I Spent 7 Days In England Contemplating BMX’s Faith.

chillerz

(This was originally posted on The Come Up on September 13th, 2014)

Let’s start with a controversial statement:

Modern street riding, the kind you see pro BMX riders doing in videos, is not just difficult, but damn near impossible in the vast majority of places on Earth. There simply aren’t that many cities that are packed with coping ledges, below bar height handrails and pristine flat bars. Sure, you can ride street anywhere. You could find a rock in a Walmart parking lot and bunnyhop over it. You could ride off the roof of your Mom’s house. Every town in America probably has a curb worth manualing. But the majority of street videos that make it onto the front page of websites like this one are full of people grinding stuff, and there isn’t much of anything to grind in the majority of places.

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area that is developed enough to house 5 or more high quality street spots within a 10 minute drive, you should consider yourself lucky. The majority of places are just too flat and under-developed for there to be much of anything worth riding. Some of you may disagree with this, but I’m sure that many more of you live in such places and know that it’s true.

Brighton isn’t totally devoid of spots but it isn’t exactly LA or Barcelona either. Why Brighton then? The first Brighton Ain’t Ready came out in 2007 and at that time, the location was a simple question of convenience. Brighton is an hour outside of Hastings, where Seventies Distro is located. London would be an obvious choice for a Hastings based BMX brand to stage a 6 month DVD project, but at the time it seemed a tad cliche and London’s general massiveness was thought to be a little overwhelming. So Brighton it was.

The resulting DVD was a classic. A 6 month video project filmed in one small city is an interesting format and Ed Allen handled it masterfully. Sean Sexton truckdrivered down stairs with an uncanny aggression, early freecoaster pioneer Karl Poynter floated around backwards on Brighton’s brick laid streets, Dakota wallrided the fuck out of things and Niki Croft capped it all off with a hooliganistic tirade of an ender section.

The lengthy 6 month time frame no doubt helped ensure the video’s worth but the video’s appeal and notoriety comes from the fact that the artists at work were able to do so much with so little. As is to be expected from what is at it’s heart is just a small town BMX video, spots were and are hard to come by. Niki Croft’s banger says it all. It’s a rail hop of epic proportions but it is also a rail hop that would go ignored in most major cities. The runway is fucked, there’s a ledge after it and the hop itself is crazy tall.

With just over half a decade separating the second Brighton Ain’t Ready and the first, I knew immediately that this would offer up a unique vantage point. Two videos, 6 years apart, in the same town, both featuring many of the top pros of the day from all over the world filming bike tricks on Brighton’s sparse street offerings.

An obvious truth: BMX has changed a lot in the past 6 years. Damn near everyone has added pegs, removed brakes and put on freecoasters. Plastic pegs weren’t around for the first B.A.R. but this time around the vast majority of participants have them. Riding has gotten slower, more technical, more grind-heavy and as a result, the percentage of spots considered rideable has dropped. Think of it like this; what percentage of flat ledges could you imagine a feeble 180 on? Essentially all of them. Now what percentage of ledges could you imagine someone doing a 180 Luc-e grind to toothpick 180 (a real trick Bruno Hoffman did during my stay) on? As tricks have gotten more and more technical, fewer and fewer spots seem capable of hosting them.

Although weeks had been reserved for the Subrosa, Primo, Cult and Kink teams, I was booked as an embedded journalist of sorts during the Federal team’s stay. My assumption going in, informed by both my memories of the original and Lacey’s vivid descriptions of Brighton’s spot slim pickings, was that it would be a week of scrounging and that by the trip’s end, the riders would have begun to resemble retirees on the beach, bumbling about fruitlessly with metal detectors in hand.

Just as I expected, the lack of things worth riding was already the topic of conversation by the time I arrived. Sean Ricany had told the Seventies media crew, after a long day of being brought to spots he didn’t like, to “bring me to some Cali spots”. The media crew thought this was so funny that they even produced their own memes on the topic:

brightoncali

(Via @fastforwardbmx)

Ricany was right though; Cali this was not.

