History Of BMX

Get ready for an extensive dose of BMX history, from the very beginning until today’s Olympic era.

First thing first, we should start by mentioning the first bicycle dirt races on earth.

Where And How Was BMX Created?

The first BMX races started in the Netherlands, in the mid-1950s, if BMX is conceived as an adaptation of motocross. There is enough documentation to support this affirmation. Back then, in the town of Sint Anthonis, young kids imitated their motocross heroes by riding dirt tracks on their regular road bikes of that time. There were also a couple of clubs where the riders would meet and where the races were organized. The Dutch movement was also replicated in Amersfoort.

Fortunately, we have some of this on film.

Now, based on this evidence, could we say that BMX was born in the Netherlands? Well, I’m not sure about that. Apparently something happened, we don’t know what, but these races seem to have gone extinct by the mid-1960s. So we’d actually be missing a couple of links when trying to chain those first races with today’s Olympic era.

How Did BMX Start? – Bicycle Motocross

The BMX history thread that led the sport from the very beginning until today was originated in the dirt track of Palms Park, Los Angeles, in the late 1960s. Surprisingly or not, the seed of the story was exactly the same: some kids who were passionate about motocross but still too young to own a motorized vehicle, decided to take their bikes to the dirt track where they saw their motocross stars competing and jumping around at high-speed, and tried to imitate them.

The Schwinn Sting-Ray was the bike that kids preferred to ride that dirt track. It had 20″ wheels and its handlebar and frame were pretty similar to those of the standard BMX bike we have today, so it was much more suitable for the dirt tracks than any other road bike. So those Schwinn bikes were the inspiration and set the bases for today’s bike. As time went by, only a few improvements have been made in order to better adapt it to the new sport. Especially the seat was radically changed, as the speed and jumps made it useless for racing.

Scot Breithaupt, The Creator of BMX

Scot Breithaupt was the pioneer and creator of BMX. He was the first man to ever organize a BMX race, for which he also set the rules, points system, skill level structure, etc. Moreover, he founded the first BMX sanctioning body, the BUMS (Bicycle United Motocross Society). That’s also the name given to his first track.

Among those kids doing crazy stuff with their Sting-Rays, Breithaupt became a leader and, over the years, acquired the title of ‘pioneer’ of BMX. He was a motocross rider for the Yamaha team, but he felt so passionate about this new trend that he started putting a lot of time and energy into it.

And although ‘pioneer’ and ‘creator’ sound impressive enough, they actually fall short. What Breithaupt meant for BMX is really hard to measure. He has an infinite list of milestones that he set, even as a teenager. He founded the BUMS and organized the first formal BMX races along with the first BMX track. He designed many other tracks and organized championships first in California and later nationwide. He was also a promoter of BMX in every possible aspect, including media, as he collaborated with the first BMX publications and the first BMX TV productions. The list goes on and on forever.

On Any Sunday

On Any Sunday is a documentary directed by Bruce Brown in 1971. He was already known at that time for a couple of surf-related films, including The Endless Summer.

On Any Sunday is 99% related to motorcycle races, featuring famous riders like Steve McQueen, Malcolm Smith, and many others. However, that remaining 1% of the film meant a whole lot for BMX history. The opening scene (below) featured a group of kids riding their Schwinn Sting-Rays full speed, racing and jumping around on a dirt track, adding a long wheelie at the end.

The film was such a hit that it was nominated for the Academy Awards the next year for best documentary. Thanks to this success, that BMX bit served as a huge inspiration for kids all around the USA. BMX was expanding from Southern California to become a nationwide trend.

The National Bicycle Association

The NBA was the first official sanctioning body for BMX. It was founded in 1972 by Ernie Alexander. Just like Breithaupt, he had a motocross background and found this bicycle movement more than interesting. The NBA was created using the model of the AMA (American Motorcycle Association).

In 1974 the Yamaha Gold Cup series was held at four different California tracks, ending on a final race. This could be considered as the first National. The first rider to have reached the #1 spot of the season was David Clinton. However, the first ‘pro’ #1 rider was Scot Breithaupt, as the NBA formally organized the first ‘pro class’ competitions in 1976.

The National Bicycle League (NBL) appeared in 1974, in Florida, founded by George Esser. His purpose was to promote the BMX on the East Coast. Later on, as its membership numbers were picking up and the NBA’s were falling down due to mismanagements, the NBL would absorb the membership and tracks of the NBA, to become the only national sanctioning body. In 1997 the NBL joined USA Cycling, the sanctioning body of the rest of the cycling disciplines in the United States, founded in 1920.

