The bike show wouldn’t be the bike show without stunt riders, performing two or three exhibitions of seemingly impossible wheelies, stoppies and drifts every day. When the stunt riders come out, the rest of the show empties as the crowd presses around the arena, anxious for the action.
CMG’s Mark Richardson caught up with Nick Apex, from Las Vegas, and Ernie Vigil, from Albuquerque, who were performing as Team Empire at this year’s Toronto Supershow, to ask how they do it, and why.
CMG: How long have you been doing this?
NICK: It’s coming up on about 12 years now, professionally, and as a team for about 10 years. Before that, we were hobbyists. You know how this works.
CMG: I know exactly how this works! Do you ever hurt yourselves?
NICK: Oh yes. You can’t ride like an asshole for this long and not get hurt. It’s inevitable. Just collarbones, legs, a lot of little injuries.
CMG: How does somebody get into doing what you do?
ERNIE: If you just want to get into stunt riding in general, the best way to do it is to start on little bikes. Like on little 100cc or 125 cc dirtbikes. That’s what I did, and Nick too. I’d say 75 per cent of the kids you see around the world who are doing this have some level of little-bike training. For one, it’s inexpensive, for two, the bikes aren’t as big and fast and heavy. You don’t get hurt as much, but you still can learn all the same techniques.
CMG: Is that how you learn stuff?
ERNIE: It helps having the internet and watching videos – seeing what someone’s doing, versus wondering what someone’s doing. If you want to learn how to shoot a basketball, you can go online and watch an NBA player shoot a basketball and learn the technique, right? A lot of it is watch and study.
CMG: Is what you do difficult, or can anybody do this?
NICK: If you’re dedicated enough, and not afraid to wreck, then most people can do it. There are going to be some limitations. I’ve seen some people have mental blocks that they’re not able to get over. Physically, anybody can do it – your mom can do it. Mentally, it’s a different ball game.
ERNIE: But you have to be something of a risk-taker. You have to get over your fear of cartwheeling a bike, or going end over end.
CMG: Are your bikes very modified?
NICK: The engines are stock. They’re both Triumph 675 Street Triple Rs, but mine is the Daytona. Mostly, it’s just modified stock components, to be honest. We use a standard idle cable (to lock the throttle open). The tanks are original, but modified. Factory brakes in the front. The biggest change is we put an additional caliper on the rear that we use with our left hand, and the lever sits underneath the clutch. And the sprockets are enlarged, as well.
CMG: Do you ride on the street?
ERNIE: Once in a while. Not as much as I used to. I learned on the road. Now, the temptation’s a little too…
NICK: It’s boring to follow the rules. You’ve got to remember that 99 per cent of the riding we do is limitless. It’s whatever our personal discretion is at the time. If you put me on a bike and then tell me I have to follow the road rules, which I’m good at, I can do it but it’s tedious. So I do a lot of adventure riding. I like a lot of off-road, dual-sports. An adventure bike like the Triumph Tiger allows me to get the fun that I want out of motorcycling, giving me the option of playing off-road where you can erase a lot of the rules.
ERNIE: I ride a lot of off-road. I grew up racing motocross, so that’s my first passion for bikes. I’d have to really think to tell you when was the last time I rode a bike on the street. I don’t have registration or insurance for the street and that’s just a pain in the ass.
NICK: I still ride once in a while. I have a small motorcycle shop in Las Vegas and I’ll take out bikes from the store. I’ll run errands on the motorcycle, but I don’t commute on them very well. We just were in Aruba, filming the latest in our video series The City is My Playground, and we were riding on the road there, very illegally, but with the permission of the police. We go to countries like that where we can kind of rely on the looseness of the law.
ERNIE: A lot of smaller countries that don’t have the perceived motorcycle problems that North Americans do are a lot looser in their law structure. That’s when I get my jollies on the road.
(Ed. note: Nick and Ernie’s videos are shot with the full co-operation of local law enforcement. If you watch them, you’ll often see police officers holding back traffic, and sometimes filming the stunts with their smart phones.)
CMG: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
ERNIE: To do it on a pro level, where it’s a job, the hardest thing is to find the time to just ride. The sport is so small that you have to be your own promoter, your own video editor, your own photo guy, your own creative, your own mechanic, your own everything. This is all we do. Before, when we were riding just to ride, all we did was ride. Now we have people that we have to show results to. There’s so much email, and driving to shows.
CMG: How many shows do you perform at each year?
ERNIE: We used to do a lot more. At one time, we’d do 25-35 a year, but I think now we do maybe 10 or 15, because we focus a lot more on generating social media content. The Internet has changed things quite a bit for us.
CMG: Do you make money from the Internet?
NICK: We make money from our sponsors who want us to be in videos on the Internet.
ERNIE: We’re basically paid as an in-house production team.
CMG: Can you make good money at this?
NICK: It’s like everything in the world: the top 1 or 2 per cent makes money. But in our sport, the top 2 per cent make a living. I’m very happy with what it’s given to me – zero complaints. But in the last three months, I’ll have been at home for 12 days.
CMG: Who are you sponsored by?
ERNIE: Parts Canada brings us out here every year and they treat us really well. We ride for Triumph motorcycles, so we help them develop a lot of their creative content, and they have marketing campaigns built around us as test riders. We also work with Monster Energy. With social media these days, a lot of people are hungry for content and we can target the younger demographic. We work with a lot of companies to do that.
CMG: Is the person on the bike the real you, or do you go home to a loving wife and a cat and slippers?
NICK: No, that’s me. I’m not an introvert. Motorcycles have taught me how to talk to a crowd, or do a TV interview, or speak to a journalist, but I’ve always been the kid who likes to have fun. I have a loving wife and a cat, but it doesn’t matter how many years you stack on, I still want to be the kid who’s out there having fun. If I’m home for more than an hour without doing anything, then guilt sets in.
ERNIE: We were just talking about this the other day. It doesn’t matter how old we are, we still live like teenagers. Many of my friends who are the same age as us are at home with kids and the pipe and the slippers, and they come home and veg on the couch. But we’re still little kids who want to go out and play.
CMG: Can you wheelie any bike, even a Gold Wing?
NICK: Yes. Almost anything with a clutch.
CMG: Is there a trick you’ve not been able to do yet, that’s been eluding you?
NICK: There’s always something that needs to be polished, or in development. It’s like skateboarding. But there are some really hard transition tricks that need maximum traction, you can’t do them in many places because they don’t have an ideal surface. You start out getting one out of 20, but the goal is to get them one out of 10, and then one out of one, every time. But I’ve had things I didn’t like doing that I quit at, like switchback wheelies: wheelieing while I’m sitting backwards on the bike. I did it once and it just wasn’t my thing, so I scrapped it.
ERNIE: You can always do something bigger, faster and better – maxxing it out and keep pushing toward its absolute edge. I think that’s a lot of where this sport’s going now. It got real slow for a while because we were trying to learn control, and now it’s back to the high-speed risk-taking that it should be, because that’s what people want to see.
NICK: The enjoyment of knowing you pushed the bike to its absolute limit on a trick is really gratifying to me. I just like to know that if I had pushed it any harder, I’d have probably really hurt myself, because then you feel that you beat the bike. I get a kick out of that.