Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Origins Part II

So yeah, Huffy Pro Thunder changed everything. I now had what I considered to be a bona-fide BMX racing machine (it was not). It was even track certified, whatever that means. I think it means that the first time I took it to the BMX track, the pedal came out of the crank and I now needed a new crankset. But this was just the start of what formed my love of off-road riding.

Growing up, I had a great BMX facility right down the street from my house. It was known as “The Trails” and it was a 2 acre site covered with BMX trails. There was the Ski Jump, which was a jump directly at the bottom of a three story tall steep hill. The jump was pretty much an Evil Knieval triangular/pie shaped ramp and folks used to line up tires at the bottom for jumping over. The longest jump I witnessed there was fifteen tires long. The rider rode a loop of the track and then dropped in. He was flying, down the hill and over the tires. Understand that the hill was so deep that one could skid 1/3 of the way down and still have enough speed to jump three tires. Not that I would ever wimp out that way, no sir ; ). The average rider could clear 8 tires.

Another feature there was the pit jump, which was a flyout jump preceded by a roll in. Imagine sprinting at 100% effort and then dropping down three feet and up six within a span of ten feet. That was the pit jump. Jumping tires was popular here too, but they were stacked high rather than laying them out lengthwise. Four foot was the average amount of air a good rider could get. I remember seeing a friend crack a brand new Powerlite cruiser frame on this jump. It was THE best jump in the entire place and definitely the most popular one.

There was a section called the Roller Coaster, which basically was a long downhill and uphill, but broken up with flat sections, so it felt like riding a roller coaster. In the middle of the park, there was a bump jump and at the top of the park, there was a hump jump. One was good for distance and the other one was just for fun with no real ability to get much air, but it was fun to speed jump.

As time went on and more folks were riding and racing BMX, we added jumps like the ones at the BMX tracks. I remember building a set of doubles, with one angled out further than the other so folks who could not jump them at the further distance could jump them at the closer distance. These jumps lasted a few weeks, and then the folks who could not jump them started to tear them out. We convinced them to turn the jump into a tabletop jump, then we made the tabletop jump a reverse step up. We then turned it back into a larger double jump with the center filled in, but the same folks who tried to remove the double removed the new double as well, leaving it a reverse step jump. I did manage to build another double jump in another spot. This set was only 8 inches high, but the jumps were about ten feet apart. This made for a challenging jump for those wanting to try it and those who did not could just ride them as two humps. These stayed until the park was plowed over.

This BMX park got a lot of use and I was lucky enough to be able to ride it every day. We played a lot of bike tag, rode a lot of laps, and learned how to jump there. It was not uncommon to have unsanctioned BMX races there, but the outcome was pretty much the same because the same people always rode there. It was here that I met two very good friends that I am still friends with today. One of these guys was a huge benefit to the place and a leader among the group. He had visions of what the place could be and had all of us moving large mounds of dirt to make it happen. He had the trails widened (which was good here) so that we could race side by side rather than have to follow the leader. He changed the roller coaster from a goat path to a six foot wide trail with a large step jump in the middle. He helped build all of the jumps. He raced BMX, road, MTB, and worked at Henry’s bikes when Henry’s was a small bike shop in the city. On the road, he raced as a Cat 3 and he raced Expert MTB. He still works in the industry, but no longer races. He is still pencil thin and could probably race road or MTB in the Cat 3 road/Expert MTB and do well with a year of serious training .

My other friend from this era still rides bikes as well. He races MTB from time to time, but work and his family keeps him from seriously training and racing these days. He was a very good BMX racer and won a national in NJ in 1985. He still has the five foot tall trophy to prove it, or at least I think he does. He was even lucky enough to have his picture with his name printed in Bicycles Today, the NBL monthly newspaper/magazine - - a feat of which I am still in awe of today. This is back when the internet did not really exist, blogs were just a twinkle in someone’s eye, and getting magazine coverage was pretty darn hard for “just some guy”.

