‘A group of business men during the rush hour. The young man with the garment bag over his shoulder is Mert Lawwill. 29 years old, five foot six, 143 pounds. He’s not a banker, or an accountant or a salesman but he is a professional man like the rest. His profession? Motorcycle racer…’ and so begins the most famous motorcycle documentary ever committed to film.
On any Sunday is probably the most iconic motorcycle movie to have ever been produced and is the sole reason that many a man decided to throw a leg over a motorcycle and take up the sport of dirt bike racing.
After the infamous BMX opening titles the film begins with a view of a crowded city street and the narration above.
When we decided to catch up with FMX ace Dan Whitby for this feature memories of this scene came flooding back. Much like you might if you met Mert Lawwill, if you were to cross paths with Dan Whitby while walking down the street you probably wouldn’t think too much more about it. You may acknowledge the bumbling hillbilly vibe that Dan radiates but perhaps not too much else.
In Mert Lawwill’s case the suited and booted city folk surrounding him were clueless to the fact that he made a living by skidding a Harley Davidson around at 100mph. In the case of Dan Whitby you just wouldn’t know what he’s about until A) you watch him on a dirt bike or B) see him half naked. Once you’ve witnessed either of those things – or both if you’re really lucky – you soon realise that he’s a frickin’ God! Our On any Sunday remake would begin a little something like this…
‘A group of Norfolk farmers in the rush hour. The young man with the garment bag over his shoulder is Dan Whitby. 32 years old, five foot seven, 168 pounds. He’s not a banker, or an accountant or a salesman but he is a professional man like the rest. His profession? FMX star…’ Cue action montage with cheesy soundtrack.
Meanwhile back in the real world we sat down to catch up with Dan at the Newcastle stop of the 2016 Arenacross tour where we soon realised that as well as being a god, Dan Whitby may also be one of the most interesting men in motocross…
DBR: So let’s start simple. How did you get started riding bikes?
DW: “My Dad. I pestered my dad flat out for a bike. He eventually got me one, it was a Z50 – you know the little sewing machine one! It was my fourth birthday, I clearly remember coming down the stairs and hearing my mum’s twin tub washing machine rattling away in the kitchen. I went in and looked to the right. There it was, my little Z50 sparkling clean. I remember it like it was yesterday.
“I then developed some sort of disorder that prevented me from going to school that day – I think I came out in an excitement rash. We had a bit of land in my back garden and I just rode the thing around in a circle until I burned a track into the grass. That then turned into a figure of eight and it started to get crazy from there on out. But that little Z50 was the start of everything for me…”
DBR: Did your dad race?
DW: “My dad had bikes but never did motocross or raced or anything like that. My cousin raced and I remember going to watch him when I was really tiny so I guess I got a little inspiration from there. My dad was heavily into flying. He and his bother actually built a plane together! They built that in the workshop they had. They were working on that most weekends while I was in the garden just spinning laps and building jumps.”
DBR: Once you got going on the bike did you race?
DW: “I didn’t race until I was 12 years old. My dad had a theory that I shouldn’t be out there racing until I was comfortable mixing it with 20 or 30 other people. So we just went to practice tracks and practiced and practiced until I got a bit of speed. I think I got the bug and wanted to race because my friends at the practice track were racing.
“I eventually had my first race when I was 12. I crashed out on the first lap and that was my day done! There was a ski jump and I launched off it bigger than I should have. I then got piled by everyone else so it was a bit of a steep learning curve to say the least. After that incident I came back and had moderate success in racing from when I was 12 to 17 years old. Then I broke my neck!”
DBR: You broke it racing?
DW: “No! In my back garden… on a push bike!”
DBR: Doing tricks?
DW: “Surprisingly no. I’d built some jumps and trails in my back garden and we just used to mess about on them. I invited some friends round one day and one of the friends brought his younger brother along. His brother also brought a friend over, a real young dude. Not realising how jumps worked the young dude rode between the two peaks of the jumps just as I approached them. I saw him coming and slammed on the binders which pitched me forward and chucked me over the bars. I did a bit of a running man through the air before I face planted into the landing. I broke my teeth, peeled my scalp back and had a compression fracture on my C3 in my neck. So yeah, that put me out for a little bit.”