On my first day in town we headed to Brighton University. Like many places, Brighton’s greatest cluster of spots is located at it’s center for higher learning. And just like in California, the media crew were already aware that a Tuesday afternoon was not an ideal time for a street session. Out in Ricany’s fabled “Cali” where I live, there are hundreds of colleges within an hour of my apartment but we leave them alone except for weekends and the occasional generator session on account of security concerns. Those precautions are just as valid in Brighton as they are in So Cal, but in Brighton if you want to ride street, you must simply try, regardless of how unlikely it seems that you’ll actually get some time at the spot. The alternative to riding high security colleges in California is riding something else, the alternative in Brighton would be to just stay home.

Shawn Mcintosh was on his final day in Brighton with the Primo squad. We rolled up to an apocalyptic set up that had been taunting him for a few days. It started out normal enough, but about half way through things ceased to be relatable and all of a sudden you were in a place where even the slightest gravitation from your trajectory would surely leave you hospitalized.

Shitty, as it turns out, was in the mood to do something life threatening. A few nights before he and Alex Kennedy had consumed some sort of magical potion and spent the entire evening wandering the streets of Brighton. They ended their evening by climbing some trees to watch the sun rise and remained there, lost in conversation until noon the following day before stomping off to Mac Shit’s eatery of choice, Burger Brothers, where he ate at least once daily for the duration of his stay.

shawnmac

(Shawn entertaining some security. Photo: Bakos)

Whether it was the magic potion or the burgers, Mr. Mcintosh was determined to claim this spot before he went back to America. Unfortunately, even though this was our first destination on campus, security became aware of our location only minutes after we arrived. To their credit, they were quite polite.

They say that one of the defining traits of a psychopath is that in intense, life or death situations where normal people panic or freeze up, overwhelmed with emotion and fear, psychopaths experience relief. Things slow down. The whole world moves like molasses as they navigate the circumstances in front of them. There’s a reason that moves like The Matrix often features heros who can cause time to slow down; it reflects how the best of us operate under extreme stress. It is estimated that roughly 1% of the world’s population are psychopaths.

I’ll stop short of clinically diagnosing Shitty, but it’s clear that he doesn’t possess a normal range of anxiety and fear. Upon realizing that security had descended upon us, he climbed back up the stairs without a word. He motioned to the cameramen to make sure they were ready and while Caleb Quanbeck momentarily distracted the guards, he fired the trick out first try. He was expecting to be at the spot for a while. He was so scared of the set up that he hadn’t even mentioned it to anyone on the trip. He knew he had no other option. Shitty will probably never step foot in Brighton again and he had to make it count.

Moments later he remarked that just before he did the trick, he had seen an ant carrying a crumb 3 times it’s size and it had inspired him.

That moment transcended the average BMX session and eased my concerns (if you want to call them that) that given how specific, particular and grind oriented BMX has become in the 6 year interim, that we wouldn’t get much riding done on the streets of Brighton.

Every day we would rise around noon and while Bakos cooked us breakfast, the crew would sit around in the living room talking shit, rolling spliffs and consuming as much of the wifi as possible before venturing out into the internet-less outdoors. Even though Mike King and Bakos had already been showing teams around Brighton for a few weeks, each day they had to rack their brain to think of something worth going to. One morning Mike was thinking out loud about what spot would keep the crew entertained and he queried Stevie “what are you in the mood for?” to which Stevie unimaginatively replied:

“it would be cool to ride a flat ledge for a bit to warm up and maybe film something”

Mike wasted no time and told Stevie that there weren’t really any of those to be had.

Despite all that, the team thrived. Although most Federal trips are booked to BMX destinations like Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and Austin, with far more rideable spots than Brighton, we were still rarely at a loss for what to do. One day we spent over an hour riding some flat rails that were too short to so much as double peg:

flatrails

These things suck. But Stevie filmed a really good line here, Bruno and Diogo did some stuff for Instagram and I managed to enjoy myself even if all I could do was attempt to crook them without doing a foul bottom bracket scrape out.

