Kenny Thomas: Urban Trials
Words & Photos: Tomas Couvry
Kenny Thomas is a former motorcycle trials champion. Too reckless for sticking with competition, he quickly stopped chasing medals to make a name for himself in the small world of trial freestyle. A bold move that earned him international fame. Since 2016, he’s participated in all kinds of TV talent shows across the globe. In 2020, he won the equivalent of America’s Got Talent in France and the 100K€ prize that came with it. But coronavirus was yet another obstacle that the self-proclaimed hyperactive kid had not seen coming.
Empty BMX bowls
Kenny had spent the first lockdown at his girlfriend’s apartment in Paris. As soon as health measures got more flexible, he texted me. ‘Let’s do a street session! I don’t care where and when.’ In the absence of actual venues, occupying space on social media was pretty much do or die for him. Empty streets and BMX bowls had become his only playground. We met at a skatepark nestled under a concrete highway bridge in the southern suburb of Paris. Like a wild animal regaining freedom after months of captivity, he started popping wheelies and backflips. ‘It hurts,’ he said while pushing a strand of wet hair off his face, but 2020 and most likely 2021 will be wasted years for most of us. We are looking ahead and planning for new challenges in 2022.”
But between hectic tour schedules and injuries, distance from his family and rivalry with other talented riders of his generation, Kenny had to deal with ups and downs before and got used to overcoming obstacles by instinct.
In motor sports, passion is often a case of transmission. Kenny grew up in Auvergne, a region that’s known for its mountain ranges and dormant volcanoes. A paradise for off-road riders, but only in theory, as local fervor around football and boules leave little space for any other discipline. When he was five, his father offered him his first machine, a 50cc model designed for kids. Soon after, he started competing. ‘Every weekend, my father and I would hit the road and travel from one side of the country to the other.’ This is the beginning of a nomadic lifestyle. ‘I have never stayed more than four or five days in the same place since then.’
His sacrifices paid off quickly. In 2010, at the age of 15, he signed a contract with Beta, the same team as Jordi Tarrés and Dougie Lampkin, two legends of modern motorcycle trials. In 2011, in the Mercantour, he won the national championship after a disputed final against Quentin Carles, the soon-to-be world champion. Two years later, still in the Southern French Alps, he finished third at the 125cc World Championship.
But the rigors of competition curbed his appetite for thrill and the perspective of pursuing a professional career is not the holy grail everyone can imagine.
From competition to contentment
Melbourne, 2015, just a few minutes before the start of the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Kenny had been invited to perform a backflip on top of a car. In the audience that day, a French TV producer was watching. About a week later, Kenny received a call, ‘You’re a stunner! We want you for the 11th season of France’s Got Talent,’ said the high-up executive in person. This is how Kenny gave his sport nationwide visibility, between a magic performance and a rollerskating act. From Germany to the United States, he got to perform his stunts on television across the world. ‘At the beginning I was petrified, but eventually, knowing that millions of people are watching gives you that extra boost that allows you to be at your best.’ Taking inspiration from BMX, FMX and even skateboarding, Kenny constantly tried new tricks, putting himself at risk.
In 2016, while practicing before the semi-finals of France’s Got Talent, he landed on his leading foot. The injury required surgery and at least six months off his bike. But Kenny doesn’t see it that way. A mouthful of painkillers and a thick bandage would do it just as well. Three days later, he hit a ‘flair’ in front of a stunned audience, and won his ticket for the finals. ‘You've got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette,’ he says with a pinch of bitterness in his voice.
Hyperactive and versatile, Kenny Thomas has embraced off-road riding as a way of life. From his home in the country to the streets of Paris, from trial championships to TV sets, he dusted down an unarguably outmoded discipline. The 25-year-old is already thinking about his legacy. Together with renowned MTB slopestyler Yannick Granieri, near Aix-en-Provence, they introduce young talents to the art of freestyling. ‘It’s so exciting, everything that we teach, we learn it at the same time.’ Let’s hope a new variant of the mutating virus doesn’t get in their way.