It’s the sound that gets you first, and then the feel – a vibration through the wood that swirls around and around as the motorcycle roars beneath you, circling the cylinder of vertical planks of Douglas fir, yellow pine, and ash. There are cries and whoops coming from the hundred or so spectators at the top of the drum, looking down into the well, cheering on the rider, risking his life for them on the Wall of Death.
“When you get in there and you feel the crowd above you, and you can feel it moving, everything moving and shaking and playing its part, you feel the energy of everything going on around you,” says Cody Ives, after the first of his afternoon shows. “I think that’s a pretty cool experience. You get to feel it, and I think that’s what people love about it. It’s one of those old school sports that you can’t see on the Internet really, but it’s still around.”
Cody is the eldest of the two Ives Brothers, who brought their act up from Florida to the North American International Motorcycle Supershow in Toronto in early January. He’s 30 years old, two years senior to his brother Kyle, and the two of them have been riding their motorcycles in gravity-defying circles for more than two decades.
They caught the bug from their dad, Shawn Ives, who says he ran away to join the circus when he was 16, as soon as he finished high school in Sarasota. It’s a circus town, the home of Ringling Bros., and kids could play football or baseball or go to the circus school. The late, world-renowned high-wire artist Karl Wallenda taught Shawn to walk the wire and he never looked back. He met his future wife, Tonya, when she was riding elephants and soon she was riding on his shoulders up on the tightrope. Off to the side was the Wall of Death.
“It was part of the sideshow, run by a dear friend of mine, Samantha [Morgan],” says Shawn. “We met there and I was always about the wall. It was always so cool. I loved it. I loved everything about it.”
Morgan was a legend in the business and a member of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame. She died in 2008 at 53 years old, because of “complications from the numerous back injuries and broken bones she had sustained in her long, illustrious career,” according to her obituary.
“When I am on the Wall,” she once said, “I feel free and it’s the only time when all my pains and the pains of this world go away.” Is it any wonder Shawn was captivated?
Years later, he brought home a “Globe of Steel” from Circus Circus in Las Vegas – a hollow ball made of steel bars about four metres across that cyclists could ride inside, round and round and upside down. That’s where Cody and Kyle learned the rhythm with their friends on their BMX bikes, half a dozen of the neighbourhood kids taking turns to flip tricks inside the ball.
When Cody turned 7, Shawn recalls asking him: “‘Hey, if I buy you a motorcycle, will you give it a go?’ And for a solid year, from 7 to 8, he’d get out there after school and be riding that thing, and then finally I thought, ‘I’m going to get in there with him,’ and all of a sudden the bells and whistles went off and it was like, we’re going back on the road.”
Daredevils have been riding Walls of Death for almost as long as there have been motorcycles. They started out racing on wooden boardwalks, where the inevitable crashes were so catastrophic that somebody decided to contain the action more safely within a custom-built “motodrome.” The first, with steeply sloped walls at similar angles to the corners of the boardwalk tracks, is believed to have been built at Coney Island in 1911; the first with truly vertical walls appeared at San Francisco’s International Exposition in 1915.
It’s not just about riding sideways. The Ives Brothers move around on their bikes, sitting side-saddle with their hands in the air, or with their feet up on the handlebars. They snatch dollar bills that are waved by enthusiastic spectators – Canada pays better, where they’re five-dollar bills, as we witnessed at the show.
Back in the day, though, there could be four or more machines up on the wall, the top bike just a hand’s width from the lip. Some time in the 1930s, riders with sidecars or small two-seater racing cars even started carrying lions – yes, real, full-grown lions – to roar at the crowd through the wind; famed lion-drome rider Marjorie Kemp was apparently seriously mauled by her big cats at least four times and her last attack, in 1940, put her in hospital for a year.
The most dangerous stunt of all was when two riders would take on the Wall in opposite directions, riding toward each other at speed and passing every couple of seconds. At least two riders are known to have been killed when their bikes collided doing this.
Cody and Kyle Ives often ride together around the drum, but they always ride in the same direction, counter-clockwise. “Your throttle and your brake are on the top side, so you’re able to control it,” Cody says. “If you ever have a problem and you throw your foot out or anything, everybody’s instinct is to try to correct yourself, and you’re able to control the bike better if your throttle and braking is high than if it’s on the low side.”
Their three bikes for the show are old machines: a 1953 Harley-Davidson with a single, two-stroke cylinder; a 1974 Aermacchi Harley-Davidson SX250, and a 1984 Honda CB125. “The whole vision of this show is the simplicity of what times used to be, so we’re keeping the tradition alive here,” Cody says. “We’re using vintage equipment as modern entertainment, and that’s what people find the coolest part about all of it.”
