Mattie Griffin is BMW Motorrad’s official stunt rider. He performs seemingly impossible tricks on a BMW F800R, and has won international stunt-riding awards and wowed audiences around the world for 12 years now. There are plenty of videos of his riding on YouTube, but here’s one of our favourites.
He lives with his partner and their 18-month-old son Mattie Jr. in Galway, Ireland, but we caught up with him this month after his show at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. We asked how he got into this, and what advice he’d give other riders hoping to copy his success – and is there any trick that’s eluded him?
PHOTOGRAPHY: SAMANTHA DYE (Night) and MARK RICHARDSON (Day)
When did you ride your first motorcycle?
When I was 6 years of age, and I’m 36 now. I’ve always ridden a motorcycle.
How did you get into this?
I have to say, it’s through trials riding. I really like trials riding. And just from always trying tricks on my trials bike, I moved the barrier up and started trying it on a 200 kg bike.
When did you move up to larger bikes?
I started professional stunt riding 12 years ago, and the first competition I entered, I won it.
How do you win a competition? What’s involved?
You’ve got a panel of judges, and they judge you on how often you put your feet down, and your style. They look at how unique your riding is, and how you go out from one trick to another – how smooth your transition is between tricks.
So 13 years ago, were you a yahoo on the street?
Not so much. I always tried to keep it off road. I rode bikes on the street. I had my own bike shop and I opened the bike shop when I was 22. I had two guys working for me. It was tough: motorcycle insurance was going up at that time and the business was hard. I enjoyed it, but then I started stunt riding and started getting paid to do shows, and I thought, let’s do this for a while, travel the world and get to meet people, and I’m still doing it. I’m still enjoying it, as much as on the first day.
When did you start to get paid to be a stunt rider?
I suppose pretty much straight away. When I started shows, I started charging for shows.
When did you land your contract with BMW?
It’s funny because at the very beginning, when I started stunt riding, there was an Irish guy, Conor McRory, who worked for BMW at the time – he spotted me and I guess he knew there was potential there and he hired me to do the launch of the BMW HP2 in 2005. They were pretty surprised because I had that thing standing vertical, vertical on the front wheel, drifting it in a small area. BMW UK had spotted this on the internet and they wanted to hire me from when they launched it. So I did some stuff for BMW UK and then Suzuki spotted me and they hired me. I was with Suzuki for a couple of years and that kind of fizzled out – I think things were tough for Suzuki with the yen – and then the BMW guys took me on again in 2009. They wanted me riding their bikes and the rest is history. I’m still here and I’m not planning to change from BMW.
Do you still own the bike shop?
No, I’m out of the bike shop. I still have my workshop – I’ve got a big workshop – because I’ve got about 10 bikes and I’m busy enough working on my own bikes. You know, at home I’m the secretary, I’m the driver, I’m the mechanic. I build the bike and I’m the rider, so it’s pretty busy. It’s pretty full-on. BMW gives me the bike standard and I build it.
What do you do to the bike then?
It’s funny, because some people think the bike is sent into a special area and there’s all this special work done to the engine and that, but I can assure you, there’s nothing done to that engine. The most tuning in that engine is a K&N air filter. The frame is standard, the suspension is standard, the swingarm is standard, the modifications are what you can see. There are extra back brakes – I’ve got a brake lever under my clutch lever. I’ve got the engine cage to protect the bike if it falls over. There’s a footrail for my foot when I do certain tricks: I stand on the footrail. The saddle’s slightly modified as you can see: there’s a bit of a hump there, so I can take my hands off and ride it with no hands, so I need something to keep me on the bike. But the rest – like really, the bike is pretty standard.
I remember the Wheelie King, Doug Domokos, back in the ’80s, he had a motor on the front wheel to keep it spinning. Do you do anything like that?
No – that was really to make it easier for guys. There’s still some of the Brazilian riders who do that, because it helps. When you’re on the back wheel on the bike, and you want to turn left, if you swing the handlebars right, it pulls the bike left. But for me – a lot of guys of guys ask me, “oh, you must have your tire pressure down,” but I can assure you, I have 30 psi in both of those tires. And they’re regular tires. You know, it’s down to the riding.
Obviously, you’re a very talented rider. Is there something special about you that helps you to do this, or is it just practice, practice, practice?
I don’t know. I guess probably it’s a bit of both. You know, I did move up the ranks pretty quick when I started, but at the same time, when I think back… I jump on the bike now and it knocks the stuffing out of me when I ride it for a 15-minute show. It’s action, all action. I’m not a big talker – when I do my show, I don’t like spending 10 minutes talking, five minutes riding. I go out there and I give it my all for that 15 minutes. As a kid, I was on my lunchbreak from school and I was going home to ride my bike, so I guess I’ve put a lot of time in riding, a lot of practice.
