When you talk to Nitro Circus veteran Ethen Roberts about his career, he mentions his family a lot and says “we” instead of “I” in response to most questions. If you grew up in a family like his, you probably would too. Ethen is the son of an elite gymnast and the nephew of legendary action sports pioneer Gregg Godfrey. The Godfrey Clan have made names for themselves in action sports as a family, and they each manage to stand out as individuals. The people and activities Ethen was surrounded by from the moment he was born created a perfect storm of influence for someone with the mindset that he has. But he will be quick to tell you that the Godfrey Clan owe a lot of their success to their strength as a group, and that the Nitro Crew, while not related in the biological sense, is also as tight-knit a group as any family could hope to be.
I spoke with Ethen in Salt Lake City, where he had just returned from a successful Blob stunt in Australia and was already loading up the bikes for a family trip to Southern Utah, where they planned to ride for several days. For this family, training looks no different than a weekend getaway. Ethen is one of Nitro’s more versatile athletes and has been since the day he was born. In the show alone he rides a mountain bike, a pitbike, and several contraptions. And on side trips and outside of Nitro, you’ll find him on pretty much anything and everything that goes fast outside. “The problem with me is I couldn’t ever stay focused on one thing. So I always got distracted with wakeboarding or snowboarding or other sports,” he says. “So I got good at a lot of things, but never professional at anything.”
As a result, he can ride almost anything pretty well and is world-class at several disciplines, particularly mountain bike, which is what he focuses on most in the Nitro show. He has several World Firsts on MTB, including being one of the first (with fellow Godfrey Clan member Gavin Godfrey) to land a triple backflip on a mountain bike. He also has several tricks that he did first on a mountain bike that were adapted from FMX, like the scorpion double backflip and the backflip double grab superman, which he lists as one of his favorite tricks. So we asked him to walk us through that one.
“Watching Adam Jones do it night in and night out on a motorcycle is just so impressive to me. It’s by far one of my favorite tricks,” Ethen says. “There’s only a few dudes doing this trick in the world on mountain bikes and motorcycles.” The backflip double grab superman is a fully extended superman backflip, but instead of keeping his hands on the handlebars like a sane person, Ethen lets go and grabs the seat.
He explains: “Coming down the ramp and coming off the lip, you pull, just like a normal backflip, but you keep your head as far forward as you can and you let your feet come off the pedals. You look down, and you have to look at your seat and watch your hands let go of the handlebars, reach down, grab your seat with both hands, and extend the bike above your head as far as you can and, looking back, finishing the rotation of the flip, getting the rest of the inertia for the flip and holding your bike out.” Let’s pause for a video:
“The scariest part for me is getting a hold of the seat. Getting extended is decently easy, but the hardest part of the whole trick is holding yourself out, upside-down, away from your bike, only holding onto your seat long enough,” he adds. “If you come back to your bars too early you’re going to over-rotate your flip, because as you pull back in you really speed up the rotation of the flip. You have to hold it out long enough so that you don’t over-rotate — but not too long to where you under-rotate. And you can’t just adjust that by opening up and closing your rotation as if you were just doing a normal flip. Doing a double grab flip, you have to really judge it by your body being away from the bike.” He clearly knows this trick backward and forward, but only lands it about half the time, he says. It’s a testament to the level of difficulty, where one tiny mistake is the difference between riding away and meeting the lander face to face. He boils it down to this: “Just come off the bike, doing a flip, and looking for your seat. If you miss the seat, you’re screwed. There’s no way of getting back on the bike.”
Being inspired by FMX and BMX is a huge part of what makes Nitro’s mix of athletes so great, Ethen says. It’s responsible for some of his biggest tricks. “I saw that the moto boys all had flip levers on their bikes so that they could extend further away from their bike doing backflip supermans. One of the FMXers had an extra pair, and I put them on my bike. I was able to do a ruler flip, or when I do it it’s different — we named it the scorpion flip, because my back is so arched, my feet are so far away from the bike, that it looks like a little scorpion upside-down.” It was his debut World First. “Once I was able to dial in the double flip, I thought, if I can do one scorpion flip, why not try two? So I was able to get a double scorpion flip, or double tsunami flip, which no one has ever done before or even thought possible. But with the flip levers I’m able to get far enough away from my bike and use that momentum to get two rotations,” he says.
“Everyone loves backflips, so if you have that locked in, it’s pretty cool to do tricks that no one’s ever done before with a backflip,” he says. “When FMX first learned backflips, they never thought that they could start doing tricks with backflips, but BMXers had already been doing that for a long time. Then FMX surpassed BMXers and MTBers with doing tricks and backflips, because they had more time in the air. But now that our ramp is bigger, we’re dialing in and honing in on the FMX tricks that no one has ever done on mountain bikes or BMX before. So it’s kind of cool to see the two worlds collide and inspire one another to learn a new trick.”
