This week’s edition of Privateer Profile is different. Normally we pick a privateer racer who competes in supercross or motocross and share their story. But Tyler Brandenburger is not a professional racer who travels the country while living in a van, nor is he trying to make main events on Saturday nights. In the fall of 2015, he suffered a broken leg during a crash at a local track in Illinois. Broken leg bones, such as a broken tibia/fibula, are usually pretty routine, but Tyler was struck with compartment syndrome, which led to amputation.
His passion for having fun on a dirt bike far outweighs any pain or inconveniences that accompanies losing a limb, so he decided to attempt to qualify for the Adaptive Snow Bike event at X Games. Not only did he qualify for the event, he placed second—earning a silver medal—in this past weekend’s Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado. Oh, and by the way, he’s from the St. Louis area, where snow bikes aren’t really that popular—he had never even ridden one prior to attempting to qualify for this year’s event!
Racer X: Tyler, how was X Games?
Tyler Brandenburger: It was like I was living in a dream the whole weekend, man. It was just so incredibly cool the X Games and ESPN made the adaptive and Para classes actually a part of the medaled events this year. We were really a part of the entire program. It was unreal. Then to get a medal with it, it was crazy.
How did a kid from the St. Louis area end up at X Games on a snow bike?
So, I’m sure you know local privateer Carter Stephenson. He rides for Ride365 and he’s good buddies with Brett Cue. I saw that Brett Cue last year had tried his hand in the snow biking stuff. I don’t know if he qualified for X or what happened with that, so I had Carter call Brett up and ask him if there was any way he could hook me up with somebody with more info. He hooked me up with a guy named Colton Sturm. He’s from up in Northern Minnesota area and does all the research and development for a company named Camso. They’re one of the companies that make the snow bike kits.
Before this, had you even spent much time on a snow bike?
I’ve never rode anything in the snow. I’ve never snowboarded, skied. I’ve never even rode a pit bike, or my dirt bike, in the snow. I’ve never done anything in the snow. Nothing!
How much time did you have on the bike before you went to the qualifier?
No time before the qualifier. I loaded my dirt bike up as a regular motocross setup and we completely changed everything over at the qualifier at ERX Motor Park in Elk River, Minnesota. After that, I had five days before the qualifier race on Saturday. I probably put about an hour to an hour and a half on the bike for each of those five days before the race. So really before the qualifier I got about four and a half, five hours on the bike on the snow bike setup.
I’ve never ridden a snow bike. How does it compare to riding in the dirt? There’s no front brake, so that has to be weird.
It’s really weird. Snow bikes are made for back-country riding. They’re really not meant for the motocross track, but these companies are making race kits for them. So whenever you’re riding it not having the front wheel momentum whenever you leave a jump—on a motocross bike, when you leave a jump it’s like you just pull your front brake and you just dip down. That’s how every jump is on the snow bike, not having that front wheel momentum. It’s really weird. Everything you do, your weight is super far back. It’s nothing like hopping on a dirt bike. The faster you can go and the more you can slow and learn just how to flow with it, it does feel like the suspension wants to work like a dirt bike, but it’s so much heavier and bulkier. It’s just really nothing like a motocross bike at all, honestly.
For those reading this, you competed in the adaptive class which means you are an amputee, correct?
Yeah, right leg amputee.
As much as you feel comfortable, care to let people know your back story?
In late September of 2015 I was at a local race in Nashville, Illinois. I ended up having a really bad get-off. I ended up with a broke tib/fib and ended up slicing the artery behind my patella and ended up with compartment syndrome and pretty much all my complete blood vessel system from the knee down was completely destroyed. There was just nothing left of it. They couldn’t do any cadaver veins or arteries. They tried that. Just nothing was working. It got to the point where the damage was just so severe that the only choice was an amputation. So I didn’t really know what to do. I was just kind of laying in a hospital bed and they were telling me what was going to happen. I didn’t really have a choice. I was sitting there with a destroyed leg. I couldn’t just get up and run away and just hide from it, I had to take it head on. I never lost my will to want to get back on my dirt bike again. I was back riding I think a month and a half later. I was doing wheelies in my front yard without any kind of prosthetic leg on or anything. I was just going crazy not getting to ride because that’s who I am!
