Photograph by Jamie Goldman
Flyboy: Mountain Biking World Championship contender Tyler McCaul soars off a jump in an Aptos lot.
Aptos Air Time
Once just kids riding around an empty lot by the post office, Aptos locals Jamie Goldman, Tyler McCaul and Greg Watts are now making mountain biking history
By Steve Hahn
Whoosh! A figure flashes across the midafternoon sky. The sun-baked dirt puffs up in plumes of dust as the thick tires of Greg Watts' mountain bike pummel each mound. Watts maintains a calm demeanor throughout the ride, taking the jumps like clockwork. The 20-year-old mountain biker, known around the world for being the first to land a double back flip in competition, should be comfortable practicing at this open lot in the heart of downtown Aptos. It's where he learned many of the moves he now shows off to packed stadiums in Austria, Milan, Paris and a host of other international locations.
Watts is hardly ever alone training out at the jumps. The quiet little town of Aptos has a surprisingly large mountain biking community, many of whose members are brave enough to risk serious injury by flipping their mountain bikes in midair. Among those thrill-seekers, a handful have become familiar faces in extreme biking competitions and on video screens across the world.
Watts initially raised the eyebrows of Gary Fisher representatives at the 2005 Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, and after joining their pro team he went on to win ever-bigger trophies. These include a second place finish in the Qashqai Challenge Big Air event in Paris, winning overall best at the 2006 Ray's Invitational in Ohio and winning the Best Trick award at the Braun dirt jump competition in Austria.
Others in the Aptos biking community who join Watts in his successes include Tyler McCaul, 18, who is heading to the 2007 Mountain Biking World Championships in Scotland next month. Jamie Goldman, 20, has also seen his reputation solidify, placing first in five different competitions last year alone and being featured in the popular Kranked video series.
These three unlikely stars stand casually as they gaze out onto the rolling slopes of the "Post Office jumps" and reflect on how they came so far.
"It just fell into my lap, basically," Watts says softly. "I was just having fun with it. I didn't really start thinking about it until I got good."
McCaul pipes up. "Slowly, the bikes started getting better and I started getting better riding better bikes," he says.
Given the easygoing attitude and humble smiles, it would be hard for the uninitiated to detect any stardust on the shoulders of these three young athletes. But these guys are a big deal in the world of mountain biking. They have consistently impressed judges, industry professionals and other riders with their performance in dirt jump, downhill, cross-country and slope-style contests. Slope-style is a newer form of competition in which the riders can choose their routes through a number of jumps and obstacles on a "freestyle" course (think the X-Games urban skateboarding competition on a larger scale).
Each found local sponsors at a young age, and through persistence, a strong local biking community and an unquenchable desire to spin their bikes around in midair, all are now fully sponsored by large mountain bike manufacturers. Watts rides for one of the original designers of the mountain bike, Gary Fisher, while Goldman rides for local shop Santa Cruz Bikes and McCaul represents Trek. The riders receive free parts, repairs and the most up-to-date technology on their bikes through their sponsorships. Their bikes are not what the average weekend trail enthusiast would sport; their equipment is serious stuff, featuring enhanced shock systems, advanced braking and ultralight framing.
Representing an entire company with each competitive run through a course would seem to be a tall order for these young men just emerging from adolescence, but they deny feeling overbearing pressure from their sponsors.
"I feel bad if Trek sends me somewhere and I don't do well, but they don't really care," McCaul says with a smile. "They just like the fact that I'm there showing their bikes. I do feel bad, though, because they paid for me to get there."
Goldman, who is currently nursing a back injury after coming up short last month on a tail whip (in which the rider spins the bike around once by the handlebars in midair), nods in agreement.
"This whole last trip I've been hurt," he says. "That means I missed two of the biggest contests. The first one I couldn't even do because I was so messed up. My team manager was there and she said, 'Don't even worry about it if you're hurt.' They spend a lot of money to get you up there, but they don't really care as long as you're there and show your face."
The pressures of subculture stardom hardly seem to faze these three, although McCaul admits he still gets pretty nervous at the beginning of competitive runs. The fact is that they would probably be trying to land the one-handed superman and double back flip with handlebar spin even if there was no money involved. It's been their sole passion in life. Why get up in the morning if you can't leave the earth behind during the day?
"There's a little more pressure, but it's still just fun for us," says Watts. "It's not really a big deal."
Photograph by Jeremy Teman
Sicko: Greg Watts does a back flip with tail whip, spinning the bike a full turn while performing an aerial somersault.
All the Aptos competitors come from strong riding families and have been on bikes pretty much since they learned to walk. For Watts, it was his father who introduced him to the less flashy cross-country mountain biking before his brother got him into the adrenaline-drenched world of jumping.
"Greg was the sketchy younger brother," says Goldman jokingly. "Then he got good in like five days or something."