On the final day of my stay we were rained out by 4 PM but around 10 PM just as it dried up Mike suggested that we go ride another spot that was inaccessible during daylight hours, 5 bike length curved marble ledges in a half circle. Apparently Grant Castelluzzo had filmed a line there a few weeks earlier and Mike thought Bruno might be into it. We completed the prerequisite spliff construction and then pedaled 2 blocks before realizing the ledges had been covered in wooden planks:

lacey12

(Dan Lacey. Photo: Bakos)

Where once stood a reasonable, but unspectacular spot it was now an entirely illogical one. We’ve all seen a half assed skate stop job before, but this, this is impressive. I respect this. In much the same way that police officers marvel at a master jewel heist, we all stood in awe. We tried to imagine what genius of skate stopping had completed the task. Whoever he is, he did a hell of a job because this spot fucking sucks now.

Bruno started grinding the ledge anyway. At first he was surprised that he could even eek out a feeble, but within a couple tries he managed to feeble hard 180 over the bumpy wooden pieces. He tried to film a line for a while but knocked out a bunch of spokes and decided it wasn’t going to work. Michal Smelko took over and filmed a line of his own that ended with a perfect ice 180. An ice 180! On a spot that less than an hour earlier we had considered curtains.

Just as the camera gear was packed away, I told Smelko that I would give him $20 if he could toothpick the bench. He wasn’t feeling it, but Lacey, always in the mood for a challenge, gave it a whirl just to see if it would work. He tried to reject my cash reward but I made him take it anyway and he pulled it within a couple tries only to then start attempting to 180 out which he would have if the park’s lights hadn’t turned off at the strike of midnight.

We rode back to the house, excited to finally retire for the evening. I was to fly out in the morning, so I decided this would be an opportune time to re-watch the original Brighton Ain’t Ready. It forced me to contemplate all these years worth of progression in BMX tricks I’ve been watching so intently.

I remember around the time that Steven Hamilton’s revolutionary Can I Eat section came out, Brian Wizmerski was quoted as saying that Steven’s riding represented a new guard of BMX, one that was invincible in the face of skate stoppers and that would ultimately replace peg based street riding. I was fascinated by Wiz’s willingness to say such a thing publicly because 1) Wiz had become famous for riding in a very peg-heavy style, the kind he was predicting would eventually die out given enough time and 2) his prediction cast light on the fact that BMX riding was forever in a state of change, something I hadn’t quite considered. The cultural norms that govern our ideas of what’s cool, what’s worth doing and what’s worth riding are transient by design and to assign any sort of greater meaning to bike tricks is ultimately useless. Some of the same tricks that could earn you a sponsorship in 2002 would earn you blank stares or chuckles 10 years later and each generation consider’s the former’s style of dress cornier than the last.

Many of you, particularly the under 20 set are probably under the impression that BMX as we know it will live on forever, but it’s not that simple. Sure park and street riding are big now, but street riding wasn’t terribly popular when I started. Back then park and dirt were by far the biggest disciplines. Since then a lot has changed. Park is still popular although the cultural divide between park riders and street riders has never been bigger. Flatland is dramatically less popular now than it was when I started riding. There’s often talk about some sort of dirt renaissance brewing but I don’t think anyone is in denial about dirt being less popular now than ever. Same with vert. The 2014 X Games vert contest was dominated by 40+ year olds, while the street course was dominated by guys in their early 20s. It’s reasonable to assume that you could still get Garrett Reynolds to show up at a contest and 180 crook something in 2034. Will there even be enough riders to pull off a vert contest 20 years from now?

I consider it unlikely that BMX will ever die off entirely like Rollerblading – as long as kids continue to learn to ride bicycles, there will always be some enterprising brat who learns to wheelie before everyone else his age. But it could change so much as to become almost unrecognizable in comparison to what we know today. I’m sure that to many of the early freestyle pioneers, modern street riding seems like some sort of baffling, mystical offshoot of what they once loved. Some of them would probably even express disgust at the current state of things, although I would hope that most of them would appreciate how far things have come even if they can no longer relate.

Historically speaking, BMXers don’t age well. Most 14 year old BMX fanatics will be done by the time they hit 18. The majority of the select few who hang on will still have hung up their shin guards by their mid 20s. Going pro (or getting involved in the industry in some way) tends to make guys stick around for longer of course, but the average pro career is still less than 10 years and it’s easy to see why the punishing physical nature of BMX causes many riders to move on instead of pursuing their hobby into adulthood like they might if they had grown up obsessed with something less physical like painting, chess or golf.

