Derek Garland's voice trails off as he remembers his first back flip on a motorcycle. He'd already been riding dirt bikes for nearly a decade at the time, but this, he says, was a totally new sensation.
“You learn how to do it by jumping into a foam pit, over and over and over again. The first time I really did it, without the foam, that's, well, it's tough to put in words. The feeling of riding away from that back flip is something I'll never forget the rest of my life,” Garland says.
Garland this week will perform in three Nuclear Cowboyz freestyle motocross shows, running Feb. 21 to 23 at the Forum.
The high-octane, but family-friendly production is filled with fireworks, flames, pumping heavy-metal and hip-hop music, and, new for this year's tour, the acrobatic Shaolin Warriors martial artists. There's a scripted narrative involving an evil empress, “Shockra,” who captures the Cowboyz and forces them fight for their lives in a Mad Max Thunderdome-esque arena of destruction.
But for all the window dressing there's really only one element that defines a Nuclear Cowboyz show: death-defying stunts by some of the top freestyle motocross riders on Earth.
They'll perform more than 1,000 of them during each show, with trick names such as the “oxecutioner,” the “suicide can” and the “stale fish,” organizers say.
The number of X-Games medals and Red Bull X-Fighters trophies earned by the tour's 14 riders is impressive, but it's stunts such as performing a back flip while on fire that has set them apart.
“There's only a couple handfuls of people in the world who can do this, and this is the best of the best of those. It's a rare breed,” Garland says during a phone call from San Francisco.
It's a dangerous job, too. Garland knows firsthand. He has broken his feet, collarbone and shoulder on multiple occasions, chalking it all up to the nature of the sport. He knows the margin for error is razor thin, and small mistakes can lead to much worse. “It's just part of the game.”
Garland assures it's a controlled danger, and there's a comfort that comes with the amount of practice the Nuclear Cowboyz do. But when he's pressed he makes an admission.
“OK, maybe it's different for other people, but I do like the danger aspect. You kind of scare yourself a little bit, but when you're done and you're safe, it's like nothing else. The crowd can feel that too, I think.”