Was BMX The Gateway
I watched the double feature 'Joe Kid on a Stingray - The History of BMX + Stompin Stu-The Story of BMX legend Stu Thomsen DOUBLE FEATURE' on Amazon the other night. It got me wondering if BMX was the gateway to all the sub-culture activity that I've been involved with ever since? You know they always call marijuana the gateway drug and that can be debated to whether it leads to hard drugs or not. However the thing that using it does is put the user in contact with a lot of hard drugs that they wouldn't have came in contact with otherwise. BMX was that way for me. It put me in contact with kids that I really doubt I would have hung out with and through them I was exposed to a great deal of underground culture.
Like any kid, my bike represented freedom to explore and travel. The distance you traveled was only limited by your energy and being having enough time to get home before super. It greatly expanded my world in a very personal way. Sure skateboarding had the same effect but the distance and terrain was much more limited. No with a bike you could explore the back roads, trails and even a few of the corn fields that surrounded my half urban, half farm land neighborhood.
One of the things that didn't seem to be covered in the movie was the influence of Evil Kenevil on the generation of kids that grew up in the 1970s. It's hard now to really understand how much he was a hero to every kid in America. The first Stingray style bike I ever had was a 1976 Sears AMF Evil Kenevil bike complete with plastic fenders, fake suspension forks, number plate and motorcycle style seat all decked out in Red, White and Blue. The day I got it I promptly began to jump that excessively heavy bike off everything I could find. I was rewarded with a number of bruises, scraps and my first case of road rash for my effort to be Evil Kenevil. At the tender age of seven I was hooked to the trill of riding dangerously. For years after every time the subject came up many of those involved in BMX and especially Freestyle would tell similar stories.
It would be a number of years before I got my first BMX and found a group of like minded daredevils but when I got bit by BMX bug the infection went deep. We would gather and run the streets, either hitting the local dirt spot the Coal Mines or searching endlessly for the prefect curb or ditch. Maybe an even bigger effect on my life was the magazines. Some of you might know that I was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 5th grade. Though books interested me, something about learning everything I could about BMX drove me to read like never before. I pored through BMX Plus and my favorite BMX Action and most of those magazines were the first books I read from cover to cover that weren't required reading. Dyslexia often required me to read around words to find the meaning. Which is a method I use even today and greatly improved my reading and spelling ablity. I really unsure that without the passion I had for BMX, if my reading would have ever improved.
Those magazines exposed when to a completely different culture that I wouldn't have been. It effected how I dressed, talked and lived my life. BMX was the first time I really started to move away from the life my parent's had envisioned for me and allowed me to have something that was mine. I'm not saying that they weren't supportive, though it did take a lot of wearing down to convince them to allow me to race and then later build ramps in their yards.
Racing was a mixed experience. It seemed like everyone that I knew that rode BMX wanted to race but coming from the street/dirt rat background racing was overly constrictive. By the time I started racing it had already began to die off. For me the thing that seemed to make me loose interest the most was the fact that technique had gotten to the point where all the fun parts of BMX, jumping and being stylish had been driven out of it. To win it meant keeping your wheels in contact with the ground as much as possible. That and maybe the fact that it seemed like a junior version of Motocross, which I had no interest in, was part of the problem. From the uniforms down to wearing goggles it was all a little silly.
Freestyling on the other hand was more in tune to what we did every day in the street. As far back as 1982 we were all trying to do the tricks that graced the pages of BMX Action. Monthly I was presented by a new trick from Bob Haro, R.L Osborn and Mike Buff. I don't know how many hours I spent crossing the pavement of the street in my house trying to pull off a extra high endo or a rock walk. A lot of people think of those great events in their teens, Things like scoring the winning touch down or that match winning take down or that first time they got to second base. For me it was the first time I pulled off a rock walk. Little did I know it at the time but this simple act would shape the next four or five years in my life. I remember the neighbor kid being unimpressed and suggesting that I try something else. The public is never satisfied.
Through BMX Freestyling my world expand even more. I came up with the idea to start a Trick Team, even went as far as setting it up as a legitimate business with a trade name and sales tax permit. Looking back on it now I can't believe that business people took a call from a 15 year old kid and then allowed and even paid us to do demos. I first one was at a local mall and they let us in the night before to practice. Give us free run of the mall and all that smooth tiled floors for a two hours. It could have been the tire marks or the scratches from moving the large benches but we weren't asked back. The thing is that even though our skill was limited and there was only a limited amount of tricks to do, the crowds were large and respective.
I learned carpentry by building a number of ramps. Those ramp building day were like barn raising with every kid with a bike or a skateboard in the neighborhood chipping it to erect them. Long before the days of city owned skateparks if you wanted vert, you begged your parents to build a dangerous attraction in their backyard. Through out the Des Moines area there were all these little groups of friends that rode. It would be through seeing ramps here and there and the demos that we did at the Iowa State Fair in 1985 and 1986, that we would meet them.