Whenever I got my prosthetic leg, I went to the motocross track and I just started riding, and riding, and riding. Got more comfortable. It was pretty much just like having to restart all over again. In my head I still knew how to ride and how the bike was going to work, but I had to make my body adjust to that prosthetic leg. It completely changed my riding style, for sure. I ride way far on the front of the bike. Having that change in my riding style going with my weight more up front was really hard with the snow bike having to have your weight back all the time.
Is it harder to weight the pegs and put your weight in the right spot?
Yeah. I’ll catch myself just completely relying on the left side of my body when I’m riding sometimes. I recently got hooked up with a moto knee and versa foot from the guy who won gold, Mike Schultz. He created his own. With that moto knee and versa foot setup, it’s way easier to distribute the weight on the right side and get a feel for everything. I can’t put my right foot out for right turns anymore. That was pretty much the hardest thing to get used to, was tight right-handed turns or just going into ruts for a right-handed turn.
It seems like there’s quite a few people who lose a leg and still are able to ride a dirt bike.
I get Facebook and Instagram requests and follows from people that I’ve never even heard of that they’re missing a leg and they’re out riding in SoCal all the time. I have people like that all the time add me on social media.
While it’s a severe injury, I guess people should realize that it is a life-altering injury, but it doesn’t affect your ability really to go out and ride because you’re still passionate about it.
No. Riding is so mental. Everybody who rides a dirt bike at a motocross track or any kind of riding at all knows how mental it is. They didn’t amputate my brain. They didn’t amputate my ability to ride my dirt bike. They just took an asset away from my riding. You can make up for loss of assets.
When you were riding wheelies on your dirt bike a month after the accident, were your parents and family like, “Whoa, what the hell are you doing?”
(Laughs) No, not really! With my family, motocross is a super, super family-oriented sport. I’ve always done the dirt bike stuff kind of on my own, going to races and whatnot. I’ve just always done that on my own or with my friends. My parents and grandparents always supported me from the side. They never really came to races or anything, but they enjoy seeing me have fun doing what I love to do. They supported me as much as they possibly could, when they could. Honestly, they weren’t really too worked up whenever I started riding again after all that. I had told them right away in the hospital that I’m going to get back on my bike. It’s going to happen. I think they were super pumped to see that I was back riding.
Let’s get back to X Games a little bit. You got a silver medal. You mentioned that that was kind of like being in a dream. Just explain that whole experience of being at the X Games and around some really badass athletes.
Yeah. I’m just a small-town kid from the Midwest. I’m no Monster [Energy] or Red Bull sponsored athlete. To be around all those guys and doing the same thing, being there as an athlete and being around those guys and just having the vibes from all the athletes, being around them all… It was just super cool just to be a part of X Games. It’s a dream come true. I’ve been watching videos of the X Games since I was a little kid. I never would have ever thought that losing a leg would have led me to be there. Then to go and medal for the first time they were going to include the adaptive and Para as a part of the program, it’s crazy.
To spin a positive on it in kind of a funny way, had you not lost your leg you probably would have never competed at X Games.
Yeah (laughs). I’d probably be at work. I’d probably be going to school, going to work, just doing the 9 to 5 trying to get my degree and just riding when I could for fun on the side.
Did you have any expectations going into the qualifier? Did you have any expectations going into X Games itself?
Going into the qualifier I had zero expectations because I had no clue what was going to happen. I saw videos of Brett Cue hop on a snow bike. He’s obviously extremely talented on a dirt bike. He looked like a complete squid when he tried to ride it. So I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have any expectations going into the qualifier, but after those five or six days, my corner speed was there. If you watch any of the highlight videos of X Games I wasn’t super comfortable yet to hit all the jumps. I hit a couple of the jumps, but not some of the bigger ones. I was still able to maintain that second place in the straight-aways and in the corners. Certainly corner speed was there, it’s just I wasn’t jumping some of the bigger jumps and that’s where I lost a lot of time.
Were you able to train at all or ride at all in-between when you qualified and X Games?
No, I did nothing. I didn’t ride at all, didn’t do anything like that. I have a stationary bike that I pedaled on a couple of times and just did push-ups, sit-ups, anything to get my heart rate going every day. Just going for long walks. I didn’t really do too much of riding training or anything like that, no.
What are your expectations now for next year, now that you got a taste of a silver medal?
