x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

BMX hits the big time

BMX, the genre of cycling typically equated with 10-year-olds popping wheelies, will be an Olympic sport now.

Briton Shanaze Reade, the current women's world champion, will be going for gold in Beijing.
Briton Shanaze Reade, the current women's world champion, will be going for gold in Beijing.

Mike Day's mind wanders when he spends hours training on his BMX bike, daydreaming of how 'The Star-Spangled Banner' will sound at a medal ceremony in Beijing. Jill Kintner blocks the pain that sometimes shoots through her shredded knee when she pedals, soothed by the lure of Olympic gold. For years, Day and Kintner and everyone else in their sport has been largely anonymous, invisible on grander athletic scales.

Not anymore. BMX, the genre of cycling typically equated with 10-year-olds popping wheelies in a driveway or sprinting over a little jump built in the backyard, is all grown up. It will be an Olympic sport for the first time this summer. It's a move that will bring in new faces to invigorate the games - in much the same way as adding snowboarding to the winter line-up - and give legitimacy to the athletes who pedal those little bikes competitively all over the world.

"It's amazing to be able to compete for a living, but I don't think that's our main victory in this," said American Donny Robinson, the world's top-ranked BMX racer. "Having BMX in the Olympics allows us to have our sport be considered a big-time deal. We aren't punk kids that tear up shopping centres. This is our passion and our whole lives - and now we have the chance to show what we can do on the biggest athletic stage ever."

This isn't the freestyle, folks-riding-in-a-halfpipe type of BMX. It's the traditional version of the sport; eight riders in a heat, descending from a giant start ramp and then jostling through bumps, jumps, banked turns and long straightaways. Spills will happen, and injuries are common as riders combine speed, power and fearlessness. In other words, it's just what young people want. "Like most kids you start out riding your bike for fun," said Kintner, who will race in Beijing despite a torn knee ligament.

"You know, it is something any kid can do and is accessible for so many people. As it gets more competitive it becomes addictive. Day, Robinson and former world champion Kyle Bennett will make up the US men's roster; Kintner is the lone woman racing BMX for the Americans, who have been among the sport's elite since its invention. Even though the US has long been a BMX powerhouse, those four aren't quite medal certainties. Australia, Latvia and the Netherlands have strong men's programs; New Zealand, France and Britain boast serious medal hopefuls in the women's race.

BMX, invented 40 years ago or so in California, has gone global. "It isn't just important for me," said Shanaze Reade, the British women's BMX gold-medal hopeful. "It's also important for the sport of BMX racing to get the recognition it deserves, to be an Olympic sport." So in August, it will be on display alongside the other cycling disciplines - road, mountain and track. An exact replica of the Beijing course sits outside the BMX training compound in Chula Vista, California, meaning the Americans have done thousands of laps to get perfect timing down for what awaits them in China.

The thinking is clear: They'll have a huge edge over the rest of the world, in that race for Olympic gold and all the endorsement deals and newfound fame that would surely come with a sparkling medal. "The money is coming a lot more into the sport. But I've never done it for the money," Bennett said. "I started when I was seven because I just loved to ride my bike around and catch air." Soon, he and the rest of the world's best will be catching Beijing air.

* AP