Riding High

Red Bull athlete Kriss Kyle’s daydream of riding his BMX in the clouds turned into an epic odyssey of carbon-fibre engineering, unique fitness conditioning and a touch of trepidation…

“I was so scared that the whole thing would tip over and we’d all die.”

By rights it should never have flown. The mini-BMX bowl suspended below one of the biggest balloons ever built in the UK weighed two tonnes, and swung around so violently when hung from a crane that rider Kriss Kyle doubted it would ever get off the ground. If it did, he feared the consequences.

Kyle’s whimsical, lockdown-inspired vision of riding his bike through fluffy clouds quickly turned into a gut-churning fever dream. Riding the bowl on the ground merely sowed the seeds of doubt in his own abilities, as he battled to even breathe under the pressure of the bowl’s leg-shreddingly tight quarters and the weight of an 8kg parachute.

An interminable wait for a weather window gave these doubts time to slowly curdle his nerves. No one had ever done this before – but there was a reason for that. This is the story of what committing 100% actually means when you dream big enough to break things…

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Kriss Kyle: ‘Don’t Look Down’ – watch the video below

When a dream collides with reality

Kriss Kyle is known for both freestyle BMX and mountain biking, and his previous stunts include dropping out of a helicopter onto a heli-pad in Dubai. He’s on a mission to bring BMX to a wider audience, but it’s not just for clicks. “I’m just quite a creative person,” he says. “I’m always thinking outside the box, and instead of doing a normal riding video, I want to take it to the next level and beyond, and do something completely opposite each time.”

This drive led him to daydream about riding a BMX bowl in the sky. “But you need to be careful what you say at Red Bull!” he adds.

Before Kyle knew it, the engineers crafting Red Bull’s F1 success had been drafted in to build the world’s only carbon-fibre BMX bowl, and a UK company had been commissioned to hand-stitch a hot air balloon, gargantuan enough to lift the 2.5-tonne rig.

MF was there to witness Kyle riding the bowl for the first time, on the ground in a Red Bull racing hanger. It was much smaller than the usual BMX bowl, and the sound of his wheels on the carbon was unexpectedly violent as he fired his bike off the ramps to execute tricks high above the bowl.

It was a baptism of burning legs. “The bowl itself is so tight,” says Kyle. “It’s just like ‘pump, pump, pump’ and you never get a second in there like to breathe. It’s so hard on your legs, because you go straight into the next transitions and into the next trick.”

A humbling realisation

It’s fair to say that Kriss Kyle pushes the boundaries of what’s possible on two wheels, but his physical preparation for previous stunts had been relatively simple: go and ride your bike. For this stunt, however, he would have to ride wearing a self-opening, 8kg parachute, because the balloon would be at base jump height. That’s essentially like strapping another BMX to your back.

“It takes out your legs instantly,” he says, “and when you’re doing flips and spins and stuff, you need to pull so much harder for it to come around. It feels like someone is holding you back the whole time.”

And, because the bowl is suspended, moves. In fact, Kyle’s drone pilot would later report that, during the flight, the balloon was randomly rising and dropping up to four metres in an instant, making it impossible for him to fly his drone under the bowl’s rails.

All of this movement meant Kyle had to push his body even harder to compensate. During training ahead of the flight, he realised that, for the first time ever, he wasn’t fit enough to meet the challenge.

“I was doing loads of cardio on my mountain bike and working out with a weighted vest,” he says. But then he rode the bowl with the parachute – and it didn’t look good: “I felt so weak, like I had tiny legs on me, I just couldn’t do it. Even just pumping into the skatepark, I was knackered.”

Kriss Kyle was so humbled that he went back to Red Bull and told them he didn’t think riding with the parachute was going to work. “They simply told me, ‘You have to, otherwise it’s not going to happen.’”

Kriss Kyle poses with his BMX in front of the hot air balloon that's about to take him in to the sky

Kriss Kyle poses in front of the hot air balloon that’s about to take him – and his bike – thousands of feet into the sky

Working outside the box

“This is the biggest project I had ever done,” says Kyle. “It was solely my idea and my objective, and I realised that any obstacle that was put in front of me, I’d have to try to smash through myself – I had to turn this into reality.”

He had owned the dream, but now he had to embrace the painful reality of using his body to smash the barrier to his ambitions – and find a solution in an alien world of exercise equipment and protein shakes.

