Shanti Mathias visits a 40-year-old club in Auckland’s west to learn how BMX is thriving in Aotearoa – and building community in the process.
“So when they pull their arms up and down like that – it’s called pumping,” says Gary Lawson, sitting beside me as we watch a pack of cyclists revolve around the Waitakere BMX club track. Lawson is on first aid duty today, and three of his kids are riding. Lawson would be riding, too, but – a rueful smile – he injured himself falling off his bike.
First, though, Lawson is answering my many questions. It’s early evening in the West Auckland suburb of Ranui, and the weekly club night is buzzing. A very small child is clambering over the seats, clutching a pair of bright pink cycling gloves. Two adults are animatedly discussing the merits of different wheel sizes. Everywhere, there are bikes: upside-down, being unloaded from cars, being ridden to the start line and, of course, soaring over the undulations of the BMX track.
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As someone whose prior knowledge of BMX is something like “tiny bike … does tricks???” I’m surprised to find that the small bikes don’t look ridiculous at all in comparison to the people riding them. Instead, they seem elegant and manoeuvrable. “You only sit on the seat at the finish line, really,” says Lawson, pointing out how the riders poise their bodies over the frames of the cycles, shifting their weight around to manage momentum on hills and corners. “It looks easy,” he continues. “But once you get out there – it’s really, really not.”
The focus isn’t on tricks, either (that’s freestyle BMX); instead, riders try to maximise their speed. They’re helped by the gate, a piston-fired barrier that launches all the racers at the same time, giving them a little boost of acceleration on the way. The unique qualities of each track are the challenge – riders go over bumps in the track, then can overtake each other or change their position on the wide 180 degree corners, called berms. “It’s an individual sport, but there’s some strategy to deciding where you are in the group,” Lawson says. Races are over in under a minute; sensors on bike wheels provide exact times.
But while the racing and skill is certainly part of the appeal, what keeps people coming back is the community, says Nancy James. The club veteran – James has been involved for 27 years – has just come back from Tauranga, where her daughter Toni won two national titles. Over her years at the club, making an effort to be welcoming is a priority. “When new people come in, we make an effort to interact and get to know them. The kids are particularly good at it – they just welcome anyone.”
Ella Hiebendaal, a 13-year-old BMX rider who is showing me around, has been riding ever since she realised she loved being on a bike much more than dance classes. “It’s a really good community,” she says. “But it would be nice if more girls got into it.”
Nikita Clarke, a 15-year-old who helps to coach Hiebendaal and some of the other riders, agrees. “All the little kids who I coach come to talk to me,” she says, waving at a small child on a balance bike. Wearing a blue top, Clarke is electric on the track, flowing around corners with an aura of total focus and competence. She’s just won a national title for her age group, too. “Yeah, winning feels good,” she grins. “But riding is amazing. I just feel happy when I ride.”
Cultivating that community and positive spirit is critical for the club to continue to operate. There’s some revenue from hiring gear and running a small canteen at the track, but the rest happens with the time and work of volunteers, as well as support from the local board, lottery grants, trusts money, and other sponsors. Parents take turns being on the committee to make decisions for the club; others help run the gate so everyone is safe, keep an eye on the track so that a race doesn’t start until everyone is out of the way, cook food at the canteen, and decide which participants get “player of the night” trophies.
BMX is quite a unique sport because so many parents get involved, says James. The club is set up so that adults who aren’t riding can help out, or just enjoy watching. I chat to a grandmother who is visiting her children in Auckland for the weekend. She points out one of her grandchildren on the track below – and when they’re not riding, she happily returns to her book.
For the riders, the appeal of the sport is the sense of pure focus and concentration they get when they ride. “I don’t feel anything when I ride,” says Hiendenbaal. “I just do it.”
“It’s really fun, and really fast,” says Tobias Dickinson. “I like racing.”
Lawson has appreciated the opportunity to learn something new alongside his kids. “You never get there, there are always new skills to learn, you can always go faster, get better,” he says. The relaxed vibe of the club helps, too. “People take the competitions seriously, but it’s also just friendly and low key – a humble sort of sport, too.”
As the last light fades and the spotlights come on, the trees on the hill behind the track cast sharp, spiky silhouettes against a deep purple sky. I take a video of the last race, riders swinging their weight over their bikes, exact in their movements. A mum walks past me, carrying her sleepy toddler.
Club night is over – but the track will be busy for a while yet, young riders forming snaking trains around the track as they sneak in “one last lap”, their parents chatting by the gear containers. There’s training throughout the week, and races again next Friday. The bikes may be small, but the community out here on this warm autumn evening is expansive.