Except for the cantankerous old International Scout on which I learned to drive a stick shift at 15, I’ve never experienced love for a machine in my entire life. That’s definitely changing now. Road bikes look sleek and sharp. Mountain bikes are super cool and technical. I have a huge crush on my new Kona Rove. A BMX bike, however, is so much more alluring than all of those. It looks like a German Shepherd with its aggressive stance, big broad handlebars, and low-slung hips. BMX bikes dare you to ride them. My 24” Supercross Envy is a powerful beauty queen, but my 20” Chase Element is a chrome-and-black ass-kicker with teeth. That bike demands more respect from me than all the others, and also rewards me more than the rest.
Beyond the sweet bikes and inner peace, BMX has other appeal. I’ve always not-so-secretly enjoyed flying in the face of convention, and the number of women my age racing BMX is pretty small. I’ve also always enjoyed the company of women who think that way, so I’ve made a bunch of friends in the sport. Women in BMX work incredibly hard to be better racers and improve their fitness. They put it all on the line when the gate drops but high-five everyone at the end, win or lose. They yell encouragement to others from the sidelines. They volunteer endlessly, coordinate team fundraisers, make sure everyone at the track is fed and hydrated, and nurse wounded pride and wounded bodies. The youngest female BMXers are less than two years old, and the oldest, Miss Kittie Weston-Knauer, is 73. It should go without saying that women are intrinsic to the lifeblood of BMX racing.
A few years ago, Craig “Gork” Barrette, creative director at USA BMX, wrote in an article in Pull magazine:
“Okay, at the risk of offending every older ladies cruiser racer in USA BMX, I am going to admit that for me, usually watching the BMX moms out there rolling around the track can sometimes be as thrilling as watching paint dry or grass grow.”
This observation was part of a snippet of an article offering a (backhanded) compliment to 46-50 women’s cruiser rider Tina Gillis on her expert bike handling skills. Gork Barrette has been a respected figurehead in the BMX community for decades, so the comment stung many women. What Barrette splendidly failed to grasp with his clumsy description of an armchair experience is that it matters exactly as much as his opinion, which is to say not at all. Of course it’s exciting to watch the elites soar through the air and manual their way through the rhythm sections. Everybody loves a show. Ultimately, though, spectator experience is utterly irrelevant. The only thing that truly matters is the rider’s experience.
Thanks in part to Gork’s foot-in-mouth episode, I developed my own theory of relativity: speed is relative. Risk is relative. The only thing that matters is that I think I’m flying. Jumping six inches off the ground feels like soaring six feet high to me. Railing the berm drives my heart into my throat. Gathering speed in the rhythm section to dive into the final turn is life-affirming. When you’re trying your very hardest there is no difference between a 2-year-old girl on a balance bike, my inner 6-year-old feeling the freedom of a bicycle for the first time, Olympians like Alise Willoughby and Felicia Stancil, or a 51-year-old woman. I know this because my exhilaration on my first day and the joy I feel now are one and the same. I will chase those feelings for as long as I can.
The pre-BMX comfort bunker I had built around my life insulated me from pain and risk, but also kept me from having the most vibrant and exciting experiences. BMX racing affected me most profoundly by tearing through that bunker like a tank. If I could do this seemingly impossible thing, what else could I do? I gained a tiny shred of confidence back with every lap. Every attempt at a new line or a little jump gave me back a bit of my edge. Every spectacular fail incrementally returned my courage.
My relationship to BMX is constantly evolving. I still love racing, but lately I’m keen to learn and master skills like jumping. The beauty of BMX, for me, lies in its ability to help me grow by facing fears head-on. Taking life full send, in other words, whatever that means for me personally. As a result, in the 8 years since I started racing I have done things that took serious guts. Life-altering things. These experiences, for better or worse, are fundamental to creating a better life for myself, and I truly believe they would not have been possible had I never touched foot to pedal and taken my first shaky laps around a track.