In 1977 the American Bicycle Association was found in Arizona by Gene Roden and Merl Mennenga. In a very short period of time, the ABA surpassed both the NBA and the NBL and became the most powerful sanctioning body in the nation.

In 2011 the ABA and the NBL merged and formed USABMX, today’s governing body in the USA.

Freestyle BMX

It’s said that the Bank brothers, Devin and Todd, were the first freestyle riders of all time. They used to see Evil Knievel (stunt performer) on TV performing his jumps and tricks on his motorcycle and that inspired them to try their own things on their Schwinn bikes. In 1972, in their home in Palms, California, they built their first small wooden ramps on the sidewalk and imitated some of those tricks, jumping over trashcans and other obstacles.

After a while, Devin and Todd felt like they needed more challenges. They found an abandoned pool in the neighborhood and added a couple of ramps to simulate a skatepark and to be able to combine bicycle riding with their other hobby, skateboarding. Suddenly, the first BMX park had been created.

It wasn’t long until BMX riders started to be seen in great numbers in skateparks all over California. Moreover, some skateparks reserved some hours only for BMX riders. By then, fakies, kick-turns, bunny-hops, and 360s were a real thing.

So the Schwinn Sting-Rays were great bikes to start with in this new world. However, they weren’t made to withstand big jumps and landings, which b the way, were higher and harder as BMX grew in popularity day by day. So those bikes got easily broken. As time went by, it became more notorious that BMX bikes would need stronger wheels, frames, and forks. Then brands like Mongoose started manufacturing bikes specifically designed for BMX. It started to have its own market.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1970s, the first freestyle stars were arising, like Tinker Juarez, Mike Buff, and Bob Haro.

BMX Goes Back To Europe

Gerrit Does, a Dutch motocross rider, visited the USA in 1974 and got fascinated by BMX. When he got back to the Netherlands, he decided to start promoting BMX at motocross events.

In 1978 he founded the first BMX governing body outside the USA, the Stichting Fietscross Nederland (Dutch Bicycle Motocross Foundation), and the first official races were held the next year.

Gerrit Does was determined to make BMX a worldwide sport. In 1981 he founded the IBMXF (International BMX Federation), based in the Netherlands, with George Esser (founder of the NBL) as a co-founder.

BMX World Championships

The first world championship was held in Dayton, Ohio, in 1982. From the 1107 riders that participated, 90% were American. The first-ever world champion was Greg Hill. The first world championship in European soil was held in 1983, in Slagharen, Netherlands.

The Fédération Internationale Amateur de Cyclisme (FIAC) was the amateur branch of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s international governing body). The FIAC, as an amateur entity, had its own BMX world championships of which only amateur riders could take part. Thus, there were two BMX world championships being organized in parallel.

However, there was a notorious difference in the quality of the tracks between the amateur and the professional venues. The reason was clear, the FIAC didn’t have the knowledge and experience of the IBMXF, which was a BMX specialized body. After several complaints from the riders regarding the poor infrastructure of the events organized by the FIAC, the IBMXF and the FIAC started holding the world championships together. The first combined edition was held in 1991, in Sandnes, Norway.

Freestyle Highs And Lows

While BMX racing was already organizing world championships, freestyle BMX was still at an early stage but it was definitely taking off.

The increase in popularity was evident. By the early 1980s, freestyle vert and flatland events were being held in many states. There were many different teams and the first freestyle brands like Haro and GT were appearing. The mag wheels became a trend in the freestyle world.

However, by 1990 the popularity of BMX started to take the falling curve. It may have been because of the rise of mountain biking. MTB appeared in the mid-1980s and became very popular right away, absorbing many cyclists from other disciplines. By 1990 mountain bike had taken the scene and a lot of manufacturers in the cycling industry started to turn their backs on BMX. The future seemed full of uncertainties.

However, as the saying goes, ‘every crisis is an opportunity’. And that moment in history meant the chance for BMX to prove itself that it was big enough, that its roots were strong enough to survive the storm. It was either dying or coming out stronger than ever. And that’s exactly when Mat Hoffman showed up.

