Sports Active: Why Heaven Is a Half-Pipe: How One Man Pedalled His Way to Millions ; Mat Hoffman Turned Trick Riding on a Child's Bike into an International Business Empire - and Wrecked His Body in the Process. Jonathan Thompson Meets a BMX Legend

Article excerpt

Some would call Mat Hoffman insane. Over the past 20 years, he has broken 50 bones, undergone 15 major operations and knocked himself unconscious on more than 100 occasions. And all while riding a souped- up child's bicycle. But for those who think Hoffman mad, there are others, thousands in fact, queuing up to win his endorse- ment, buy his merchandise and emulate his tricks.

As a 10-time world champion, Hoffman has redefined what is possible in his chosen field; at 32, and with countless scars to show for it, he is the undisputed King of BMX, and one of the few bona fide legends in the world of urban street-sports.

"I guess I've made a career out of scaring myself," laughs Hoffman, nicknamed "The Condor", who was born and raised near the Midwest US town of Oklahoma City. His career includes the invention of more than 100 gravity-defying tricks on the vert ramp - a half- pipe construction normally between 10ft and 13ft high, with a flat bottom and concave sides which rise to a vertical wall - and base- jumping with his bike off a 3,500ft cliff in Norway. Recently, he pushed the envelope - and his battered body - further still, by riding out of a plane at 14,000 feet.

"I just like to experiment with different forms of flight," Hoffman says, "whether that be riding my bike, playing around with parachutes or flying planes. It's whatever I can dream up at the time; it's not so much about being fearless as using fear to stimulate your body, to get 100 per cent out of all your senses."

Despite a fascination for extreme sports above cloud level, it was on the vert ramp that The Condor's legend took off. The youngest of four children, Hoffman discovered freestyle BMX riding in the early 1980s, aged nine. By then, BMX - short for bicycle motocross - was already an international phenomenon, having emerged from California more than a decade earlier. Using pedal power to emulate the excitement of motorbike dirt- track racing had proved immensely appealing to millions of children, and Hoffman was no exception.

"I started riding ramps and tricks and just fell in love with it," he remembers. By the age of 12, he was performing at competitive events, winning plaudits for his fearless style and "big air" stunts. By 15, he had caught the attention of sponsors and, a year later, turned professional - the youngest BMX rider ever to do so.

Hoffman won his first world title in 1987, a feat he repeated annually until 1997. But as early as the late 1980s, enthusiasm for the sport had began to bottom out. A number of big sponsors moved away from what they considered a dying teenage fad. So, at just 17, Hoffman decided to take matters into his own hands. He bought a truck, formed a BMX stunt team and began touring America, putting on demonstrations. When he felt the BMX industry was struggling to keep pace, he simply founded his own company, Hoffman Bikes.

"Riding at this level, you're trusting your life to whatever you put under your feet," Hoffman says. "After a couple of [pieces of] equipment sent me to hospital, I realised I had to start making my own bikes, bikes that could live up to the abuse we dish out."

As the sport enjoyed a renaissance in the mid-to-late Nineties, so Hoffman's fame grew. He became the first rider to complete the magical "900"- rotating his bike horizontally through 900 degrees in midair - then bettered that by pulling off the same stunt without holding the bike's handlebars. …