Inside Look: Moto’s First-Ever Triple Backflip

As the crowd began to file in, the world’s greatest action sports athletes grabbed a bite to eat. In a little over an hour, the Nitro Circus Live crew would put on a performance the likes of which cannot be seen anywhere else – a performance that requires a lot of courage and a little bit of insanity.

Preshow jitters weren’t evident when glancing at Travis Pastrana and his cohort of friends. Instead, it was nothing but laughter and tom foolery that echoed the dressing rooms of the arena. For this group of men and women, their respective sports are what they do – as though they’ve consumed each one of their lives. They’re masters of their craft and while it’s become second nature, each athlete knows there are always risks involved. But that’s never stopped them before, so why would it tonight?

Amidst the laughter were various discussions about the hodgepodge of sports that make up Nitro Circus, the technical side of the tricks, the equipment maintenance and how to keep the show fresh. Pastrana is always trying to evolve, in every facet of his career, so it’s no wonder he’s constantly looking for the next jaw-dropping trick. That could be why he has one of the largest ramps in the world nestled in the backyard of his central Maryland home, a constant playground for the Nitro Circus.

It was on that playground that one of Nitro Circus’ moto stars landed what just might be the biggest trick to ever be pulled off on two wheels – the triple backflip. But it wasn’t a trick that happened simply over night. No, it was nearly two years in the making, with a history that spanned over a decade.

Photo: Nitro Circus

Pastrana himself is partially responsible for the backflip phenomenon. In 2000, at X Games Philadelphia, the now 17-time X Games medalist became one of the first to ever attempt a backflip on a dirt motorcycle but came up short, breaking his foot in the process. While he wasn’t the first to successfully pull it off, six years later he would pull off the unthinkable, a double backflip in front of a packed Staples Center at X Games Los Angeles, which to this day remains one of the highlights of his career.

After that, Pastrana wondered if he could take it a step further – the triple backflip.

It was long deemed impossible. Three backwards rotations on a dirt motorcycle – it was madness, it was suicide. But those are two words almost every X Games athlete is familiar with and while some thought the triple backflip wasn’t worth trying, one man conquered it, immediately becoming a legend.

But that man wasn’t Pastrana, it was Australian native Josh Sheehan. Sheehan, 28, was the only athlete consistently landing the double backflip at the time, so it seemed possible.

“I know Travis had wanted to do it practically since he landed the double backflip,” Sheehan said. “After doing a few double flips, I obviously thought one more flip was possible.”


Sheehan was no stranger to motocross. At the age of 17, he entered his first race and by the age of 20, he had already mastered flipping his 50 cc KX450 bike in a sand quarry by his home. But this wasn’t your typical trick. If it wasn’t attempted correctly, the implications could be disastrous for Sheehan. That’s where science came into play, designing a ramp that could allow for such speed and precision.

“It needed a lot more infrastructure than a double flip – a big takeoff, a big landing and a safe zone for that landing,” he added. “Travis first set up a new ramp that was about 35 foot high onto an airbag. It was just a test, but it worked well, so we could jump as high as we wanted and basically throw the bike and just land down on the airbag. Then we just had to work on the takeoff.”

As Pastrana, Sheehan and the crew would discover, the ramp wasn’t quite right – it was too flat. That meant it was time for some serious tweaking and with both athletes battling it out to land the next big trick and pushing each other, even the slightest little thing could throw everything off. However, the two had the tour and plenty of other responsibilities, so they’d come back to it from time to time.

“I think I went to his house four times [in 2014], in between tours and stuff like that. And while I was gone, Travis had done more changes—it ended up being about 15 ramp changes, subtle changes, which proved to be a big difference when leaving the ramp. We could easily over attempt a double flip, but we had to get two flips on the way up and get one on the way down, so we went from a flat airbag to a landing airbag, because it’s hard to land nose down on a flat bay, it hurts the body so much.”

To pull off a triple backflip, Sheehan had to know his bike – everything about it. It wasn’t the same bike he uses during his Nitro Circus stunts, but instead a modified, lighter version. At 240 pounds, Sheehan took off the standard exhaust and replaced it with a lighter one. He also took off some unneeded parts and adjusted the suspension, to allow for more of an impact on the landing.

“I put a steeper suspension and adjusted it a little as far as the spring and air pressure. I made the forks really stiff and made a really fast rebound, so it was a spring back rebound – tight enough to hold the landing when I landed. We didn’t know how hard the landing would be until the end.”

Photo: Nitro Circus


The landing was the most important portion of the trick, however it was the rotations that proved to be the most challenging for Sheehan. It all came down to speed, in order to nail the precision landing. In order to deliver, he had to remain at the same speed each time and land in the same spot.

“The last section of the ramp is the crucial bit for the whole trick, basically. That’s where I have to push away from the bars hard enough to get my body bound, my legs straight, and get right off the back of the bike right at the crucial time of the ramp, so I could initiate the rotation. Once I start the rotation, my feet slide back and lock onto the grip tape on the side and then, you know, I just have to stay in that position and hold it to get the rotation. If I don’t get the start right, then the whole thing is over.”

Repetition certainly helped and as he got more and more comfortable, he practiced in excess.

“I spent the week [before landing it] there just attempting triple flips morning and afternoon,” he admitted. “With anything, if you do a couple, you think you know what you’re doing – but the more you do it, the more you understand. With this being such a dangerous trick, I had to just keep going.”


With any big daredevil-type trick, there’s bound to be an injury or two and it was no different for Sheehan, who had his fair share of injuries leading up to completing the trick. Most of those injuries were scrapes, bangs and bruises, though as he recalls, there was one substantial injury.

“[I suffered] a few injuries – there was a lot of little painful ones. There was one bad jump, where I went too far off to the right and landed on the edge of the airbag. I bruised my lung, coughed a bit of blood and I was damn sore – but no major injury or anything. [There was] just a whole lot of body stiffness and soreness. I had to stop after that, took an ice bath and took a couple of weeks off.”

But in the end, the injuries made his success that much sweeter. The trick has helped change Sheehan’s career, as well as his life, and even now, months later, he still enjoys talking about it.

Photo: Nitro Circus

“It’s kind of mind-blowing for me, even watching it now.” he said. “With the support of Travis and Nitro Circus, to experiment and test those limits and see what we could do, to finally land it – it was a pivotal moment in my life and it is kind of hard to describe. It’s so surreal and so cool to make history.”

So, what do you do after landing such a difficult trick and where do you go from there? Well, that’s a question Sheehan is currently trying to answer, when he’s not pulling off double backflips in front of 15,000 people all across the country. I’m sure he’ll figure out something next – maybe a quad flip.

“The moment I landed, it was like a weight off my shoulder. We celebrated and that week was a bit of a high and I had things to do to keep busy. I just had to keep on going. We were wondering [where it would go from here]. I think with the quad flip, we would need custom bikes. It’s happened on a bmx mountain bike. The heavier the bike, the harder it is to initiate the rotation. The height we would need, I feel like, we just couldn’t land it and live to tell the tale. We’d be falling from outer space.”

Don’t miss Nitro Circus: Crazy Train, a behind the scenes docu-series that looks at Travis Pastrana and his Nitro Circus crew, airing Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET through Dec. 3 on NBCSN.


Ed Miller is a contributor for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillyEdMiller or “like” CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Nitro Circus.