I can remember a time when I couldn’t wait to get home from school so that I could pop a disc into my Blu-ray player and watch some of the world’s top skaters and BMX-ers in action in a variety of contexts. These videos served as the inspiration behind many of the scars I now proudly carry today…
BMX refers to both, the sport in which purpose designed bicycles race against one another in a motocross style race, as well as to the type of bike used in the race. The motocross style of race means that eight riders compete against each other in a sprint around a purpose made dirt track replete with banked corners (allowing riders to maintain speed) and expressive obstacles (primarily jumps). The tracks test stamina, speed and bike handling proficiency. Although the sport evolved from Californian youth’s desire to imitate the popular motorcycle motocross in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sport currently has professional ranks that include racers (both men and women) ranging from 19 to 40 years old.
As stated, BMX’s informal origins date back to a period when young admirers of motorcycle motocross imitated the sport using their own bikes (particularly the Schwinn Sting-Ray and other wheelie bikes) on make shift dirt tracks. The bikes lent themselves to dirt track usage as they were easily modified to obtain optimal performance. By the mid-1970s, however, the popularity of the sport had grown to the extent that bike manufacturers adapted designs of existing bikes and began producing a BMX bike similar to the ones we’re familiar with today. A BMX class bike is a strong, lightweight, single speed bike with a 510mm wheel which is, importantly, easy to handle. When buying new or second hand bicycles, the single most important consideration alongside bike and component quality is bike size: to achieve best results, a bike frame size must suit the ergonomics of its rider.
The explosion of BMX’s popularity in the early and mid-70s can, in part, be attributed to the documentary On Any Sunday (1972). The documentary, which received financial backing from Steve McQueen (who was himself a racing veteran), followed the lives of motorcycle racers, and attempted to portray the different personalities required for each type of racing: the motocross racers were romanticised as free spirits. The opening sequence of the Academy Award nominated documentary shows Californian children and teenagers riding their bicycles on ground tracks in imitation of their heroes. Owing to the success of the documentary, the phenomenon which had been localised to the United States’ west coast became a national sensation.
BMX allowed youths the excitement of motocross-styled racing and tracks at a fraction of the cost of the motorised version of the sport. Although beginning in a somewhat haphazard fashion, tracks became increasingly formalised and a standard contemporary track is a circuit of about 350m in length, 4.6m in width, and is designed to safely accommodate 8 riders (starting in an inline formation like most sprint races) who compete per heat.
BMX racing is usually regarded as having begun officially when George Esser initiated the National Bicycle League (NBL) as a non-profit bicycle motocross sanctioning organization in 1974. Esser’s sons were motorbike motocross riders who enjoyed BMX racing with friends; the races, however, weren’t sanctioned by a governing body whose purpose it was to regulate the safety, insurance and ranking aspects of the sport. Taking his previous experience with motocross sanctioning into account, Esser decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1977 the American Bicycle Association (ABA) was formed as a national sanctioning body. By 1981, BMX racing had become an international sport, and the International BMX Federation was founded: an immediate consequence of this was that a BMX world championship could now take place. The first world championship was held in 1982. In 1993, BMX racing was integrated into the umbrella organisation, Union Cycliste Internationale. The UCI is based in Switzerland, and is the primary body governing all forms of international sports cycling. In 2003 the International Olympic Committee included BMX as an official Olympic sport, and in the 2008 summer games in Beijing, BMX made its Olympic debut as a full-medal event. In addition to the recognition of official international sporting committees, BMX enthusiasts and participants enjoy the culture created by privately sponsored competitions and events like the ETNIES backyard jam and the Summer X Games Extreme Sports competition.