An introduction to the sport of BMX racing. This is the fifth in a series that will explore some of the less well-known sports that are going on in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Editor’s note: With the Olympics in full swing, we asked Seattle Times reporting intern Kristen Gowdy to get the full experience on some of the sports being played in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Previous installments in our include equestrian eventing, which you can read about here, rugby sevens, which you can check out here., canoe and kayak slalom, which is right here, and fencing, which lives here. Next up in our series: BMX racing…
Rules: Olympic BMX racing is fairly straightforward. Get to the finish line before anyone else. Tricks and airtime aren’t taken into account; speed is the only factor that matters.
The competition begins with a time trial round by which riders are then ranked into heats. The fastest time trial finisher is placed into the first heat, the second-fastest finisher into the second heat, and so on, so that the top talent is evenly spread throughout the heats. Men qualify 32 riders into the Olympics, creating four heats of eight while women qualify 16 for two heats.
The first round of races following time trials serves as the quarterfinal round. The top four riders from each heat move into the semifinals, then the top four from each semifinal move onto the finals.
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But it’s not always that easy — crashes are common, and contact is legal, though not recommended.
Races typically last for approximately 40 seconds.
“A BMX race is what they call power endurance,” local rider Kelsey Van Ogle said. “It’s not endurance like road cycling, but at the same time you have to be able to full-on sprint for about 40 seconds, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re out on a bike it’s super long.”
The start is the most important part of the race, says Van Ogle, who spent time training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Olympic start ramps are 8 meters long, while the first jump on the course normally stands about 40 feet tall.
The BMX events will take place Aug. 17-19.
Team USA and BMX in the Olympics: The Union Cyclist International ranks the United States men’s BMX team as the top team in the world, while the women rank second.
BMX, however, is an individual sport, and neither team has a top-ranked individual rider. Nicholas Long and Corben Sharrah are the highest ranked U.S. men’s riders at No. 2 and 4, respectively. Meanwhile, American Alise Post is ranked third in the world behind Colombia’s Mariana Pajon and Australia’s Caroline Buchanan.
In its short Olympic history — BMX has been included in the Games since 2008 — the United States has a total of three medals, all of which came in Beijing. The three medalists — Mike Day, Donny Robinson and Jill Kintner — will not be in Rio, but much of the 2012 team returns for their second Olympic appearance.
Post and Brooke Crain, the other qualified women’s rider, both raced in London. Crain finished eighth, while Post ended up in 12th.
On the men’s side, 2016 Olympian Connor Fields was the top finisher in London, making the finals before finishing seventh. Long also competed in London, but did not make it past the quarterfinals.
Training/feasibility to beginning BMX: BMX riders generally emphasize more of a weights routine, Van Ogle said. That being said, mixing cardio in is also important due to the aerobic nature of the sport.
“You have to have a quick reaction time out of the gate to be able to get out in front, but then you also have to be able to maintain your speed,” fellow rider Jovonne Stropko said.
Getting started in the sport is relatively easy. Local tracks, such as North SeaTac BMX Park, where Van Ogle and Stropko train, offer camps and lessons for all ages.
Purchasing a bike is the main equipment expense — BMX bikes normally cost a minimum of $200 — and after that, competitors need a helmet and outfit.
The most elite BMX riders typically peak in their early-to-mid 20s, but recreationally, the sport is accessible to most ages. Many motocross athletes began in BMX, and the crossover between the sports is quite high.
My experience: I was initially nervous to try the sport. I am by no means an adrenaline junkie, and felt pretty strongly about the fact that my 5-10 frame was too tall to fit on the tiny BMX bikes.
Once I took my first lap around the course at North SeaTac though, I found myself enjoying the sport more than I initially expected. That being said, I was also riding pretty slowly, and wasn’t even close to catching any air. I also flat-out refused to start off the collapsible gate.
It was a deceivingly tough workout. I was out of breath by the time I finished a lap — though that could have also been from holding my breath during the actual action out of nervousness — and my legs were tired.
I concluded that this is not a sport for the faint of heart. I bike fairly frequently, so the basic movements came naturally to me, but I still don’t feel the need to go flying off of jumps at top speed. If that’s your style, then BMX is probably for you.