BMX: Rails Always Smoother on the Other Side

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from England. For more, click here.

Where does the Bicycle Motocross (BMX) mecca lie? Where the rails are smooth, the money is good, and the pace is calm. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find all of that in one place.

In England, the pace is calm but the money is bad. In America, the money is good and it’s easier to gain prestige, but the pace is hectic and the competition fierce. Cities have also installed spiked handrails to stop skaters and bikers from grinding on them, making it harder to ride just for casual recreation.

Yet America claims to be the birthplace of the sport. In 1970 somewhere in Southern California, so the legend goes, a bunch of kids emulated their motorcycle motocross heroes by grabbing their 20" Schwinn Stingray bicycles, entering a backyard dirt park and getting serious air: thus BMX was born. Through the next two decades, documentaries, competitions and word of mouth helped spread BMX around the world to Japan, Australia, and England. In 2008, China will introduce BMX to the worldwide Olympic Games.

In England, soon after the sport was born in the U.S., a concrete cavern underneath Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank opened up as the sport’s unofficial UK home. It’s still in use today, flooded with graffiti artists, skaters, bikers, and curious bystanders.

Amidst whizzing bikes, an English rider named Darryl Munroe, who came from Jamaica but has lived in London for 14 years, described the BMX hype in America, how its stars get cash and international prestige. Fellow bike mechanic Ted Nelson agrees, saying it’s much harder to make a living through BMX in the UK. His romantic vision is of riding through the middle of New York City, jumping off street curbs to weave between tall buildings and dodge yellow taxi cabs. East Coast style, Munroe tells me, is like jazz -- casual at first glance, but demonstrating exceptional skill. The West Coast style, in contrast, is extreme: huge jumps, crazy tricks. London style, he says, is a mix of the two, “because we get both influences” equally.

The big difference, American pro-rider Josh Betley says, is the competition and the pace. “I’m much more laid back about biking,” he tells me. If he wasn’t, America would be his destination of choice. There’s money and more recognition, but the competition is fierce because “everybody wants to be a rockstar.” People are less inclined to be “laid back” about all of it, “like they seem to be here.” Betley “loves it here” in the UK for that reason.

And there’s another one. The streets of many U.S. cities are filling up with new buildings that are designed to be anti-biker and anti-graffiti. In addition to the spiked handrails, builders coat concrete with a slippery substance to make graffiti easy to remove -- which also makes braking tough on a bike. “There’s a stigma in the U.S.” against biking that there doesn’t seem to be here, says Betley.

And on top of that, there’s a lot more beef between skaters and bikers in the U.S. with each hogging their own skate parks. “It seems to be better over here” in the UK, Betley says. But British biker Munroe tells me exactly the opposite, explaining the real tension between bikers and skaters in South Bank. So there may be a few more similarities between the biking scenes on either side of the Atlantic than meets the eye.

EnglandAmar Bakshi