Chapter 1: The beginning — the Matterhorn
I like to think of myself as a reasonably honest person. Not honest enough to hand in a tenner if I found it on the street — come on now, would you be? — but enough that if someone (traffic wardens / policemen excluded) left a tenner in the ATM and walked off I’d like to think my conscience would kick in and I’d run at least a few steps after them to give it back. Providing they didn’t make me run. Because of this ‘quality’ there will be moments in this book where I just can’t help but expose what a stupid human being I can sometimes be. To kick it off I’ll say that I did once leave a heavy box on top of my car and forget all about it, being so excited about the contents, only to be reminded of the fact when said box hurtled of as the speedometer hit 63 miles per hour, exploding in the road behind me and only by pure chance not causing a terrible pile-up accident and killing a dozen people. Secondly I’m going to be a man and own up now before someone who knew me as a child shows up with a picture of me in horrendous tight lycra: yes, I am willing to admit the horrible truth of the origins of my ‘getting rad’ and live with the consequences. Yes, the truth of my sordid life before discovering BMX is here in black and white as follows.
Years before the HARO GROUP 1CI racing bike, before I even knew what BMX riding really was, there was the stunning, bright green and pink, Matterhorn 9 Speed Mountain Bike. Mum even bought me some cycling-shorts — not just cycling-shorts, but deluxe cycling-shorts. I was eight years old. Chris Pink of 12, Greenfield Close, was so far ahead of his competitors it was laughable!
The Matterhorn was my first proper bicycle partner in crime and also the thing I learned to do my first official (measured by my brother with a stick) ‘bunnyhop’ on. Yes, a Mountain Bike. Back in the late 80s it didn’t matter what kind of bike you were riding or what brand of jeans you wore or how you acted and what you thought about God and the universe and Vegetarianism: it was only about the good feeling that burnt in your heart when you achieved something that no-one down your road thought was physically possible — in my case this was a bunny-hop of just over 2.5 centimeters. (And remember, this was back when it was accepted that being ‘big boned’ was a clinical condition; so comparatively, getting airborne on a bike was unthinkable to village people.)For me it was about what I could do on a bike, on my own, and believe me, after enough persuasion, the Matterhorn could do one helluva lot. I was powered by the raw beginnings of testosterone so it had very little choice.
Chapter 2: Tides Of change
As a nine year old I had no idea, as few people did, that a certain group of people were quietly revolutionizing and redefining both U.K. and U.S. BMX. Of little importance to me in the year 1990, but strangely captivating for the rest of the world, was some bloke called ‘Nelson Mandela’ being freed from a South African prison after doing a 27 year stretch. I wished him luck, of course, but owing to the fact that I lived in a fairly working-class English suburb where black people had yet to be invented — there were rumors that on the outskirts of Cambridge they might exist — it was hard to know what to make of it all. That, and the fact I was nine. Frankly, even though one year had elapsed since getting my bike airborne, bunnyhopping still required my concentration 100% of the time: getting on and off the Matterhorn without ripping my cycling shorts at the crotch required not only great patience, but a serious amount of luck.
What was even more unfamiliar than Mr. Mandela, though, were the words ‘The Backyard Jam’.
I would later find out that these guys were doing something actually pretty amazing. In these early days, BMX, outside of some rare producer’s sentimental love of the 80s, was generally considered nowhere near cool enough for TV. BMX had had its lot of media attention in the early 80s and kicking a ball about — and screaming at it — was now considered infinitely more an exciting thing to do and to watch. Because of this, there were probably only a couple of nine year olds in the whole country who were lucky enough to know about these jams, and I wasn’t one of them.
These “Backyard Jam” guys were not relying on sponsors or money from huge corporations — the events would have happened had only five people turned up, including the organizers and their folks. (Please, tell me where else this is the case?) BMX crowds, back then, were rarer than shagging Pandas are now. These guys were putting on events in fields for the hard-core, for next to no return, making dirt-jumps — back then a couple of meters between a take-off and a landing was considered massive — and launching themselves off them because it was bloody good fun. According to the magazines I would later discover, there were no rules. There was no security in place to stop unruly gatecrashers; In fact, gatecrashers, chaos and bedlam, as long as it didn’t involve ‘normal’ adults and had something vaguely to do with BMX, were encouraged. No arm-bands to prove you’d paid or not. You were met with smiles and handshakes from total strangers. If you wanted something to eat, you could walk down the road and out of the gates, without being mobbed by a gang of carnivorous Red Bull groupies, spend a fiver, and come back an hour later, happy. You didn’t have to pay to get back in either. A New York advertising executive would have fainted at the sight of so little publicity.
Aside from their groundbreaking skills on BMX bikes, the pros of the time were people like you and me. They had jobs to go to during the day, and on the weekends and in the evenings they rode their BMX bikes and the only rewards were photos in magazines. As a spectator you had money in your pocket and a sore throat from massive amounts of screaming and shouting. You didn’t care when you mangled your shins on the pedals or got hit by a bottle thrown by an over-excited maniac spectator. The Backyard Jams, which would unfold throughout the 90s and well into the 00s, were the BMX equivalent of Woodstock — the numbers weren’t ever as great, of course, but for UK BMX it was nothing less than monumental achievement: it was all about the don’t-give-a-shit attitude and embracing the rawness of unbridled, unrestricted youth. Just do it — Nike have a lot to answer for. These events were pure D.I.Y. To this day there has been nothing quite like it and there probably never will be again.
