BMX King Dave Mirra Takes on Ironman

With 24 medals, Dave Mirra is one of the most dominant athletes in the history of the X-Games.

Nils Nilsen

For those of us who were fortunate enough to be of television-watching age in 1995, the summer Extreme Games were a revelation: an organized and televised event for extreme sports. Before then you got your fix of BMX and skateboarding by watching videos like Matt Hoffman’s “Head First” or “New World Order” from World Industries. And the most memorable names from those X-Games halcyon days? Tony Hawk in skating and Dave Mirra on the bike.

Mirra dominated his sport, winning his first gold medal in 1996 and then collecting them every year from 1997 to 2000, ultimately winning 24 medals in his career, 14 of them gold. Among his most notable achievements were landing the first double backflip in 2000 and a bonkers 360 no-handed backflip in 2009. Mirra, now 41, has directed his attention to triathlon, with plans to race in Ironman Lake Placid in July 2015 and to put down a time that will qualify him for the Ironman World Championship in Kona. We caught up with Mirra to talk about his BMX career, his triathlon aspirations and his love of red wine.

Q. I read a story about you doing a trick called a “double decade” when you were a kid in front of some sponsored Haro riders. Was that your first big break in the sport?
A. Well I looked up to the Haro guys. They would come through town once a year to a shop called Wayne’s Bike Shop. I was doing something that at the time not even the pros were doing — Dave [Nourie], Brian [Blyther] and Ron [Wilkerson], anyway, weren’t doing this yet. I did it and I was just a 13-year-old kid. That was cool because they noticed me and ended up giving me a co-sponsorship with Haro. For a young kid in upstate New York, that was huge, and it was a big motivating factor to get recognized by my heroes.

Q. What exactly is the trick?
A. It’s basically when you walk up on your back wheel and jump from the seatpost, around the head tube to the other side and back on the seat, without the front wheel touching the ground.

I didn’t lose X-Games street for the first five years of the X-Games. That’s crazy. I’m pretty stoked on that.

Q. Can you talk about some other defining moments in your BMX career?
A. One of the biggest breaks was 1992, my rookie year as a pro, and beating Matt Hoffman who hadn’t lost for three and a half years. He was considered unstoppable and I beat him twice in my rookie year. That was when, let’s say, a newer school started to take over. I was a younger generation and that was a huge point not just for myself, but when people started to think, “Okay, Matt is beatable.” Matt was somebody I looked at in the magazines — he was only a few years older, but that was a pretty big deal when you’re that age.

Then the X-Games started in 1995 and that’s when huge things started to happen in terms of endorsements and what we thought was possible for our futures. It was one thing riding contests in a skate park and making $200 if you win and then going back on tour and doing fair shows. That was the extent of it until the X-Games, and then suddenly we could make a living.

Q. In 1993, right after your rookie year, you got into a bad accident when you were hit by a drunk driver. What was that like?
A. It was a gnarly accident, so that was a big deal in itself. But to be honest, it wasn’t like the X-Games was around yet and there was huge pressure to keep riding. I obviously love riding, so I lost something important to me, but there was a time when I was thinking, “What am I doing? Am I going to get a job? Am I going to ride for the rest of my life at fairs and make this kind of money or get a real job?”

The way timing worked out, I got healthy in 1994, rode in the finals at SCRAP in Chicago and came out and won in the street competition. How crazy is that? And then the next June was X-Games. I moved to North Carolina in 1995. There was a skate park in Greenville and that got me back into the scene riding every single day.

Q. Can you talk more about how the X-Games changed things?
A. All of us were pretty doubtful. We were like, “What do they want from us? Are they going to make money off of us and we’ll get screwed?” There were some pretty bad attitudes around — athletes versus suits, you know? A lot of people didn’t accept it. But I said, “I’m going to give positive interviews and I’m going to start changing the way contests are ridden.”

Back in the day you’d huck a big trick and then get up on the ramp, rest and try it again. It was very daredevil-ish kind of style — not clean, not smooth. That’s when I started to do complete runs without stopping; I believe I changed the way contests were ridden. I started winning back to back to back. I didn’t lose X-Games street for the first five years of X-Games. That’s crazy. I’m pretty stoked on that. A lot happens in a year. Matt won the first two years of X-Games vert and I believe I got second. Then starting in 1997 I think I won vert for the next four years. It was pretty rad to dominate X-Games.

Q. Did you ever think about what you’d be doing if you didn’t start riding again after the accident?
A. I guess I never really had a plan B. It was all or nothing from day one. This is what I’m doing, whether I make any money or not. So when the X-Games came across it was huge for a lot of us.

