He catapults into the air, twirling his body, maneuvering his bike with the utmost precision. The slightest mistake could be the difference between life and death.
The spectators can’t take their eyes off him. They’re almost silent for a second. Then the two wheels hit the ground. The crowd roars.
It’s all in a day’s work for 32-year-old, Showtime FMX freestyle stunt rider, Robbie Marshall.
It can be a deadly sport. Close friends have lost their lives and others have sustained serious injury. Robbie says his worst injury was when he broke both ankles racing. “Although I’ve been fairly lucky, I reckon I’ve broken 10 bones in total so over that time frame it’s not too bad, whereas other riders tend to sometimes break a bone every year,” he says.
Yet, none of this fazes him. “Getting on my bike is my release from everything. We have to deal with a fair bit I guess, a lot of people who ride probably have a good pain threshold compared to the average person.”
He was raised in Fernvale, in south east Queensland, and just three when his parents gave him his first bike. “We were lucky enough to have our own tracks to train on and just have fun,” he says. “That’s what it started out as, just fun.”
He started racing when he was just eight years old. “I wanted to be an international racer,” he says.
Attending the Royal Queensland Show, otherwise known as the Ekka, every year with his family, his parents were “very supportive” of him in his determination to make riding his full time career.
“I grew up watching acts like ours my whole life… it gave me goose bumps watching those guys and that’s exactly what I wanted to do,” Robbie says.
“They pretty much carted me around Australia until I was 17, which was when I got my first factory paid ride. They also took me overseas when I was 12 for training to get a feel for the world circuit.”
Last year he placed second in Australian speed in style and he has represented Australia in Germany at the freestyle of nations. “That was definitely a highlight for my freestyle career.”
Tom Gillinder, announcer and show designer at Showtime FMX, met Robbie three years before working with him at the Nitro Circus, the action sport collective, featuring bikes, base jumping and stunts. “I actually watched as a spectator,” he says.
Tom says that riders must be not only physically strong, but emotionally as well and “need to be in the right frame of mind and the right emotional state every time they do a show”.
But the dangers are ever present. “I’ve had mates of mine train at my track on my mum and dad’s property who have become full paraplegic and I was there at the time when it happened. I’ve also had close friends die and other people in the industry that we know fairly well,” Robbie says.
A friend, Paul Smith, he says was an inspiration to other riders, died recently after doing a backflip. “He just made a simple little mistake and that was it. So it could happen anytime. It’s always in the back of your mind. He was 49 years old still doing what we do, travelling around doing shows. I’m 32 now and if I can still ride when I’m 40 even I’ll be stoked.”
The weather can play a big part in deciding the level of danger. “If there’s high winds or rain we need to reduce the level of action, it effects the riders because they are jumping such a long distance of 75 feet,” Tom says. “The most satisfying thing that I can really appreciate is what the guys go through and the sacrifices that they make to be able to do their job.”
After an afternoon at the Royal Melbourne show, Robbie holds his beautiful blue-eyed, blonde, two year-old daughter. He lights up and you can see the passion in his eyes and the love he has for his family.
Doing over 100 shows every year means being away from his family, although he says, “We are lucky. We get to bring our partners away with us as much as we can. They come down for maybe a week to a few days to some of the shows but sometimes we can be away for a month.
“It’s definitely hard. Especially with kids, they’re at that young age, growing up. I missed my 18-month old boy who started crawling and clapping the other week, you certainly have to sacrifice a few things when you’re on the road so much.”