried] I landed, hit the mattresses, flipped back and smashed my head on the ground. Man, I would’ve crashed less if I didn’t have the mattresses!
“I was learning through trial and error though, crashing and hopefully being able to get up and try it again.
“With the flair, the quarter pipe is a quarter of a circle, so that makes you want to flip anyway. So I started thinking about what would happen if I just kept centred and flipped.”
It turns out something pretty special would happen. And the story behind the competition debut of the trick is fittingly special as well.
“I waited for a good moment to really commit to pulling one, and that came in Mansfield in 1990 when a make a wish kid came to see me perform. I thought ‘I’m going to do this, and if I pull it I’ll give him my bike’ – so that’s what I did.”
At this point Mat looks up from the interview to see some kids – and plenty of fully grown adults – beginning the inevitable queue for an autograph. One of the kids is holding a 24 year old copy of ‘Go’ magazine with that first flip fakie on the cover.
Hoffman signs it: ‘Dream big. Go big’. It’s something of a mantra to him and a philosophy that’s clearly served him well.
The inspiration behind this motto? None other than Evel Knievel himself – a man who Mat counted as a close friend for 15 years.
“I met Evel around 1997. He was an inspiration to dream big, and if anyone told you that something was impossible, to tell them to get out the way and do it anyway.
But while Evel was an inspiration, Hoffman had been raising the bar for BMX and hitting new heights – in many cases literally – long before he met the famous American daredevil.
As far back as 1991 he decided that the hunt for height in the sport wasn’t moving fast enough. So, he enlisted another daredevil, Johnny Airtime, to help him in his quest to land a 20ft air.
“I was initially thinking about making a ten foot ramp, which is the size of the vert ramps we were riding back then, and then doing a ten foot step down into another ten foot ramp. Then I met this stuntman [Airtime] on a TV show called Stuntmasters, and the plan changed.
“This guy would figure out his stunts through physics and equations. He would take his motorcycle, hit a ramp at 85mph, have a pick up truck going at 55mph and time it so he’d land in the back of the pick up truck. It was incredible.
“We started talking about the physics of it – making a ramp that was twice as big so we could hit it at twice the speed. If it was twice as big it would give you the same Gs going up, but it would also give you twice the vertical speed as well.”
The calculations were spot on, and Mat launched a record 20ft air on the 21ft ramp after being towed towards the set up by a motorbike.
Despite leaping significantly higher than ever before, he was always confident that the stunt would end in success.
“The physics worked in my brain, so there wasn’t much fear,” he says calmly. “When you looked down you would see how much higher you were, but as far as the feeling of the ramp, it felt real consistent with what I was doing anyway.
“Ramps were evolving in that day, so you’d ride an 8ft ramp and go 10ft out. Then it would be a half pipe that was 10ft high and you’d go 12ft out. We saw the progression, so we thought we’d just skip all that and go to 20.”
Talking about it now he makes it sound obvious, easy even, but at the time it was anything but.
How did he follow up doing the unthinkable? By doing what he’d always done of course – dream bigger. Go bigger.
One year later an even bigger ramp was constructed – a half-pipe that would require Mat to attach a motor to his bike in order to ride. Unfortunately, this one didn’t quite go to plan, and he crashed badly, rupturing his spleen while filming a run for MTV.
The big air dream was on hold. But only briefly.
After spending some time away from competition, Hoffman came back in 1994. And in ’95, he began what would be a long, testing and ultimately triumphant relationship with the X-Games as the first ever ESPN-backed competition got under way.
“There was such a clash between our culture and the network’s culture,” he remembers. “I actually ended up getting kicked out of the first X-Games twice.
“They painted our vert ramp with some grip taped, sandy paint, and when you crashed it erased all your skin, but the skate ramp was more like what we were normally riding.
“I started riding that with some friends – Mike Frazier and Neil Hendrix – but the guy who was in charge was like ‘you’ve got to get off that ramp now!’”
Unsurprisingly, telling Mat Hoffman to stop riding vert is unlikely to end in success.
“I told this guy that Mike and Neil were cool with it and that I couldn’t ride the other ramp because it was made of grip tape – so I just kept riding anyway.
“He got all authority on me and came running onto the flat bottom, so I rolled in and started doing airs around him and freaking him out, then I did a fakie and bumped into him. He ended up aggressively throwing me out!
