How I learnt to perform stunts
You’ve had the conversation a thousand times. You walk into work bleary-eyed on Monday morning, head straight to your desk, locker or bench on auto-pilot and almost by reflex you and your colleagues ask each other: " Had a good weekend? What did you get up to? "
The answer is invariably along the lines of: " Not bad. Didn’t do much. Cut the lawn, went for a ride on my bike, watched the footie on TV, tried on the wife’s basque, suspenders and slingbacks while she visited her mother’s. Just the usual. "
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not now the Over The Top stunt team has started a school for amateur daredevils. The thought of rolling into work at 9am on Monday morning and being able to answer the same old enquiry with: " Oh, I just jumped a bike through a wall of fire " was enough for me to ignore the obvious dangers of the situation and sign up for the £200 Day to Remember course in Swindon, Wilts.
Andy Hobbs, the leader of the stunt team and the driving force behind the school, said: " I had the idea to start the stunt school because I’ve got £175,000 worth of kit parked up between shows and I wanted to get more use out of it. "
The money is invested in a motorhome, transporter and, more interestingly, some motorised two, three and four-wheeled toys that all students are free to abuse or endeavour to master during the day.
After an introductory cuppa, the other three paying punters and myself are invited to forage in a pile of motocross gear to kit ourselves out with anything we’re short of. There are full outfits for anyone who hasn’t got any suitable clothing at all. It’s worth checking if your sizes are out of the ordinary as one of my fellow daredevils, James Ingham, couldn’t get find any MX boots to fit his size 12 feet.
" I’m going to wear my own boots. Will I be all right, " Ingham asks, looking down at his hiking-style footwear. " Yeah as long as you don’t crash, " replies chief instructor Kristian " No Fear " Duke. His comment reminds me of the fact it isn’t falling from a plane without a parachute that kills you, just the sudden stop at the bottom.
We troop into a large, gently sloping meadow adjacent to Hobbs’ home. Once through the gate we’re confronted by a well-maintained collection of off-road vehicles ranging from a Yamaha YZR250 to a Polaris Pilot-style racing buggy.
Duke starts up the crosser and does circuits of the damp field, warming the bike up, before showing some of his repertoire of stunts using aluminium ramps and motocross-style mud jumps. Like every professional, he makes it look so easy, before doing much the same thing on a quad-bike.
Then without the slightest bit of instruction we’re let loose. " Great, " I think, " none of that stuffy classroom rubbish. " It’s clear the world of the motorcycle daredevil doesn’t care much for science. The laws of physics are in evidence, but nobody really wants to talk about exact measures of throttle control and inch-perfect lines. It’s far more seat of the pants, balls to the wall, grin and bear it and remember to the cold, hard fact if it all goes wrong – chicks dig scars.
The small group is split into two pairs. Ingham and his mate Richard Broadbent go with Duke to familiarise themselves with the Yamaha and Kawasaki dirt bikes while myself and Jack Wolfendale stick with Hobbs and the quad.
One by one, he takes us out for our first hands-on lessons in stunting. I stand with one boot on the left footrest and the other on the rear grabrail, both hands on the bars. The stuntman is in a similar position on the other side of the quad. We go wheelieing around the field like this. It sounds a bit lame, but I’m laughing like a drain. It’s fun and we only stop to watch the bike-riding duo get thrown from the crossers and impale themselves on the handlebars after attempting reckless jumps on the slick grass.
" I think they’re trying to run before they can walk, " Hobbs tells me as we wheelie off again. Run? They’ll be lucky if they can limp out of here.
After a solo effort on the quad which is a load more fun than I thought it was going to be, Wolfendale and I are shepherded towards the bikes.
We’re a bit nervous, having seen the other two students skitter arse over elbow while trying to land from the smallest jump on the field. " Imagine the grass is as slippy as ice and you’ll be all right, " says Duke, doing little to ease our concerns as we clamber on to the lanky dirt bikes. At 5ft 4in Wolfendale needs a leg-up to get on the Kawasaki KDX220 and when he wants to stop he has to either pull up next to a ramp or have someone catch him when he comes to a standstill. Needless to say, this is his first time on a dirt bike of any type. It’s also my first proper go on a motocrosser, having only mucked about with road-legal trail bikes in the past.
We ride like a couple of princesses around the field, gingerly rolling up and over the hard-packed soil mounds. One is around nine-feet high, the other half that size. After a few laps of rolling up one side of the jumps and speeding down the other side I accelerate towards the peak of the smaller dirt jump. A second or so later I land and manage to keep my feet on the pegs and hands on bars. Hardly Crusty Demons of Dirt, but a minor success. I pull up next to Duke and get loads of encouragement, but not a lot in the way of advice until I actually ask for it.
" When you’re jumping you want your weight a little further back, " he informs me. I wasn’t far out and when I go for a few more laps I feel more comfortable and gas the bike a little more on every round.
