If you study Levi Sherwood’s path toward stardom on the Red Bull X-Fighters Tour, then he’d probably be a pretty good bet to be crowned as its champion in 2012. Sixth in 2009 and fourth in 2010, the numbers say the 20-year-old New Zealander should have progressed to second in 2011. But a serious injury wrecked his season and he ended up seventh overall, though he shocked the freestyle world with a second place in his comeback ride in the season finale in Australia.
Not that anything Sherwood does should be a shocker at this point. After all, the Kiwi won the first Red Bull X-Fighters he ever competed in – back in 2009 in Mexico City. That was his first taste of victory and he followed it up with two more wins the following year in 2010 (Moscow and London). Sherwood only made it to three events last year because of the injury, but finishing the season with the second place comeback ride in Sydney renewed him confidence going into this year. And he’s already made good on that, scoring victory in the first X-Fighters event of 2012 in Dubai on April 13.
Next up – Glen Helen.
That’s right, the series is headed to Southern California – the birthplace of freestyle – for round two this coming Saturday at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino and that gave us a good excuse to get to know Sherwood, the current points leader.
Have you ever competed in the U.S. before?
Once… X-Games 2010. I got a silver medal.
Do you spend much time here in California?
I spend probably six months of the year here. I come over for the summer just to practice and whatnot. I spend summer at home in New Zealand and then [the American] summer here. You can ride nearly every day here where at home you can’t ride so much.
What’s the main reason you spend so much time in the U.S.? Is it to ride with other freestylers here?
This is really the center of the whole motocross scene here. All my friends at home ride motocross and stuff, but I don’t really know many people back in New Zealand who ride freestyle. My friends will still come out and ride my jumps with me, but I tend to practice on my own.
Are you the only Kiwi at this level?
There’s another rider, Nick Franklin, who rides in Europe and does events like this as well.
You grew up riding motocross. Did you do any racing?
I raced until I was probably 12, I think. I was good at the local level, but I wasn’t anything too flash. I still ride motocross quite a lot.
What prompted you to try freestyle?
Me and my brother just started trying tricks on our practice track and my dad’s worker at the time built a freestyle ramp and put that at our home. I just started that way.
Did you do any bicycle stuff – or straight to freestyling on motorcycles?
I rode BMX for fun, but I was never really any good at that. I was pretty much straight on dirt bikes.
When you started doing freestyle, was it the sort of thing that you studied videos of some of your heroes from over here?
That’s pretty much how we learned everything when we were younger. We’d spend a lot of time watching videos and getting up to date on all the latest tricks and stuff. I would learn them that way – by watching that stuff.
And your dad was a speedway racer?
Yes… and it was pretty big over here when my dad did it.
You won X-Fighters the first time you ever showed up for one… did you think, wow this is easy?
I won my first one in Mexico City in 2009. But I definitely didn’t think it was easy and it got harder after that. I’m young and I put pressure on myself and kind of worried about things too much. It was a pretty cool experience, though.
You won in Mexico City, twice more in 2010 and then you were injured…
Yes, I broke my femur two weeks before the final round in 2010 and then last year I was injured just after the second round.
Last year’s injuries were extensive…
Let’s see… broken wrist, broke three vertebra, lacerated my liver and some other internal stuff.
Did you suffer the injuries during competition or practicing?
When I broke my femur it was in a competition at Pomona – the LA Fairgrounds. I got hurt there in 2010 and last year it was in practice for the Las Vegas Nitro Circus when I got hurt.
You live in Temecula, California, when you’re in the U.S. Where do you actually practice?
I just moved to Temecula last year. I was staying in Palmdale. It’s pretty much where most of the freestylers are from. Mostly I just ride at Todd Potter’s house. It’s quite handy and he’s pretty cool about it.
There’s a new system in place for X-Fighters this year, can you explain what’s different about it?
Well, it’s always been head to head for as long as I’ve been riding X-Fighters and that’s the same. The new thing is a new format. The last chance qualifying round, which is for the bottom six, there are no flip tricks; and then the next round is six jumps in two minutes – those are the two new formats. After that it’s just regular style – for the two final rounds. Those first two formats are pretty different as far as freestyle goes, especially the no flip tricks one.
