Donn Maeda

The Swap Moto Interview

Interview by Drew Rohde

TransWorld Motocross is easily one of the most identifiable and emblematic magazines in the motocross space. It’s bold covers make it easy to spot on the shelves and has been a fan favorite for nearly two decades. Donn Maeda aka Swap, helped found the magazine back in 2000 and has been the main man behind the scenes ever since.

With more and more crossover brands creating goods for both the moto and MTB world, it was only a matter of time before we started spotting these cool guy moto dudes at our mountain bike media events. We first got to ride with Swap at a Ride 100% media camp in Sedona, Arizona before heading to Phoenix to watch Supercross. Despite the intimidating factory looks and fancy camera crews, Swap is just a regular guy who likes to ride bikes and talk shit. We enjoyed his blunt honesty and fresh perspective on the bike world.

Along with cohosts Ryan Villopoto and Mike Sleeter, Maeda hosted an advisory panel for up-and-coming amateur motocross families at the annual TWMX TransAm last November. 

Where are you from?
I grew up in Altadena, California. Currently live in Corona, California.

What’s your background?
I’m pretty much a lifelong moto guy. Both my brothers raced professionally and my brother Ross owns Enzo Racing, which is a highly regarded suspension company. I’m 16 years younger than my closest brother (I was an accident) so I was the kid at the track in diapers, playing in the dirt in the pits. I didn’t actually start riding until Jr. High though because my mom wanted to keep me safe.

What’ve you done besides TransWorld?
I got kicked out of Cal State Long Beach in my sophomore year because I had an amazing 1.9 GPA. At the time I was freelancing for Cycle News and racing moto as much as possible, and the freedom of college meant I went riding more than I went to class. While I was trying to get my GPA back up at a junior college, Cycle News called and offered me a staff position. That’s where it all started! I had no aspirations of being a journalist per se… I was writing local race reports in exchange for free race entries. I covered Grand National Flat Track and Motocross for Cycle News for seven years. Dirt Rider hired me to be the testing editor after that and I did that for a year or so before launching MXracer Magazine under the same parent company. I did that for almost two years before TransWorld hired me to start the MX magazine in 2000.

How long have you been riding moto?
I started on three wheelers in 1983 and disgraced my brothers for several years until getting my first dirt bike in ’86 when I graduated high school.

Random fact.
I help my good friend Mike Nittel run his shop’s Instagram. Everyone should give @royscyclery a follow. Haha.

Occasionally Donn gets lucky behind the lens too. Here is a cover photo he captured for a recent issue.

Who is The Donn? What makes you tick?
When I started my career as a journalist I was anxious to travel and see the world. Fifteen countries and 41 States later, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than home. I wake up every day grateful for a career that revolves around my passions.

How did you get the handle Swapmoto?
In the early days of the Internet, there was a Motocross chat room on Motocross.com that my brother Ross liked to terrorize. “Sign in, it’s classic,” he told me. “It’s full of a bunch of knuckleheads who think they know what they’re talking about!” When I signed up I had to choose a user name. Ross suggested Swap because I was not the smoothest rider. The moto part came years later at TransWorld when I had to create a web posting account and swap was too short.

What’s your favorite part about working in the moto industry?
Let’s not kid ourselves here…I get to do for a living what most people can’t wait to do on the weekends. Test bikes and products, go to the races, shoot photos of and interact with racers who are heroes to many. I’ve made many great friendships in the moto industry and never take any of it for granted.

What’s your least favorite part?
Travel for sure. It was exciting and romantic when I started, but I’d rather be home riding my dirt bike and mountain bike than traveling anywhere in the world.

After spending so many years in the moto industry, you must have seen some wild stuff? What tops your list as one of the most memorable or crazy experiences?
Oh man! I can’t blow anyone out…come on! One of the coolest trips I’ve been on was to Tahiti for the Robbie Maddison DC Pipe Dream shoot. Aside from Mando being a complete nut, that trip was gnarly because Garth Milan was there to shoot photos and he had some sort of crazy parasite in his colon. Yes, his ass. One night he was so sick that I borrowed a car and drove him a hundred miles away to a small hospital with directions that a local had scribbled on a paper bag. It was like, “turn left at the crooked tree, then go to the abandoned church and turn left.” Somehow we made it without getting lost and the doctors fixed Garth up well enough for him to survive the rest of the trip. He continued to struggle with the virus for months after though and he kept sending me pics of his butthole.

Many top motocross racers use mountain bikes to cross train during the week. Away from the races, Maeda and GEICO Honda’s Christian Craig often ride together. 

You started riding mountain bikes about three years ago right? What/who got you into that?
I actually rode a lot in the 90s. For some reason, my dad became obsessed with mountain bikes in his late 60’s and my brothers and I all got bikes in order to spend time with him. It was mostly the “have mom drop us off at the top of the hill so we can coast down” type of riding though…I rarely climbed. When my dad passed away I lost interest and didn’t ride for over a decade.

Three years ago I had that “eye opening” doctor’s appointment. You know, the “you’re overweight, have high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high cholesterol,” check up. The doctor put me on a bunch of pills and told me to go vegan. I took the pills for two days and hated the way they made me feel, so I got my old Yeti ARC down from my garage rafters and climbed this hill near my home. It took me almost an hour and 10 rest stops to make it halfway, but I did it every day for a couple months and finally made it to the top without stopping. Of course by then I was hooked and had learned to love the suffering aspect of mountain biking.

