OFF THE CUFF

During the 109th annual Texas County Old Settlers Reunion last week at the Houston Area Chamber of Commerce fairgrounds, I had the privilege of witnessing a pair of exciting, action-packed and downright breathtaking shows.

No, it wasn’t a two-night demolition derby, but performances by freestyle motorcycle riders with Wisconsin FMX (of Neenah, Wis.) and freestyle bicycle riders with Division BMX (of Milwaukee, Wis.).

The unfortunately small number of you who also saw it will probably enjoy reliving the experience while you read this. For the rest of you, allow me to attempt to do even a small amount of justice to what took place.

For the record, FMX stands for “freestyle motocross.” And I’m going to say that freestyle is the only way to describe it. I’m also going to say that the guys involved are undoubtedly adrenaline junkies.

Picture a tall, steep launch ramp positioned 70 feet from a large landing ramp (yep, 70 feet!). Then envision a motorcycle with a full-sized man flying off the launch ramp and coming down safely on the landing ramp.

But these guys don’t just take off and land in a straight line (although that would surely be a tall order for most people), they contort themselves and their vehicles at all kinds of angles while they’re 35 to 40 feet above ground, and make it seem as if flying a motorized machine without wings is not only feasible, but actually somewhat easy.

Sideways? No problem. Lying all the way back? Sure. Standing on top of the handlebars? Fun.

How about doing a back flip at that altitude? Heck yeah.

Oh, but Wisconsin FMX isn’t just about motorbikes. While leader Cody Cavanaugh manhandles his Honda 450 like a slave and his 6-foot-3 cohort Charles Bush does stuff on his Kawasaki 450 that you definitely don’t want to try at home, a third performer brought a whole other dimension to the team’s shows in Houston. He’s Josh “The Quad Warrior” Mertens, and his high-powered jump vehicle of choice is – of all things – a Yamaha ATV.

Let me tell you straight: When Mertens flipped that thing during the Friday show, I was like, “No way! You’ve got to be kidding!” And I yelled that at full volume, and was joined by a whole bunch of other people loudly exclaiming their joy and disbelief at the sight.

And you really have to see Mertens do a “stale fish” to believe it.

For sure, while there was a group of adrenaline junkies doing their thing in the arena, there was another group of people in the grandstands with adrenaline pumping like crazy through their veins.

Meanwhile, a smaller jumping apparatus, called a “box,” was set up closer to the crowd, and about a half-dozen men used it to demonstrate what’s possible on a bicycle.

Again for the record, BMX stands for “bicycle motocross.” And while the tricks performed by the guys jumping up and over the box weren’t nearly as dangerous as the motorized shenanigans going on at greater heights, their efforts were still amazing to behold.

We’re not talking about a handful of wannabes living out fantasies on the weekend, this was a band of professional bicycle gurus who do things that I didn’t really know were possible until witnessing them. And as the guy on the microphone who accompanied them so aptly pointed out during the Saturday show, they have only a few seconds of airtime in which to get stuff done!

No exaggeration, these guys were truly athletes and were squarely “the real deal.” Included in the mix was X Games gold medalist Zach Warren, and legendary BMX man and St. Louis resident Tom Raniolo, who at age 48 (!) has been in the profession for about 30 years. It was crazy watching each guy defy gravity for a moment and do something with a human body and a bicycle that you might think could only be done with computer-generated imagery.

On top of all that, whenever Cavanaugh, Mertens or one of the other guys spoke to the crowd, they did so with clarity and admirable articulation, which certainly added to the success of the overall presentation. The FMX guys even did a “garage talk” segment, during which they described in not-boring detail how their machines were modified for jumping, and both groups talked about the safety measures they employ while performing.

Speaking of safety, only one crash occurred during the approximately three hours of performance over the two nights. But when Ranilolo banged down hard on the landing side of the BMX box, he got up laughing. He didn’t miss a beat and later back-flipped his bike more than once. No harm, no foul, right?

Anyway, the two shows were high-flying, athletic and completely enjoyable spectacles, and I honestly hope we get an encore in Houston. And if we do, I’m hoping that word of mouth can lead to substantially bigger crowds, because the performances were totally worth the price of admission.

Not for nothing, my wife, Wendy, just about lost her voice screaming and yelling with delight during the Friday show, and there’s a lot of meaning packed into that statement.

One last thing: Props to the chamber for bringing such unusual and enjoyable entertainment to our little berg in the Ozarks. In my estimation, we’re pretty lucky.

FACT CHECK See inaccurate information in this story? Tell us here.

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