Words by Stuart Kenny
The year was 2006. The man was Travis Pastrana. The stage was the Moto X Best Trick contest at the Los Angeles X-Games, and history had just been made.
Pastrana kicked his bike away, ran to the top of the giant dirt landing pad he had just rode away from, and threw his arms in the air. The booming wall of noise around him did fitting justice to the feat just accomplished. He had just become the first person ever to land a double backflip on a motorcycle.
Nine years later, on 28 April 2015, and another man was sitting on his motocross bike in Travis’ private training ground, revving away and ready to write his name into the history books alongside Pastrana. Josh Sheehan, a member of the Nitro Circus action sport collective led by Travis, was gearing up to go one better than his mentor by attempting a trick that few thought was possible – the moto triple backflip.
A 78 degree, 37-foot custom-built take-off ramp lay ahead of him, with a 50 degree landing pad waiting on the other side.
It was highlighted before the stunt that if Josh didn’t roll away from the jump on his bike, there was a good chance he would’ve done the same on the wheels of an ambulance, but as you’re probably well aware, the Nitro Circus crew aren’t one to back away from a challenge.
Josh stuck the triple of course, throwing his bike to the side and his arms in the air in celebration, calling back to Travis in ’06 and setting a new benchmark for athletes everywhere in the process. He had just landed the biggest trick in the history of action sports.
“I never thought that I would’ve done something so extreme or as big as Travis had done back in 2006,” the 29-year-old Australian admitted, speaking exclusively to Mpora. “I’m honoured and just feel privileged to even have been a part of something like this.
“To be the one doing the trick was just an amazing feeling. There’s only been four of us so far that have even been able to do the double flip, so I’m just happy and relieved that I’ve been able to get it done.”
Certainly, with so few riders having been able to match Pastrana’s double despite the passing years, the triple was something that very few imagined would ever be seen.
It’s worth noting that before Travis nailed that famous double though, pictured above, he had spoken about his tendency to over-rotate the flip in practice. Could it be possible to rotate so much further one day that he pulled off a triple?
The idea gripped Pastrana, and started a project that would stretch two and a half years before Sheehan even got involved in 2013, having nailed regular double backflips in moto contests for years before that.
The challenges started way before Josh took on the ramp at Pastranaland then, and the first of the lot was convincing himself that the trick was even possible.
The rider continued: “My first double backflip was back in 2011, and no, at that time I didn’t really think a triple was possible. I thought it’d be just too extreme… but man, it’s crazy how things change.
“I heard that Travis was trying to do it and I started wondering. I thought it might’ve been possible then, but I wasn’t sure, so at the end of 2013 I came over to [Pastranaland] with Tom Pagès to try out some ramps.
“At that time we couldn’t get anywhere, but in the middle of 2014 we tried some more and started getting good rotations. That’s when it sunk it that this was possible and we could make it happen.
“It was a lot of help and a lot of motivation just having Travis there, and once we realised that it was possible, there was no turning back. We just had to keep going, keep persevering and keep at it until we had the thing perfected.”
The process was a lengthy one though, and unsurprisingly extremely painful. The team started out with a ramp ten degrees less than the eventual monster that stood just 12 degrees short of vertical.
They were increasing the size of the kicker each time they returned to the process, and jumping on to airbags which could only offer a certain level of protection from the fierce heights they were reaching.
“The best way to land is to throw your bike next to you and then land on your side or on your front on the airbag, but that doesn’t always happen. Travis had a couple of concussions when we were trying out the ramps.
“We were jumping from such a height that the bike stops so quickly, so there’s a lot of pressure going through your arms and your back. On one jump I landed off to the edge of the bag, and the air doesn’t have as much of an effect there, so I was pushed through to the ground and smashed my ribs on the handlebars. That was a bruised lung and a couple of weeks off for me.
“There were a lot of steps involved in the process. It kind of didn’t really seem real towards the end because everytime I came here [to Pastranaland] it was just another step in the process.”
That process came to a conclusion at the end of April, with a full audience watching on from the sidelines as Josh prepared to attempt the ‘impossible trick’.
We asked the rider to talk us through the trick, what he was thinking when he was riding the ramp and if he could even remember what his thought process was when he was up in the air. The short answer is yes, he could, and he conveyed just that in such a measured manner that it sounds like he barely broke a sweat.
“The jump was really just the same thing I had done every other day, except the air bag was gone so I knew I had a little bit more time than I usually did in practice.” That’s certainly one way to look at it.
“I was just focused on getting the rotation right at the start, so I was coming in at exactly 50mph at the base, going full throttle up the ramp, and when the suspension compressed at the top of the ramp, that was the trigger point for me to throw by bodyweight back and get into the spin.
“The first two happened quite quickly and that was when I knew that things were going good, so I knew going into the third one that I could give it a bit of a pull and spot the landing and brace for it as early as possible.”
Not a whole lot of panic then? “I think with a trick like this there was no other way to approach it. If you were just guessing or just hucking and going hard, things could go very wrong.
“Things had to be perfect. We had the ambulance around but with the landings that I had been doing in the days leading up to it, I knew that I could do it. We had to have everything perfect or it just wouldn’t have been worth the risk.”
And that was that. The triple achieved and history made, a full nine years after Sheehan’s mentor and friend had laid down the gauntlet with the first ever double backflip.
What will come next in the sport? Well, we probably won’t be seeing another triple for a while anyway, and who knows if we’ll ever see anything crazier than Sheehan’s shenanigans full-stop.
If we do though, you can say with near certainty that the guys from Nitro Circus will be right at the heart of it. The profession of progression waits for no mere mortal after all, and Josh Sheehan and the Nitro Circus team are certainly no mere mortals.
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