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‘I thought, you’re dead’: The day a daredevil mountain biker fell off of his 12-metre-high ‘Loop of Doom’

by December 20, 2016 General

Claremont, Ont. — Matt Macduff was falling and, as he fell, with his arms and legs reeling and the ground rushing up to greet him, he wondered if what was happening was truly happening. For three years, Macduff, a pro mountain biker and trickster extraordinaire, renowned in his early days for executing (and filming) innovative stunts in urban settings — such as flying off the roof of a school and landing on another roof — had been dreaming about the loop. A loop-the-loop he affectionately referred to as “The Loop of Doom” and built with the help of five friends over four weeks in a mountain bike park in South Africa, mostly paying for it with his own money.

Macduff’s loop measured eight metres in diameter, stood 12 metres high, was constructed of wood and inspired by a cycling daredevil named Diavolo, famous for successfully executing loop-the-loops on a bike at circuses in the early 1900s. Macduff’s loop was bigger than anything Diavolo ever did. And, unfortunately, as daylight faded from the South African countryside on March 19, he was falling out of it.

“I was in the air thinking, ‘Did you really just go off the side of the loop?’ ” Macduff recalls. “And I thought, ‘You’re dead.’ And then I took a deep breath, turned my head, looked toward the ground and thought: ‘OK, I’m not going to die. I can survive this.’ ”

Survive it, yes, but with 13 high impact fractures — 10 in his right wrist, three in his right leg. He was two weeks in a critical care unit in a South African hospital.

Now, months later, Macduff is standing out back of his mother’s home, amid some rolling hills northeast of Toronto. He is tall, lean, dressed in a black hoodie and black jeans, and has a burly lumberjack’s beard. Growing a nutty beard is one of the 101 things he wants to do before he dies. He also wants to be a grandparent, own an airplane, invest in someone’s future and play a live show with his band. He wrote the list after the crash.

“I had thought about the loop for three years — and I was wrong,” Macduff says. “I thought I could do it and I didn’t, and being wrong about it was almost worse than all these broken bones.”

The 25-year-old talks like a California surfer. But, in listening to what he says, you understand that he is not crazy, or stupid, or some yahoo looking for a novel way to kill himself through sport. He is an athlete with a vision and an entrepreneur’s spirit and the calculating patience of an apprentice antique clockmaker. Which, oddly, is what Macduff was for six years before becoming a professional mountain biker. (His grandfather, David Abernethy, a noted horologist, has worked on the antique clock in Toronto’s Old City Hall and the Peace Tower clock in Ottawa.)

Macduff’s mother, Margaret Abernethy, is a landscape designer. She has happy eyes like her son, finds his adrenaline-charged pursuits terrifying, and is accustomed to the question: As a mother, how could you let him do what he does?

“The whole thing with the loop scares the bejesus out of me,” Abernethy says. “But Matthew is a professional, an athlete, and I understand where he is coming from.

“He understands the gravity of these situations. I would much rather see him doing what he is doing than spend 40 years watching him kill himself with booze or drugs or by being stuck in a job he hates, because he feels the pressure to pay the mortgage and drive the right kind of car.”

Macduff doesn’t care about cars. Or houses. He cares about wringing the most out of life doing something he loves. He is a performance artist for the Millennial Age, a star, whose star was born online. Macduff grew up in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, mowing lawns for his mom’s landscaping company as a teen while saving so he could buy his first mountain bike. By age 15, he was jumping off curbs, flying down (and over) staircases, hopping past planters — and off roofs. And, like any self-aware millennial, filming everything and posting it on the Internet. Mountain bike brands signed him to wear their clothes and use their latest equipment.

I had a five-step plan over five years. The loop was my first step — and I nearly killed myself

Other kids watched Macduff’s acrobatics; a short clip on YouTube of his horrific accident has garnered 707,959 (and counting) views.

“My entire career was built on the Internet,” Macduff says. It has not been a get-rich quick scheme. A pro rider might earn between $50-100,000 through sponsorship deals. But what the money has afforded Macduff is the opportunity to perfect his craft, travel the world and dream.

“Macduff is a different character in the mountain bike world,” says Louis Lhomel, a fellow rider, filmmaker and friend. “What makes him super popular is what he brings to the sport by building these (stunt) features — features new to the sport — that he will ride and test.

“What he has built is eye-opening.”

The loop was to be Macduff’s opus, a masterpiece of extreme performance art that he planned to turn into a documentary (and, in part, has with Lhomel) with the hope that the film would go viral and inspire kids to get on their bikes and find their metaphorical loops.

“I always dreamed of doing something that would go beyond action sports,” Macduff says. “I had a five-step plan over five years. The loop was my first step — and I nearly killed myself.”

Macduff became obsessed with the loop years ago. He was an innovator. Here was a potential innovation. But how to build one, he wondered? Initially, he researched rollercoaster designs. Pushing ever deeper into the Internet he encountered Diavolo, a.k.a. J.C. Carter, a.k.a. Conn Baker, a.k.a. ‘The One Supreme, Startling Sensation of the Arenic World,” according to an old circus handbill.

Conn Baker was a professional cyclist and talented painter (with a wealthy New York City patron) from Columbus, Ohio. He told the New York Times in August 1904 that he became Diavolo after reading how the original Diavolo was killed — falling out of the loop – at a show in Singapore. Baker crashed during his audition with the Adam Forepaugh & Sells Bros. Circus, breaking a leg and two ribs. Two weeks later he completed the loop with his leg in a cast.

The rest was circus history.

“I am not particularly in love with this kind of work,” Baker told the Times. “I’m going to get out of it as soon as I can.”

Carter would live to retire, and paint, dying peacefully in 1944 at age 75.  

The modern day Diavolo doesn’t know whether he will ever be able to ride again, or even if he wants to. His wrist is a mess. But if he does get back on a bike and rides professionally, he is determined to tackle the loop. It is still there in Africa, waiting, reminding him of the things he did wrong.

“The risk is never worth it,” Macduff says. “The rewards we make are so minimal for the risks we take. So, for me, it is all about having fun. That has always been the line for me — are you enjoying your day?

“And, that day, when I was riding in the loop — that day when I almost killed myself — I was enjoying myself. But will riding still be fun now?

“I just don’t know.”

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