The Leader of the Pack gets ready to jump the Graveyard. The other riders drop their bikes, eager to watch this split-second act of anti-gravitational terrorism. Atop a ragged hill shredded by knobby tires, Leader-a wiry, mirror-shaded kid, maybe 16 years old-straddles his BMX bike, which bears scars testifying to the rider's many hours scrambling in the dirt.
This acre of unloved weeds, wedged in a neighborhood of condos and recalcitrant urban duck ponds near the Bi-Lo supermarket on South Higgins, has been a combination renegade clubhouse and dirt-crusted town square for Missoula's BMX crowd for a while. A half-dozen or so kids bathe in sweat and grime as the sun turns from mid-day's blare into evening's orange cauldron.
Leader, in fact, looks like the high priest of a post-apocalyptic sect from low-budget sci-fi-Attack of the Cult of the Biker Boyz! His face suggests a sandlot version of a test pilot's go-to-hell nerve. The hill, Leader's launching platform, rises from the vacant lot, and crawls with BMX riders straining to avoid melting in late July's scorch.
Riders-Chubbs, Stimpy and Bones, among others-are drawn to the geography of unsafe physics that is the Graveyard. Myself? I haven't thrown a leg over a BMX bike for 10 years, but as Leader steels himself with a few practice runs, I'm pretty sure the Graveyard is nothing to mess with.
"There's the Coffin," Bones explains, appropriately enough, pointing to a deep trench, about a dozen feet long, gouged out and slightly bowed to create a catapult runway.
"From there, you go off the Tombstone," he adds, indicating the steep mound designed to hurl bike and rider.
"And then this-" he nods to the deep pit between the Tombstone and the nameless pile of dirt meant to, uh, "cushion" the fall-"is the Grave."
As an almost complete outsider, I can't imagine how a kid like Leader-much less Chubbs or Stimpy or Bones, all of whom are a few years younger and whose nicknames seem directly related to their appearances-gets psyched up to do something like this.
But then, these kids profess to ride their little bikes-tough, compact machines built for punishment rather than transport-for miles just to get here. Chubbs and Bones, physically night and day, say they trek over from Third Street on 20-inch wheels, covering nearly 8 miles, round-trip daily. "It's a great time, getting over here," Bones says. "We just look for jumps along the way. We jump and then we jump some more."
The open atmosphere of this field, where a generation of shovel-happy youth has crafted a moonscape of weird earthworks, draws them. All the ways they can throw themselves and their bikes around-as hard as they want, no rules in sight-keep them coming back. "You gotta conquer every jump out here before you make more," says the fireplug Chubbs.
"There's nothing out here you can't do," Stimpy, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the animated cat of the same name, adds. "You just have to psyche yourself up enough to do it."
Leader is ready, apparently, and sets his front wheel on course. Stimpy and Chubbs climb down into the Grave, so they'll be right under the arc of flight. The other riders stand at a respectful distance as Leader kicks off down the hill.
As he hits the short, flat straightaway before the Tombstone, he pumps a few times, catching his rhythm, measuring the jump. By the time his front wheel angles up, he's committed, and he doesn't flinch at all when the Tombstone throws him up over the Grave, or when he crashes down in a spoke-rattling landing on the other side.
The crowd of sweaty, grimy bike jumpers whoops. Stimpy offers his simple, on-target verdict. "That was awesome," he says.
Return from the Graveyard
Ladies and gentleman, meet bicycle motocross, newly spit-shined and generally back from the dead. After languishing in the dream realm of nostalgia for kids who got their kicks during the Reagan era, and the arena of trivia for everyone else, BMX is back with a vengeance.
With legions of adherents on both unofficial jumps and sanctioned tracks, the sport pays tribute to its origins in the age of bi-level haircuts and suburban ennui. It's been vivified, though, by a timely crossbreed with ever-rad '90s skateboard culture. These days in the world of BMX, it's big pants, big air and big money.
Around the country and around town, merchants and manufacturers are scoring off the trend.
Local bike sellers say BMX is their fastest-growing category, and the dirt-ripping renaissance saved the fat of at least one bike manufacturer, Schwinn, from the bankruptcy fire. Competitive BMX racing, in the doldrums for about 10 years, has taken off as well.