“Anyway, I snuck back in and Dennis [McCoy] had knocked himself out doing a double backflip. Paridy, Dennis’ wife, went up to see if he was okay, and the same guy that kicked me out told her ‘no, you can’t be here!’ Paridy didn’t have the credentials, so I took off my credentials and gave them to her, and then he kicked me out again.
“Of course, they called me later and asked me to run it! That was funny. I went through all the things that were wrong and suggested changes.
“The people in charge though – Ron Semiao and Jack Wienert – they are passionate and I shared their passion. They were really respectful about making things authentic. They let me guide it away from all these neon street courses you had to ride in the first X-Games.”
Hoffman’s mark on the X-Games would not lie solely behind the scenes though. Far from it.
In 2002, one year after many thought he was done competing in the contest, Mat threw down what many still consider to be the greatest moment in the history of the games. The 900 no-hander.
“It popped in my head one day and I couldn’t get it out,” he smiled. “I knew I had to do it, but I didn’t want to say, because if I claim something first, I can’t get the same focus.
“I knew what could happen and that I needed proper inspiration, so I had my wife and my daughter, who was very young, sit in the front row.
“I told Jaci, my wife, ‘you know what’s in my head. I’m going to do something that could take me out, and if it takes me out, there’ll be enough people to take care of me, so walk away because I don’t want our daughter to see her father unconscious or bleeding’.”
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, and on the footage of the run, the relief on Jaci’s face is clear to see. Along with the happiness of course. Her husband had just landed yet another world first.
You’d imagine that Jaci is probably used to watching with her heart in her mouth though. Even during Mat’s break from competition, his ‘break’ consisted of skydiving and riding his bike off cliffs before parachuting away. He thrives on the fear.
“It’s actually a lot easier on your body than riding,” he laughs. “But there are much bigger consequences. If you make a mistake you die. With a 900, you get knocked out or break a shoulder or something.
“There always has to be a balance between fear and adrenaline. You can’t ignore fear – I like to use it to wake up my senses and focus, but you can’t let it consume you. You won’t have the ability to stay focused.
“I might go into a run knowing this could happen or that could happen, but I’m going to do it anyway. Fear makes you committed.”
After landing the 900 no-hander and once again breaking the highest flyer record (he landed a 26.5ft air off a 24ft ramp in 2001) there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hoffman was still at the top of his sport – 15 years after he first turned pro.
In fact, at the point where many riders’ careers would be winding down, it seemed like Hofman was hitting his peak. There were action figures being made of the Condor, he was featuring on the cover of mainstream sports magazines, and, of course, video games were being made with him as the eponymous character.
The rider may not have been a big gamer, but he appreciates the impact of the Mat Hoffman Pro BMX series in raising the profile of the sport.
“I talked to Tony [Hawk] a little bit about it,” remembered Mat. “Tony’s game was such a success that they really just wanted to capitalise. It was a time when games went from costing as much as a couple million dollars to make to costing as much as $20 million.
“I really just wanted to make sure it represented BMX right and represented us right.”
That instinct sums up Hoffman in a nutshell. Pushing BMX riding forward when he’s on the bike and driving the sport forward as a whole when he’s off it.
He may have become the face of BMX for the mainstream (and of course made a good living out of it), but it’s never been about the money. Mat did some of his most progressive riding during the ‘90s BMX recession, when there was no money to be made and it looked like the sport was on its deathbed.
He even founded Hoffman Bikes in that period so that he could build bikes capable of keeping up with his riding.
No wonder BMXers look up to him, and it’s not a one-way street either. Hoffman loves BMX as much as the BMX scene loves him. It’s with an unashamed passion that he concludes: “It’s still all about having fun, pushing it, dreaming the impossible and trying to make it possible.
“That’s all BMX has ever been for me, and that’s what it still seems to be. I love watching new dreams emerge.”
It may be up to the next generation now, but the path he’s forged as the face of freestyle BMX is one that will be ridden for some time.
In Hoffman’s legacy, you can find the tricks, the ramps and the bikes that have allowed the sport to thrive.
In his philosophy, you can find the teachings that have got the sport to where it is today, and that will take it to new heights in years to come as well: Dream big. Go big. Because nothing is impossible.