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Original Issue


Pedals flashing, flying over the obstacles, kids are cycling into a new form of motocross madness

This is fair warning that Southern California has struck again. This time it is a game called bicycle motocross, and it will be loose upon the rest of the land sooner than you think and certainly before you are ready. West Coast hills that once were alive with the sound of kids rolling, and often bouncing, down the streets on skateboards are now jammed with young daredevils sliding and wheelying along on tiny 20-inch bicycles, slouched behind paper plates with racing numbers scribbled on them. The craze is just starting, but already there are plans for a national championship bicycle motocross series to be held around the country next year. Gentlemen, start your pedals.

The unsuspecting world got a sneak preview of bicycle motocross not long ago with a glimpse of some kids sailing their Schwinns over dirt mounds in the opening scenes of a motorcycle movie, On Any Sunday, by Bruce Brown. The bicycle jumping was filmed in a vacant lot with a couple of youngsters from down the block and was included just for laughs before moving on to the grownups and their big machines. But naturally, every kid who saw the movie might as well have left the theater right there.

The fad grew when the rest of the neighborhood, including Brown's own children, got into the act; soon they were holding their own "nationals." They painted their helmets like those of their adult motorcycle-racing heroes and they gave themselves names like Wild Wade, Dangerous Dana Brown, Mad Mark Shoemaker (son of Don Shoemaker, Brown's frequent partner in film making), Jumpin' Jeff Alter (son of Hobie Alter of Hobie surfboard and catamaran fame) and the inimitable Booboo Stubbs (son of the captain of the San Clemente lifeguard crew who one day vanished, eventually turning up in Tahiti). The kids built a track around the block that cut through lots and driveways, vacant or not, up and over curbs, around trees and down sidewalks. They filled garbage cans with water and emptied them in ruts to create gooey mudholes, and for a jump they liberated the gate from Brown's backyard fence and used it as a ramp, perched on cinder blocks. This frivolous band retired from round-the-block sandlot competition when bicycle motocross became better organized, but the scars of their Saturday afternoons remain; there still is a chunk out of the fireplug on the corner of Santa Clara and Violet Lantern in Dana Point. Calif. That corner used to be Turn Three.

From such early blossoms a sport has burgeoned. There are now more than 100 tracks in Southern California alone, and a few city park and recreation boards and even a couple of police departments have either built their own tracks or sponsor races. The first official sanctioning body, the American Bicycle Association (ABA), is in the process of being formed, and it will provide computerized point tabulation for the dozens of weekly races it will run, each with an average entry of 200. On a sunny Saturday the list may be twice that. Some bicycle shops sponsor teams of kids—one Los Angeles-area outfit helps support nearly 100—and they travel the "circuit" in station wagons and vans. They could pass for any Little League team on its way to a game, but instead of baseball gloves and bats filling the back seats there are helmets and tire pumps.

Most of the tracks are about a quarter of a mile around and basically level with built-up mounds of dirt, but some are laid out heading downhill, like summertime ski slopes. Depending upon the course, the advantage goes either to the kid with the strongest legs and longest wind or to the kid with the most courage. Sometimes it takes a lot of that.

Recently, one aggressive team sponsor announced plans to promote a race that would begin at a mountaintop Nike missile site and wind down a dirt road for five miles, dropping 3,000 feet in the process. "Kids already practice there," he says, "so why not race there?" He'd like to mount wind-cheating fairings on the bikes so they will be capable of reaching 50 mph in spots. With some luck, there will be no broken bodies at the bottom, but there will no doubt be some white knuckles and wide-open eyeballs.

Fortunately, the average bicycle motocross isn't quite that hairy, so injuries are rare. In the two years of organized racing there have been only two broken bones, insists Bob Bailey, a former professional motorcycle racer and the man behind the ABA. The crashes—"endos," in bicycle motocross vernacular—are indeed spectacular, but even the domino collisions are really no more bruising than an ordinary football gang tackle with a couple of tumbling bicycles thrown into the pile. Because many bikes are abundantly wrapped in foam rubber and tape, so much so that some of them look like giant mutant tennis balls, there are few sharp angles to poke tender organs. And the riders are required to wear helmets, so the likelihood of a head injury, at least during supervised racing, is greatly reduced. A first-aid station is present at every race but it doesn't do much business in anything but Band-Aids and antiseptics. As one kid said upon regaining his feet and dusting himself off after a spectacularly unsuccessful "Flying W"—the move in which the final effort to avoid getting thrown over the handlebars is to sit on them while clapping your heels over your head—"Aw, an endo ain't no big deal. Dirt's pretty soft, you know." It also helps to be young enough to have bones like marshmallows.

