All eyes on Thomas Pagés at X-Fighters

The 2014 Red Bull X-Fighters season kicks off in Mexico City with its only North American stop this year.

The 'Distrito Federal' of Mexico City is home to some 8 million people, and with the surrounding areas this swells to a population of over 20 million. Little wonder, then, that it is also home to Plaza México, the largest bullring in the world. On Friday, the Plaza México hosts the season debut of Red Bull X-Fighters, and it will welcome roughly 40,000 passionate Mexican FMX fans to its steep terraces.

The target at the year's first X-Fighters event is typically on the previous year's champion, and this year it holds to be truer than ever as everyone is gunning to take down Frenchman Tom Pagés.

Pagés turned the FMX world upside down last year by, well, NOT going upside down. The backflip was a rarity in any of Pagés' runs. His ability to pull so many tricks that others had not even considered sent him to the top of the FMX world in 2013. In a typical run, he would unleash the Volt varial, the Special Flip and a series of 540 Flare combinations. Add that to his wild upright tricks and hang-'em-out whips, and it was easy to see why Pagés captured the hearts of the fans and the judges.

By the end of last season, there was some real competition onhand for France's favorite son of FMX. By Madrid, Spain in July, there were four other riders who had learned to do the Flare and more were rumored to be practicing at home.

In Madrid alone, Spain's Maikel Melero and Australia's Josh Sheehan both pulled Flares in competition. Melero went on to beat his highly-favored countryman (and FMX mentor) Dany Torres that same evening and took fourth place in the event. Sheehan experienced a crash in the final qualifying run after taking fourth place in qualifying Run 1 (without his biggest tricks) and sat out the competition.

Despite Pagés' apparent dominance, he only managed to win two of the five stops in 2013. He crashed out of Round 2 in Dubai, was beaten in Glen Helen USA by Rob Adelberg (albeit in a weather-shortened event) and lost to Taka Higashino in Osaka, the Japanese rider's hometown.

All the big guns will be firing on all cylinders in Mexico, except for Higashino who has a contractual conflict and will miss the event. Torres and Levi Sherwood finished second and third last year in Mexico, respectively. Torres was the 2011 tour champion and Sherwood was the 2012 tour champion, beating Pagés out for the championship in the final round in Australia. Both of these riders can take a win on any night and have been training hard all winter long to give Pagés a run for his money in Mexico City. Torres has a quarterpipe and was practicing the Flare at the end of last year, so it will be interesting to see if he is willing to risk pulling it in Mexico. Sherwood practices away from prying eyes at his private facility in the hills of New Zealand. Winter in the northern hemisphere is summer where he's from, so he has been working and training hard in the southern sunshine.

One of the biggest potential threats this year has to be Josh Sheehan. The approachable Aussie has so many tricks at his disposal, and last year added the Flare before coming into Madrid. 'Sheeny' as he is known to friends and fans, also has 360's, huge flip combos and the unfathomable double backflip in his arsenal. His riding skill and physical fitness combine to make him one of the most likely contenders for the crown in recent years. Last year, a stomach bug put a dent in his plans for Mexico City, but if luck stays on his side, expect to see a great result from Sheehan in the first bullring of the season.

"I think it will take a heck of a lot of practice [to win the championship]. There are some big tricks out there so I need some new big tricks, something different. Then not only do I need big tricks, I need a wide variety and need to be consistently smooth every round. Any mistakes will lose you positions fast. And always, stay healthy," said Sheehan.

A dark horse for the win on any night is American Adam Jones. A former X Games freestyle gold medalist and X-Fighters winner, Jones is hoping to harness the power of the 40,000 fans to give him a boost over the others.

"Well, if you're killing it the atmosphere is awesome. [laughs] It's pretty rad though, no other stadiums have that many people that close to you while you're riding, so it definitely makes for a better energy level," Jones said.

Whichever rider can win the hearts of the Mexican throng will certainly get a lift on Friday night, but with intense competition on a postage-stamp track, will revolutionary tricks or flawless execution make the difference? You can find all that out on Friday.

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