Q. You’ve done a lot of different things on top of BMX, like rally driving, but let’s talk about triathlon, which seems like a departure from the action sports side of things. You did your first in 2012. What was the draw?
A. I had a place in Syracuse and I had a neighbor who was always training. I was at that point in my life — I was pretty much done with BMX — where my heart needed a home in a sense. I saw him consistently training, intense sessions, and he loved it. I didn’t know anything about triathlon, but I went and watched him do Ironman Lake Placid in 2012 — I was going, “This is so rad to watch something that I never want to do.” Later that summer I was training and the next spring I did my first half Ironman.

I think seeing Lake Placid was awesome. I teared up when the cannon went off. Everybody there was doing this for a reason and they worked extremely hard to be there. There was a lot of heart there. Even though I said I never wanted to do it, once I saw how cool the athletes were, how helpful they were to each other, and that the vibe was so cool — I started training.

Q. You’re now training for your first full Ironman, Lake Placid, in July. What are you goals?
A. My goal is to qualify for Kona, so I’ll give it a shot. It’s a lot of work, man. I like the 70.3 distance because I was pretty satisfied with my pace at it. But I’ve got a little bit of a connection to Lake Placid and it’s part of the story. If I do a different one it won’t mean as much. I’m excited to give it my best shot. Sub-10 hours is what I’m going for — and I’m hoping that’s enough. You never know, though, right? It’s a super gnarly course.

Triathlon is one of the coolest sports I’ve seen, and people who look from the outside in don’t get how cool it is.

Q. What’s your bike setup?
A. I ride a Cervelo P5, S5 and R5. I’ve ridden for bike companies for a long time — 20 years, say — and this was an opportunity to exercise the freedom to get whatever I wanted. I was in the Phoenix airport en route to California and Googled a tri shop, Nytro came up, and I said, “You guys have a size 54 P5? I’m flying in. I’m coming to get it.” I bought it and it felt great. I ended up getting hooked up with Cervelo over the next year. We worked out a contract this year. My intent is to qualify for Kona, and if I do, they’ll sell a limited-edition P5 to the public.

Q. How many bikes do you own?
A. 25 or 30. I’ve got bikes all over my house.

Q. So how is the training going?
A. Two weeks ago I ran 20 miles at a 7:05 pace and it didn’t feel that bad. I never thought I’d run 20. One of the biggest things is just sticking to the plan. Nutrition is very important. Really, you just can’t outrace your training. What I mean is that it takes time and you can’t rush it. Getting fit doesn’t happen overnight. It’s one of those things where you have to be consistent. In BMX, at a certain point I could take two weeks off if I wanted to; in triathlon you can’t do that. You lose too much.

Q. What music do you listen to during long training sessions?
A. I’ve got some Social Distortion, Pink Floyd, Alice in Chains, Agent Orange, the Smiths, Bon Jovi. You know how music reminds of certain moments in your life? I try to put music on there that reminds me of certain times and places, stepping stones along the way.

Q. I was surprised to read that you won the 2014 Race Across America. How did that go?
A. It was all pretty fast paced. I probably wouldn’t do it again at this point, but it was really cool. I never thought we’d make it. It was brutal. I mean, it set me back pretty bad last year. It wasn’t just because it was hard; for one or two months after I just wasn’t right. It was no joke. [Dave] Zabriskie had a stomach thing, Ben’s knee was hurt, and I had some upper respiratory chest cold I couldn’t shake. I went from antibiotic to antibiotic — it took forever to get well.

Q. In BMX you had guys you looked up to and kind of a big rival in Jay Miron. Is there potential for an equivalent in triathlon?
A. I’m just as much a fan as a competitor in this sport. To watch the pros is so rad, because I know I work hard — and those guys are so fast. To be where they’re at is insane. I don’t have any rivals. Triathlon is one of the coolest sports I’ve seen and people who look from the outside in don’t get how cool it is. I was in Kona last year just to watch and it was awesome to sit there on the sea wall and watch the swim — I just dig it.

Q. You’ve said in other interviews that doing your first half Ironman was scary. Why?
A. It was just unknown for me. I’d only swam in open water before that for 10 minutes. When I finished I was crying while I talked to my wife — I’d never broken down like that. To do all that work and see it come together and pay off was really cool.

Q. What do you like to eat when you’re training? Do you take advantage of all the calories you’re burning?
A. I mean, sometimes I can dive into a pizza after a big run, but I’m trying to eat smart. Recovery is so important. I may have a huge ride tomorrow and a run off the bike, but then the next day you’ve got a 16-mile run. You’ve got to be ready.

Q. I understand you like wine, though.
A. Yup, red wine. Silver Oak is amazing, but pretty pricey. I drink normal wine most of the time. Back in the day I drank lots of Silver Oak, but those days are mostly behind. When you’ve got these big gnarly workouts that you have to get done, you’ve got to stick to it and get it done. It bothers me if I don’t get the workout done the way I’m supposed to.

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