There was Freeestyle Freddie, Rod Smith and guys that hung out and rode around the Grandview College Area on Des Moines' East side. There was the group of kids that hung around Russ Cook's Half pipe and around Bar Bicycle. There was the crew of kids that hung around the Ingersol area and Doug Shaw's house. There was a group of kids from Altoona, Ankeny and Waukee and Pat Schoolen and his group of friends that hung out at the 7/11 on E Euclid. Each group had their own style and bag of tricks that had developed from them trying to do what they saw in the pages of Freestylin'. Back then if you saw a kid on a BMX Freestyling bike, you stopped and talked to them because there were so few of us.
BMX also taught me how to network, collecting phone numbers form those I met and building a list of floors to sleep on and places to ride throughout Iowa. It always seemed like every demo we did there would be a group of kids on BMX even in these small towns throughout Iowa. It was around this time that we began to travel on the weekends to visit and ride with these little pocket of riders in places like Burlington and Victorville, Iowa. I developed a call list to keep up on what was going on throughout the midwest. Things like when the small contest that were going on to when Trick Teams like Haro and GT were coming through. I would use the same methods to find out about punk shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It was through a letter in Freestylin' that I got Dennis McCoy's phone number and after a long conversation, he invited us down to KC to ride with him and the BMX Brigade. Over the following years we would travel south to hang out and ride. One thing I have to say is Dennis was one of the fittest and most driven people I've ever rode with. Which makes it no surprise that he still to this day competes and often makes the finials. In Des Moines, we may have terrorized the downtown area but it was nothing to the level in which the BMX Brigade did to the West Port and Country Club Plaza area of KC.
Another influence on me was the long telephone conversations I had with Dave Vanderspeck. I can't remember how I got his number but he was trying to book a national tour for his team the Curb Dogs. I offered to try and set something up for him but I don't think the tour ever happened. However our long conversations about music and his stories of riding the streets of SF, did impact me and expose me to a number of things I don't think I would have just stumbled on to. He was a wonderful and open person that even though I'm sure there were countless other things he could be doing, took time to talk to this kid from Iowa. He seemed amazed that anyone would go out and ride when it was 40 degrees out. That seemed "Hardcore" to him. I was sadden years later to learn of his death.
Between the BMX and Skateboarding Magazines and the different people I was meeting, I began to listen to this different music called Hardcore. It would take me sometime to put the connection to punk. I know that sounds silly but I didn't have all the information at the time. To this day I'm not sure where I heard it first but it was always in bits and pieces. Before long I was searching out and buying everything I could afford to buy. Without this discovery, who knows what direction my life might have taken.
Something doesn't come to an end at once, it is something that just slowly fades away and then you it hits you one day that it's over. By 1987, I had been riding BMX for over 6 years or so. Freestyling for at least 4 or 5 of those. It was a wonderful experience to be part of something at the beginning and then watch it expand. The thing is that it had seemed to stagnate at some point. I wasn't learning new tricks or meeting as many new people which is more connected them I thought at the time. When I did ride it seemed like I enjoyed doing the older tricks and just riding the environment around me something we'd always did but was suddenly being called Street Style.
It wasn't so much that I thought everything that could be done had been done. I remember clearly like it was yesterday, the first time I saw Dennis McCoy do a Fire Hydrant. I knew instantly what it meant and that it would take Flatland to a completely different level. When I watch riders today, I see them do the things we dreamed over all those years ago and I can't help but ask, was it because the bikes have advanced that much or was it just because someone hadn't done it yet? There is something about the word impossible when it comes to sports. Regardless of what it is, evolution begins when someone doesn't just say that it's possible. It starts when some one does that impossible.
In my mind there was too many impossible and thanks to BMX and the exposure it gave me to new ideas, my passion was driving me elsewhere. I missed out on a very interesting time in BMX where giants with little income and health insurance, made the impossible, possible. Which is something that Joe Kid on a Stingray just touches on and I wish they would have spent more time on. There is the period between the decline of Freestyling popularity and the X Games that might be the most interested period in BMX History and there should be a film just about it. Maybe at least a book or two. Much like Skateboarding in the 1980s, it took a period where no one outside of the culture was paying attention for the sport to develop.
Having BMX in my life lead me to where I am today. It taught me to do something that you love regardless of whether or not it is a social norm. It taught me that if you want something to happen, do it yourself. Sure you are going to make mistakes but if you don't do it, chances are no one else will. It improved my reading skills. It taught me how to promote an event and run it smoothly. It taught me that often the only thing that is in the way of something happening is a phone call and the right question. It taught me how to network with like minded people. It taught me discipline and how to achieve goals completely on your own. It taught me how to over come pain and how to dust myself off, get up and try again. It taught me not to fear failure and regardless of what everyone is saying around you, if you believe something is possible then it is. It exposed me to the workings of owning a business and how to plug away regardless of what goes wrong. However more than anything it exposed me to a wide and wonderful range of people that have shaped my life, loves and passions. It was my gateway to the underground and the edge and even to this day, I day dream of pulling off that move that is a mixture of fear of death, a little of the impossible and the style of Evil Kenevil.
If you want to see photos and read more about my experiences with BMX and Skateboarding check out this page.