Do you have favorite tricks? Is the flip tricks part your best, or are you better at the other tricks?
I don’t know. My favorite tricks aren’t flip tricks, but I kind of go through stages of enjoying the flip stuff and then I’ll go through a stage of where I scare myself out of stuff. I don’t really have any favorites as far as tricks go.
Do you remember your first back flip?
It was back in New Zealand in 2007. I think I was 15 at the time. Me and my brother had been practicing in the foam pit for a few days and he was older than me. We always had competition between us, as brothers do. He did the back flip first and I remember just thinking, ‘Oh, he’s done it. I’ll go do it now.’ That was probably the main reason I did it.
Last year’s X-Fighters Champion Dany Torres didn’t have a great first round in Dubai and actually got caught out by the new six jumps in two minutes format. Do you still view him as the toughest competition?
Yes, definitely. When he’s riding good or he’s not injured, he’s on fire and he’s tough to beat. But the series… it’s hard to predict. You go to one round and someone will completely blow you away who you don’t expect and it’s nearly a new one every round, so it’s tough to predict who is going to be competition at the next round.
What’s the key to winning these events? Is it consistently nailing your tricks, or coming up with something different all the time?
I think it’s depends what kind of riding style that you have. If you like to throw it out there and hang it out there… you just have to perform what you have. I think what works for me is being relaxed and trying to be consistent.
When you finished second in the season finale last year in Australia, how long had you been off the bike with your injuries?
I think I was off maybe three months.
Was it a surprise that you did so well in your comeback in Sydney or were you expecting that?
I went back for that event with no expectations. I just kind of went there to show my face and show that I was back riding. I just wanted to have fun and enjoy it again. It was pretty surprising that I did so well. It was kind of cool to realize that I could do well and still not be riding as good as I should have been.
You come into this year and you win straight away. Was that unexpected or did you figure you were in with a good shot?
My goal was always to go there and end up on the podium. If I ended up third, second or first, I would have been happy. I was definitely surprised to walk away with the win in Dubai.
Obviously, the championship is the goal this year. If you podium all season, does that earn you a title or do you have to do more than that?
I think if you’re on the podium all season, you’re definitely gonna be in contention in the final rounds. But you definitely still need to have a few wins in there to get a jump on everyone else.
How many compete in each event?
There are 12 at each event. If you stay in the top six you are automatically invited to the next round. And generally the next six are wild cards.
Coming into Glen Helen, do you expect a different sort of event – as far as the layout goes?
I’ve seen a course layout and it’s definitely a pretty extreme looking freestyle course. A lot of people are emphasizing the fact that it’s going to take a different style of riding to win it, and it’s going to make for tougher competition, but everyone needs to remember that each run is just in certain categories and you still need to win the most categories to win it – which is more than just riding the course. It will be different, but it will still be the same riding that will be able to win it and you need the same attitude to go out there and win it.
Do you expect a good crop of wild cards – as far as American riders?
I haven’t actually seen the rider’s list yet, but I know there are a few new guys coming and with a couple of people injured this year it’s going to open up some places for some new guys to step in. I’m excited to see who turns up and I think those new people who turn up will be giving it 100 percent, for sure.
And there’s also the fact that you have to think about the championship where the wild cards only have to worry about the Glen Helen round?
I’m not one to just throw it out there… especially nowadays after my injuries. I like to sit back and feel everything out before I go out there and see how it goes. The newer riders to the series will go out and will try and throw everything down. It will be interesting.
When you were injured badly, did you always have it in your mind that you were going to come back or did you ever have doubts?
You kind of doubt yourself a little when you’re in hospital, but this is what I do and it’s what I enjoy doing. I could spend six months off the bike, but at the end of it I still want to go riding – whether that’s in a competition or at home or whatever. It’s pretty natural for us to get back on the bike.
You ride a KTM 250cc two-stroke. Are most of them on two-strokes or are you in the minority?
It’s going 50-50 at the moment. Most are going to four-strokes because of the newer technology, but I rode four-strokes when I was younger and the two-strokes are kind of new and interesting for me. They suit my style a little bit better just because they are light and nimble and they don’t weigh as much as a four-stroke. Everyone is switching over, but I’m still enjoying my two-stroke.
For the complte interview with Sherwood, click here.