In the '70s, riding dirt bikes was an informal sport, jumping Huffy bikes off mounds in backyards and tearing Schwinn Sting-Rays through hiking paths (certainly a precursor to mountain biking for thousands of kids). But even though the sport had formally arrived in America in 1969, when a group of teenagers in West LA started racing their pedal bikes on a track normally reserved for motorcross bikes, BMX bike racing did not instantly become a national obsession, like, say, skateboarding.
Yet, in more recent decades, BMX has exploded as a major sport. Infused with the spirit of motorcross racing—and even adopting much of the language to describe various races and terrain—the sport has especially come of age in the past several years, with events like the BMX Great NW Nationals this weekend at the Expo Center in Redmond drawing big crowds and hordes of participants.
And, it is easy to understand why.
BMX races pull in the appeal of explosive and fast competitions, as compact in its intensity as drag racing or 200-meter running sprints. (Most races take about 40 seconds to one minute; indoor races, like this weekend, are challenging but quick 900-foot tracks.) And, moreover, with several races starting simultaneously and bounding through mounds and berms, BMX races also showcase the excitement of sports like Sochi Olympic much-talked about snow cross, which features unpredictability in that front-runners can wipe out and open the field. Really, anyone can win any given race. Perhaps the only surprise is that it took until 1998 for BMX to be anointed as an Olympic medal sport.
Yet, even with its rapidly increasing popularity, organizers and participants confirm that the sport still has a laidback, all comers welcome family feeling.
Sunny Harmeson, a local racer, started racing a decade ago when her young son started. Her son no longer races, but Harmeson has gone on to win the past six state titles in the category she calls "fastest old lady." Last year, she was fifth in the nation in her age category.
Yet, Harmeson, like many top-ranked racers, spends a good amount of time teaching new riders and supporting the growing sport. She was the track operator for the BMX track in Bend at Big Sky Park, and currently sits on its Board of Directors. (They are hosting a free clinic on April 26, 11 am – 1 pm. Big Sky Park, 21690 Neff Rd. Free loaners and helmets are available.)
The races this weekend run Friday through Sunday, with about 250 motos (or events), a jump from about half that number just three years ago. Race officials expect 1,200-1,500 competitors. There are races for teenagers to masters (61+), and even races for two-year olds, who push their striders (non-pedal) bikes through the course.
"What I love about BMX is you have a healthy family sport," says Tracy Stephens, a Redmond resident and one of the event organizers. "It is a sport that doesn't matter—boys, girls, one, two years old. There is even a competitor who is going to be 72. One of their best sales pitches is, 'No one sits on the bench in BMX.' If you can ride a bike you can compete in BMX."
Stephens' 17-year-old son, Taylor, is one of those racers who started young, and has steadily moved up the ranks, and is currently one of the top ranked amateur racers in the country. His mom is clearly proud of him when she discusses his accomplishments, explaining that he rides for Phoenix Pro Cycles, a Portland-based company. "An Oregon-grown kid on an Oregon bike," she says.
Friendly and composed, Taylor Stephens explains that he started riding BMX bikes, because his mom was taking Saturday morning classes at the time, and his dad would take him to the track in Redmond. "It was just killing time," he says.
But that lowkey start has grown into something much bigger and more intentional, and Stephens now hopes to win the national amateur title, before going pro.
But, of course, in the meantime, he is also teaching clinics to kids interested in learning themselves.
"Mostly (I teach them) just have fun, get to know the bike," he says.
USA BMX Great NW Nationals
Fri., April 11, 1:30 – 9 pm
Sat., April 12, 7 am – 7 pm
Sun, April 13, 8 am – 3 pm
Deschutes County Expo Center, Redmond