BMX racing kept me out of trouble as a youth. There was trouble to be found there too, but wanting to race kept me on the straight and narrow. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to do well enough to get on a good team, someday getting good enough to be on a Factory Team, the ultimate achievement for any BMX crazed teenager in the 80’s. I always made sure my gear and bike were clean, just in case some BMX team manager was at the race scouting for new riders. Even at some little local events.

I probably raced 200 BMX races in my career and there are three events that stand out clearly in my mind as the best 3 races ever. In the summer of 1985, I had a great race that put me on the Wooden Wheels BMX roster. Tom Harvey Sr was at the track, as he frequently was. He was a huge supporter of the track and gave both dollars and time to the sport. I was racing 15 Novice (which is like Sport in the MTB class categories). I was not riding for a team at the time. Mr. Harvey was always extremely nice to me as was the rest of his family, although Tom Harvey Jr. was not working in the shop nor was he around the BMX scene at this time. I suspect he was pretty wrapped up in his band at the time. Anyhoo, Mr. Harvey was telling me he was considering adding a rider from my class to the team. It was right before my moto and he told me he was considering adding Bill Swanson from PA or some other guy named Billy from Kennett Square. I looked him in the eye and said both riders are pretty nice and that would be a tough choice. Bill and Billy were both in my moto that day and I went out and won that moto with Mr. Harvey watching. When I went back to staging for my next moto, I said to Mr. Harvey “What about me Mr. Harvey? Would you consider adding me to the team?” He shook my hand right there and said welcome aboard. I went on to win the next two motos, stoked to have been added to the team (a similar event would happen later in life, same team, different manager, different discipline, but the same excitement).
The second event that I clearly remember was the 1985 Ironman Classic in Howell, NJ. This race was held on the first weekend of December and it was a pretty big deal. Back then, BMX was usually finished as soon as the cold came, typically October. The Ironman was one last chance for a race and the payout was good. EVERY rider to make the main event (top 8) would get a new helmet. They had good sponsors for the event and you would even get a special number plate just for the event. I trained very hard for this event because I wanted a new helmet badly. I lifted weights every day to get my body ready, spent a lot of time on the rollers, and spent hours doing sprints outside in the cold. On the day of the race, I was leading the first moto by a lot and spun out in a turn, going from first to sixth quickly. Second moto was a win by a large margin. I was crossing the finish line as the second place rider was rounding the final turn. All I had to do was finish the last moto in 4th or better and I would transfer. The helmet would be mine. I led this moto out of the gate all the way to the final turn where I once again spun out and four riders passed me. I finished 5th and did not transfer to the main. It was a large disappointment at the time, but clearly it was my best race ever. If I had tires with more tread (I was poor, remember?), I probably would not have slid out. I may have been trying to apply too much power for the conditions as the track was frozen in the morning and thawed out during the day.

The third event I remember was a double points race at Lums Pond. It was 1985 and my last year as a Novice. No one else was registered for Novice in my age category, so I was forced to race the 15 Expert race. My good friend Craig was in the race too and this was about the time he was really training and racing well. We often rode together at the trails and spent time riding and hanging out, so when he got the holeshot I and rode on his wheel in second, it was just like riding at the trails for me. I remember telling him “I’m going to get you Craig” in every corner and followed him, beating all of the other Expert riders around the track. I finally got passed in the final straight by Alan Foster, who told me I should upgrade to Expert because I was good enough. I was do distracted by trying to beat Craig that I was able to beat a lot of great riders racing in a class above mine.

Around 1987, BMX racing dried up quickly in the Mid Atlantic. Kids stopped racing, tracks started closing, and BMX became unpopular. Having to get a job at 16 made it tough to train and by the end of 1988, BMX was done for me. It was hard to travel 2 hours plus to races to only have 3 or 4 guys in your class - - and that class was 15 and up, so at 18 I was racing 15, 16, and 17 year olds, which was not the case when I started in 1984 and BMX was huge.

I rode my BMX bike a little bit from 1989 to 1993, jumping curbs and bridges down by the brandwine, but the trails had been flattened and there was no real BMX “parks” around. In 1993, I traded a BMX cruiser for a Jamis Dakota that was way too big for me. I had a MTB though and that is all that mattered. The Jamis opened up new doors . . . . to be continued.