Have you ever hurt yourself?
I can tell you I’ve no broken bones. I did tear a cruciate ligament in my left knee in 2009. It was just a simple mistake – the bike didn’t fall on me or anything. Just because I never broke a bone doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous, you know. I do practise quite a lot and I try to eat healthy. I take it quite seriously, what I do, and every show I do, you have to respect the bike and respect what you’re doing.
How many shows do you do in a year?
On average, I do two to three shows a month. Now, I could do six shows in one month and then in another month I might do one show. It’s hit and miss. And I get a lot of double-bookings. I travel all over the world. I’ll been all over Asia, Europe, everywhere.
So let’s say I’ve just got a bike, I’m 19 years old and I can do wheelies. How can I move on to anything like what you do?
First of all, I wouldn’t advise anyone not to – it is fun, it is great – but you have to respect it. I wear full body armour head to toe. There are guys who do this in T-shirts and it’s their choice, but it wouldn’t be me. You can fall on any day, at any time, and we’ve all had road rash – it’s not very pleasant. I just like to wear the protection. Every show I do, I never get cocky, I treat it with respect. And at the end of the day, it’s about entertaining the crowd and making them happy and putting a smile on their face, you know? Nobody wants to see a bike coming screaming towards them at the railing – that’s why I come along maybe on the back wheel, with one hand and one foot, and leave my foot beside them on the rail and leave a smile on their face, rather than scaring the crap out of them.
Could anybody do this?
I personally think so. I think everybody’s the same – there’s nothing special about me. I always treat people as I’d like to be treated, and I think anybody could do it. Some people see different, but if you practise and you’re determined, it’s not impossible.
So the key is to get a motorcycle, find a big parking lot, and practice, practice, practice?
Yeah. Wear the right protection and make sure it’s a legal spot, but it does take a lot of time and patience to get to where I’ve got to. It’s not something I learned overnight.
Are you rich now?
No! But I’m healthy, and I think that’s what matters.
Do you ever scare yourself?
Not really. I mean, sometimes you miss that clutch when you go through gravel and it gives you a bit of a fright and puts you in your spot. Only a couple of weeks ago, I did a show and I wasn’t very happy because they promised me a big area but it was a very small area and I did have a nasty little tumble. I was fine, but it did give me a bit of a scare: I was riding the bike backwards and I went over the handlebars backwards, but it’s part of it.
Do you ride a motorcycle at home, on the street?
No. I don’t have time, I really don’t. As I said earlier, I’m the mechanic, I’m the secretary, I’m the driver, and I don’t get time. If I get any spare time, I spend it with my family or I go trials riding. I still love trials riding – that’s what I started with, and I still love to get up the mountain. No phone, just ride.
You’ve got a little boy – would you like him to do what you do?
I don’t know. I’d never stop him, but I’d never push him to do it. My little boy can do whatever he feels like doing. As it is, he’s crazy about the bike. It’s not because I’m out there every morning saying, “this is a bike, and this is the clutch.” He just sees it, and he’s like a sponge. He picks up everything. He knows how to start the bike already and he wants me to ride him around.
What is your piece of advice for somebody who wants to do this?
Wear the right protection. Wear the body armour and take it slowly. I’ve been at shows where a guy’s come up and asked me to sign his cast after the show, and I’m like, what happened to you? And he goes, “I’m embarrassed to say, but I saw your last show and you make it look way too easy. I thought it looked easy and tried it and learned the hard way.” But it takes a lot of time and patience.
Where do you go from here? Are you going to do this till you’re 90?
Er, no. It’s not something you can do forever – jump around the bike like a 16-year-old. I’m going to do it as long as I feel I can. I mean, what makes it for me is when I go out there. It’s not repetitive, I’m learning new stuff all the time, and people are enjoying the show. If they’re enjoying it, I’m happy. If I ever feel I’ve gotten boring, I’ll be doing something else. I’m not doing it for the money – the money helps pay the bills but it’s not about that for me. It’s about entertaining, making people happy.
How often do you get to come to Canada?
I’m obviously doing something right because they’ve invited me back, and this is the fourth year I’ve been here now.
Is there a trick you’re working on that you’ve not yet been able to do, that’s been eluding you?
Yup. It’s basically standing the bike up on its (tail) rail, on the ground, holding the handlebars, and jumping from the ground to land sitting up on the handlebars, and then drive away, riding in circles. I’ve actually done it a few times. I was able to do it until I tore my cruciate ligament. This bike I’m using today is much taller than the bike I was riding at the time, but I plan to work on it in the wintertime. I don’t want to work on it now in case I hurt myself.