Goldman started in BMX and motorized dirt biking competitions, both of which took up his prepubescent years, before discovering the comfortable middle ground of mountain bike jumping at age 12. "I could get the same feeling of both," he says.
For McCaul it was almost like there was nothing else in the world to choose from. His brother Cameron, whose consistent first-place finishes in the last year have won him eight different sponsorship deals, was becoming an increasingly prominent figure in jump competitions as he was growing up, and the younger Tyler was dragged along to each practice and event. Finally, he joined his own team at Mr. E's bike shop at age 11.
None of them ever imagined they would be breaking into the big leagues at this stage of their lives, or that their video series Top Soil would sell over 5,000 copies. Yet strangely, it doesn't seem that the success has gone to their heads. They casually chat to the younger bikers at the course without a hint of condescension falling from their lips. As their younger compatriots ride off down the street, Goldman expresses worry that future generations of adrenaline junkies may lose their training ground when the lot next to the Aptos Post Office is bulldozed and developed.
It's hard to get any of them to really brag about their accomplishments, either, even when Watts is fingered by McCaul and Goldman as one of the most innovative competitors in the growing sport of slope-style.
"He's pretty much the guy for learning new tricks," says Goldman. "We have this step-up jump, and we basically just go there to watch him ride it. He just goes crazy every time we go there. He says he's just going to ride mellow, but then he's doing crazy jumps the next minute."
Goldman isn't being overly generous, either. In addition to landing the mind-blowing double back flip, Watts became the first to "officially" land a back flip/tail whip in 2005 at John Cowan's Jump Jam in Escondido, and one of the first to land a triple whip on video, spinning the bike under his body three times while in midair.
Watts resists setting himself apart from the pack, saying he is just trying to keep up with the major competitors.
"Right now our sport is progressing so fast it seems like every contest there's something new that's happening," he says. "It makes you stay on your toes."
The recognition gained by the Top Soil films, which started as a fun project among the Aptos mountain biking crowd but then blossomed (thanks to the Internet) into an internationally recognized video, and the consistently high marks received in competitions, have earned them all spots in high-status mountain biking projects. Watts will be featured in an upcoming New World Disorder video, while Goldman will be doing a second shoot for Kranked in the next couple of months, which will follow his appearance on the sixth video in that series. McCaul will be focusing his efforts on the world championships, where he will be competing in the Junior Downhill category.
McCaul laughs when he speaks of his newfound fame.
"There was a guy from France who came over here and none of us really knew him," he says, grinning. "I introduced myself to him and he said, 'Oh, I know, I saw you on Top Soil.'"
No Pain, No Games
The world of extreme mountain biking isn't all international stardom, flashbulbs and pan-continental travel, though. A substantial portion of a competitor's career is spent in the doctor's office nursing sprained joints or the occasional broken bone. The dangers of the sport are great, as anyone watching riders nonchalantly maneuvering heavy bikes around their body as they soar through the sky can attest. Goldman remembers watching one competitor who landed on his shoulder, broke his collarbone and received a severe concussion.
"I thought he was dead," he says, looking down. "Now it's getting sketchy because you have to do a bigger trick on everything. The sport is just progressing a lot."
While it's hard to compete with feats such as Watts' double back flip, competitors are trying every chance they get. The pressure has been ratcheted up, and attempting to land tricks such as the truck driver (executing a full turn midair while simultaneously spinning the bike around beneath), the 360 with two tail whips and the superman seat grab are challenges that have left many with severe pain the next morning.
Yet the fear of breaking an arm or of temporarily losing consciousness seem rather minimal to the competitors. It would at least be safe to say it won't be stopping them from trying the next big trick anytime soon.
"You always get sprained wrists and ankles, and then you have to tape them up for a few weeks," says McCaul. "Those are just annoying."
The high rate of injury generally leads competitors to "retire" by the time they reach 35 or 40, but most stay active in the mountain biking world as coaches, filmmakers or even just spectators.
"Then there's Randy Spangler," says Goldman with a laugh, referring to a free agent competitor with Santa Cruz Bikes. "When Randy was 40, that's when he learned to do back flips."
The Aptos Three all stress the fact that a rider can't really worry about injuries when the competition is heating up and the pressure is on. It's an attitude that can't be put into words but has always caused a certain percentage of humanity to throw self-preservation to the wind for something greater. Skiers who drool at double-black diamond courses, supersonic jet test pilots, bungee jumpers and parachuting Army Rangers all have this same strange quality. They could live perfectly good lives sticking to the nice safe ground, but something inside them screams out for the thrill of pushing their bodies so close to the edge they're not sure they'll ever come back.
"Once you get up there it's like muscle memory," says Goldman. "You just program yourself to be able to do it over and over again until you're comfortable doing it anywhere."
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