Riding freestyle BMX in a skatepark bowl relies less on pedal power and more on pump power. That means using arms and legs to drive the bikes up and down the ramped surfaces, to launch into the air past the coping of the bowl, or onto a rail – there’s no time to pedal your bike up to speed.

It’s a technique that relies on full-body strength and a high anaerobic capacity. The smaller and tighter the bowl, the more force has to be absorbed in landings to be channelled into the next trick, in a continual flow that requires core strength for days.

By adding an 8kg parachute, Kyle was asking more of his body than any BMX rider before, without a playbook on how to build the fitness and strength. “I never normally physically train for a project,” he says, “because I think that time on the bike is more important than anything – but for this one I just had to.”

The answer came when he discovered that he could use a WattBike to replicate riding in that agonising crucible of a BMX bowl at 2,500ft, being swung around by ropes and buffeted by winds.

“It felt exactly how it would when I was in the bowl,” he says. “You’re completely puffed out and your legs are burning, and it’s just horrible. So I started smashing the life out of it! Without the WattBike I don’t even think I would have been able to jump my bike out past the edge of the bowl.”

You only get one shot at stupid

Flying a balloon across UK airspace over a patchwork of fields, while a BMXer jumps out of a skatepark strung underneath it, is as sketchy as it sounds. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is only ever going to allow you to do this once; one shot, one chance, one 35-minute flight to decide success or failure.

Kyle knew that if he bottled it, or if he couldn’t perform well enough to make a video, or if he bailed over the side as soon as he dropped in, then the whole thing would have been a colossal waste of everyone’s time, money and patience.

The balloon flight required a five-day forecast of still, sunny conditions, so even when all the preparations had been made, Kyle was forced into a long, nervy wait for the weather gods to give the nod.

Adding to Kyle’s anxiety was the fact that no balloon pilot, even the hugely experienced Pete Dalby, had ever flown with such a load hung from the balloon. “Pete had never even flown it or landed it before,” says Kyle, “so how was it going to react? I was terrified that the bowl was going to dig in when we landed, and it’s still two and a half tonnes – if it flipped we would be dead.”

Finally, the crew got the nod that the flight would happen, and Kyle’s fears crystallised into a knot of apprehension: “I was pretty nervous. I believe this project might be the hardest I ever do, just from the sheer movement of that bowl in the air.”

The balloon took off one cold, crisp December morning, and rose to 2,500ft, at the mercy of the wind, which gradually pushed it through the sky above a patchwork of fields, bathed in golden light.

It looked idyllic, but it was -12°C up there and Kyle had no opportunity to warm up. He had to commit and drop into the bowl – which, to reiterate, was in constant motion, swinging from side to side and rising and dropping.

“Sometimes when you pump,” he adds, “the bowl is pushing away – going away from you – then then other times it’s coming back towards you. So you can’t guarantee if you’re going to land a trick, or case it [crash the bike frame into the edge]. You cannot guarantee where your wheels are going to land. One of the tricks I was doing was on the back rail. And if you miss that rail, you’re going over the edge.”

But as the balloon burned fuel fighting to maintain height, Kyle knew that it was now or never: “You can’t be messing around up there – even if you’re not ready to send something, you’ve just got to bite the bullet and give it a go anyway.”

The power of vision

Kyle is a big believer in the power of visualisation, and he always visualises his projects ahead of executing his tricks. This time he had a whole year to mentally prepare due to the weather. “I didn’t know what to be like up there, but I did visualise over and over,” he says, “thinking what it would be like and, to be honest, it was kind of spot on to what I visualised in my head.”

Watching the film edit from the flight shows that, in the end, Kyle’s painstaking preparations led to him achieving his ambition and landing all the tricks he set out to do in that BMX bowl in the sky.

And when Pete Dalby brought the balloon into land, he managed to avoid disaster, settling the swinging bowl without tipping it over. When MF caught up with Kyle after the flight, he said the experience had changed him:

“There’s no better feeling than looking at something, then you land it and you’re going ‘Oh my god I can’t believe that we’ve done that.’ Before this, I’d be scared and hesitant, and dither around for a bit, but now, even though I’m still scared, I just send it.”

Kyle thinks he may have tapped into a universal truth that we can all apply to our own goals and scary ambitions.

“After this project I feel I can do anything I want, and it’s the same for everyone. As with everything in life, just commit to the bloody thing!”

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