DW: “I was lucky really because I got the type of fracture that goes up and through rather than the one that severs although I did lose the feeling in my legs at one point. It was weird, I walked to the ambulance but when I got to the hospital I was passing in and out of consciousness so I don’t remember too much.
“But I do remember being strapped down on a bed, losing my breath and losing the feeling in my legs. It was such a weird feeling because I’d gone from being a college dude just enjoying life to being a kid struggling to breathe and my legs not working. I couldn’t even cry properly because I was in so much pain. It was proper weird. Thankfully I recovered.
“After that incident I just thought you can’t wrap yourself up in cotton wool. I’ve been so lucky from there on out; to fall into freestyle and live the dream with these two [Samson Eaton and Arran Powley] as Team Bolddog. I get to travel the UK and the world with my two best friends – you couldn’t make it any better.
“I met my bird on tour as well and she’s rad. She gets the whole concept of it all and what I do. I think people wonder if I’m being sarcastic when I walk round saying ‘I’m living the dream’ and I say it quite a lot! I reckon they think I’m taking the p*ss but I’m not – life is rad!”
DBR: When did you start thinking about throwing tricks on a bike? Before or after the crash?
DW: “It was actually after the crash. I started working for Bolddog just through circumstances really. I met Andy Godbold – who owns Bolddog – in 2005 and he was looking for someone to work in his online store. He already ran an FMX team which he started in 2002 but at that time he wasn’t doing many shows – he had started to go down the stunt route more as he is a stuntman. He wanted to keep the team running, so he brought the FMX stuff down to six shows a year which was easy for him to manage.
“Around that time I stepped into the online store just as a dogsbody – inputting data and stuff. Andy said that I could ride the ramps at any time if I wanted to. I’d never hit a ramp before but eventually when I did I quite liked it. Andy went away on a stunt job somewhere and while he was gone I used the ramps almost everyday with Samson.
“When Andy came back I said to him – ‘I’ve learnt a seat grab, I’ve learnt this and I’ve learnt that…’ He said – ‘there’s no way you’ve done all that!” So I showed him. He said that I was good enough to ride in the show so I rode in one that following weekend and I got paid £150. I was like wow I have hit the big time – I’m riding a bike and getting paid for it! It just went from there really. Later on I got the opportunity to run the freestyle team a bit more and we’ve gone from doing six shows a year to doing 46 shows a year!”
DBR: So you were pretty natural at the freestyle stuff then. Who were your influences?
DW: “On the contrary! Believe it or not I’m not actually a natural freestyle rider – I’m just not naturally gifted at it. I guess I just want it really bad. Take Samson for example, he is naturally gifted at freestyle. He doesn’t work out, he doesn’t train and he eats whatever he wants… But then he goes out and throws the biggest Kiss of Death in the world! No one does a bigger KOD than Samson.
“I try to but I’m never going to be able to do it because he is just naturally more gifted and his ability shines through. But I don’t mind admitting it – I work hard and that’s how I’ve reached the level that I’m at now. I train hard and my physique is alright.”
DBR: Yeah it’s ‘alright’…
DW: “I’m not a natural when it comes to riding but I am a fan of freestyle – I love it! Now I get to ride with these awesome people like Edgar Torronteras which is just insane. I remember watching Edgar at Bercy years ago and now I’m riding with him. It’s quite humbling really. Obviously both Pastrana and Nate Adams were big influences as well. Unlike those guys I’m definitely not a natural but I’m quite technical and I’ve always been smooth. When I raced I’d find smooth, efficient lines and that’s how it works with my freestyle. I know exactly what I’m grabbing and when I’m grabbing it.”
DBR: Exactly! You seem to be very efficient when you’re up in the air. Where as with Edgar he always seems to be a bit loose!
DW: “Precisely! And that’s awesome to watch from a crowd perspective. Samson for example is way more exciting to watch than me – everyone’s always going up to him saying how gnarly he is. But he’ll tell you hand on his heart that a one handed look back hart attack is way gnarlier than a whip that he just throws out like that. I just do it so slow and smooth and it’s almost like it doesn’t get the credit it deserves from the crowd.”
