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A comeback to flip over

The Baltimore Sun

Because the image is frozen on my computer screen, the fear is burned into my brain. I still get somewhat scared visiting the dentist, so maybe I'm the last guy to rationalize why this motorcycle is upside down, 20 feet above the ground.

That's Annapolis native Jim DeChamp hanging there, in the middle of attempting the first front flip on a dirt bike. The video is from last summer's X Games, and because I've now seen the clip about 100 times, I know what happens next: The motorcycle doesn't complete the rotation, and DeChamp falls to the ground like a lifeless doll, his body skidding to a stop about 10 feet later.

A vertebra in his lower back cracked. He was in obvious pain. So what was DeChamp thinking?

"I was like, 'I got to get back up and try this again,' " he says.

Perhaps a bit of background on DeChamp is in order. He is 28 years old and has made a bit of money racing mountain bikes but usually pays the rent with his gig as an appliance repairman. He has been close friends with Travis Pastrana, the motocross guru, since the two were children. They've essentially passed the time since then dreaming up ridiculous stunts and adventures.

DeChamp remembers riding bikes around Annapolis as kids, leaping off a bridge into Weems Creek and then pedaling home. The stakes are quite a bit higher now, as Pastrana has parlayed his adrenaline chase into a lucrative career. His most recent project is an MTV series called Nitro Circus (Sundays, 10 p.m.).

With Johnny Knoxville serving as executive producer, it's a cross between the X Games and Jackass, as Pastrana, DeChamp and friends try to brainstorm the craziest stunts possible.

One week, they're flipping riding lawnmowers off ramps. The next, Pastrana is leaping from an airplane without a parachute, meeting up with another jumper in midair and making a successful tandem landing. And the next week, DeChamp is climbing back on that motorcycle, determined to do something no one has done before.

Last spring, DeChamp practiced the forward flip hundreds of times at Pastrana's Davidsonville home, speeding up a ramp and flipping into a foam pit. The X Games marked the first time he tried to land the flip on dirt and the first time he attempted it for a crowd.

If you think about flips for a second, the back flip makes sense. You soar off the ramp and the sheer momentum flips the bike. To execute a front flip, you must defy physics a bit. DeChamp says the rider speeds up the ramp and squeezes the brake at the peak, thus reversing momentum and sending the bike end over end. Easy, right?

After the X Games crash, DeChamp says, he wasn't fully mobile for nearly a month.

"You have no idea that your toes are somehow connected to your back," he says. "You move your foot, and it's your back that hurts."

Pastrana began filming the MTV series immediately after the X Games, so DeChamp wasn't afforded much recovery time. Three months after the crash, the crew was in Utah and Pastrana had a gift for DeChamp: a ramp, a track covered in mulch, a dirt bike and a man from the Guinness Book of World Records to verify the feat.

"The last time I was on this bike, I broke my back," DeChamp recalls thinking. But he didn't dwell on it. He couldn't. DeChamp knows Stephen Murray, the BMX rider who took a nasty spill June 22, 2007, in Baltimore and is today paralyzed from the neck down. And he knew Jeremy Lusk, one of the top freestyle motocross riders in the world who missed a trick just last month and died as a result of his injuries.

The risks can't keep you away.

"I could also pull out of my driveway right now and get in an accident," DeChamp says. "The moment you start worrying, you've mentally messed yourself up. If you're second-guessing, that's when you make mistakes. You can't think that way."

On his second attempt, he hit the brake perfectly and rolled over the handlebars, the bike rotated 360 degrees and DeChamp stuck the landing.

"The excitement was very crazy," says Tommy Passemante, known among the Nitro Circus crew as Streetbike Tommy. In addition to subjecting his body to painful, homemade stunts, Passemante hangs drywall around Anne Arundel County. "It was just a very electric moment for everybody."

The way DeChamp describes it, he momentarily captured something he had been chasing his entire life.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling," he says. "Just craziness. It didn't soak in for a couple of days what I'd actually accomplished. I mean, no one had ever done it, no one knows what that felt like. It was kind of like: 'I'm done. Nothing else I could ever do will top that.' "

Of course, that doesn't mean DeChamp will stop searching.

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