I was a young boy in the mid-1960s riding my blue Schwinn Sting-Ray with chrome monkey bars and a banana seat through the woods and fields that were our backyard. Growing up in suburban New Jersey there were endless acres of undeveloped land to ride and explore. The neighborhood boys would spend summer days riding on trails, jumping our bikes over mounds of dirt, trying to fly over streams, or skidding breathlessly down steep slopes. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises were our merit badges.
I wish I could say that the new motocross racing movement in Europe and Southern California influenced us. But, this was long before the era of 24/7 TV sports. The only sports we watched on television (in black and white!) were football and baseball. Occasionally, ABC’s The Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons might feature a brief clip of motorcycle racing, but motocross and bicycle motocross (BMX) were as unknown to us as the dark side of the moon. In 1966, the Swedish champion Torsten Hallman who introduced motocross to the United States in Simi Valley may as well have been one of those crazy ski jumpers for all we knew in distant New Jersey. We missed the beginning of BMX when kids began racing their bicycles on dirt tracks in Southern California, drawing inspiration from the motocross superstars of the time. But we rode and jumped hard every day.
We didn’t know it but we were dirt BMX-ers, one of several different styles of BMX. Here in Santa Barbara you’ll see a lot of dirt and street riders. Dirt is a great place for young riders to get their start and gain confidence and experience. On dirt, you can ride slow or fast, and take the jumps or ride around them at your own pace as you develop your riding skills. If you fall as you progress to higher jumps, dirt is softer and more forgiving than concrete or asphalt! You can ride the dirt trails on Ellwood Mesa or lots of other places around Santa Barbara with almost any type of BMX bike.
Street or freestyle BMX is for city riders. These riders turn every object into an opportunity to do different tricks as they cycle through obstacles that are manmade, most of which are not designed for bicycles. Some of these obstacles include stairs, handrails, ledges, hills, curved walls, and architectural designs in unusual shapes. Even a simple curb or tree can become part of freestyle BMX-ing. Santa Barbara’s own Sean Morr shows how it’s done: Sean Morr Freestyle.
Street riders today are a lot like early skateboarders who didn’t have skate parks and rode in parking lots and other public spaces. Freestyle riders tend to be young (under 20) and a close-knit group interested in expressing their individuality through cycling skills. For them, freestyle tricks are golden moments that are a reflection of self.
Flatland BMX can be described as bicycle break dancing. It is all about balance and flow. As you’ll see from this video clip, flatland features acrobatic-like moves. Other than skill and balance all you need is a flat open space or a parking lot. Flatland works if you live in a place without a skate park or good street obstacles. A lot of the basic flatland tricks or freestyle moves are easy to learn and they look like ballet when you flow them together. Basic flatland tricks — megaspins, balancing tricks, tailwhips, cyclones, and so on — can be learned in a few days. No, you won’t be an expert in a day but you’ll be on your way with lots of practice.
Many young people learn how to ride in skate parks, which are indoor or outdoor spaces with concrete or wood ramps and obstacles. A park can be an awesome place for young riders to develop their moves, and Jim Cadenhead (of Cranky’s Bikes) is helping to support the development of new talent here in Santa Barbara. Most parks feature ramps, stairs, and railings with varying degrees of difficulty, and there are usually experienced riders around to give beginners some tips.
Currently, Santa Barbara doesn’t have a park where BMX-ers can ride. The skate park east of Stearns Wharf is not open to bikers, unlike many facilities around the world. Sharing, as I’ve discussed in past columns, is not always easy but I’m sure that skateboarders and BMX-ers could learn to ride together and respect each other’s skills and expertise. Another local project being discussed would be to build a combined mountain bike/BMX dirt park.
One of the newest full-medal Olympic sports is BMX racing, a highly competitive form of dirt riding focused on speed. Like all other styles of riding, racing requires a lot of patience to go from beginner to expert. It may take weeks or even months before you even manage to place. Racing demands a lot of training and practice time, and you need to be physically fit to win consistently. Locally, Elings Park is the place to go for BMX racing. The Gold Coast Cup races are held at both Elings and Freedom Park in Camarillo and feature top local racing talent. In the past there have been summer BMX camps at Elings for young riders looking to learn in a positive, healthy cycling environment
In New Jersey in the ‘60s we didn’t have skate parks, BMX racetracks, or bikes that could do flatland tricks. Bikes were a way to express our creativity and bonded us together as friends. Biking kept us out of trouble. You may not be into BMX but you can support young riders by cycling to the races in Elings Park on a Saturday. Stop and applaud the flatlanders’ bicycle break-dancing in a downtown parking lot on a quiet Sunday evening. Ride up to More Mesa and watch the kids ride the trails and dirt jumps. Support the use of skate parks as shared BMX facilities or get behind the development of a shared mountain bike/BMX park. BMX is a great way to introduce cycling to kids and young adults.
Like many of you, today, I mostly cycle to get places. But, there’s still a bit of the young kid—flying over jumps, doing tricks like our favorite heroes—in all of us. Supporting today’s young BMX riders is an important part of strengthening the future of cycling.