DBR: We interviewed Travis Pastrana recently and he said something very similar to that. He talked about this insane backflip variation section they had in the Nitro show last year. All the riders thought it was the gnarliest thing ever but the crowd just didn’t respond. They couldn’t tell one backflip variation from another…
DW: “You’re so right. I can go out there and do a one handed grab to rock solid. I’ll think it was huge and I’ll come in and these boys will say how sick it was but it just won’t get much reaction from the crowd. Then I can go out and do the easiest trick in the book – which is a Captain Morgan – and I’ll hear the crowd go crazy. I’ll come in and everyone tells me how rad it is yet it’s so easy to do.”
DBR: Well perhaps its ‘easy’ if you’re a complete lunatic and like hanging off bikes in mid air!
DW: “Anyone can do it if they want. Crossing the road is dangerous but if you practice enough and get good enough you can do it every day! I’m lucky that I have an awesome training facility to develop my skills. At the end of the day that’s what it boils down to.”
DBR: It looks like you three have a good craic doing what you’re doing as Team Bolddog. Tell us a little about your team-mates…
DW: “Don’t get me wrong we have a cool bunch of riders here (at the Monster Energy Arenacross) but when we go away to our generic agricultural shows it is just the three of us – and my dad – and that’s what we’re used to. We are on the road for weeks at a time and we have little squabbles but nothing major. The whole thing just works great.
“Then you come here and everyone else in the FMX show is kind of an individual and they’ve all got their own backs whereas with us three we’ve all got each other’s backs. Like if I make myself look a tit than I know one of the other two has got my back. Like last weekend Arran fell off in the corner so I figured I’d fall off as well and we’d both look like tits together!”
Arran Powley: “It was real funny. I jumped the ramp, went into the corner and my front wheel ran over a bit of tarp on a shiny floor. I washed out and slid along on my side and thought ‘Dan’s going to love this!’ Then as I looked over my shoulder I saw Dan do exactly the same thing!”
DBR: Did you do it on purpose?
DW: “No! I saw him do it and thought that it looked a bit stupid. The next thing I know I find myself doing exactly the same thing! We just looked at each other and thought we totally just did that! [laughs] I couldn’t get up either as I had gone up a bank and my fingers were stuck between the bars and the clutch so I looked even more stupid. We’ve genuinely got each other backs like that… safety in numbers I guess! [laughs] Having these two with me means everything. If something changed now it would be really hard.”
DBR: So what exactly is your role with Bolddog? Are you the team manager?
DW: “Yeah I guess a team manager or a slack team manager anyway. Some stuff I’m really good at and other stuff I’m not. I can get the events, organise the show, design the ramps and keep things tidy but some things I’m a bit slack at. I’m not the sort of person to make a fuss and say things like ‘where’s the water in the rider’s room’ etc. I’m never going to do that – it’s just not the person I am. Particularly as a rider also, I don’t want to seem arrogant.
“That’s somewhere I let these boys down and I’m quite open about it. I don’t get the boys looked after quite as well as they deserve to be. When we are on the road I drive the lorry, Ron (Arran) drives the camper and Samson mixes and keeps me awake on the long journeys…”
DBR: So when does your show season start and finish?
DW: “We’ll be flat out from the end of April through to early October. Plus we also have the Arenacross in Jan and Feb.
“The agricultural shows are a real surprise. The crowds are just awesome as most of them are completely new to the sport. We don’t even have to pull a trick for the crowd to roar – they do it when we are just on our warm up jumps, it’s mental!
“We go to shows like the Royal Welsh and its deafening the amount of noise the crowd makes. I think they have around 25,000 people surrounding the arena when we perform and the Welsh love bikes…”
DBR: What about Arenacross? Are you the orchestrator behind all the madness here as well?
DW: “I’m responsible for the ramps and making sure that they are set up properly but I fall into a weird role with Arenacross because I’m not a headline rider but I do like doing tricks such as the Captain Morgan which the big-hitters like Edgar aren’t going to do. I also do the LED bike which is for the kids really. I got a bit disheartened with it after last year because it is pretty gnarly to do but the stuff I get on Facebook from mums saying how much their kids love it pumps me up and makes it all worthwhile.”
DBR: So as a percentage how much more dangerous is the LED jump? It seems crazy that you actually jump in the dark…
DW: “I try not to think about it. Last year I thought about it way too much. The lads would go out for food and I would just stay here and dwell on it and recluse myself. I wasn’t the greatest of company last year. I was just so frightened of doing the LED jump. Literally every time I was expecting to crash because it is so unknown.
