London 2012: Could the Olympics bring BMXing back for good?
As Shanaze Reade prepares to bounce back from her Beijing 2008 crash, Jerome Taylor dons his helmet and kneepads
Adrian Martin whips his BMX up to the top of a large dirt embankment in London's Brockwell Park, turns to me and breaks out in a grin. “Right,” he says. “You've done all right so far. Let's see if you can get some air”.
If only he was talking about air in the parental you should go and get some exercise sort of way. Instead he wants me to hurtle down the embankment and try to land a jump on his brother's bike. The thought terrifies me. All I can think about are the suspiciously popular YouTube videos I watched the night before showing riders careen over their handlebars and “faceplant” into the ground when they get it wrong.
But I remind myself that this afternoon some of the best riders from around the world, including Britain's top medal hopes Shanaze Reade and Liam Phillips, will risk 40 foot jumps as they fly through the air in the start of the BMX track racing heats. All I'm expected to do is try and lift both wheels off the ground for a split second.
BMXing only became part of the Olympic family in 2008 for Beijing. While the winter games are filled with extreme sports, the summer equivalent has largely shunned them – despite the obvious athleticism and bravery needed to compete in such sports. But we should be thankful it has finally been given such prominence as it produces some of the most entertaining, adrenaline filled races you'll ever see.
If you thought the action inside the Velodrome has been hectic this week, wait until you see eight riders battle it out over a 450metre track filled with lips, jumps, 45 degree embankments and a terrifyingly high start ramp. To give you an idea of how fast professionals throw themselves around the track, American BMXer Connor Fields – probably the fastest man currently in the sport – can go from 0-40 miles per hour in two seconds.
Martin, a 40-year-old cycling coach who runs Brixton BMX Club, one of Britain's oldest clubs, assures me I can do it. “It's all about confidence,” he says. “A good 80 per cent of this sport is mental.” I'm not so sure. Fifteen years ago I wouldn't have thought twice. During those teenage years when you're convinced you're indestructible I spent almost every spare minute I could down the skate park throwing myself off ramps or grinding down rails on inline skates. It was only when I broke my wrist for the second time – an event that coincided with the arrival of my first fake ID – that I abandoned adrenaline sports in favour of the pub.
But I must admit I've missed the rush that comes with flying through the air and every time I walk past a skate park I get a little pang of jealousy.
I follow Martin around the Brockwell course, which has just won a £25,000 grant to be revamped. He makes it looks so easy, catching three metre airs on the big jumps and skipping over the smaller ones with a manual – the term BMXers use to describe riding on the back wheel only. Racers don't pull off such moves just to show off, they do it because it's often the quickest way to travel is a sport where every split second counts.
My first few goes on the BMX and I'm hopelessly timid convinced that if go too fast I'll come off the track. But with each lap comes a smidgen more confidence and, therefore, speed. Eventually I can feel the bike lift off the ground. It's probably no more than a foot each time but it feels great.
I can see why athletes like Reade and Phillips are so addicted to the sport even if it can be ludicrously dangerous. Reade, Britain's prodigal BMXer from Crewe, bought her first bike for £1 and by the time she was 17 she was trouncing men two years older than her. She has won the World Championships three times and looked set to take a medal at Beijing until a brave, but ultimately rash, overtake on the final bend in an attempt to steal gold went disastrously wrong and she crashed out.
Speaking earlier this week Reade, now 23, insisted that she had learned from her past mistakes. “I thought I was mature enough when I was there - but I stepped away and thought 'you have a lot of growing up to do',” she said. “I have matured a lot more. I have experienced a lot more and I am ready now. I am ready to take on the challenge of being an Olympic champion.”
Phillips also has a chance. He went from BMXing to Velodrome cycling but returned to the smaller bike because he missed the thrills and spills of the BMX course. He won a silver in the world championships earlier this year but the following day suffered a brutal crash, breaking his collar bone. It was touch and go as to whether he'd be healed in time but he came through.
For fans of the sport the Olympics gives BMXing a mainstream world stage it has lacked since kids first started racing modified bikes around dirt tracks in southern California during the early 1970s. And it's also an Olympic sport that appeals to younger audiences.
“In the past few years the sport has grown enormously,” says Mark Sleigh, the chairman of Birmingham BMX club. “Sure it has some risks but it's a very positive form of risk taking – especially for the young. If you're gonna have kids taking a risk I'd far rather they did it on a BMX course than in an anti-social way.”
Over the years BMXing has fallen in and out of fashion. But Martin, who started racing in the 1980s, hopes it's here to stay. “Whatever happens I'll always be racing,” he says. “It's that feeling you get. You just keep coming back.”
Much to my wife's displeasure, I think I agree with him.
The dirty world of BMX
When it comes to unsporting behaviour BMX might take the podium position. Competitors literally use sharp elbows to stay ahead of their rivals at the start of the race whilst certain teams have taken to building exact replicas of the London course. All riders are given an opportunity to cycle the course and practice it.
When Team USA went on the London track they took 3D mapping scanners with them on their bikes so they could build an identical practice track. It's not against the rules but when Olypmic officials found out, they made a series of alternations to the course. The US simply hired the track builder to make the same alterations to their course. The Dutch have also built a replica track in Arnhem.
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