"You Can't Not Live" – Travis Pastrana Talks Danger and Domesticity
We spoke to X Games legend Travis Pastrana about his Nitro Circus Live tour, balancing safety with spectacle, and life as a family man.
"Just this morning I was warming up and I did a 360 double-backflip on a mountain bike. It's the first time anyone has ever done one, so that's pretty cool."
I'm standing in a busy corridor backstage at London's 02 Arena with an incredibly relaxed and cheery Travis Pastrana. He's brought his Nitro Circus Live show to town, and this is their second sold out night at the venue. "Yesterday was one of the best shows we've ever had," he says with a huge grin. "We had one of the most knowledgeable crowds we've ever had; you guys are rowdy! It was outstanding."
It's high praise from a man who has sold out this same show on multiple occasions at some of the biggest stadiums in the world. Pastrana is the most recognisable name in freestyle motocross, and one of the biggest in extreme sports full stop. He's part of the DC Global Pros team, has 17 X-Games medals to his name (11 of them gold), and was the first rider to land a double-backflip. As well as being one of the world's best FMX riders, he's also a world-class rally driver, former NASCAR racer, and mountain biker. Oh, and he once skydived without a parachute. So he's basically a fucking lunatic.
Added to all this he's the ringleader of Nitro Circus Live, an extreme sports arena show that features some of the world's best riders in freestyle motocross, BMX, mountain biking, and even micro scooter. The show is made up of a selection of huge/mega/ridiculous ramps, and riders take turns pulling off tricks, some of which you genuinely have trouble comprehending. It's basically a wet dream for any extreme sports enthusiast.
Given the amount of shows these guys put on, it's no surprise that occasionally things go wrong. Just a week before the London shows, the event attracted the wrong kind of headlines in Glasgow when three members of the crowd were rushed to hospital. The bike they were all on (attempting a 'four-person backflip') cut out at the top of a ramp, causing them all to fall 10ft to the ground. "It seems like when stuff goes wrong, it all goes wrong," Pastrana says with a sigh. "That show was really weird; I don't know if everyone was tired or whatever. The bike for some reason died, someone hit the kill switch. The rest of the shows have been perfect, but it's always tough when stuff that's out of your control happens."
With so many world-class riders driving each other to ever-greater extremes, there's pressure to make crowd participation more exciting and push boundaries further. Does that make it inevitable that things will occasionally go wrong? "Anytime you ever say, 'Oh you won't need more safety pads', something completely random always happens. But you never figure all this out until it happens. The show is getting safer and safer, but the progression has to [continue]. So the stunts are getting more difficult, the crashes are getting more frequent, but the safety precautions – like the bags and the landings – are getting better."
As Pastrana talks about safety gear, crash mats and precautions you have to wonder if, as the main cog in the huge Nitro Circus machine, he still gets a buzz from the event. "100%!" He enthuses. "Just our warm up session this morning was probably the most fun I've ever had! And that was just 15 of us coming out early with no one in the stands. The difference when you're in front of a big crowd like last night [is that] you know it's your job, you have to step up and you have to land it, and that's fun. But when you're just out there with your buddies, I don't know – it's equally cool, I think."
That begs another question: does he perform better in front of a sold out crowd at the 02, or in the backyard with his buddies? "I think a big crowd helps that energy. Like when you're with your friends you can be like, 'Oh I'm kind of sore, maybe we'll do it another day.' But when you're in front of a big crowd, it's like, 'right now, I'm dropping in.' So the crowd gets on their feet and they're excited. When that happens, it doesn't matter if you're sick, tired, broken and sore; you forget about all of that, and you're like, 'Alright, game on'."
Pastrana has built his reputation on this kind of attitude – he's the humble daredevil who'll put his all into stunts that could easily kill him, and is determined to give fans bang for their buck. But these days he's also a family man with a wife and two young girls – and being a dad has made him approach his work differently.
"When my daughter was just starting to walk I had a compound fracture of my leg, which wasn't a big deal for me. But my wife (Lyn-Z, a professional skateboarder, obviously) was like, 'Well I can't skate while you're hurt because we can't both be hurt'. And that was the first time we had the realisation that we needed both of us to be helpful.
"But, at the end of the day, I had so many friends who would wake up for school and their dad had already gone to work, and they provided and that was cool. But for me, dude, I can spend so much time with my daughters, and we get to spend time travelling the world and seeing awesome places."
It sounds like being a child in the Pastrana family is every kid's dream: crossing the globe, surrounded by fun people, and having the coolest backyard in the world (seriously, give it a YouTube). "People say, 'how can you let your children do this stuff?' And I just think of their smiles and I'm like, 'How could I not let them do this stuff? [My daughter] loves dirt bikes! Which is a scary thought. I'm like 'tennis racket... maybe?'"
So how does a man who's made his living on a bike feel about his own children getting into motocross? It's his passion, but it's also claimed the lives of some of his closest friends.
"As long as they're passionate about it," he replies after pausing for a few seconds. "I mean, there's no amount of money worth risking your life for. We've had death. We've lost a good friend this year (Erik Roner, who recently died in a parachuting accident) and he had two kids and a wife, and it brings you back to, 'is it worth it?' But at the end of the day, it is worth it. You can't not live. We all know people that have been killed in a car crash, but you still drive your car to work. Like I said, you can't not live."
It's striking that Pastrana is able to be so self-aware and realistic. Having watched his YouTube videos for years, I'd assumed he'd be just as wild in person. But it seems that when he's not jumping out of planes without a parachute or back-flipping into the Grand Canyon (again, YouTube it), he's aware of how fragile life can be. He knows that at any second something could go wrong and that could be the end of it.
Not that it's going to slow him down, of course.