“Ok, riders, random start. Riders ready? Watch the gate.”
A BMX bicycle rider’s life is built around those words as they stand on their pedals, muscles taut from the anticipation of the starting lights flashing to green. The front wheel of their tiny bicycles mashed against a metal gridded gate awaiting the bap, bap, bap from the speaker as the gate drops with a crash. Then, BAM as many as eight riders, shoulder-to-shoulder, explode out of the gate and careen down a slope in a controlled frenzy that will produce a winner in usually less than 50 seconds.
Moto after moto, round after round in that short time, riders negotiate courses of various lengths ranging from 300-400 meters. These include three banked turns, a series of hills that often beg to be jumped by the experts. Included is a rhythm section between turns two and three, where riders use momentum and a pumping motion for cruising with little pedaling over a series of short hills before the rolling sprint to the finish. The courses are designed to be user-friendly for beginners yet filled with enough challenge for the experts and professionals at local tracks.
All of this is performed on bikes where pedaling while standing the entire course is one of the fundamental requisites to success. These bikes morphed from the early days of racing that began on old Schwinn Sting-Ray bikes with long banana seats. What started as a popular cruising bike for kids – streamers and clinking bells included – were soon stripped down to the bare frame and wheels for as much performance on the ground and in the air that these heavier bikes could provide.
Today, the low-slung BMX racing bikes are built around lightweight wheels 18-24-inch in size for various classes and age groups. Basic bikes abound and can climb into featherweight carbon fiber frames. Once obsessed with the fun and challenge, everything is built around speed down to the cranks and pedals. When riders finish a race and sit to peddle off the track, their knees rise so high they could knock a fully-suited rider in the chin if it wasn’t for the full face mask required to compete, and oh, how they race, often and everywhere. The sport is impressive in its scope throughout the United States.
Yes, it can be rough and tumble like most highly competitive sports. Riding in such close quarters on tight turns leads to crashes though rarely are they serious. There is universal importance for most riders to get up, dust themselves off and finish a race which always leads to applause and encouragement. Broken wrists, arms and clavicles are possible. There is a level of showmanship, both good and bad, that can lead to conflicts. However, the sport does police itself, and riders do remember the unsporting.
It needs to be known that Laura and my two grandsons, Jake and Luke, are devoted young racers. This certainly is a personal story for us, as both boys have grown in so many ways thanks to BMX racing, especially the oldest, Jake.
Jake was late learning to ride a bike. He is Autistic. Yet, with the help of therapy and the eternal love given him by his parents, grandparents, teachers and especially, Julie, his mother/advocate, Jake has become a remarkable nine-year-old. His life, while constantly challenging, is in many ways a view our entire world could learn from in so many ways.
When Jake finally “chose” to ride a bike at six, which for him is how things work, he took to it immediately, no stumbling or falling. Soon, he and I began to ride along the Shunga Trail in Topeka. As the distances we rode grew, we eventually pedaled to a stop at Heartland BMX in Crestview Park. Jake wanted to ride on the track instantly. As he rolled up and down over the hills and through the turns, he began to sing. For someone who didn’t speak for most of his early years, the singing represented the joy and total peace he found on a bike and at the track learning to race. He was hooked.
His brother, Luke, skipped right past the strider bike portion of his riding life and soon joined Jake racing as a four-year-old. Along the way, they have received help from various riders, coaches and a father who has completely mastered the transportation, upkeep and the setup of a tent village which, given all the racing they now do, is required. Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas have been checked off their list as they race endlessly throughout the year.
They met their favorites pros, Alise Willoughby for Jake, Connor Fields for Luke, and shared admiration for the young teenage BMX phenom Marshall “Major” Gehrke. While neither has reached their full potential as fast-rising intermediates, both have more trophies than space left in their rooms. To help pay for all this, the boys even “hosted” a successful garage sale to help.
My Heart & Soul project photographs were taken during the recent state championship on September 26 at the local track. Tents galore were filled with the latest in BMX tech and accessories. The races over three days were filled with fun and fury. It all culminated in Sunday’s state finals and the fight for their bikes’ best state plate numbers.
I admit I don’t photograph the sport and our grandsons enough. Laura and I love just being proud grandparents known to the boys as Ish and Lolo. We want to cheer them on whenever ours and their schedules allow. We were so happy both did well.
I do have one worry that I will bolt upright in bed some evening after a day at the track. That starting refrain will be ringing in my head as the gate falls. I begin pedaling frantically only to have the always-competitive Laura nip me at the line. Covered with sweat and filled with shame, I fall back in bed and wonder – oh my, what has BMX beget?
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