Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Birth of Big Air - Mat Hoffman Documentary

I caught the Mat Hoffman documentary, The Birth of Big Air, over the weekend. Freestyle BMX guy I'm not, but I will watch some vert action during the X Games or similar clips, amazed at the skill involved. I remember seeing pictures of BMX kids riding skateparks in magazines during the '70s and '80s - thinking it was pretty cool. So, even though I've never done any kind of riding remotely like that, I'm a little familiar with it, and give the people that pull it off huge respect. I've also read Mat Hoffman's book, The Ride of my Life, years ago. Even though I live in a completely different bike subculture, the scene interests me some, from a spectator point of view. My personal version of big air is about two feet off the ground.

This documentary shows how talented, driven, and brave/nuts/insane Mat Hoffman is. The air and tricks he pulled off defined and pushed the sport of BMX freestyle. The amount of injuries he's sustained and came back from is mind boggling. In one scene he's stitching up a huge gash in his shin - by himself. Multiple broken bones, concussions, shoulder injuries and related surgery. Mat became friends with Evel Knievel and you can see why. What they did was similar and maybe the reasons why also were - who knows. Most normal folk can't fathom why they would push such boundaries and take on that risk.

Mat does differ from Evel in the fact he did most of this for pure love or obsession for the sport. Many practice sessions and huge risks taken out of the limelight, just to push himself to new limits. Evel was all about the being the showman and risking death for money.

The film gets really interesting in Mat's quest to grab the most air possible off a vert ramp. A sketchy 20 foot mega ramp is constructed in his Oklahoma back yard. They discover the huge ramp is beyond pedal power, so he starts being towed in with a dirt motorcycle for the required speed. Yeah, pushing the BMX thing a tad out there for sure.

All this adds up to 20+ feet of air off the ramp. That's 40+ feet off the ground for those keeping track. This goes beyond BMX freestyle and into the stuntman category of risk. Mat winds up crashing and rupturing his spleen, coming close to internally bleeding to death. Afterwards, the ramp is destroyed by high winds - or so say his circle of friends. In the film, you obviously get the idea they tore it down in an effort to keep Mat alive.

Later in the film, another mega ramp is constructed in Mat's final quest to grab the most air and hold the record. This initiated after another BMX rider and related company make that claim - of 19 feet of air. Mat knows he pulled off 26 feet in his Oklahoma back yard and is shooting for 30 feet. Now we're talking 50 feet off the ground - on a BMX bike. That's beyond comprehension in scope, risk and reasoning.

The day of the record attempt is slightly windy, with the added pressure of cameras to record the event. After multiple attempts and few scary crashes, things get a little uncomfortable, as Mat continues to go for it - with wife and young daughter watching. Eventually a huge crash renders Mat unconscious with a serious concussion and related after effects. Game over.

Watching this makes you really wonder about the mind set of people like Mat. It's impressive and unsettling at the same time. Is it worth risking death or serious injury for something that in a sense is meaningless? Race car drivers, Moto GP riders, big wave surfers, and other high risk athletes all have to answer that question. In Mat's case, there isn't even any money involved.

Still, in some ways you admire people who can face that risk. It's complicated and a little strange. Maybe because its so unlike the usual safety filled world most of us live in. Maybe it's because as cyclists - you get it and admire overcoming the risk - though our scale is microscopic compared to what he's pulling off. Our 20 foot vert ramp is the local log section you can bunny hop on your mountain bike. Maybe its the twisty 45 mph downhill you bomb down on your road bike. You've built up your skill level to push these personal boundaries and take joy in overcoming them - and coming up with new ones.

Mat Hoffman does the same thing. Except his limits and skills are light years ahead of the average cyclist - BMX, mountain biker, roadie - whoever. And that's why we watch and can relate on a certain level. True?

I caught the film on cable, though it is available on DVD. It's also available on the iTunes store for download. Check it out.


  1. The ESPN 30 for 30 films are very good, at least the ones I've seen, including the Hoffman story. The one on Ricky Williams, the Dolphins running back, "Run Ricky Run" is very interesting. He has a pretty interesting take on life, and it is unlike anything you'd expect from a professional football player.

    Like Mat Hoffman, Ricky Williams is an individual like no other.

    Great flicks!

  2. Wow, I Love it, I can't imagine the guts, and skilz. I admire.

  3. @Utahdog. Thanks for the tip. Football fan I'm not, so I never heard of Ricky Williams. I'll try and find the documentary.

    @MrDavey. Without a doubt. A different universe from my XC and roadie interests. Gut and skills indeed. The documentary made me dig out Mat Hoffman's book, that I'm currently rereading. Interesting guy for sure.