Wheel deal: BMX racing makes its Olympic debut

For many, BMX racing went out with the Eighties. But later this year, the sport completes an unlikely comeback when it makes its Olympic debut. Susie Rushton meets the extraordinary young rider hoping to bring back gold for Britain
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The Independent Online

Shanaze Reade sits on the low saddle of her white Red Line bike, crash helmet slung casually under her arm. "I don't think anybody sees it as a mess-about sport any more," says the 19-year-old, the world's No 1 female BMX rider, as she tidies her extensions into a neat ponytail that will fly out behind her as she races round the track. "It's on TV, I'm in the papers and so are other riders. I think that the Olympics are the best thing that could ever have happened to our sport and its profile."

Later this year in Beijing she will represent Great Britain as BMX racing makes its debut as an Olympic sport no doubt to the amazement of a generation of thirtysomethings who spent their 1980s youth astride a red-and-yellow Raleigh Burner pretending they were the boy from ET. Depending on your commitment, BMX was either a fad or a total lifestyle (the director Spike Jonze is among those who was dedicated in his youth). Few could have predicted that, more than 30 years after its birth, BMX would be assimilated into the athletic establishment.

Shanaze (her Irish mother apparently wanted a twist on the name Sinead) is the poster girl for BMX 2.0. Nicknamed "Speedy Readey" for the ease with which she's beaten her nearest competitors so much so that she's often raced against boys, and won she started

riding bikes at the age of 11 when she got bored with the 100m sprint. She was the world under-18 champion by the age of 15.

Now she trains three days a week at the humped tracks either in Preston or near her home in Crewe, particularly concentrating on the explosively powerful start out of the first drop that riders have to achieve to draw ahead in the race, which typically lasts no longer than 40 seconds. And, no, in the Olympics you don't get extra points for fancy jumps, wheelies or bouncing around on your knobbly sky-blue tyres like a demented grasshopper. The winner is the first cyclist over the line.

All this is a long way from the beginnings of BMX an abbreviation of "bicycle motocross" in the early Seventies. Those who have been involved in the sport since the start recall how it's essentially a Californian import, first entering youth consciousness in 1971 with the release of Bruce Brown's documentary On Any Sunday. Partly sponsored by the film star and weekend scrambler Steve McQueen, the documentary was about motorbike races but opened with footage of kids riding Stingray bicycles in a field in San Juan Capistrano. As they rode, one kid keeping a wheelie up for an entire block, they made the noises of a motorbike.

Bike manufacturers quickly picked up on the trend for motocross-minus-the-motor. In 1973 Yamaha made some of the earliest BMX bikes, styled with go-faster chevrons, moulded plastic covering and plastic number plates to look like motocross bikes.

The frames of such bikes which to the casual observer don't look so different from the bike that Shanaze rides today were made to withstand rough treatment. Rigid frames with no suspension prevented the bikes from flexing when riders landed from their ambitious jumps. Some pushed their bikes harder than others: Tim March, now 44 and a publisher of BMX magazines, was the European Champion from 1981 to 1987. At the age of 18 he got his first BMX a Mongoose Supergoose after seeing the bikes while holidaying with friends in California. "It was amazing. It was an epiphany," he says. "I had previously raced motorbikes, but I ordered a bike and just started riding it everywhere. Unlike the motorbike, you just had to put on your jeans and go there was no preparation. And unlike skateboarding, you didn't need a smooth surface."

March went on to win the early races that were haphazardly organised by those who managed to get hold of BMX bikes. Dedicated tracks were built across the UK. At the peak of its popularity, recalls March, there were more than a thousand serious BMX riders in the UK. Cash prizes and lucrative sponsorship deals paid for by bike makers were on offer; dedicated magazines sprung up; March found fame "it was like being [the skateboard star] Tony Hawk, I couldn't go out." His main rival, Andy Ruffell, became a television personality, appearing in famous ads for Ready Brek and Kellogg's. In 1984 Ruffell received a Young Sportsman of the Year award from the British minister for sport. There was even a female BMX racing star, Alice Temple "She was the first Shanaze, she beat the boys easy," says March.

BMX aficionados speak darkly of "the schism" that occurred in the sport mid-decade. By 1985, the sport had re-invented itself and "freestyle" began to take over from racing. Considered more rebellious, being out of the jurisdiction of the "parents" who were organising the races, freestyle concentrated on pulling off tricks the more dangerous and flamboyant the better. But by 1987, even Benny Hill was parodying "360 roll outs", "surfers" and "aerial", and BMX in any form had begun a slow but sure decline in popularity only to be finished off by the arrival of mountain biking at the end of the decade.

In recent years, the sport has staged a comeback. The 2005 film Joe Kid on a Stingray was the BMX equivalent of the successful skateboard documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. Freestyle BMX managed to ally itself to a wider action-sports culture and since 1995 its international image has been promoted as a key event at the prestigious X-Games in LA. Racing, by contrast, only attracts a minority of BMX riders. On the face of it, its newly awarded Olympic status might seem to be a boost to the sport. But some of the original racers who won glory in the early Eighties don't feel the pride that might be expected. One irritation for many is that modern racing requires riders to clip their shoes on to the pedals. "You can't overtake properly," contends March. "If you get banged by one of the other riders you can't put your foot down and bear in mind that it's called bicycle motocross, so you're supposed to skid into the turns. Now, you just get a procession of riders so you'll rarely get an exciting race."

Predictably, Shanaze gives short shrift to critics who suggest her fast and furious sport isn't quite as good as the BMX races they used to know to use the slacker parlance favoured by the hardcore "back in the day". "If people think BMX racing isn't really BMX, I think they'd need a slap round the head," she chirps, as the Preston rain curtails our afternoon out on the asphalt-covered track. "Anyway, I don't see that the attitude is like that any more. When it's at the Olympics and it's on television, if anyone's got any doubt in their mind about what racing actually is, that will clear it up. People tend to associate it with freestyle."

None the less, Shanaze, like the earlier generation of BMX racers, didn't find the transition from riding for fun to professionalism easy. "I was always serious, but it was so hard to get used to being a full-time athlete. I felt pressurised and I thought, 'I'm sick of this'. It took me three years to get used to it and I think that's because BMX wasn't really a professional sport." Sponsorship has allowed Shanaze to be a full-time rider now, and she also receives Lottery funding. In March she swapped her low-riding BMX for a racer bike when she won the UCI Track World Championships Team sprint with Victoria Pendleton it was only the second-ever time she had ridden in a velodrome. No wonder that by 30 she plans to retire "It seems like I've been full-time since I was 10. By 30, if everything goes as I plan it, I won't be able to get anything more out of it, so it'll be time to move on."

At Beijing, Shanaze's nearest rival is the highly decorated French mountain-bike racer Anne Caroline Chausson, but she bats away any inquiries about the pressure of expectation that she will return with a gold medal for Britain. "I thrive off pressure. I'm feeling good and I'm feeling fit. I like to get on the gate and think yeah, everyone is watching me, thinking I'll win." Besides sailing over those bumps at the Preston BMX track, her training includes squats, leg presses, dead lifts "to get the strength in my legs." We've watched her sprint up and down the asphalt start gate all day but can she 360? "Nah," she says. "It's not my sport. I'm solely BMX racing. It's about being the fastest. It's worlds apart."