Nation & World

Strap yourself in: Here comes daredevil BMX cycling

BEIJING — Enough of the tame stuff at the Olympics. Now comes the adrenaline-pumping, stomach-churning new sport of the Games - BMX cycling.

This will be no genteel cycling event. Think Thunderdome.

Elbows will fly. Riders will crash. Nerves will fray.

And it all happens at lightning speed. Right out of the gate, riders careen off a drop that is three and a half stories tall. Each heat's over in less than a minute.

Even experienced riders get butterflies.

"We're still nervous riding on it for the thousandth time," said Donny Robinson, a 25-year-old star of the U.S. squad from Napa, Calif. "So you can only imagine what the spectators are going to feel when they see us go eight riders deep, going 40 miles an hour, bumping all over the place. . . . It's a scary feeling."

BMX cycling started out in life as a kid sport in the 1960s when riders tinkered in the garage to make dirt bikes, then went out for curb and hill jumping. It's grown up since then, and spread around the world. Start ramps are bigger, leaps are longer. And when the International Olympic Committee in 2003 pondered how to juice up the Summer Games for the youth market, it agreed to add BMX cycling to the Olympic mix.

It's not only young people who get a jolt from BMX cycling. So are the television networks, which see a hot new Olympic event that may keep spectators glued to their screens. Already, the number of television cameras at the Laoshan course has been bumped up from six to 17, including a high-speed slow motion camera and an overhead camera on a cable that can scurry along at 45 miles per hour.

"A lot of people are drawing parallels to the impact that snowboarding has had on the winter games," said Andy Lee, spokesman for USA Cycling, the national governing body. "It translates to TV very easily. It's exciting. There's a lot of drama. ... There can be crashes."

And it's all on prime time in the United States. Live coverage of the BMX cycling begins on Tuesday night and concludes on Wednesday night, when the fields of 32 men and 16 women will have been thrashed down to six medal winners.

"We worked very closely to get the event slotted in the right way. We worked very closely with NBC," said Johan Lindstrom, sports coordinator for the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body.

Some viewers may be impressed with the size and strength of the riders. Take Ivo Lakucs, the top Latvian rider who is atop the European rankings. He's 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds of muscle. That kind of body can be necessary out there swerving and dodging around curves.

"It's actually a contact sport. We're not going to call any fouls if you use your elbows a little bit on the turns," Lindstrom said. "There could be some violent crashes, for sure, because they go very fast."

Michael Redman, a bicycle entrepreneur who has become "the voice" of the BMX professional tour as a color commentator, advised against dismissing riders as paltry cousins of fellow Olympians.

"These guys are truly athletes. I mean, it used to be a bunch of kids on bicycles having a good time. But now it's really kind of moved into a whole new hemisphere as far as the athletics involved," Redman said.

Many riders are excited that Bicycle Motocross, as it is formally known, is hitting the big leagues. Others worry that the TV coverage might actually scare some people from the sport.

"The course on TV looks really intimidating, so I hope that doesn't put people off," said Samantha Cools, a 22-year-old Canadian rider from Calgary, Alberta.

The USA team is far from a shoo-in. So are the Australian, Czech, French, Latvian, South African and Dutch teams. In women's BMX, some people give the edge to the French, the English, New Zealanders and the Canadians. BMX is also strong in South America.

"I'd say there are 15 guys out there who can win. In BMX, anything can happen," Lindstrom said.

Robinson, the California rider, said he and his U.S. teammates have "an amazing chance to sweep the medals." But others warn that the race is up for grabs.

To give the U.S. team an edge, USA Cycling built a replica of the Beijing course at its U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., copying the hills, drops, twists and turns of the Beijing course. The U.S. course opened its doors in January.

Under the Olympic BMX rules, eight riders compete head to head on the 350-meter course in different heats. The top four riders qualify for the next phase, or quarterfinals. The difference at the finish line can be just thousandths of a second.

"Many times, we have a photo finish situation," Lindstrom said.

On a sunny training day at the track in western Beijing, Redman reflected on how far BMX has risen since he was a teenager, while other sports, such as baseball, are falling out of the Olympic Games rotation, felled by a lack of support, doping allegations or difficulties with professional leagues.

Redman recalled how his coach cornered him at Placer High School in Auburn, Calif., near Sacramento, and demanded to know why he hadn't shown up for baseball tryouts.

"I said, 'I'm not gonna play baseball this year.' He said, 'Why not?' And I said, 'I'm going to concentrate on my BMX racing.' He said, 'BMX? That's not a sport,'" Redman recalled, chuckling at the contrary fates of baseball and BMX now in the Olympics.

"I'd love to have his phone number right now to call him and let him know that the last baseball games are being played simultaneous to the first BMX race."

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