Levi Sherwood

The Rubber Kid bounces back

Words: Robert Tighe
Photo above: Jörg Mitter/ Red Bull Content Pool

Levi Sherwood was 17 when he won on debut at Red Bull X-Fighters in 2009. Since then, the New Zealander has ridden the highs and lows to become a world star of freestyle motocross

Risk versus reward. It’s the conundrum that every freestyle motocross rider weighs up when he gets on his bike. Levi Sherwood will ponder this ahead of the final round of the 2014 Red Bull X-Fighters, at Pretoria, South Africa, on August 23: how much am I willing to risk to win? Sherwood’s answer has changed significantly since he burst onto the scene as a precocious 17-year-old. “I feel like a different person compared to when I started,” says Sherwood, who, aged 22, is still one of the youngest riders on the Red Bull X-Fighters tour, with the nickname Rubber Kid, which he earned five years ago as a flexible FMX fledgling. “I’m a much more cautious rider now, but my tricks and riding have improved so much.”Sherwood, his manager Russell Stratton and Tes Sewell, sports director of Red Bull X-Fighters, reflect on the hits – and misses – that have made the New Zealander one of the most successful riders of his kind.

Red Bull X-Fighters Plaza del Toros Monumental, Mexico City. March 27, 2009

Levi Sherwood: “I wasn’t cocky going into the event, but I knew I could win. I’d been riding with the Crusty Demons [freestyle motorcycle team] since I was 12 so I knew some of the riders I was up against.”
Russell Stratton: “He didn’t act like it was his first time at an X-Fighters event. For someone so young he had this ability to focus on what he needed to do.”
Tes Sewell: “His debut was such a shock. We had no idea before the event just how good this little kid from New Zealand was. It wasn’t just his skill set; his method of accenting his tricks was so different. Levi pulled much the same tricks as the other riders, but he added little tweaks that made him unique.”
Sherwood: “My favourite memory of Mexico was the morning after. I was in a strange hotel room and it took me ages to click where I was. Then it hit me that I’d won X-Fighters the night before. That was pretty cool.”

Red Bull X-Fighters Red Square, Moscow June 26, 2010

Sewell: “In the final, Levi beat Nate Adams, who at the time was so dominant. It wasn’t just Levi’s competition runs that stood out for me. It was after his runs, when he was goon riding around the course. He rode with no fear and his body language suggested he could do any trick he wanted.”
Stratton: “He destroyed the other riders before he even got on the bike. He convinced Andre Villa he was going to 360 one of the jumps, which he wasn’t physically capable of doing. He’s the master of the mental chess game that is freestyle motocross.”
Sherwood: “Andre came up to me just before our run and tried to wind me up. I gave it right back to him and he crashed out in our head-to-head. I don’t provoke it, but if anyone wants to play mind games with me then it’s all on.”

He’s a purist, riding for a visual aesthetic
Russel Stratton
levi sherwood

Training for the 2014 season at the Monumental Plaza de Toros in Mexico City

© Jörg Mitter/ Red Bull Content Pool

Nitro Circus show practice MGM Grand, Las Vegas, June 4, 2011

Sherwood: “The previous year, I broke my femur and that accident was still in the back of my mind. In Vegas, I accidentally shifted the bike into neutral on the take-off for a jump. I remember thinking, ‘You have to make a jump for it.’ I tried to make it as far onto the landing as possible, came up just short, hit the lip of the landing and fell 3m to concrete. I broke my wrist in two places, lacerated my liver, bruised my lung and fractured two vertebrae in my back.
Stratton: “I was on my way to Vegas when I got the phone call. I saw him just before he went into surgery. He had a lot of internal damage and the doctors told us the first 24 hours could be a bit sketchy.”
Sherwood: “Hospital gave me a lot of time to think. Before the crash I was really easy-going. Now I’m much more aware of what can go wrong. What got me was it was exactly the same thing that caused the crash the year before. I could have fixed the problem by welding the neutral slot in the gear selector, but being young and dumb I decided not to bother.”
Sewell: “Levi was a ballsier rider before the crash, but the accident made him realise he couldn’t keep riding the same way and have a sustainable career.”

Red Bull X-Fighters Cockatoo Island, Sydney, October 6, 2012

Sherwood: “Winning in Dubai at the start of this season was so important because it was such a relief to be on top of the podium again after my crash in Vegas. My goal for 2012 was to ride safely and finish every round on my bike. To go to Dubai and win riding that way was huge. I never expected to be in contention for the title going into the final round in Australia.”
Stratton: “Levi and Thomas Pagès were level on points going into Sydney and they met in the final. I’ve never seen anybody as focused in such a high-pressure situation as Levi was. Thomas had a complete breakdown, he couldn’t function.”
Sewell: “Levi has this quiet focus. Other guys get in their own heads and beat themselves before they get on their bike. I’ve never seen Levi beat himself.”
Stratton: “He’s a purist, riding for a visual aesthetic, and all about perfecting the execution. There are two yardsticks you can use in freestyle motocross: if it’s perfection of execution you’re after, Levi is miles ahead. If you’re talking about riding with reckless abandon, he doesn’t play that game.”
Sherwood: “My motto is: if you’re going to do it, do it right. If I know I can’t do the best version of a particular trick that I possibly can, then I won’t do it.”
Stratton: “Everyone is doing a version of a jet-ski take-off at the moment, but Levi won’t because he thinks it looks ugly.”
Sherwood: “If you want to do a jet-ski take-off, go ride a jet-ski. I still do similar tricks to the ones I was doing in 2009, but I’m doing them a lot bigger. ”

The highs, the lows

Levi Sherwood‘s Red Bull X-Fighters career has been rocked by drama;  here‘s the highlights reel

Red Bull X-Fighters Plaza del Toros Monumental, Mexico City, March 14, 2014

Sherwood: “The whole of 2013 was a low point of my career. There were a few results that should have been different.”
Stratton: “We couldn’t understand how Levi could go from winning the series in 2012 to finishing fifth the following year.”
Sherwood: “In 2012 I was beating guys convincingly and the next year I was doing much the same tricks and losing. It felt like I was trying to hit a moving target. By the end of the year, I didn’t enjoy the events or practice. I came home and didn’t touch my bike for over a month. When I went back riding at my compound [on his farm outside Palmerston North] I tricked myself into having fun again. I spent most of the time messing around on a motocross bike.”
​Stratton: He’s a real motorcycle rider, which is rare in X-Fighters. Look at the footage from his compound [below]. It’s all about flow, rhythm and fun, but there are big, technical jumps too.
Sherwood: “My technical skills are through the roof compared to 2009. Cornering, throttle control, clutch work, body position – all make a huge difference to control of the bike. It’s about understanding the mechanics of how the bike works and has given me confidence.”
Sewell: “This year, Levi’s rediscovered his enjoyment for the sport.”
Sherwood: “By the end of last year, I doubted I’d ever win again. But winning in Mexico this year was almost better than taking the title in 2012.”
Stratton: “We were ready to take a drubbing again from the judges, so we were shocked when he won the opening round in Mexico. It didn’t make sense to us what had changed so much. Maybe it’s what I call it his ‘power mullet’. Levi always kicks ass when he’s rocking the mullet.”

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09/2014 The Red Bulletin

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