In Praise Of Bender

What do you remember of Evel Knievel? The flamboyant look, the leathers and the RayBan Aviators and, of course, the motorbike stunts. How many of those stunts do you remember him landing though? Perhaps 50%? Of the stunts you remember, you probably remember him actually landing less than 50% of them – and yet he was (and still is) hailed as the ultimate motorbike stunt rider. And why is that? Because he went big and he tried to land stuff – even when he was trying to jump several buses on a heavy Harley with about 100mm of travel at either end.

Now… Who remembers Josh Bender? (And don’t worry, he’s not dead, despite the internet). Josh Bender appeared in the mid-90s, on the back of the New World Disorder videos, going bigger on a mountain bike than anyone ever had. It wasn’t just riding down those Rampage-style slopes, but he was riding OFF them. He was the first ‘huck and hope’ rider many of us had ever seen. He would roll up to a drop on his custom Karpiel Apocalypse – 12in of travel at either end – he’d brush a bit of dust off the lip, get on his bike and launch into space. Even though he’d be landing on a (loose, shaley) downslope, the force of his landing would bounce his full-face off the bars and quite often blow his hands off the grips. There’d be a cloud of dust and a prone, still body. After the obligatory ‘bloody eyebrows’ shot, he’d be back up and talking about trying it again.

The jumps he did land were mighty impressive though. They were the signs that he wasn’t just a suicidal attention seeker. In fact his real character seemed very at odds with the radical stunts he was doing. There was a confident calm to him, without a whooping high-five to be seen.

This was in the days before Red Bull ‘invented’ the Rampage format of competition, but it’s probably no coincidence that Bender lived (by all accounts, simply, in a small shack) in Virgin, Utah; the venue that would then get used for the Rampages. Without Bender, it’s unlikely that anyone would have thought of launching off those red, sandstone cliffs into the abyss.

I saw Josh Bender (and his bike) at Interbike one year (in the late ’90s I reckon) and asked if I could wheel it round the corner to photograph. He was quiet and polite and didn’t mind that I wanted an ‘OMG’ shot of his bike purely for the freakisness of it all. It wasn’t a bike designed to pedal uphill – or even downhill for that matter – it was a bike designed purely for damage limitation. Look at the foam and Oury grips ziptied on the handlebars – that’s there to cushion the head-nodders that landing from a great height produces. And the double, gaffer-taped saddles were there to offer some form of padding wherever he happened to land on it. And the wheels? 26in front, 24in rear of course!

Karpiel still has a website: although it doesn’t appear to have been updated in a couple of years. As for Bender? Well, a friend of mine said they’d bumped into him earlier this year and he was living what seemed to be a content and peaceful life – possibly teaching yoga and seemed content with the large dent he made on the mountain bike scene all those years ago.

Here’s to Bender!

Now, sit back, enjoy the Judas Priest soundtrack and see what I mean.

He’s even on Facebook… occasionally.