"In the bike business, it's one of the biggest growth areas," says Paul Simpson of Big Sky Cyclery. "While mountain bikes have declined, you've seen maybe a 10 to 20 percent increase, depending on the year, in BMX.
"As far as pure numbers go, it's mostly young kids. But you certainly see a lot more older people than you would have 10, 15 years ago. Back then, you would never see guys who were 30 buying and riding. Now, those people want to race."
According to the American Bicycle Association, the sport's biggest sanctioning body, the number of registered riders has grown at a rate of about 25 percent a year since the early '90s.
The ABA now claims 60,000 active members. A new track in Victor, which held its first ABA points race in mid-July, has ignited the competitive scene in Western Montana. A front-page expose on the cover of Missoula's daily would seem to underscore this fact.
All of which means a lot of kids, and some not-quite-kids-anymore, are out there riding, jumping and racing bikes that look like cast-iron toys until you see them smash head-long into the ground at 20 mph. Simpson's shop sells Schwinn bikes. The Boulder-based company, which made the Stingray, the first bike adapted to BMX by nameless '70s backyard mechanics, was in bankruptcy court six years ago.
Now, under new ownership, Schwinn sponsors high-powered pro teams in all BMX competitions. "We've seen a big push over the last three years," says Geoff Shaffer of the company's BMX division. "It's become more professional, with so much more TV exposure than it's ever had before. Five or 10 years ago, it was so limited. Then, when the company was sold, we got back into it, and we couldn't have timed that any better."
Shaffer says, the company plans 15 different complete models for next year's catalog, along with components to be sold separately. These new bikes-Powermatic, Hydramatic and Supermatic among them-bear little resemblance to the banana-seated, chintzy-looking rides of the '70s and '80s.
Schwinn has integrated the '90s other big bike boom-mountain bikes-and the amalgam has the musculature of Tolkein's heroic Hobbits. This heavy investment has been countered with similar programs from competitors like GT, whose BMX steeds monopolize a room across town at the Bike Hangar.
There are bikes built to jump and bikes built to race, bikes modeled after the ultra-tricked-out custom jobs ridden by pros in the new, high-profile events like ESPN's X-Games. Indeed, most industry types thank the X-Games for reviving BMX. While the made-for-TV extreme-a-thon doesn't yet feature racing, various jumping and trick riding contests have elevated the sport to unheard of levels of exposure.
There's good evidence that this tube time is paying off for merchants, as well as for the grassroots competitive scene. The ABA, which has been governing relations between body and bike since 1977, now sanctions races at about 230 tracks in the U.S. and Canada. The association's amateur system is a vast national pyramid, with every heat of every local race counting for points. The pro circuit handed out $300,000 last year.
"Five or seven years ago, we were definitely in the doldrums," says Matt Eggiman, director of Western U.S. operations for the Chandler, Arizona-based ABA. "We sort of hit bottom. The numbers were vastly down, maybe half or a third as many as we have now.
"But now BMX is rolling. We're doing great."
Hard falls in God's Country
Joe Johnson says he's pretty much had a bike grafted to his body since before he can remember.
At 26, he's still racing and jumping, still playing at the same game that kept him going as a kid. On a silky summer evening at the new Bitterroot BMX track south of Victor, Johnson's got a shovel in his hand, hard at work honing a jump that makes the Graveyard look like it should be called the Merry Playground.
In the midst of a big crowd of racers young and old and parents getting ready for the track's regular Tuesday night meet, Johnson's handiwork seems like a reminder of the sport's true edge.
The man in person, however, couldn't be less aggro or more polite. "I've just sort of evolved with the sport," he says in a goofy-sweet voice that belies his age. "I started out on an old Schwinn Stingray. Everyone told me when I got a car that I'd give it up, but for me, it was just a way to get to all these places I'd always wanted to ride but had never been able to go.
"I'm kind of an old, burn-out free-styler more than a racer. I just remember wishing there was something like this when I was younger. So I like seeing the younger kids out there. Maybe I can live vicariously through them."