In that description of the backflip double grab, Ethen revealed a bit about his past. He grew up in Salt Lake City, which is a prime location to get into pretty much any action sport you can think of. Combine the location with a mother who was one injury away from being on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team and a very close uncle who is an action sports pioneer and was integral in creating Nitro Circus, and what you get is a whole generation of a family practically born backflipping dirtbikes and snowboards. “I was introduced to action sports by Gregg Godfrey, as soon as I was basically born,” Ethen says. He started racing motorcycles when he was 3 years old and eventually got into BMX racing too, but the lure of freestyle won him over in the end. “I loved racing, but I loved jumping more.”
In addition to riding, as soon as they were walking they were learning to flip on a trampoline, which was Ethen’s mother’s influence. At age 8 he started training in gymnastics himself and did so for three years, even entering competitions. “It’s hard as a young kid to go to the gym for four or five hours a day,” he says. “But I loved it.” Among other things, gymnastics taught him how to control himself in the air as much as possible and how to commit to a flip. Eventually, though, he set his sights on action sports 100 percent. “I got bored with gymnastics, and that’s when bikes and boards took over my life.”
He still practices on a trampoline, and all those years of gymnastics training definitely helped his progression in action sports. “It just felt natural to be able to flip a bike or a motorcycle or basically anything we could get our hands on,” he says. “We were able to build that air awareness before we started going hard on bikes. Now we’re able to do things on bikes that no one’s ever done before; it’s basically like gymnastics with bikes.” He credits racing and gymnastics together with making him well rounded. Racing helped with bike control, but gymnastics made the freestyle part work, he says.
Gregg Godfrey’s influence can’t be overstated. Ethen was there when Gregg started making action sports DVDs, including the first Nitro Circus edits, out of his shed in California. “I watched every movie unfold from behind the scenes — how they did everything, what they were doing. And so, that was just normal to me,” Ethen says. And they did it all. Racing motorcycles, BMX, skateboarding, snowboarding, you name it. Ethen and his family grew up in the epicenter of action sports during a period of insane progression in multiple disciplines. And they started getting involved in front of the camera too. “It got serious when I was 14 — I was the youngest kid in the world to backflip a motorcycle,” Ethen says. It happened during a moto video shoot at Travis Pastrana’s house. That success ignited the fire that was already in him. “I knew that there was something there for me. I was hooked.”
The Nitro Circus TV show started shooting, and Ethen was able to get in on some of that action, but spiritual life called. At age 19, he left for Argentina for two years on a mission for his church. Incredibly, he spent those entire two years away from action sports completely — during an age that is considered prime time in an athlete’s career. He didn’t ride anything at all, just devoted himself to his mission until he was 21. It’s a major commitment and a potentially irreversible sacrifice, one he made without hesitation. During a time when action sports were progressing so rapidly, missing two full years could have been like starting over from scratch, which would spell the end for many aspiring athletes in any discipline. Not Ethen, obviously.
“During that time you’re fully zoned in and locked in to helping the church and helping the people down in Argentina,” he says. “I learned so much as just a human and about what is truly important.” And what is important, he discovered, is being with family. For the Godfrey Clan, family time just so happens to be spent pushing the limits of action sports in every conceivable way. So Ethen came back from Argentina with a renewed drive to kill it, despite being two years out of practice. “It’s crazy, because I thought it would be a lot harder to jump back into it and be where I was at,” he says. “To take that much time off, I feel like I was pretty blessed, because I didn’t skip too much of a beat. I came back into it and had to relearn a little bit of the muscle memory, but for the most part I still had a lot of my tricks and the same confidence in myself that I could learn new tricks.”
The Nitro Circus live show had started while he was away, and despite regaining his confidence quickly, he wasn’t sure what his role, if any, would be. But Gregg asked if he’d be interested in joining up. “It’s kind of crazy how it all worked,” Ethen says. Nitro had some open slots for people who could ride bicycles and were willing to risk their necks on some of the show’s craziest ideas: the infamous Nitro contraptions. “I stepped up my game on my mountain bike, and we agreed to do some of the crazy-dumb contraptions that, once again, no one should probably ever do. But we found our niche as the crazy Godfrey family that is willing to do basically anything.”
He and his brother proved themselves on contraptions like the side-by-side bike and the trikes, and they eventually got to show their skills on standard bikes. “We just worked really well as a team on things no one else would do, and so it kind of locked in our spot. And then they saw we could ride a bike well and do the tricks that needed to be done on the ramp, so it was kind of a double-hitter, which was awesome for us.” His first Nitro tour was Nitro’s second Australia tour. It was a bit intimidating coming in as a new rider. “I didn’t know anybody at first, and they had already done two tours before that and had a really good relationship with everybody,” he says. “But everybody on tour was so nice and just loving and accepting.” That atmosphere mirrored what Ethen grew up in: a family vibe where encouragement and good-natured competitiveness produce amazing progression.