I went back to see the doctor a couple years later and he was surprised to see me, since I never called him for refills on any of the meds. He was pumped to see that all of my levels were good and I had lost 20 pounds.

Most mountain bikers are Supercross fans and many ride dirt bikes themselves. It seems that we’re seeing more mountain bikes in top SX team pit areas. Why do you think that is?
I think the crossover is huge. In addition to being a great way to cross train with natural intervals, mountain biking is fun and utilizes many of the same hand/eye coordination skills and forces you to constantly think about traction and line choice. Most of the top racers are supported by bike companies and you see them in the pits being used as warm up tools, mounted on trainers.

Each month TransWorld Motocross reviews a mountain bike and MTB gear. Are there a significant number of your readers who ride mountain bikes as well?
A few years ago, Chris Wellhausen from TransWorld Snowboarding came to us with some shots he had of Cam McCaul and Ronnie Renner riding together on the Red Bull Rampage course. The photos were so crazy that we put one on the cover and did a story about the dirt bike/mountain bike collaboration and it was really well received. By then I was already pretty consumed by mountain biking so I was open to adding a few pages of bicycle content into the magazine when my publisher Don Wilson suggested it. With the declining print market, we are constantly being challenged to look for other revenue sources and he saw an opportunity to take advantage of some of the crossover appeal. Thus far, it’s grown our magazine, events business and we’ve not had any backlash about including bicycles in the mag.

How do mountain bike brands react when a moto media outlet hits them up looking for $10,000 bicycles to ride?
I’m not sure how The Loam Wolf runs it, but we don’t specifically ask for the high-end bikes to feature…we’re just pumped to try anything out. Most of the time, it just so happens that brands want to showcase their top-of-the-line models. Don’t hate. Ha ha.
(Hey man, we can’t help but spot those fancy S-Works Epics with slick tires, non-dropper posts and bar ends!)

What do you think when you review a dirt bike on one page and then a mountain bike on the next, and they’re the same price?
That blows my mind to be honest. I asked my friend Sean Estes (Specialized) about that once and he said that all the technology that goes into the bikes is what makes them expensive. I dunno…my thought is that the average mountain bike nut who wants a high-end bike is more affluent and can afford to spend that much.

If you had to pick between an $8,000 dirt bike or an $8,000 mountain bike, what would you pick?
The mountain bike, for sure!

Do moto guys complain about the price of dirt bikes and components, like tires?
Of course! Motocross is an expensive sport.

Who is the biggest MTB fan in the moto world?
Hard to say. I pedal quite a bit with Christian Craig, but Justin Brayton has told me that after he retires from moto he wants to race mountain bikes full time.

What similarities do you see between the mountain bike and dirt bike world?
Dirt. Knobbies. Helmets. Crashes. Injuries. Big price tags. We don’t have to deal with battyaggressive, over-the-top feminists though.

Former 125 National and Supercross Champion Johnny O’Mara went on to win multiple National XC championships after retiring from motorcycle racing. “I never got to work with O’Show as a journalist but he was one of my childhood heroes,” said Swap. “To think that I get to ride bikes with him nowadays still blows me away.”

What differences do you see from an industry sense?
Mountain biking has a much broader general appeal. The average person hears that I ride moto and asks if I do backflips like the guys they see on TV. Everyone, however, has ridden a bicycle at some point in their lives.

Name your favorite dirt bike movie of all time.
Winners Take All! One time when I was flying through Atlanta, Gerardo was on my flight with his shiny track-suit and gold chains on. Everyone was saying “Rico Suave” to him but I said, “Yeah, Johnny Rivera!”

What is your favorite mountain bike movie?
It’s not a mountain bike movie but, Breaking Away is one of my favorite movies of all time. I remember watching it with my mom and dad and they loved it, too. In 2010, I bought Life Cycles on Tara Geiger’s recommendation and it made me want to throw my video equipment in the garbage. The cinematography absolutely blew me away.

Best moto event you’ve been to?
The 2008 Motocross of Nations at Donnington Park. James Stewart, Tim Ferry and Ryan Villopoto brought home the win for Team USA, but it was a nail biter until the end because Stew landed on a hay bale and crashed, and Ferry had to come through the pack to secure the win. That was James’ only motocross loss of the year; he went undefeated in the 450 Nationals that season. The atmosphere at an MXoN is just insane, and that one in particular was memorable for me.

Best mountain bike event?
I look forward to the Sea Otter Classic every year. As a fan, it’s great to see all the cool new stuff. As a journalist, we are treated better at that event than we are at any Motocross or Supercross event. It’s not even close! I’ve also raced the old man slow cross-country race the past three years and that’s always a great time.

Mountain biking bucket list?
After my mom passed away, we took my dad to Moab to ride the Slickrock trail. It was the first time I had seen him smile since mom died, and the memories I have of that trip are some of the best of my life. I hope to go back there again and relive those memories.

Swap and his father on a memorable trip to Moab. “One day I hope to go back and relive those memories,” Swap shared.