"Welcome, sir," says a concierge dressed like a Victorian footman as I walk into London’s prestigious Langham Hotel. “Are you here to meet one of our guests?" he asks, making it clear that dog-eared journalists aren’t the regular clientele of this establishment.
He’s right, of course. I’m here to meet not just one of the biggest action sports stars on the planet, but the man who may be shaping the very future of the sports we love. However alien it may be to me, the grandiose setting seems entirely appropriate for a chat with Travis Pastrana.
I sit down with the 13 time-X Games medallist, and he seems chirpy, in-keeping with the image of Pastrana that most of us hold: the clean-cut, wholesome, all-American, guy next door. Although of course, not many of us actually live next door to a man who has a ramp high enough to send a person ten stories high in their back garden.
The guy next door thing isn't just image though. A wholesome attitude was instilled in Pastrana from a young age. Although surrounded by discipline (his dad was a military man and his uncle was starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos) the young Pastrana had the full support of his family from the moment he started racing bikes.
“My parents said: 'If you really like it, we’re going to put a lot into it. The family will do everything we can to get you there, but as long as you keep your grades up. If you drink, you're done. If you do anything wrong...’"
Pastrana’s dad also said: ‘Run it until the wheels fall off.’ “Luckily I’m still at a point where the wheels haven't fallen off," he adds with a chuckle.
But there’s more to the Travis Pastrana story than supportive, if strict parenting and very obvious talent. He’s the product of a series of perfect storms.
“I had a lot of competition growing up. Older cousins, younger cousins, they were all athletes. But I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t catch, I couldn’t tackle...," laughs Travis. “Bikes were my outlet. It was the only thing where I didn't have to be stronger. I could twist the throttle, I could take more risks, and I realised I was extremely durable."
“As stupid as that sounds, it gave me confidence throughout life. If I didn't have that I would have been a completely different person. I would probably have just done what my dad did and joined the military." The US military’s loss is our gain.
He got his break in Moto X. “I always wanted to make a living riding dirt bikes," confides Pastrana. “I enjoy the racing. I enjoy hating other competitors. I enjoy convincing myself that they beat up my grandma and I'm going to knock them down and I’m going to win the race," he says laughing, but with unmistakable steel in his eyes.
So, what changed? What made him walk away from a career racing Moto bikes and look to other pursuits?
“I always wanted to win every event, but you can't make it through a season and [win all the time]. You're going to get a fifth. I was always horrible with that." It’s something that anybody that’s launched a Monopoly board across a room will be able to relate to.
Again, racing’s loss was freestyle’s gain as Pastrana went on to set up Nitro Circus, the high-octane, action sports spectacular that showcases how high, how fast, and how far humans can push themselves on boards and bikes.
Nitro Circus is now such a phenomenon it’s eclipsed even Pastrana himself. Yet, maybe unsurprisingly, given his past, the whole thing started because of a chance meeting, bad luck, and freak occurrences.
"I’d lost my way. It was the first time I was ever really depressed."
“At 18 years old, I’d had a lot of concussions right in a row. I just tried to train through the concussions but got myself extremely sick, and in no condition to do anything. I started getting into cars, but got in a big crash and really hurt a friend who was a mechanic for one of the guys."
The man hurt was 20-year-old former Moto X rider Matthew Bigos. The incident left Bigos paralysed from the waist down, although he’s now made a recovery.
“It was the first time I was ever really depressed," admits Pastrana. “I’d lost my way. The only thing I wanted to do was ride, and I was just..." Travis pauses but remains upbeat and fast paced while recounting what must have been a dark time in his life. “Physically I just didn't know if I could."
“So, I started filming, and I started finding out how much fun I had. My cousin Greg [Nitro Circus' Special Greg] had just moved into our house and every day was like: ‘Yeah, I wanna do a backflip on a bicycle, I wanna do a double backflip on a bicycle...’ He was just crazy."
Word quickly spread around Pastrana’s friends, and before long the duo found they had even more guests visiting.
“Everyone was coming over the house. I'd just built a foam pit and everybody wanted to learn backflips. There were so many crashes, but this was before YouTube where you can just put stuff up. So, we had all this footage, and I started editing. We put everything together and the first Nitro Circus was born."
"It was carnage... The crowd loved it!"
It was picked up by US cable channel Fuse, where it started gathering attention, including that of Jackass star Johnny Knoxville. With Knoxville’s TV experience, the show continued to grow, and before long, it was being syndicated globally.
“We got a call from Mike Porra, a promoter in Australia and he was like: ‘We want to do a live show’. So we took all of our best friends and we sent it," says Travis.