Ethen was immediately a member of the Crew and has been ever since. And over the years he quietly became world-class on a mountain bike, cementing that status in 2014 when he and Gavin landed the first-ever MTB triple backflips. Gavin stuck it first and Ethen followed immediately. Ethen gives partial credit for this accomplishment to being part of the Nitro Crew: “It really spiked our career as actual mountain bike athletes, but that just comes with riding night in and night out with some of the best BMXers in the world.” Being able to work with world-class athletes from all different disciplines is highly motivating and inspiring, he says.
Ethen’s teammates are equally pumped to work with such a dedicated, down-to-earth athlete. “Ethen is super talented at pretty much anything he touches, whether it’s snowboard, BMX bike, mountain bike, motorbike,” according to BMX superstar Todd Meyn. “Ethen especially just has a super good attitude and is just positive and always cheering you on. … He’s a really good guy on and off the bike.”
Despite becoming lights-out on MTB, Ethen continues to ride anything and everything. “That’s kind of our best friend but worst enemy, is that we are trying to always get our hands on as many things as we can,” he says. “Riding mountain bikes is amazing, it’s what my career is now, but I’m always trying to figure out new things to ride, and I can never stay off a dirtbike or a pitbike or a skateboard or whatever. But that is the spirit of where we came from, and that’s why we’re where we are.” The drive to ride everything everywhere is the reason you’ll often see Ethen out and about. “I love exploring; I love putting myself in situations where it’s probably really sketchy, but that’s where I feel the most comfortable and I learn a lot about myself,” he says. “Whether it’s having to find a way out or being creative and finding a new jump, or anything in that realm, it’s just something I love doing.” He is creating a webseries focused on this type of exploration in Utah, where he’s from. “That’s what I ultimately love doing. I love the shows, but that’s how Nitro got started, doing these trips and being creative with film.”
When it comes to contraptions in Nitro shows, Ethen says he’s willing to try anything. You’ll see him on trikes and, as mentioned, the side-by-side bike with his brother. They’ve taken a bobsled down Giganta. But one of his more infamous stunts is the tall bike, which came about after he saw a photo of two bikes welded together and made a joke about attempting to take that over the big ramp. Next thing he knew, there was a prototype waiting for him at practice. Just like with Dusty Wygle and the land boogie board, you have to watch what you say around practice. “I kinda shot myself in the foot — in a good way, because there’s a new addition to the show,” Ethen says. “Coming up with new ideas, you have to be a little careful, because your nightmares might come true.”
Another of Ethen’s accidental inventions was Nitro Golf. That happened after he told the athlete manager that he wanted to jump through a hoop. “So we showed up in New Zealand and they had a Zorb. I didn’t even know what a Zorb was.” For those who don’t know what it is: Ethen describes it as basically a big hamster ball. It’s a giant inflatable bubble with a small opening you can climb inside and roll around in. Like a hamster. For Nitro’s purposes, athletes launch off the big ramp and try to land in the tiny opening of the Zorb. It’s, in a word, crazy. Ethen says: “You jump 40 feet through the air and try to land in this three-foot-by-three-foot hole.” Almost every show, someone takes a pretty bad spill during the Nitro Golf segment, he says, because it’s super difficult and has very little room for error. “We have all had our fair share of slams on that thing.” So, naturally, we want to know what goes through an athlete’s head when attempting a Nitro Golf hole in one.
“The strategy for getting into the Zorb is you have to go a little bit slower than you normally would to just jump the jump. So that’s the hardest part: gauging how much speed you need to get into the hole. If you brake too much down the run-in or not enough, you’re going to either overshoot it or undershoot it,” he says. “If you jump off the lip too high you’re going to over-clear the Zorb, flip over, and land 15 feet to the bottom. … You come off that lip and all you see is that hole, and all you’re zoned in on is that hole, getting into that hole, because that’s the only safe place to be landing on that Zorb. So as soon as you’re in the air all you can think about is getting into that hole, and then as soon as you do, it’s just a weight lifted off your shoulders that you made it in. … It’s way better than hitting the side of it and then going who knows where off the side of the landing. It’s an intense part of the show for the ones jumping.” Here’s a shot of Preston Godfrey, another member of the Godfrey Clan, attempting it:
Ethen is a well-rounded athlete pushing progression in multiple disciplines after taking a two-year hiatus during a pivotal time in his career, and yet he’s having tons of fun and humbly credits his success to the positive competitive spirit of the people around him. That’s also what makes Nitro Circus such a unique place to progress as an action sports athlete, he says. “We’re always encouraging each other to learn new tricks and progress and build the show as a whole rather than as individuals. It’s a weird concept in sport, but as a show, if one person has a really good night, then everyone has a good night, and everyone who came to see the show leaves happy. And that is our job — to make sure everyone rides good and is progressing.”