Finally, the Summer Olympics get rad: This year marks the debut of BMX, the first shredder-friendly sport in the Games. And it's come a long way since you jumped your Sting-Ray off a dirt pile, crashed and green-stick-fractured your wrist, and ran home to Mom, who yelled at you. The Beijing BMX track features a three-story-tall start ramp, which launches riders off the first jump at close to 40 mph--Tour de France top-end sprint speeds (only the Tour guys don't get air). That's followed by a 40-second full-on sprint, with elbows (and bikes) flying. There's a reason these guys wear full-body crash pads.
This is America's true homegrown cycling discipline; before mountain biking had even been invented, kids in Southern Cal and Pennsylvania had sculpted jumps and berms out of vacant lots and old piles of fill dirt. And you can bet your life that the U.S. Olympic Committee wants to take home gold in this event, especially since we have precious few other medal contenders in cycling. (How badly does the American team want to win this? Well, we spent $500,000 building an exact replica of the Beijing track in Chula Vista, CA. And I can tell you, it's scary even to stand up there on the start ramp.)
For Bicycling, I spent this spring on the trail of America's best BMXers: Kyle Bennett, Donny Robinson, Mike Day, and Jill Kintner and Arielle Martin. I went to a big regional race down in West Palm Beach, spent time with the Olympic hopefuls in training at Chula, and visited 2007 world champ Kyle Bennett in his east Texas stomping grounds:
The BMX story always starts the same, it seems: THE KID gets taken to the track by his dad or an older brother, at seven or nine or (latest) 12, and gets hooked. Even video games can't compete with jumping a bike off a pile of dirt. Except in Bennett's case there wasn't a dad around, really, or an older brother; he had only Pepa, his grandfather, the man who raised him from almost the day he was born.
When Bennett pulls into the driveway of Pepa's house, about 10 minutes from his own place, the old man is sitting in a folding chair under the shade of tall pine trees, wearing a belted seersucker ensemble and smoking a cigarette. He's brown and wrinkled almost beyond believability, watching his older son replace the battery in Bennett's ex-wife Ashley's car. Bennett bounces out and grabs their four-month-old daughter, Kylie, lifts her to the sky. The baby girl looks like she might cry, and Ashley frets. Pepa smiles. A legendary character in Texas BMX circles, his real name is Donald Collins: 84 years old, a retired water-plant contractor and veteran of multiple World War II bombing missions over Germany. After the last raid, his B-17 almost didn't make it back across the English Channel.
Fast-forward 40 years, and he's taking care of his youngest daughter's boy, trying to keep him entertained by starting nails in a plank of wood and letting the boy finish pounding them in, one after- another. The boy performed so well at this task, he hammered so enthusiastically, that the family has called him "Banger" ever since. Pepa babysat for another boy in the afternoons, and one day the boy invited Banger down to Armadillo Downs to check out the racing. "When we got home, he said, 'Pepa, I want to try that,'" he says.
A week later Banger was back at Armadillo with his Wal-Mart bike--having removed the kickstand and the fenders--and a long-sleeved shirt and a borrowed helmet. It was a Tuesday night just like this one, and nobody remembers whether he won or not, but he loved the racing, the way the bike felt as it rolled over the rounded jumps and around the three banked turns. "He said, 'I'm gonna keep doing that, Pepa,'" his grandfather remembers, and within a month Banger had a real BMX racing bike, a JMC Blazer bought used, plus a beat-up old helmet, all for 100 bucks. "I knew BMX was what I wanted to do," Bennett tells me later. "I knew I wanted to be a professional bike racer pretty much from day one."