A couple of BMXers from the Hastings area — to the riders who knew them, they weren’t just riders, they were heroes — called Stu Dawkins and Ian Morris were responsible for The Backyard Jams from the beginning, which, according to BMX folklore, started at Bexhill BMX track in Hastings in 1989, the same year as the terrible human crush at Hillsborough in Sheffield, which left some 96 people tragically without their lives. The Jams’ existence and location was a lazy secret which was officially confined to Hastings, but that, in the following years, spread throughout the country on trust and good will, through word of mouth and riders meeting at skateparks and at the trails; on BMX tracks. The public didn’t care about BMX, so no-one was worried about the jams getting out of hand. The public not being there was fine for BMX.
The Backyard Jam series was not the first by a long shot. Almost ten years before that first one, a BMX racer by the name of Bob Morales — a friend of one of the founders of U.S BMX: R.L. Osborn — went about setting up an amateur BMX Freestyle contest series in the States. He called It A.S.P.A (Amateur Skate Park Association). The series was successful and eventually morphed into what became known as the “King Of The Skateparks”. It would become a proving ground to separate the good riders from the lunatics. There were many, many lunatics.
BMX publications had been there from the start of the 80s, fuelled by the enthusiasm of a select few who refused to let it fade away. For some time, a magazine called BMX Action had been canvassing BMX riding all over the U.S. The mag was legendary, devoted to showing off the flamboyant awesomeness of BMX — big helmets, fancy all-in-one suits; probably to blame for BMX garnering its reputation of being a sport for the show-off. (While that may be true to a certain extent, most BMXers, as far as I can tell, just happen to do their stuff in public places; that includes at night time, when there’s no-one around.) Over time it came to be regarded by every BMXer in the States as the Bible of 80s BMX riding. Along with its spectacular photos of BMX ramp riding and racing, it was known for printing the following awesome and outlandish statements, such as in the first ever issue:
BMX Action august 1982 : The raddest of the rad, the baaadest of the baaad. Bionic berserkos challengin’ crit craters. The elite, feet above concrete. Just about every able body with a flair for rare air was there. Where? Skate City in Whittier, California. Eighteen-year-old Bob Morales organized the event, sanctioned by his newly formed Amateur Skate Park Association (ASPA) and covered exclusively by BMX Action. Event co-sponsors included Haro Design, Skyway, Max, Torker, Vans, Oakley, BME, and BMX Action.
BMX might have cooled down a bit since the early days, but it was nowhere near dead, as so many people outside the loop believed. That was a clever lie. BMX was merely hibernating, bubbling broth-like beneath the commerce-affected skin of the planet, unbothered by parameters and government and happy like it. But it would have its time. BMX would have its just revenge, and when it would come, it would be for fun as it always had been, minus a few ESPN contests here and there and companies jumping on the bandwagon. The hardcore would ride regardless of the money or the status. Suddenly, people who thought BMX was crap would give their right arm for a piece of the pie. Funny how times change, no? (It also wouldn’t be a bad thing that riders like Jamie Bestwick — widely considered the greatest vert rider in the world right now, could concentrate on riding their bikes, instead of having to work.)
Like I said though, I didn’t have a bloody clue! I was nine and this was 1990. I was living on the outskirts of Cambridge and I’d seen more deer in the wild — two, which was plenty when you were small and had never seen one before — than I had black people walking around the City or my village, let alone, BMX bikes, ramps and riders.
Back then, while making it my mission to bunnyhop up and down every curb in the village (and I mean every curb, using a special — and I was certain exclusive to me — technique which involved leaning far over the back of the bike and then bursting forward and twisting the grips like you would the throttle on a motorbike, forcing the machine to get an inch off the ground; and producing enormous blisters / calluses on both my hands, yahoo!) the names Matt Hoffman, Dave Mirra, Mike Canning, Fids, Dave Bishop, Dean Hearne, Keith Duly, Dennis Wingham, Jamie Bestwick, Mark Richards, Rick Moliterno, Chad Degroot, Tim March, Dylan Clayton, Taj Mihelich, Southsea, Crowhurst and King Of Concrete meant nothing to me, because, like all those riders with a fire in their belly out there at the secret BMX jams, I was all wrapped up in a secret of my own and I didn’t want to know about anything else. Plus I had awesome deluxe cycling shorts. Most of all I did not want to know about the adults.
The Matterhorn voiced its concerns early on for what I had in mind for it: Huge Air. Namely by deliberately sabotaging both its brakes and giving me every reason on earth to retire it to the shed; to a life of pleasure and occasional weekend bike rides. Which I simply could not do, you understand. Yep, I almost feel sorry for the thing now.
I was absolutely obsessed with bunnyhopping: bunnyhopping after school, bunnyhopping after dinner, dreaming of bunnyhopping and bunnyhopping while dreaming. But 2.4 inches — or ‘a stick and a half’, as Matthew liked to call it — just wasn’t enough. So, I made it my mission to get both wheels airborne and higher than a curb. It came not without its obstacles — and bone-shuddering thuds — but eventually it happened, and it was a beautiful moment almost worth shredding off copious layers of thumb skin for. I’ll never forget the look on my sister’s face, when she saw me do my first real jump off ‘The Plank’ — propped up by bricks borrowed from the corner of the house — landing in the road, to the sighs and disapproval of the bewildered adults down my street.
I miss those days!