The Theory of Relativity

How a 43 Year Old Woman Took Up BMX Racing: A Cycling Love Letter

This epic tale requires a little bit of background. Please bear with me while I set the stage for one of the most important episodes of my life.

I learned to ride a bike when I was six years old on a trusty steel steed with “Spirit of ‘76” painted on the side, probably from Sears. It had a banana seat, training wheels, and a very patriotic paint job. I remember my terror at teetering what seemed like 6 feet above the ground, the play in the training wheels allowing me to list dangerously to either side without quite tipping over.

For most of my life, I have not considered myself a cyclist, or even an athlete. I have not considered myself particularly brave. I dislike life-altering changes, and I have historically underestimated my capabilities, not to mention my worth. I realize that’s not a rousing endorsement of my authorship of this article, but if you’re still hovering over the “eject” button, please hang in there. This gets better, I promise.

When I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still remember the act of courage it took to believe that I could pedal without the training wheels. It’s the first time I recall throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to reap what I perceived to be great glory. What I remember most clearly, though, is the feeling of freedom that came with moving at speed under my own power; the suburbs of northern California were suddenly my oyster.

Not long after I became my own person on a bike, my family moved to a small mountain town in Colorado. The hills were steep, the winters snowy, and my bike went into the basement and gathered dust, shunned in favor of the local swim team, skis, horses, and most importantly a quiver of snowboards that fueled an undying love that has lasted 34 years. Surfing on snow allowed me to throw caution to the wind (in anticipation of reaping great glory) several days on any given week. The reason this is important is because my history on a snowboard is fundamentally necessary to all of the things that follow. Anyway, there were long stretches of time in which I went without cycling altogether.

In 1995 I followed a boyfriend to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a disastrous, tumultous experience that ended in an acrimonious breakup several months later. I was within 40 minutes of Ski Santa Fe, but was no longer in a mental or financial position to be able to snowboard regularly, which broke my heart way worse than the boy. I met my best friend and longest partner the following year, and eschewed most of the things that brought me joy in favor of a solid and relatively drama-free life. I went back to college and got a federal job to ensure my financial security, but I was now a 9 to 5’er and couldn’t find time to get back on the mountain to snowboard regularly. The narrative in my head from that point on consistently picked security over passion.

And then my life got turned on its head.

In 2014 my partner, a former BMX racer who was the Illinois state champion at age 16, decided to take up the sport again. The change in him was profound, and I saw a glimmer of something I recognized: deep and fervent joy. After about two months of watching him happily practice and race, I got restless and wanted to try BMX racing for myself. In May of that year, the annual “Mother’s Day Race” happened at our local track, where for the first time I saw a bunch of women clearly outside of their comfort zone go slowly around the turns, and I allowed the first thoughts of possibility to creep in. The prospect was completely terrifying. I was especially worried about balancing on the gate and making it up any of the steeper obstacles, but I gathered up my courage and asked one of the track elites if I could come to his novice practice.

I showed up to the track the following Monday on a 24” SE Floval Flyer, and I shared that practice hour with a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old. I was 43.

Kalvin Davis, ranked third amateur in his age group in the world back then, rolled around the track with me for the first time, easily and gently offering encouragement and advice while I thought my heart would escape my chest and I shook until my teeth chattered. I slipped a pedal at one point but my adrenaline was so high that I didn’t even notice until the end of practice that my shoe was full of blood. Panting and sweating at the end of one of my first laps around the track, the 6-year old passed me just before the finish line, reached out to give me a fist bump, and said in a voice wise beyond his years: “You look like you need a drink of water.”

BMX was love at first chastisement by a 6-year-old. It was love at first shin bite and adrenaline overload. I was absolutely hooked.

I started snowboarding in 1988, around the time of the earliest serious diaspora of the sport, and I lived its history. I hadn’t lived the history of BMX so I made an effort to learn it. I learned about Scot Breithaupt and the origins of my two SE bikes. I learned my PK Ripper was named for Perry Kramer. I learned about an endless list of other greats of the past, like “Stompin’” Stu Thomsen, Greg Hill, and Bob Haro. I also learned that women have been a part of the sport almost since its inception, including Cheri Elliott, the first woman to be inducted into the BMX Hall of Fame. Several of the greats are still involved in the sport, and some still race. My partner went neck-and-neck with Eric Rupe once at Black Mountain BMX in Phoenix, AZ, arguably one of the most memorable races I saw him in.

Of course I also watched the movies RAD and BMX Bandits. If you, dear reader, have not seen these gems you need to do yourself a solid. Make a bowl of popcorn and fire up Netflix right this minute. You can thank me later. I mean, 16-year-old Nicole Kidman on a BMX bike? Pure gold.

Early in my racing days I would get on the gate every time there was a break between motos to practice balancing. I still do this sometimes, in part to remember for a moment how it felt to be so frightened and revel in my confidence, in part to draw that feeling of stillness from the ether and into my core before race time. Professional BMX racer and Grand National champion Kenth Fallen kindly agreed to be my personal trainer and became an even better friend. I still do sprints several times a week, per Kenth’s prescriptions. I set myself up for as much success in the sport as possible. I cross-trained vigorously; running, road biking and strength training became routine.

I graduated from novice practice to intermediate/expert practice with another track pro, Tomas Fernandez, whose passing skills are second to none. He ran a two- to three- hour killer workout most Saturdays that found me going over backward in a parking lot trying to manual and bending down my handlebar with my thigh when I crashed in the rhythm section. One time he told me to give my partner a little bump in the turn in an effort to improve my comfort level at racing closely with other people. My partner dutifully held his line while I barely tapped his elbow and went down like a sack of potatoes, sliding all the way to the bottom of the turn.

