Who is Ryan Capes?
Ask this question on South Whidbey and a few people — mostly teenage boys — can come up with an answer. They’ll tell you that Capes, a 1999 South Whidbey High School graduate, is the world record holder for jumping a 250cc motorcycle through the air. On a recent day at the South Whidbey Skate Park, BMX rider Travis Roane could even rattle off a quick history of Cape’s exploits, which started on a small dirt ramp less than a mile from the park. Roane, who is part of Capes’ circle of motocross riding friends on the island, can do this because he has been watching Capes since he made his first 60-foot jump.
Now that Capes holds the record for a dirt ramp to dirt jump at 247 feet — set March 27 — Roane said his riding idol has put Whidbey Island on the extreme sports map.
“Someone had to come off the rock and make a name for himself,” he said.
But most islanders don’t know this, nor anything else about the 23-year-old man who is quickly becoming the king of motorcycle daredevildom. This summer, Ryan Capes plans to change all that.
On Aug. 16, he plans to hit a bigger dirt ramp in Las Vegas at 80 mph to soar 260 feet or more to break the all-time distance mark of 254 feet held by the appropriately named jumper Doug Danger. Then, in September or October, Capes will take on Robbie Kenievel, son of famed stuntman “Evil” Kenievel, in a jump-off to determine once and for all who can fly the farthest on a motorcycle, and whether the Kenievel legend can survive Ryan Capes.
“Because I want to smoke him,” Capes said.
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At 5 feet, 4 inches and about 155 pounds, Ryan Capes hardly looks like the rangy, weathered stuntman ideal many people imagine. In Freeland Wednesday, at friend Jason Janes’s Island Skate and Cycle shop, he wore a baseball cap backwards and a pair of baggy, black jeans that hung at his hips. With the unwrinkled face of someone barely out of his teens, he could easily blend in with the local high school crowd, and actually did until he graduated and moved to Lynnwood five years ago.
That is until he gets on a motorcycle.
Riding his 2003 Honda CR 250cc, Capes has put himself in the Guiness Book of Records four times in the past year with two record-breaking distance jumps, the longest jump with a no-handed landing and the longest trick jump.
His size, which he likens to that of a champion jockey, plays to his advantage. While record holders before him weighed in at about 200 pounds, he said being a lightweight has given him an advantage once he goes airborne.
Of his stunts, it’s the trick jump that gives almost anyone an anxiety attack. In footage for a new movie being made about Capes’ record-setting jumps, the camera catches him in midair — more than 50 feet above the ground — doing a handstand on the saddle of a bike travelling at more than 70 mph. After that, sailing 200 pounds of metal over 200 feet through the air looks almost routine.
This feeling of anxiety — and the thrilling relief when Capes sticks a landing — is exactly the sort of feeling thousands of stunt fans pay to see every summer as Capes travels around the United States, to Canada and to Europe with his aerial cycle show.
So the question is this: How does a South Whidbey boy who grew up riding ditches on 50cc minibikes go from ground speed thrills to flying on a machine that was never designed to go airborne?
The answer starts at school.
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As a senior in high school, Capes spent as much time as possible — including class time — training to become a professional motocross rider. Having grown up riding minibikes alongside roads all over South Whidbey, he went after more and more speed with every passing year. As an 18-year-old, Capes reached the upper speed limits, racing his way into the motocross intermediate class. It was all he did and all he thought about, even during the school year.
“I was getting bad grades and my teachers were telling me I’d never do what I wanted to do,” he said.
For a brief period, they seemed to be correct. Capes’ dream was interrupted when his parents told him to start getting good grades and graduate. So he quit track racing for a while, got his diploma, then went right back to the track.
But he never made it to the professional circuit. Though he had sponsorship during the summer after graduation, his race results were not good enough to break into the pro ranks. Out of money, he went back home to Washington, started working in construction, and continued riding when he had time.
Then, one day, he figured out that he could jump almost any distance he wanted on a motocross bike. After fooling around with little dirt ramps on the island, he got a chance to hit a real jump ramp about four years ago. He made it 150 feet in third gear. With two gears to go and a world record less than 100 feet away, he decided jumping motorcycles was what he did best.
Strange as it may sound, never once did he think of shying away from his sport, which brings the potential for injury or death with every jump.
No worries, Capes says.
“Once I’m on two wheels, I have no fears.”
That statement remains true despite the scar he carries on his right forearm. Last year, while attempting a 100-foot jump, he came up short and broke that arm. He later required four surgeries and a skin graft, which now looks like a skin-colored tire patch about four inches north of his wrist.
Even that reminder of the consequence of a bad landing — in addition to the small scar on his forehead he got when he smashed his helmet on his handlebars on a bad landing — cannot keep him away from his sport and his career.
Ryan Capes is not just a motorcycle jumper anymore; he’s a business. Between his Web site — RyanCapes.com — his freestyle business, Motion X, and the videos he puts out through film company Soundstrait Productions, Capes is making enough of a living to employ a full-time crew of four people and to keep him in enough motorcycle parts to pursue his dream of riding for a living.
With a growing following — his jacked-up, sponsor-decorated Ford F-350 pickup draws honks and thumbs-up on I-5 regularly — Capes may also be on his way to the sort of immortality the elder Keneval still enjoys. As one of the youngest and best in his sport, he said he has plenty of time to make and remake his mark over and over again. The only limit to what he does is his continued love of jumping. If that ever changes, he said, he’s out.
“If I’m not having fun, I’m not going to do it.”
Capes’ parents, Greg and Sherry — who like their son moved to the mainland from South Whidbey after 1999 — will likely be at his world record attempt in August. Sherry Capes said that after years of trying to disuade her son from jumping motorcycles, she’s recently started supporting him in what he does. She doesn’t even mind watching him perform — as long as she’s said her prayers beforehand.
“When you’re actually there, It’s not as bad as it seems,” she said.
Ryan Capes said his parents did suffer through a lot of anxiety over the years, along with parents of his other childhood riding, skateboarding and wakeboarding buddies. Even when he started riding as a 5-year-old, he scared the heck out his mother and father.
“We all did,” he said with a laugh.
But for a kid from “the rock” who’s making a name for himself, it was probably all worth it.