Just as Johnson makes this sort of wistful statement, Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days," a sad '80s rock tale of vanished promise, crackles over the track's public address system. The gaggles of teen and pre-teen riders-all male, this night, gussied up in space-age-looking racing gear that turns the spectators' area into a festival of neon-gather around to watch Johnson practice.
Once Johnson gets on his bike, though, it doesn't seem like his glory days have passed him by at all. Johnson rides the track's tangle of high berms and little jumps with a syncopated style and grace, raising a kid's pastime to an art.
At the track's headquarters, swarm the Joe Johnsons of the future. As riders cover BMX organizer Sue Wilcox's counter with a hectic flood of registration forms, she explains why she and her husband Barry decided to jump into the BMX business. "Our older son, who's 23, trick rides, and our 11-year-old went out in the pasture one day and started digging up jumps," she says.
"We took a look around and found that Missoula has a real good organization but has had trouble finding property to build a track. So my husband and I got in touch with the ABA, went down to Arizona for a seminar, and decided to do this."
The Victor track is the third sanctioned course in the state, joining Great Falls and Bozeman. If a facility on Missoula County land at the corner of Spurgin Road and Tower Street opens as planned next summer, Montana will be well on its way to having a full-blown circuit.
The riders signing up to race are plainly excited at the chance to compete. But the buzz in the air is tempered by the news that the jumps near Bi-Lo are suddenly no more. "They started bulldozing today," a much younger kid, visibly upset, tells Johnson as he turns in his race form.
"Well, that's been a long time coming," says Johnson philosophically-looks like it's R.I.P. for the Graveyard.
The riders put their disappointment at the loss of their anarchic playfield behind them once Barry Wilcox announces the first race. Race seedings and categories are determined on the spot by a computer wired to Arizona. If a racer doesn't have anyone in his or her class to race against on a given night, the computer automatically sticks that rider in the next highest age or skill category.
If they don't like it, tough. If they do well, they get extra points. "This system works very well," Sue Wilcox says. "If you put the information in right, it comes out right."
As the daylight mellows against the Bitterroot Range in the background, the first heat is called. A quartet of over-35 guys marauds around the track, followed immediately by a race featuring two 7-year-olds and a 6-year-old. (Even a 6-year-old, I notice, looks pretty tough in BMX wear.)
The best duel of the night is between Johnson and Chris Coltran. They're matched in a couple of categories and are hands-down the best riders on the track. In the 28-and-over class, they battle back and forth in the first two heats as younger kids angle for good views of their fluid techniques.
Finally, in the third heat, Johnson pulls away. By the time he hits the "rhythms," a section of the track pocked with a tight series of small mounds whose undulations recall the back of the Loch Ness Monster, he's well out in front.
The way Johnson rips across the rhythm section instantly reveals BMX's appeal. His front wheel doesn't touch the ground and it seems like his back wheel, too, skims on a micron thin layer of air. He levitates over the tiny hills, one after another, like a flat rock skipping over water. When he crosses the finish line, he keeps racing, shooting out into the wide open expanse of the neighboring golf range, intentionally flipping over a stretch of sprinkler pipe into a happy, wet pile.
After Wilcox calls the last race, before the winners get their trophies and everyone packs up, Johnson mounts the hill that forms the track's starting gate by himself.
A small, excited clutch of riders gathers below. Johnson takes a run at the steep widowmaker of a jump he worked on earlier. He soars into the air like an artillery shell, straight up and up, hanging against the sky, and then slams down. He does it again. And then again, whipping a 360-degree turn in mid-air. He never loses control of his little bike or his full-grown body.
Back in Missoula, I check and find the Graveyard is no more. But recalling the sight of Johnson defying gravity again and again, I'm pretty sure that the Leader, Bones, Stimpy and Chubbs are somewhere building new mounds, practicing exactly the same thing.
Photos by LISE THOMPSON
Racers careen through a tight corner at the sanctioned BMX track in Victor. Top: Ace rider Joe Johnson launches himself skyward.
After a crunching fall, Eric Burruss and Brand Browning, racers at the Victor track, recover. The pair formally protested another rider's conduct, but judges using video of the smash-up decided no foul had been committed.
At the late, great jumps near Bi-Lo, Chubbs takes on one of the many obstacles local BMXers carved from the dirt themselves.