Still the one
LOS ANGELES -- Every freestyle motocross rider thinks he can win X Games gold in one discipline: Step Up. It is the gladiator event. No scores, no quirky trick names, no Twitter voting. The only judge is a metal bar.
When aging stars no longer cut it on the freestyle circuit, they start to wonder: How hard can it be to gun your throttle and clear the rod above the dirt?
Sponsors love Step Up because it gets some of the best television ratings. Orthopedists love it because it keeps them in business. And Ronnie Renner loves Step Up because he is the undisputed champion.
He proved that (again) Friday night at Staples Center, when he won his fifth gold medal in the discipline -- more than any rider in X Games history. His victory broke a tie with both Tommy Clowers and longtime rival Matt Buyten, who referred to Renner during Friday's competition as "a goofy-looking dude with a Ronald McDonald bike." Buyten was so angry upon losing that he sat stewing in the corner of the riders' corral 15 minutes after failing to clear 37 feet, 6 inches. "It puts it to the heart, man," said Buyten, who lost an epic duel with Renner last summer in the same building -- one that ended at a record height of 47 feet.
Renner's latest performance was perfect. In an event in which competitors get two chances to clear each new height, the 36-year-old father of four never needed a second try. After the last remaining threat to his throne, Czech jumping jack Libor Podmol, clipped the bar at 38 feet, 6 inches for the second time, Renner tossed his goggles to a frizzy-haired fan in the front row and his gloves to the guy sitting next to him. Then he hurried across the arena to his wife and children, who had flown in from Florida.
"I got you another gold medal!" he said to his kids.
Renner first competed in Step Up 13 years ago. He is like the discipline's godfather, if a godfather can still be the best in the world. While virtually everyone else tries to clear the bar straight on, Renner executes a turndown whip, his signature move, which Buyten calls "dangerous" -- and means it as a compliment. It's successful enough to make you wonder why no one else has copied it. The truth is, they've tried.
Josh Hansen, a fiery and fearless rider who has the best whip in the business, tried a similar approach to Renner on Friday night. He and Renner got in a shoving match during the X Games Step Up contest in Brazil in April, and some believe Hansen will one day rule the discipline. But on Friday, while Renner rode his whip to a flawless win, Hansen was eliminated at 34 feet. He punched the air in frustration, then blasted through the tunnel without looking back.
"I just block everybody out and try to be happy," Renner said. "I like everybody, even Hanny. We got past our little differences. That night [in Brazil], he took it not that seriously, and [for] the rest of [the events] he's been serious. He will be a force to be reckoned with next year."
Renner's success is not solely due to his style in the air. Before he jumps, he treats his dirt like a grandmother treats her china. Only 5-foot-7, he often stretches every inch of his frame to manicure the top of the takeoff lip with a shovel, shaving the mud until he deems it worthy of being ridden over by his 220-pound bike.
"Late in the contest, I brushed some dirt off my line at the start and it got on his line," Podmol said. "He said, 'Hey, man, what are you doing?!' I was like, 'Sorry, man!' We bumped gloves and were fine."
Podmol upset Renner in Munich last month and is likely to contend with him again next year. Still, the man from Prague has no delusions about how this hierarchy works.
"Renner is the king of Step Up," Podmol said.