On July 28 in Los Angeles, the X Games, now in their 17th edition, once again return to where it all began.
The bikes and riders have changed over the years, not to an unrecognizable extent, but like returning to Southern California, BMX has come a bit full circle.
"Sometimes it's laughable to me when I think back, like, 'How did we ever get to this?'" says Dennis McCoy, who still competes at age 44. "In the early-'80s, you were worried about what your bike weighed. And then it just completely disappeared there in the '90s. It didn’t matter how heavy it was. And now suddenly it’s back to people drilling out bike parts to shave ounces here and there."
BMX racers desired lighter bikes because they accelerated faster and turned curves quicker. However, once the sport shifted toward freestyle -- something the bikes were never intended to do -- broken parts and instability were all too common. McCoy notes that not only was this annoying, but it was dangerous, too.
Once most of the top manufacturers were all up to speed producing similar bikes, rider-owned companies began producing burlier products that would hold up to the punishment riders were now dishing out.
Mat Hoffman, known as the next thing in BMX by that time, left his sponsorship with Haro after its namesake sold the company and the sport was experiencing a bit of a slump. People began to think BMX was just a fad, but "The Condor," as he is known because of his high-flying abilities, saw his passion differently and started his own company in 1991 to hold up to the new era of freestyle.
"After about the third or fourth time you're going to the hospital because a part on your bike broke and you're thinking about, 'Wow, that could be designed so much better,' and you have a friend who breaks his neck because his forks break, you're like, 'Wait a minute, this is starting to get real serious,'" Hoffman says. "We don’t just scrape our shins whenever our bike messes up anymore. So it was time for me to reengineer a bike where I can do whatever I want with it and it's going to stay together.
"We just knew the places that had the most stress, and we just rebuilt and redesigned. A lot of those things couldn't be redesigned because all the parts were designed around that part, so we redesigned everything over again."
Simultaneously, as more and more big manufacturers bailed from the thought-to-be sinking ship, Hoffman launched the Bicycle Stunt series in 1992, and helped breathe life back into the sport. This helped to reestablish the underground community as the decision-makers and left riders in full control of the direction of their sport.
In a few years, the progression of freestyle BMX reached new highs, and soon it garnered the interest of ESPN. In 1995, the inaugural X Games, known then as the Extreme Games, were held in Newport, R.I., with some 200,000 spectators there to witness it. Hoffman took vert ramp gold, followed by the next dominant rider, Dave Mirra from New York. McCoy placed fourth behind Canadian Jay Miron.
It was during this era -- BMX's return to the mainstream, yet in the hands of the people who invented and continued to reinvent the sport -- that bike makers put an emphasis on strength over weight.
"A lot of rider-owned companies made efforts to beef up the product, and at the time, that meant making things thicker and making it heavier," McCoy says. "I don't think we really realized that was happening. All of a sudden we were riding these 40-pound bikes that weren't really allowing us to ride to our full potential. It just became something you accepted. Your bike wasn't going to be super-fast, but it would hold up to the abuse that you would put it through."
Rims went from 36-spoked to 48. Axels, the metal rod that goes through a wheel's hub and connects the wheel to the forks in the case of the bike's front, and to the dropouts in the case of the back, went from three-eighths-inch to one-half. Dropouts went from three-sixteenths to quarter-inch.
Hoffman explains that this phase lasted until about 1997.
"There was [a] time when we would make the bikes bulletproof," he says. "We were all just about going bigger and bigger and bigger, and our bikes were just breaking at the time, and we were getting injured from that. It all began to let up so we could push are sport as hard as possible. But then once we were pushing it so hard to the level it is now, we were able to kind of go, 'OK, well, what is necessary?' and see if we were overemphasizing the structure of this area, because we just wanted to be completely safe."
In the early 2000s, riders began to get experimental in attempts to lighten their load. Since then, things have changed, but Hoffman says the quality remains the same, if not better.
"It's kind of like all managing the weight more now with the bike," he says. "A bike that's lighter is just easier to throw around. And it's just not as strenuous on the body. So we started designing the bikes so there's less stress on our bodies, because our bodies are the ones that were starting to break."
Titanium is now used more often for components like sprockets, many riders are back to using 36-spoke rims, and frames are almost entirely produced out of 4130 chromoly, a steel alloy predominately composed of by iron, with small amounts of chromium and molybdenum, hence the name. This is a desirable material because of its strength-to-weight ratio, stiffness yet ability to flex, and weldability.
Hoffman, known as much for his incredible feats on a bike as his number of surgeries and injuries from falls off it -- he survived a brush with death in 1993 after taking a serious spill that left him internally bleeding from a ruptured spleen -- continues to ride at age 39. He doesn't so much compete anymore, but does the occasional show, and is, more or less, just enjoying the ride.
"When I first got into this, I thought this was the greatest sport in the world, so I'm surprised it took so long for everyone else to kind of think so," he says. "Every session could be my last, so I just make sure it's pure and it's for fun."
In the meantime, the sport continues to progress with mesmerizing tricks at mind-boggling heights off unfathomable ramps. Britain's Jamie Bestwick continues to dominate all facets of freestyle BMX, a number of Hoffman Bikes team riders, including Kevin Robinson, pull unbelievable new tricks each year, and the sport's future stars, namely New Zealand's Jed Mildon who pulled off a triple backflip in May, are starting their legacies quickly.
BMX Racing has also stuck around and done well, too. Though it is not an event in the X Games, since 2008 it has been a summer Olympic sport, and will compete next at the 2012 Games in London. The other BMX Olympic news is that as of April, there has been talk of adding freestyle to the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro.
In the interim, younger riders' ability to learn and achieve new tricks at places like Camp Woodward, a sports camp in Woodward, Pa., with an emphasis on action sports, has also created rapid progression within the sport. Rather than dreaming up performing a backflip and learning on thrift store mattresses, as Hoffman did, riders have the opportunity to grasp dangerous maneuvers and experiment with new ones in foam pits. The expansion of the sport and Woodward's popularity has led the camp to open three more locations, one in California, another in Colorado, and most recently one in Beijing.
"Without a doubt, it has led to progression in terms of what is possible on a bike," McCoy says. "Things will continue to get crazier. Tricks will get more advanced. The next year, harder stuff will be done than the year before."
"That's the beauty of what we do," says Hoffman. "It's sport as art. It's just a wide-open canvas and it's only limited by your imagination. It's completely contingent on whoever is holding onto the handlebars and dreaming. Who knows what people will be dreaming up tomorrow?"