“But coming into this year I was doing the jump four times per show at Motorcycle Live so that gave me more confidence. I haven’t crashed yet – touch wood – so I’ve started feeling a little more confident about it. I decided that I am going to do it and whatever will be, will be.
“I wasn’t planning on doing it again this year. I felt obliged to do it last year as Matt Bates had spent quite a bit of money on the bike and he does look after me financially as he sees the extra danger involved. Don’t get me wrong it’s cool for me because I am getting some extra exposure from it and I’m getting well known for it.
“Coming back to Arenacross again this year I had a whole speech planned saying I wasn’t going to do it again, but when I found myself in Matt’s office and he asked me to do it again I just found myself nodding and saying it was no problem! [laughs] I think the game plan for next year is to come up with something badder and better. Matt is very good at coming up with those sort of concepts…”
DBR: Do you flip?
DW: “I do and I don’t. I don’t do it in the shows right now but yes I can flip. We did talk about flipping the LED bike which I wasn’t totally against but I’d want to do it off a super kicker. So that’s something we’ve talked about. Petr Pilat does a tandem backflip and they were looking for the lightest guy to do it with him and guess what… that would have been me stuck on the front of the bike with him! But luckily that one didn’t come off.”
DBR: On a global scale FMX seems to be evolving rapidly with guys like Tom Pages and Josh Sheehan and things like the triple back flip. Can the same be said for the UK scene?
DW: “To a certain extent, yeah…”
DBR: Samson is shaking his head over there…
DW: “We don’t see a huge amount of young riders coming through, so that’s a little disappointing. Although it’s not for the want of trying, our team is happy to invest the time and the facility in order to help young riders but they just don’t seem to be there. Although here in the UK we do have guys like Squibby [Jamie Squibb] who have ventured into the flip realms. He’s got things like a massive KOD flip and seat grab flips nailed yet he is 33/34 years old. Jamie’s level of riding has just gone off the scale as he’s got older!”
DBR: Is that because he has his own facility?
DW: “Yes, it’s definitely an attribute that helps. He has a concrete loop and a resin landing that is going to help once you have got that first flip out of the way. You can then get on it everyday and flips become pretty normal. Don’t get me wrong, when I used to flip every day my heart would go on the first one. It’s cool to see what Squibby is doing, and it’s inspirational for us as we have to step our game up. We are now investing in a winter loop so that will help. Ron flips and Samson has more talent than I have in one eyelash so we’ll get him on it.”
SE: “I’m not flipping!”
DW: “Yes he will. Peer pressure is a bitch!”
DBR: Where are you guys able to train? There’s obviously your compound and Squibby’s compound?
DW: “We have ridden down at Squibb’s but he is in Exeter so it’s a long way away. We have got a great facility but the weather is just savage here and you can’t ride on dirt. We do have a winter loop into the foam pit so we could ride the pit but you do 10 jumps into the pit and you’re knackered. It takes its toll getting out and you get soaked. You get pretty beat up too as you come to an abrupt stop which doesn’t happen when you’re landing on a ramp.”
DBR: So have you ever been to So Cal or somewhere like it to do training and riding?
DW: “I have had offers but I’ve never had the minerals to actually do it. That’s just me not liking to step outside of my comfort zone really. I like my little bubble and I use the winter time to make improvements to the ramps and the van and get things ready for a busy show season. Edgar does keep trying to get me to go to his but I know I’ll get the pressure to do things out of my comfort zone. I thought I was going to be an international superstar back in 2007 as I was doing 75 foot flips before anyone – well, anyone in this country anyway – but that didn’t go that well really!
DBR: Why didn’t that go well?
DW: “Well I did 14 good ones into the pit and the boys were like ‘you’ve got this’! So we moved the ramp up the road and I went for it. Anxiety got to me though. I pulled too early which meant the suspension compressed earlier and rebounded earlier so the bike didn’t drive out and it stopped! So I chucked the bike away and tried to get away from it. But I didn’t manage that, and it drilled me into the ground.”
DBR: What were the injuries from that?
DW: “I tore the ACL in my right knee and I was pretty bruised up for a bit. But I had to go and do a flip in a show just one week later! I’ve had a few like that. There was a time I under rotated at the farm, crashed hard and then had to go to Ireland the next day…brilliant!