Mat Hoffman

Mat Hoffman is one of the best freestylers of all time. His specialty is the vert ramp. By the age of 15, he already was an expert pro rider, making money in every contest he entered. Today he’s almost 50 and he’s still riding. He’s the guy everybody says that ‘rescued freestyle BMX’, and for very good reasons.

Off the bike, Hoffman founded ‘Hoffman Productions’ in 1991 (he was 19 then) and started organizing and promoting freestyle contests wherever he could, like the ‘Mat Hoffman’s Bicycle Stunts Contest Series’ held in Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin, California, Florida, and Chicago.

By then, he already owned Hoffman Bikes and was supporting a team that included stars like Dave Mirra, Kevin Robinson, Jay Miron and many more.

In 1993 he built his famous big ramp, a 24-feet vert ramp (video below). He got up to 27 feet above the ramp in many of his attempts. As a rider, he invented many other new tricks in vert, street, and park.

Hoffman set the framework for the beginning of a new freestyle era, with new heights, new tricks, and new challenges. This new era was spotted and capitalized by ESPN.

The X-Games

ESPN, the biggest sports network ever decided to approach the Hoffman Sports Association to join forces and produce the first extreme sports event, the X-Games. Its first edition was held in 1995. Since then, many different extreme sports and disciplines have taken part in it, including all freestyle specialties.

The distinctive competition within the X-Games is ‘Big Air’. It is a huge ramp of massive dimensions inspired by Hoffman’s big ramp. Such proportions provided the platform for more height, which means more time in the air, more flips, spins, and flairs.

All of the ‘new school’ freestyle stars have had their moment and delighted us in the X-Games. It took freestyle to a new level. Based on the success of the X-Games, a couple of other extreme sports events have emerged, such as the Gravity Games (1999-2006) and the FISE (Festival Internationale des Sports Extreme), which continues to these days with great success.

The UCI Takes Over

So in the racing world, the IBMXF and the FIAC started organizing world championships together in 1991. Then in 1993 the UCI finally decided to adopt BMX under its wings as a professional sport and formalized all the most important international competitions under UCI regulations.

The first official UCI BMX World Championship was held in Brighton, England, in 1996. The world championship has been held annually since then in several different countries from all the continents.

The UCI taking control of the BMX world meant the possibility of exploring new horizons. All international events held under UCI regulations would now have a starting hill of 8 meters (26 feet) above ground level. A steeper hill, a faster start, a faster race… An even more spectacular sport.

By that time, all the most popular road, track, and mountain bike disciplines within the UCI had a spot in the Olympic Games programme, except for BMX. So they gave it a shot. If all those improvements made to BMX were performed in order to try to convince the International Olympic Committee… well, they turned out to be successful.

The Olympic Dream Comes True

In 2003 the IOC confirmed that BMX racing would be part of the Olympic Games starting in Beijing 2008. History had been made for BMX. What was once something impossible to even imagine, would soon be a reality. Somebody would become a BMX Olympic champion.

So the party took place in Beijing, China, in August of 2008. 32 men and 16 women went there looking for an Olympic medal in front of 4000 people in the stands. The first Olympic champions were Latvian Māris Štrombergs and French Anne-Caroline Chausson.

In 2010 the UCI added the Supercross World Cup to the international calendar and the Olympic story continued in London 2012 and Rio 2016.

In 2017 the UCI held the first editions of the Freestyle World Cup and the Freestyle World Championship, which is held annually in Chengdu, China.

At the same time, the UCI took one step further and proposed to incorporate freestyle BMX to the Olympic programme. The proposal was reviewed by the IOC, which gave the thumbs up to it. BMX Freestyle Park was officially announced for the Tokyo 2020 (now 2021) programme. One year later, BMX freestyle park was tested in the Youth Olympic Games held in Buenos Aires. It was a huge success.

The Olympic dream is now complete. Who could have guessed it 50 years ago when those Schwinn Sting-Rays first rolled on that dirt track of Palms Park? It’s been a long and winding road (as Paul McCartney would say), but here we are.

It’s hard to find a sport that didn’t increase its popularity after being included in the Olympics. The future that once looked blurry now looks more promising than ever. If freestyle park was accepted, maybe they’d also accept street and flatland in the near future. It makes me think that the most exciting part of BMX history is still to be written.

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Sources: University Of BMX / 23mag / Wikipedia

Image credits:[Featured image: by BugWarp / Wikimedia / Creative Commons License][Image #1: by George TenEyck / Flickr / Creative Commons License]

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