The Flying W is just one of the numbers in a bicycle motocross racer's bag of tricks. Any kid worth his salt can do a wheelie, but it is the variations of the stunt that really count. A motocross ace also can perform the wheelie-while-doing-an-arabesque-on-the-seat, the wheelie-while-flashing-the-peace-sign-with-one-hand, and the wheelie-up-a-tree. Then there is the bunny hop, which is a front-wheel wheelie; the fork-stop-jump, which involves pitching the bike virtually sideways in midair over a jump, an act of wild abandon corrected only at the last possible instant before touchdown; the cross-up, a full-speed slide radical enough to excite a restless sprint-car crowd (also very hard on the soles of sneakers); and the one-eighty: while moving slowly the rider jumps up with the bike, lifting both wheels off the ground, and does a half twist. When he lands, he rides off in the other direction. It is probably just a matter of time until some kid masters the three-sixty.

But the real ne plus ultra of bicycle motocross stunts so far was a dido by one waggish 10-year-old who tested his new frame by riding it off the roof of his neighbor's house. "They told me it was strong and I wanted to see how strong it really was," he said. "The other guy's parents were inside eating supper and they didn't even know I did it. We threw the bike up on the roof from a brick wall, and I rode down off the second story onto the porch roof to get a good start, then I just flew off. All that happened was the axles and pedals got bent. I fixed them with a hammer and did it again the next day. It was fun."

Competition between the manufacturers of motocross bikes is heading the sport into an exercise in engineering, and an expensive one at that. Yamaha was the first to manufacture a pukka bike—a bouncy little number it calls the Moto-Bike, with rear shock absorbers and front forks borrowed from one of its minimotorcycles. Other companies followed and several more are about to enter the market, the biggest of them being Kawasaki, which is well on the way to building a motocross bike. But the most anxiously anticipated bike is the Dan Gurney Eagle, namesake of the Formula I and Indianapolis race car chassis. Gurney himself had a hand in the design of the Eagle, which will be a chrome-plated, automated wire-welded gem with a monoshock suspension system consisting basically of a shock absorber on the frame between the rider's knees, the latest in bicycle motocross design. The Moto-Bike sells for about $130 and the Eagle will cost $190. Sundry build-your-own kits go for less, but these are mostly for rich kids, as are the more exotic special parts, such as the latest hot racing item: magnesium wheels at about $100 a set.

Most kids are content to go the Schwinn Sting-Ray route at first, with a pair of racing handlebars and a set of knobby tires. Schwinn passionately protects its reputation as the Maytag of bicycles and discourages bicycle motocross. Last year 70% of its warranty claims came from Southern California; this year there is an anti-racing clause in the warranty. But when kids get racing fever, on go the banana seats, alloy rims, heavy-duty spokes and extended pedal cranks. They swap parts like comic books, and they throw around arcane terms like "chromoly, monoshock, gooseneck and crank hanger." Many of them pay for new parts by using their bikes on paper routes, which gives them a good workout; with youthful imagination and the ability to sniff out shortcuts, a kid can create a formidable daily training course of several miles.

All this is excellent preparation for next year's national championship series, which will be sponsored by Yamaha. As a sort of rehearsal, this summer Yamaha staged something called the California Gold Cup Championship, consisting of preliminary races in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, and a finale in the Los Angeles Coliseum on the last weekend of summer vacation. If the response to next year's countrywide series is anything like the response to the Gold Cup, then Yamaha probably will need that organizational practice. Each of the preliminary events drew nearly 1,000 spirited entries, and 12 hours of elimination heats were necessary at each to cut them down to a manageable number (if any large group of adolescent boys can ever be regarded as manageable) for the Coliseum final.

The Coliseum survived the temporary transition from the sophistication of big-time football to the easy ambience of junior high school. Loosened up by the tuxedo-clad announcer, a local legend named Larry Huffman who has the gift of tireless tonsils and enough ebullience to make every race sound like the last lap of the Indy 500, and with marching music by the Inglewood Toppers Youth Band, a few sequined subteen baton twirlers and some Callipygian cheerleaders that looked suspiciously like secretaries from Yamaha, the mood was hardly rife with tension.