“The last time I flipped to dirt was the day before the Britain’s got Talent final. I was aiming to flip in the show and then I blew my knee out… again, brilliant!”
DBR: Obviously it’s not a nice subject but how many injuries have you had from FMX?
DW: “I’ve blown my knee a few times – until I started squatting and wearing CTIs – CTIs saved my life! I’ve done my shoulder, scapular, humorous and collar bone. I’ve also hit my head pretty hard a few times too. I generally land on my head which breaks my fall [laughs]…”
DBR: Has Andy not taught you how to fall properly yet?
DW: “No, but I’m pretty good at getting hit by a car now! He has taught me that. I’m rad at that to be fair. I got hit by a car nine times in one day once!”
DBR: We’ve heard you say that you think you have pushed yourself to your limit in FMX. Is that right?
DW: “I think what I should have said is that I feel like I have underachieved in FMX – I’m not a consistent flipper and I’m not throwing big KOD flips although I do probably have the skills to do those things. As I said before though I don’t really like going out of my comfort zone.
“That is what led me to the fitness side of things. I have a feeling that I can’t control certain elements of my freestyle – without having a big input of money you can’t build a winter loop and we’ve had other things that have been required in the business like a new motorhome, interactive stand etc and those things have to come first. So that does limit us to an extent with what we can do with our riding and developing it.
“I’m now 32 and I’m sure when I’m older I’ll regret not pushing myself further in freestyle but over the last couple of years my direction has gone a little more towards the fitness side. At first I didn’t really know why I was doing it but then it suddenly twigged that I can control what I eat, I can control how many times I go to the gym and I can control how hard I train and I was seeing results. My body composition changed quite drastically and seeing the changes and receiving the comments I suddenly became quite determined and devoted. If I do something I generally give it everything I’ve got and that’s what happened really.”
DBR: Obviously you are quite good at the fitness thing. Talk us through what it takes and how you learned what to do…
DW: “It took a while and I learned from a mixture of stuff including videos and just talking to people. I’m essentially two and a half years down the line from when I first started picking up weights. It all stemmed from my fiancé’s father who was a body builder.
“We got talking one Christmas and he said he would take me up to the weights room and show me a bit. That suited me perfectly as I’m quite self-conscious and going to a gym at the time wasn’t really me – I wouldn’t have known what I was doing! Emily’s dad put a rough programme together for me so I had the confidence to go to the gym.
“All of a sudden I started to see the changes and I just got the pump from being at the gym. I thought it was pretty cool. Then I started getting up at 5.30am every day and got into a cool regime. It sounds horrendous to a lot of people – getting up at 5.30 when it’s dark and quiet – but I like it and by 9am I’ve already done three hours work.
“My energy levels went up and it became a bit of a natural snowball – I really got into it. I got hooked and over the last two and a half years I’ve learned so much.
“I paid for a trainer and a program. You look at people on Instagram that you admire and want to look like. You learn a lot about them and how their photos are edited or taken on a peak week. Man, there’s so much you can learn. But now I have pretty much gained the knowledge for what works for my body and what I need to do.”
DBR: A lot of racers that read DBR will want to get fitter than their competition. Have you got any tips?
DW: “Get a good trainer! I can’t tell you how much of an advantage it is being fit and in shape – it’s unreal…”
DBR: So this helps you with FMX?
DW: “Without a doubt. FMX isn’t really a strength discipline or one that you need good cardio fitness but when I’m flying out to India or somewhere to do a film job and they want me to jump 22 metres over a speeding train, I’m sitting on that bike knowing I have done the work and that I’m physically strong. That puts my mind in a superior place to what it would be if I was unfit. I’ve built my body ready to do this sh*t so when I’m sitting on a haggard old RM-Z 250 that’s not running all that well and they cue me to go and I’ve got to boost it over a locomotive… I’ll take every little advantage that fitness gives me.”
DBR: So wait a minute? You’ve done stunt work? What film was that in?
DW: “That was a film called Hero. It’s a Bollywood film that was just recently released and actually won some awards. I got really lucky – Andy didn’t want to go away for two and a half months so I flew out instead. I worked on a film called Jai Ho with an actor called Salman Khan – he turned out to be like the Tom Cruise of Bollywood! He’s like the biggest actor in Bollywood ever – he is huge! I didn’t know that and I only realised when I went to meet him at his house and there were 3,000 people waiting outside to get a glimpse of him!”