Pulling in for a rest I discover Ingham and Broadbent have never ridden dirt bikes before. Though neither of them will admit, I think they could have done with a few pointers on the real basics before being let loose rather than just watching the super-smooth Duke wowing us with his skill. When all your riding experience has been gained on the road the dirt bike basics need covering.
But I’ve no such worries. I’m wearing a snorkel parka manufactured from purest confidence and I’m willing to have a go at anything in the lead-up to the fire jump. Climb on top of the Polaris buggy’s roll-cage while it drives around on two wheels in James Bond-style? No problem. Get dragged around the field in a wheelbarrow bucket with no wheels by the aforementioned powerful buggy? Bring it on.
After a picnic lunch on the hoof, nibbling chicken legs and drinking soup while kicking tyres and comparing bruises, it’s time to attack the aluminium ramp. This is when the feeling of being in a stunt school really kicks in. The other motorcycle skills I was enjoying developing I could have learned at a local MX hangout, but this is a custom-made aluminium ramp – proper stunt kit.
The ramp itself is in the middle of the field, giving enough room for both run-up and landing. Blasting down the slope the peaky, tuned two-stroke dips into its powerband, before I change up into third. The ramp seems as wide as a toothpick as I aim for it at 40mph. The tip is to reach the desired speed before hitting the metallic incline then just keep a constant throttle until you land. Easy. A pleasing two-wheeled landing fills me with confidence. The sun’s out and I’m feeling Evel. I slide up the crosser’s seat, stick my left leg out like I’ve seen McGrath and Pastrana do a thousand times and do a circuit of the field to have another go.
At the same time Wolfendale is out on the Kawasaki and looks like he was born wearing Fox motocross boots and a Gothic script tattoo of his hood (Bolton) across his stomach. After seeing the gung-ho heroics of Ingham and Broadbent earlier in the day, Wolfendale and I started slowly, but now look good, feel assured and ride confidently. We stop jumping to allow the other guys have a blast.
Immediately Broadbent is leaping like a salmon with a deathwish, landing another 3ft farther than I managed. After half a dozen jumps you can see the grin on his face above and below the chinguard of his borrowed MX lid. Then out of the corner of my eye I see him perform a textbook face-plant after safely landing another long jump. Apparently he had brain fade and yanked the front brake a little hard on the still slick grass. He’s taken a heavy tumble and reinforces the fact that if you throw yourself into all the activities on offer there is a little danger.
After a quick stop for a can of Red Bull we’re finally introduced to the fire jumping bike. It’s an old Honda XR which is rougher than a badger’s backside. When I take it for a spin around the field it’s clear the suspension is as soft as a sponge cake and the front brake is badly warped, but it runs, sort of, and considering how many flaming walls it’s busted through it’s a surprise it even ticks over.
Before we tackle the task, Duke’s dad, Barry, shows us how it’s done. There are no surprises. Ride towards the wall at about 30mph, smash through the planks of wood, stop before crashing into the wall that lines the field and put out any flaming clothing. Now it’s our turn. One by one my classmates successfully ride through the blazing obstacle. Then the flameproof balaclava, heavy suede gloves and overalls are thrust towards me. Rather than just ride through the flaming wall I decide, in best showman style, to outdo my peers by jumping through the blazing obstacle from the 4ft aluminium ramp. Two stunts for the price of one, ladies and gentlemen.
As I pull on the cheap plastic helmet with its melted lining I feel calm. I circle the field then turn to face the ramp. Hobbs is preparing to light the petrol-soaked wood and straw. I give him the kind of inane grin and thumbs-up signal 1950s US Air Force test pilots gave ground crew before they flew into the unknown at speeds no-one had even imagined before.
The wall goes up. Orange flames and the ramp are all I see as I short-shift up to third and rise out of the saddle. It’s not natural for a motorcyclist to aim at something he can’t see through, I think as the Honda’s front wheel hits the bottom of the ramp. I instinctively duck my head as I hit the blazing barrier.
The wood, which looked quite flimsy, twats me across the crown of my head and feels unnecessarily sturdy. Then the jellyfish-soft suspension swallows the impact of landing and a burning plank lands in the crooks of my arms. I manage to chuck it off and still stop before the wall. Easy! I think as the smell of barbecued bike fills my nostrils.
It’s hard to get feelings of pride, bravery and accomplishment in this convenience-led world, but it’s worth striving for. With most motorcycle classes the aim is to take something from the day you can use to improve road riding, but the Day to Remember stunt course is about laughing until your ribs hurt and doing things none of your square mates would attempt in a million years.
My advice is do something stupid once in a while. It reminds you you’re alive. And when I get to work on Monday morning I’ll also be reminding all my colleagues I’m alive with a cheery, " Had a good weekend? "