From modest and makeshift beginnings, the sport of BMX began in the late-1960s, and what it has evolved into today is something perhaps no one could have ever imagined.
While the assortment of disciplines in BMX -- an acronym meaning bicycle motocross -- draws bright lights, camera flashbulbs and thousands of screaming fans, it was by no means a streamlined process and took a lot of trial and error to create the gravity-defying tricks and breathtaking stunts we see in competitions and on TV.
The origins of this relatively young sport remain a bit murky, though.
"It's kind of a cloudy thing," says John Swarr, co-producer of "Joe Kid on a Sting-Ray," a 2005 documentary film chronicling the history of BMX. "There was some riding in other countries similar to BMX racing, but the real personality of the sport started in California. That's really where it started."
Along with co-producer Mark Eaton and Jesse James of West Coast Choppers fame, Swarr suggests in the film that Schwinn Bicycle Company's release of its 1963 Sting-Ray model (left in photo along with a retro-chic 2004 version) was a significant step in creating the initial stages of the sport. The bike's 20-inch wheels provided for more maneuverability in negotiating the crudely orchestrated racetracks.
According to a 2004 Chicago Tribune article, Schwinn sold 40,000 Sting-Rays in 1963 at approximately $50 a pop. The then-Chicago-based manufacturer apparently would have sold more of the model that year had it not run out of 20-inch tires. But by 1968, the Sting-Ray, as well as other brands' imitations of it, owned the market, accounting for 70 percent of all bikes purchased in the United States.
The release of a 1971 Academy Award nominated documentary, "On Any Sunday," about different types of motorcycling, but that featured an opening scene of kids riding their bikes to emulate motocross racers, is said to have been a large catalyst in popularizing the sport nationwide. From there, an entrepreneurial teenager and rider named Scot Breithaupt is credited with starting the first formalized races in Long Beach, Calif. The establishment of the sport's first official sanctioning body, the National Bicycling Association (NBA), in 1973 quickly followed and also helped spread this new and exciting sport for kids outside the confines of Southern California.
Just a year later, to promote their own 20-inch bike, Yamaha put up $100,000 and hosted a BMX racing series called the Gold Cup, with the final event taking place at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Around this same time, in an attempt to create even faster races, riskier downhill courses became the newest trend, but the bikes were not designed to withstand such wear and tear of racing and handling larger and larger jumps.
With BMX's expansion, coupled with the growing necessity for higher-quality bikes and components, fathers had a new hobby -- fixing up and customizing their children's racers to make them stronger, faster and more agile.
"Generally, because when the sport started becoming popular, a lot of dads were making frames based on their knowledge," says Swarr, who like Eaton, grew up riding on the East Coast. "So you'd see regular triangular frames pop up here and there, and it never was a bike that was intended to be mass produced or anything else, but it was just someone's dad making a bike that would be similar to a motorcycle frame or something that was geometrically stronger than the Sting-Ray—more reinforcements."
Rick Twomey, team manager of the Rick's Bike Shop racing team based out of Santa Monica, Calif., put together an all-star group of racers and began experimenting with different bike frame designs. He used his team as guinea pigs and was one of the first to develop some of what we today think of as modern-day BMX frames, with straight, sturdier top and down tubes, both of which connect to the bike’s head tube.
Legitimate bike manufactures soon took notice, and began mass-producing what this new, previously non-existent customer base desired. But as the sport developed outside of the racetrack, technological limitations only allowed the sport to progress so quickly.
By the mid-'70s, BMX riders were already taking a page out of skateboarders' books, riding emptied out swimming pools in Beverly Hills. Soon, riders were infiltrating one of the first skateparks in SoCal, Skatercross in Reseda, and competitions, as well as increased fanfare, were right around the corner.
Bob Haro of Pasadena, Calif. would soon emerge from a summer racing team led by Breithaupt, and go on to become known as the recognized inventor of freestyle BMX after creating the initial "freestyle" bike under his brand, Haro Bikes. Up until that time, a freestyle bike was merely a customized racing bike -- often the popular “P.K. Ripper” model, named for accomplished racer Perry Kramer and produced by Breithhaupt and manufacturing partner Mike Devitt -- but Haro put together the first mass-produced design using these new
Dennis McCoy of Kansas City, Mo., who still competes at age 44 and is known as one of the legends of freestyle BMX, suddenly came on the scene and became a sponsored rider for Haro. "DMC" began racing BMX in the early 1980s, but learned to perform what would eventually come to be known as freestyle tricks on his own on the side.
McCoy's early introduction to freestyle moves gave him a leg up on most of his contemporaries, as he would go on to win top-level amateur and then professional contests in consecutive years, 1985 and '86, respectively. And while everyone was looking for better, stronger bikes, McCoy had started out learning on what he terms "some cheapo Kmart bike" before eventually saddling up on a Haro. Meanwhile, somewhere in Oklahoma City, Okla., a young kid named Mat Hoffman traded motorcycle racing for the allure of the tricks he saw in BMX freestyle.
By 1984, freestyle BMX and new bike accessories became all the rage. New tricks and ways of riding freestyle seemed to be invented by the day. Bicycle makers took full advantage of this, creating a number of gimmicky additions.
"Almost every company that didn't get it was coming out with different bolt-on, clamp-on things that stick out of different parts of your bike so that you could find a different place to stand," McCoy says. "Balance tricks were sort of trendy in the early-to mid-'80s, where you would find a different way to lean your bike over and pose in different stances. A big steel extender arm to allow your feet to touch your handlebars so you can do one specific balance trick was unfortunately just a way to sell a little more product. A couple of the advancements really led to progression, but a lot of them were just marketing tools."
The ones that did work and help to progress the sport were Steve Potts' invention, The Potts Mod, which fed the front brake cable down through the stem bolt -- the component that connects the handlebars to frame's head tube -- and allowed the handlebars to spin freely without getting hung up. Later would come the rotor, or detangler, which had a design that provided a similar result for the back brake. Pegs, cylindrical extensions that allowed for both flatland tricks as well as rail and ramp grinds, that attached to the bike's axles were also of exceptional importance.
McCoy says although now a number of top pros ride with neither brakes nor pegs, the innovations allowed for a handful of the modern era's staple tricks, most notably tailwhips and barspins.
"Today, tons of people don't even ride pegs," he says. "And those brake modifications, tons of people don't even ride brakes, so those riders are thinking, 'Who cares about this stuff.' But had it not come out when it did, a lot of the stuff that's commonplace now without brakes wouldn't exist, or at least, wouldn't be as far along as it is."