DBR: So you were his stunt double?
DW: “Exactly! I’ve got some weird photos. They put dots all over my face for the face replacement CGI but essentially I doubled him. There were loads and loads of bikes in the movie and I got to do all of that. The film was released and did amazing because Salman was in it. I was in the credits and then the calls started coming in. I went back to do a TV advert and then the second film ‘Hero’.”
DBR: Seeing you walk about the pits and talking to you now you wouldn’t think that you were rad on a bike or cut like you are. When you do take off the shirt do you like surprising people? And is it the same thing when you hit the ramp?
DW: “I’ve been doing the freestyle thing for so long and I’m lucky that I’m good enough to ride at events like this. But the fitness thing is more recent and it gets such mixed reactions. I get some people who say ‘man you’re so ripped’ and they just want advice and I like helping people but some people in the fitness industry don’t like it when I freely help people and give them advice.
“On the other hand I have had quite a bit of negativity from it too. My fiancé’ is right, she explained to me that most people don’t look like I do, so an easy reaction from some people is to put you down. So I have had it both ways. I am not doing it to impress other people – I’m doing it for myself and to feel good about it.”
DBR: It must feel pretty damn good to walk down the beach on holiday with your shirt off though…
DW: “I went on holiday with Emily and I’d leaned out a bit before we went. I can’t believe I’m saying stuff like this, but I’m walking down the street with my shirt off and this dude said ‘holy shit, how have you got like that?’. That sparked a conversation and he was absorbing everything that I said. That’s just cool… also I feel a bit better about how hot my bird is! People used to look at me funny. Especially when freestyle wasn’t involved, I could feel people thinking why the hell is she with him? Honestly, I could feel it! But now I just laugh and think it’s because I’m ripped dude!”
DBR: Can anybody do it?
DW: “Yes, anybody can do it. Diet is key but it’s got to be sustainable. It’s a life changing thing. If you can’t see yourself doing it in a year’s time than it won’t happen. Having a good trainer or someone like me who has done it and can give you tips will accelerate things too.”
DBR: What’s next for Dan Whitby?
DW: “I’ve recently just had another call about going out to India which is fine by me. If I can get a little niche doing Bollywood films, it works for me.”
DBR: What about Hollywood? You have to have a license to be a full-on stunt man don’t you?
DW: “You have to be part of the stunt register and do six disciplines to a certain standard.”
DBR: Are you interested in that?
DW: Not really. I wouldn’t be able to be good at six things! Also, being alright in six disciplines creates a generic stuntman and that’s cool and I totally respect it. But for me, I go as a specialist. I’ve picked one discipline that I am good at. So I only do stunts that involve jumping bikes. For example I wouldn’t get on a horse for all the money in the world…”
DBR: So what’s it like working with the Tom Cruise of Bollywood?
DW: “It was weird at first. I was a bit anxious. Every billboard you pass has a massive picture of him and there are thousands of people waiting for him everywhere you go. But I got chatting with him and he was a really down to earth guy. I tell him like it is. For example he’d ask what I thought of a certain shot and I’d tell him it was sht if I thought it was sht.
“Everyone was like ‘ooooh, he just said it was sh*t to Salman Khan!’ but he was just like ‘yeah, you’re right. We are doing it again!’. I think he liked the fact that I was like that. He is like a god out there so people around him don’t usually talk to him like that. Eventually I stopped having meals in my trailer and ate with him instead. We had two weeks off, I went to his place and we rode quads through the jungle. It was unreal.”
DBR: As well as rubbing shoulders with Bollywood superstars you were recently on Britain’s got Talent. How was that?
DW: “That was cool as well. There was a lot of hanging around involved but that was to be expected. It was really cool, quite a contrast from being out in India. I loved being part of it.”
DBR: So are you signing more autographs now?
DW: “We get a lot of questions about it on the stand, like ‘how is Simon Cowell?'”
DBR: So how is Simon Cowell?
DW: “He was cool. He smelt amazing, didn’t he Ron? He was the only one of the three that came down and said you guys are awesome, you’re risking your lives for the show and I respect that. He was really, really nice. To get it out on mainstream TV was cool and it came across well.”