“It was carnage. The show sucked compared to what it is today. We didn't think about the crowd, we were just trying to do all of the gnarliest stuff we've ever done. But the crowd loved it! They were on their feet, and we sold out arena after arena, and since then it’s just taken off," says Travis, master of the understatement.
It would have been easy for Pastrana to sit on his laurels but he immediately makes it clear that’s not going to be the case. He already has the future mapped out.
“I'm working on Nitro World Games," he says. “When you used to go to X Games, you would do your biggest trick. [But] now, at X Games, a double backflip is a big deal, but they're doing quad backflips at my house."
“Triple backflip full twists. We had a snowboarder do a triple backflip on a BMX! The third person in the world on a BMX bike. We’ve got two mountain bikers - the only two in the world to do a triple backflip - and they're doing triple backflips with Kiss Of Deaths in them!"
“We needed an event that captured that spirit again. That spirit of 'I want to see something that's never been done'." Pastrana’s eyes widen, like a child’s at Christmas confronted by a pile of presents.
The premise for the World Games sounds simple. So simple, that’s it’s amazing no one has done it already. “What if we have a World Championships that's open to the world? Everyone's says: 'Oh, I should have been in X Games, but the politics...' So, let's take the politics out and make it more entertaining!"
Travis maybe remembers himself for a second, and quickly adds “I'm not trying to down X Games, but they've taken out FMX, they've taken out Best Trick ... and it's for safety reasons, but let’s have Best Trick, but to a resi’ [softer] landing. Let’s encourage people to try stuff and get back up and try it again. So, it's a different philosophy. Hopefully we'll progress action sports, but also make it safer."
Safety is a theme that Pastrana continues to come back to. Now a father in his thirties, the assumption that he takes on a more paternal role within Nitro Circus is an easy one to make.
“My job at Nitro is to try to make sure that everyone's prepared. If you tell me you can do something, I want to know that if it goes wrong, you're going to be okay. Or that you've got it dialled enough that it's not going to go wrong."
While Nitro Circus pushes the boundaries, Pastrana is all too aware of the perils of doing so, a point he illustrates when he mentions his close friend Bruce Cook. Cook was paralysed after damaging his spinal chord during at attempt to land a double front flip on his bike at a Nitro Circus show in Canada in 2014.
"When you’re doing a triple backflip, suddenly a single backflip doesn’t seem like a big deal, but you’re still flying 40mph upside down."
“Bruce was eight for ten on a double front flip, and you'd think 'Yeah, that's pretty good [odds]'. But think of how high he's coming in. And if it's nine or ten?" Travis stops for a beat. “That's how he ended up paralysed. He wanted to [do it], and he could..." again a pause. “We've got to do it every night. And for that, we've got to build our landing safer."
While Nitro Circus is almost wholly received with good grace wherever it goes, it’s not without its detractors, and the landings they use - which are softer, and more spongy than the hard take-off ramps - are a familiar target. “People say, 'Oh, your ramps aren't real landings.’ But they still did the trick! They still landed it! If you crash on our landing, you get back up. Yes, it's not a real landing, but our job is to do stuff that's never been done. To do it higher and bigger but safely."
But does the show still force action sports in a dangerous direction?
“A lot of people bring up [Eric] Roner, and it was so devastating for us." Roner died in September 2015 during, what was, for him, a routine skydive. “Roner had really cut back on most of the gnarly stuff. But, it's like Evil Knievel crashing his motorcycle driving down the street. The people we have in the show aren't getting hurt doing the bigger stuff." The real danger, suggests Pastrana, is complacency.
“When you're doing a triple backflip, suddenly a single backflip doesn't seem like a big deal, but you're still flying 40mph upside down. You know, it still is a big deal. So for us, the hardest part is to understand the risk doesn't get less even though it's easier for us to do."
Lastly I ask him, who is the best star in the Nitro Circus roster?
“Ryan Williams," he says without a hint of hesitation. “He’s not extremely strong but he's so air-aware that he's never got hurt. He tumbles out of everything. There's nobody else who can take as many falls." A broad smile spreads across Travis’ face as he talks about the young Aussie scooter rider.
“No one works as hard. He said before the tour started, ‘I’m going to do a Word's First' on every single stop’. I've probably done eight or nine world first’s in my life. He's talking about 24 stops where he wants to do world’s firsts. And he got seven!"
Travis’ fatherly enthusiasm is infectious. Sitting in his presence, and listening to him talk, it’s impossible not to feel excited about what lies ahead for Williams, for Nitro Circus and, of course, for Pastrana himself. With this man at the handlebars, I think as I say goodbye, the future of action sports is in safe hands.
The Nitro Circus World Games tour hits the UK on 2nd February taking in dates in Manchester, Glasgow and London. For more information, and to buy tickets, see www.nitrocircus.com