Image: YouTube/DC Shoes
Image: YouTube/DC Shoes
Freestyle motocross competitor – and self-styled “nutter” – Robbie Maddison is somewhere off the Tahitian coast in the Pacific Ocean, and he is petrified. Ahead of him are some of the planet’s weightiest waves – deadly enough to have claimed the lives of five intrepid surfers in the past 15 years. Maddison, though, does not intend to merely surf these waves; he will be riding them. On his floating motorbike. They had told him his “Pipe Dream” was just that – an impossible fantasy that had never even been attempted in such dangerous waters. But when Maddison opened the throttle, the bike thrust forward and skimmed the surface of the water. There was no turning back: a wave was coming, and he intended to ride it.
Suitably inspired by the relationship between natural and man-made beauty, Maddison had spent three years working out whether a motorbike could be ridden on the waves. And he worked out that it could be done after building, and subsequently tweaking, bike-friendly skis and makeshift rudders.
Next, the Australian enlisted the help of DC Shoes – specifically its impressed senior vice president of global brand and marketing, Jeff Taylor – whose financial backing would make the rider’s aqueous, and literal, pipe dream become a reality.
The dream was born of Maddison’s love for both surfing and motocross, with the 30-something daredevil having competed in both disciplines during his formative years. “This dream is about combining two of my life’s passions in order to do something that has never been attempted,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in August 2015.
Maddison had a fair amount of confidence ahead of attempting his feat. Before approaching Taylor, he had successfully navigated his modified motorcycle along San Francisco’s inland Mission Bay for not one, not two, but almost eight successive miles.
In summer 2015, armed with a lightweight but powerful KTM 250 SX motocross bike, Maddison traveled to Tahiti’s notorious Teahupo’o reef break, whose southern Pacific Ocean waves can get as high as 20 feet.
The break is as far removed from a motorbike-friendly environment as can be imagined, and the likelihood of the bike being submerged was very real. Indeed, such a fate befell Maddison as many as 40 times in training, with each sinking requiring five hours of work to put right.
On arrival in French Polynesia, Maddison wasted no time in familiarizing himself with the water. And it’s safe to say that he was taken aback when the first wave struck his surfboard. “They claimed that it was a 7-foot wave,” he told Transworld Motocross, “but it was easily double that.”
The familiarization continued when Maddison’s board was replaced with a Jet Ski, a step up that nearly put an end to his dream. In fact, he took off from a wave and touched down so violently that his shoulder was dislocated.
After agreeing to persevere, the stunt rider then had to deal with a few logistical problems. Whereas the Jet Ski begins and ends its journey on water, the customized KTM 250 SX bike didn’t. This was where two rented barges fitted with ramps came in; one ramp was used to launch Maddison and his bike onto the water, while the other would “catch” them once the ride-cum-surf experience was complete.
Timing the launch was crucial. If this went wrong, Maddison and bike risked sinking, which was exactly what happened on the first try. The second go was more successful – but the prematurely celebrating rider ended up plowing directly into the landing barge after being hit by a surprise swell.
The next attempt was a case of third time lucky. Following a flawless launch, Maddison perfectly rode a textbook Teahupo’o wave before being “caught” by the landing barge. Everyone, from the film crew to the support staff, felt justifiably satisfied. Everyone, that is, apart from Maddison himself.
Maddison wanted a bigger wave, which meant relocating to Papara, a half-hour drive northwest along Tahiti’s southern coast. The swells here weren’t just big; they were enormous.
Buddy Morgan, Maddison’s mechanic, told Transworld Motocross that team members were “a little nervous” about taking on such a big final wave. “The swells were giant,” he remembered, “and I worried that the bike might not have gone fast enough to outrun those monsters.”
Morgan’s concern was, unfortunately, spot-on. Shortly after one launch, Maddison noticed a huge swell bearing down behind him. He felt he had no choice but to shift into fifth gear, but when this resulted in a loss of thrust, both rider and bike became totally immersed.
When the wave hit, the bike struck Maddison’s back, completely winding him. The rider wasn’t seen for another five minutes – too long a time to spend underwater and live to tell the tale. Mercifully, Maddison was thrown above water every so often, taking swift gulps of fresh air before being dragged back under by another wave.
Support staff on Jet Skis eventually rescued the rider, with the near-death experience signaling an end to Maddison’s “Pipe Dream.” By this point, though, the dream had already been realized.
“It is such an overwhelming feeling to see a wave with that much power towering [over] you and knowing you have no chance of outrunning it,” Maddison later told 7 News Sydney.
“I literally had to give in the will to live. I gave up the fight,” Maddison added. “I gave in and surrendered, and before I knew it I was taking a breath again.”
The bike, sadly, wasn’t so lucky. “We lost the motorcycle; it was a broken bike,” he continued. “The dream was over. It needs to be able to perform better.” But while the dream may indeed have ended, Maddison can at least say “mission accomplished.”
His “Pipe Dream” video, which was uploaded to YouTube by DC Shoes, attracted more than 11 million views in its first four days of going live. Maddison, then, has successfully shared his dream with the world, and the world has gone crazy for it.