It’s not just that, of course. “If you’ve got a flathead or a Philips screwdriver, you mostly can fix them,” Kyle says. “Fuel, spark and air are the only things you need on the older bikes, where all the newer bikes are mostly electronics now. We do all the maintenance: We set it up, we tear it down, we drive it, we maintain everything, we fix the bikes, we do it all.”
It can be gruelling and mistakes can be made. At their last performance, in Ocala, Fla., in November, the rear wheel of Kyle’s bike fell apart when he was high up on the wall. “The hub, everything, just came undone,” he remembers. “Surprisingly, I landed on my feet, but it hurt my pride.”
There were once at least 100 Walls of Death in North America, travelling with circuses and carnivals from town to town. Now there are three. When the two Ives brothers finished high school and started to take their show on the road, their dad Shawn found an aluminum Wall of Death for sale in Montreal and brought it home to Florida. It was effective, but it didn’t have the retro carnival appeal that audiences wanted, so Shawn and Kyle used it as a blueprint to build the wooden replica – fashioned from planks of Douglas fir, yellow pine and ash – that’s been travelling with them ever since.
The Ives’ Wall, like most others, is about four metres tall and twice that across. On one circuit around, their bikes travel almost 30 metres. They have to maintain a minimum speed in order to stay up, pressed to the vertical wall by friction and centripetal force, and their favoured speed is somewhere between 45 and 50 kilometres an hour. At that speed, they’re experiencing a push to the wall of about 3G, or three times the force of gravity. If they go any faster, the G-force will increase and their limbs become heavier and their movements slower. That’s why the earlier Wall of Death riders avoided wearing helmets – the extra weight made it difficult to hold up their heads and see where they were going as their machines raced around and around.
In 2016, the British motorcycle racer Guy Martin set out to create a new world speed record on a specially built Wall of Death. His wall, constructed in an air force hangar in the U.K., was 37.5 metres in diameter, and the science of his ride was meticulously planned by a physicist from the nearby University of Cambridge. He set the official Guinness World Record, topping 125 kilometres an hour, while experiencing G-force of an estimated 6.4G. Any faster and he would have blacked out.
It takes 15 hours for five people to put up the Ives’ Brothers Wall of Death, and another 12 hours to tear it all down and stow it in their truck. This show in Toronto was more of a challenge, though – the rest of their usual crew did not have passports and couldn’t cross the border.
Ideally, the brothers would like to attend 35 events each year, putting on up to 12 half-hour shows on every day the Wall is built. The COVID-19 pandemic kept them home for a year, but now they’re travelling again and trying to make up for lost time.
“We’re on the road nine months out of the year,” Cody says. “What you don’t see is five people piled in that same truck,” staying at hotels and eating bad food. “When you do get to travel and come across people that are like family, where you can sit down and have a home-cooked meal, that’s like gold.”
His brother is a little less circumspect about the way of life.
“It’s very carny, yes, but we’ve made it as rock star as possible,” says Kyle. “It’s a unique lifestyle and it takes one of a [certain] kind to be able to live a lifestyle like this. I feel like society has taught such a specific way to live that people feel like we’re breaking the rules by living a certain way. We’re kind of like modern-day pirates, if you will. We just do our own thing. It took 20 years to get here, though.”
Is there a future in it? All three of the Ives pause to think about that, before Kyle finally speaks.
“It’s such a unique commodity that I have a hard time believing it would fade completely away,” he says.
Cody interrupts: “A lot of it is lawyers.”
Kyle nods and continues. “We just did Charlotte [N.C.], and they wouldn’t let us do our show without having their own building engineer come in, because the city is so worried about getting sued. That’s kind of the direction this is going. If you want to ride one of these in 50 years, if it’s allowed, it’s going to be on electric bikes, because gas bikes are going to be gone. Or there’s going to be some lawyer somewhere who says ‘That’s too reckless, that’s too death-defying, we can’t have it as a liability.’”
Already, they’re planning to replace some of the old bikes within the next five years with electric motorcycles. “You just won’t have the same sound,” says Cody. “The same feeling, the same smell, the same everything.”
Time is running short and the next show is due to begin. The line of spectators waiting to climb up to the wooden gallery is long, snaking right through the exhibition hall. Many will have to wait for the next performance.
The Ives Brothers walk into the drum, into the Wall of Death, ready to kickstart their old motorcycles back into life and, once more, hear the roar of the engines and the cries of the crowd, and feel the wood beneath their wheels.