Because BMXers are so young on average, BMX companies market their products in such a way as to appeal to them. They put young riders who do fancy new tech tricks on their teams. Websites and magazines push young riders because they know that those are the riders that their demographic want to see. This all seems very logical, but it also leaves a lot of older riders feeling alienated, almost as if the BMX industry is intentionally undermining “true” riding in favor of what’s new and flashy. What these aspiring elderstatesmen often miss out on is that the style of riding that they consider so pure is actually the product of 40 years of constant change.

When people feel like the subculture they affiliated themselves with during their childhood has been in some way violated, they complain about it online. It’s incredibly common to hear people on the Internet talking about how BMX just isn’t like it used to be. The blame for this apparent change is directed at either the brands, the media, the riders themselves or some combination of the three. These cries are loud and persistent, although they’ve yet to convince me there’s anything wrong with “kids these days”. But still, I’ve read those opinions and I’m aware that many of my peers think that BMX has become objectively worse since 2008.

Unable to remember many specifics, I assumed that the riding in the first Brighton Ain’t Ready would be almost unrecognizable in comparison to the riding I had just spent a week witnessing. After all, it’s not uncommon for a bike trick to be considered groundbreaking upon it’s release and then to become commonplace within just a year or two’s time.

But after watching the original B.A.R. I was struck by just how familiar it felt, almost like my week in Brighton was a part of the original trip albeit with 6 years in between. Sure things were simpler then, but all of the important elements of modern street riding are there. Dudes are better now. They do harder shit and sometimes it’s so tech as to be obnoxious, but for the most part, things are still the fucking same. As much as things have changed, the dudes didn’t have any problem adjusting to Brighton’s spots, and in fact probably ended up going outside their comfort zone much more than they might have in a more supple environment. The BMX community won’t ever form a uniform consensus on what grinds are cool but at least on a personal level, watching Brighton Ain’t Ready again after all those years and after having experienced it much the same as those dudes did gave me a renewed sense that BMX was just fine.

One time I was talking to this guy I know about what it’s like having children and even though I have absolutely no plans of procreating in the near future, he gave me some great advice. He said that the biggest mistake he made occurred during his first daughter’s early years. He said that he spent at least some of his time looking forward to the future, thinking things like “I can’t wait till you can walk so I don’t have to carry you everywhere” or “I can’t wait until you can talk so we can have a conversation”. I responded that those seemed like pretty ordinary observations to have. He said that he thought that until he had his second child. Going through all of those changes the second time (and essentially wishing that time would hurry up and pass) made him realize that he should have been completely focused on the present. Sure, it would be nice if the kid could talk, but when he’s 18 and moves away from home, you’ll look at the photos of him as a baby and remember those days as some of the best times of your life. Every second you spend wishing that things were different is a second you could have spent embracing the present and feeling lucky about what you have.

I think the same logic applies to growing old with BMX. There will always be tricks, people and situations that you don’t like along the way, but if you allow those things to become anything more than a passing distraction, you have committed a serious mistake. Even the worst trick or trend you can imagine exists for a reason, even if that reason is just so that it can be consumed, digested and deemed unsavory in the court of public opinion.

As for me, my week in Brighton left me convinced that street riding has never been better. I keep waiting for that moment where I’m going to want to hand off TCU to somebody else and focus my energy on something else, but I still don’t really know what life without BMX is like. Even something as horrifically depressing as no longer being able to do a trick you once did with ease isn’t so bad once you’ve realized that riding BMX long enough to have such an experience is something of an honor in itself.

The first time you pick up a BMX bike, you can’t do any tricks. You’ve got this mental notepad in your head but there’s nothing written down on it. Then you get good (or at least better), and you add all of these cool accomplishments to the checklist that is floating around inside your head. But then, if you keep riding long enough, eventually that list will start to shrink until it’s almost the same size as it was when you started. Most people won’t even have to wait that long. They’ll quit after a few years or whenever they stop having fun, and that’s fine. Nobody expects you to ride forever.

But until you become one of them, don’t ever stop being excited about this shit.

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