Obviously silver or better from here on out, or at least to be on the podium if they decide to have us back for adaptive and para, which I hope they do. Obviously the expectation is to always be on the podium from now on.
You take an average racer, like yourself, just an average B rider. Don’t have your pro card or anything like that. But then you get on a snow bike and you can be competitive. What do you attribute that to?
Me being able to be competitive on the snow bike, I owe all that to getting back on my bike right away. I just made it a priority to ride as often as I could once I got this prosthetic leg. Once I kind of got a taste of the little bit of attention that I could get riding with a prosthetic leg, I just wanted to build on that. I just wanted to ride and get faster and better. I just wanted to look as smooth as possible when I was riding my dirt bike. I rode a lot. I rode a lot these past three years out at Ride Organic, mostly. I did a little bit of traveling. I rode down in Dallas, Texas, and Thunder Valley. I just tried to make riding one of my top priorities in life, just so I could stay competitive on my dirt bike. I had seen Mike Schultz doing the X Games stuff. I had seen videos of it and I was like, I want to do that. I want to be able to be competitive and to do that. I just owe that all to staying on my dirt bike and just riding as often as I possibly could these past three years.
What’s the support from home been like while you’re at X Games?
My phone has not stopped blowing up since I’ve left until now. Just getting Instagram notifications, Facebook, texts, Snapchats. Just congratulations, good luck, it’s so awesome, we’re pumped. It’s just unbelievable the amount of support that I’ve been getting.
So what’s next? Are you going to be able to ride the thing at all the rest of the winter or are you just going to chill until it’s time to get the dirt bike out?
I picked up a 2019 Honda, 450 works edition. I’m super pumped to start riding that. Just from sitting on it, just the way it feels, that bike just feels so freaking perfect and ready to rip. I’m excited to do some local riding on that bike, but as far as snow bikes go, I don’t have any plans right now. Like I said, the guy who hooked me up with the Camso system, Colton Sturm, we’ve been talking about getting to do some back-country riding up in Minnesota and possibly out in Crested Butte, Colorado. But that’s in the works, possibly in the next couple months getting to do some snow bike riding.
Just take Instagram photos and pull chicks right.
Yeah, exactly. It seems to be working right now.
I can only imagine that that X Games medal doesn’t hurt your abilities with the ladies.
No! (Laughs). It was pretty cool because after the flight I was telling my dad I didn’t really want to take the medal off, so I kind of spent the rest of the night at X Games with the medal around my neck. The attention and pictures and stuff with everybody was pretty freaking cool.
Talk about the camaraderie a little bit of X Games. What was it like to rub elbows with the athletes? Any gnarly, fun, interesting, cool stories you can share?
At the qualifier, I shared trailers with Brett Turcotte, which he’s a past X Games gold medalist and he got silver in best trick this year, and also silver in the snowmobile best trick, I believe. But he’s a super multi-talented athlete. I got to know him a little bit. He’s a sponsored Monster Energy athlete. That’s something that everybody who rides anything wants to be. They want to have that good sponsorship and just do this for fun and get paid for it. It was really cool to get to meet him and know him on a first-name basis and watch him at X Games and do good at that. Other than that, I didn’t really have anything too cool happen besides getting the medal. The adaptive and Para guys kind of had their own separate little parking lot away from everybody, so we didn’t get to see too much. Just being around Axel Hodges and Josh Hill, they were there. You see them on Instagram and Snapchat all the time doing this like, “Man, it would be so cool to be there next to those guys and doing that and partying with those guys.” I got to do that this weekend. It was as cool as you’d think it would be. It’s awesome.
Awesome, man. Congrats on a dream-come-true achievement. Anyone you’d like to thank?
This whole trip was self-funded, so I have to give most of the credit to the car dealership that I work at, that’s 381 Motors. Then Route 15 Cycles and JH2 Suspension in Freeburg, Illinois. They help me out. Pretty much everything with the bike they do. SicWicks, Rural Lube, 365MX. Obviously Brett Cue and Colton Sturm for helping me get out here. Carter Stephenson. Renthal helps me out quite a bit. POD knee braces, Bills Pipes, Shred Co. Bioadapt, WiggleYourToes, WeBig Inc, my mechanic/homie Jared Swank, Stuk MX, Camso, Aggressive Graphics, my family and friends, and everyone who wished me good luck.