The entrants were divided into Novice, Junior and Expert classes, based on a system that had nothing to do with skill and experience but considered age, height and weight. The predictable problem of kids fibbing about their ages was overcome with two marks on a wall: if an entrant was shorter than the bottom mark (five feet) he was a Novice; between the marks, he was a Junior; if he topped the mark at 5'6", he was an Expert. The only catch to that system was that it was possible for a giant 10-year-old to be pitted against a diminutive 16-year-old. But that didn't happen, and those tots whose legs were too short for them to sit down and pedal at the same time did not have to face the few 6-footers, one of whom wore a black whiskbroom mustache. (He only looked imposing; in his race he faded to a panting pulp in the homestretch. Rough night before the race, maybe.)

The course was constructed on the running track of the Coliseum. Along the 440 yards were two 3-foot-high jumps made of plywood and covered with artificial grass, the second of which led into a 12-foot-long waterhole which the best racers flew over without so much as getting a wheel wet. There were a couple of tight Esses defined by bales of hay; two short, steeply banked corners on which the racers do something called a "berm-shot"; and some "whoop-de-doos," a series of tiny little jumps that produce the feeling of riding a jackhammer set on "high." The Novice and Junior races were each one lap long, and the Expert race was two laps, or half a mile.

Each race had 15 starters. They lined up abreast and sprinted out of a dark corner of the Coliseum, down the front straight and over the two jumps, which sorted them out before the first single-file berm-shot. The jumps did some hard sorting; many of the highest flyers came to rest sideways or upside down in the water, like inchoate Evel Knievels. The result was a maelstrom of tangled arms and legs and pedals and handlebars, which brought on more cussing than crying, as well as some frantic sifting through the flotsam so the riders could at least continue the race on their own bikes.

The exact moment of finish is very important. A wheelie at the checkered flag is worth points in style. After they crossed the finish line the racers tumbled dramatically onto the infield grass, like Indians shot off their horses; 15 kids dying of mock hypoxia and sprawled among discarded bicycles in a heap of silly putty, breathlessly staring into the sky.

The antics may have been melodramatic, but the poignancy of failure is just as real for a 12-year-old as it is for a professional. Especially for the Junior who fell off just 15 yards away from winning his semifinal event, when he imprudently chose the final jump to show off for the crowd. In the Expert main event an articulate 16-year-old named Friendly Fred Thomas, who had come 500 miles, led for all but the final quarter of a lap. He was passed in the last turn by a bigger and stronger, and maybe wiser, rider named Stuart Thompson, who had conserved enough energy for an explosive finishing kick. Stuart, a stereotypical Southern California surfer with long blond, almost white, hair that falls over his forehead and eyes, was a member of the Dirt Master Racing Team, a group that took the Gold Cup seriously enough to win the Novice and Junior titles as well.

With the first big year behind it, and the Coliseum windup as a climax, bicycle motocross is now established as a sport of the future. Well, at least for a few years. Many in the audience of 5,000 were relatives of the racers, adults dragged along by their kids, and other assorted bicycle motocross acolytes. But they all seemed to have an uncommon enthusiasm for the old-fashioned ethos of sport. As one aware over-70 couple, grandparents of a Novice, said: "This is more fun for most kids than Little League baseball because it's an individual thing and there's no coaching. So far the parents have stayed out of it, so there's no politics, just the kids racing their bicycles and having a good time. It lets them learn about disappointments on their own terms without any outside values attached, and that's healthy."

There are undoubtedly some growing pains in store for bicycle motocross, and how long it will take for the sport to sweep the rest of the unwary nation is anyone's guess. But it will almost certainly do so eventually, as do all those capricious crazes on wheels that begin in Southern California and finally find their way to Altoona.

It may not be very long. If you look out your kitchen window one morning soon and see your paper boy growling "rumma-rumma-vroom" as he does a wheelie across your lawn and uses the lounge chair on your patio for a ramp to do a fork-stop-jump, be tolerant, but be careful. The next morning there may be two of them, and they may be racing. And it will be time to really start worrying on the day they put the lounge chair in front of your swimming pool.