I’m not fast, and I don’t often win, but I work my very hardest to get better.

Why did BMX click for me? After all, I didn’t race BMX as a kid, and I’m not very good at riding other kinds of bikes. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling this question over, and I think that other sports I was good at as a kid set me up for success in BMX racing. Horseback riding and snowboarding taught me to have patience and a light touch, and about cornering, fall lines, carving, looking ahead, and absorbing obstacles and impact. Hitting jumps on a snowboard I learned about snapping the nose up followed by the tail on takeoff and changing balance to match the slope on landing. I understood pumping from halfpipe transitions.

These sports also taught me an invaluable lesson about fighting yourself and your medium that applies in almost all aspects of life: the more you fight the track or manhandle the bike, the more likely you are to fail. The heart almost always understands what the brain fails to grasp. It’s best to shut off the brain and let the body be guided by the heart and root chakras, because those whisper how to lean and how to flow. Executed with vigor, but couched in flexibility and grace, riding around a BMX track is a deep meditation that blocks out absolutely everything else. I am never more at peace with myself and my body than while I am driving myself to my edge around a track. I am never more utterly present and still than before and during the cadence that precedes the gate drop: “OK riders, random start. Riders ready, watch the gate…”

Then the gate falls, a switch flips in my brain, and I suddenly have no friends. It never fails to surprise me, this character-divergent snap change. I never have a competitive streak until that moment, and I love it.

And the bikes, oh my god, the bikes. Except for the cantankerous old International Scout on which I learned to drive a stick shift at 15, I’ve never experienced love for a machine in my entire life, but BMX bikes have left tire tracks on my soul. Bikes in general are definitely growing on me. Road and TT bikes can look sleek and sharp. Mountain bikes look super cool and absolutely scream their bro-ness. I have a huge crush on my new Kona Rove. A BMX bike is so much sexier than all of those, though. It looks like a German Shepherd, with its aggressive stance, big broad handlebars, and low-slung hips. It’s a bike that absolutely dares you to ride it. I’m aware that I anthropomorphize my bikes ridiculously, but to me they all seem to have personalities. While most of my bikes are female (including my beauty queen 24” Supercross Envy), my 20” Chase Element is a gender-fluid ass-kicker with teeth. That bike demands respect more than all the others, and also rewards me more than the rest.

BMX has other appeal, beyond the bikes and the zen. It’s different. The number of women my age doing what I do is very small. I’ve always not-so-secretly enjoyed bucking the system and flying in the face of convention. I’ve also always enjoyed the company of women who think that way, so I’ve made a bunch of friends along the way.

Women in BMX work incredibly hard to stay in shape and be better racers. They put it all on the line when the gate drops but high-five everyone at the end, win or lose. They yell encouragement to others from the sidelines. They volunteer endlessly, coordinate team fundraisers, make sure everyone at the track is fed and hydrated, and nurse wounded pride and wounded bodies. Women, especially older women, are an integral part of the lifeblood of BMX racing.

A few years ago, Craig “Gork” Barrette, creative director at USA BMX, wrote in an article in Pull magazine:

“Okay; at the risk of offending every older ladies cruiser racer in USA BMX, I am going to admit that for me, usually watching the BMX moms out there rolling around the track can sometimes be as thrilling as watching paint dry or grass grow.”

While the ham-handed observation wasn’t intended to actively hurt anyone’s feelings, and was actually part of a somewhat backhanded compliment to 46-50 women’s cruiser rider Tina Gillis on her bike handling skills, Gork has been a respected figurehead in the BMX community for decades, so it stung. In addition to blindly ignoring any positive contributions by women to the sport, what Mr. Barrette splendidly failed to grasp with his clumsy description of his armchair experience is that it matters exactly as much as his opinion, which is to say not at all. Of course it’s thrilling to watch the pros soar through the air and manual their way through the rhythm sections. Everybody loves a show. Ultimately, though, spectator experience is utterly irrelevant. The only thing that truly matters is the rider’s experience.

Thanks to Gork, I developed my own personal theory of relativity through BMX: speed is relative. Risk is relative. The only thing that matters is that I think I’m flying. I am pulling as hard as I can when the gate drops. I am pedaling my fastest, tackling every obstacle with as much speed and skill as I can muster, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that I’m feeling everything that professional superstars like Alise Willoughby or Felicia Stancil are feeling. I know this because my exhilaration on my first day and the joy I feel now are one and the same.

Jumping six inches off the ground feels like soaring three feet high to me. Railing the berm drives my heart into my throat. Gathering speed in the rhythm section to dive into the final turn is exhilarating. When you’re trying your very hardest there’s no difference between a 2-year-old on a balance bike, my inner 6-year-old feeling the freedom of a bicycle for the first time, a 19-27 expert, or the 51-year-old woman I am today. I will chase those feelings for as long as I can. I will remember to always throw caution to the wind in the hope of reaping great glory.

The way BMX racing affected me most profoundly, though, is that it burst the comfort bubble I had been living in for so long. I had settled in, given up things I loved, denied myself a happier existence in favor of safety. I rarely tried new things anymore. Going to a new restaurant was a daunting prospect. I stopped listening to music I loved and going to see live bands. I stopped drawing and painting. I put snowboarding on a back burner, to drag out once or twice a year as a novelty, something I used to be good at. Graduate school sapped the last dregs of my confidence away, and the federal job became a mildly soul-sucking routine.

BMX tore through my concrete comfort-bunker like a tank. If I could do this seemingly impossible thing, what else could I do? I gained a tiny shred of confidence back with every lap. Every attempt at a new line or a little jump gave me back a bit of my edge. Every spectacular fail incrementally returned courage to my life.

As a result, in the last 8 years I have done things that took serious courage. Big things. Life-altering things. Things I absolutely do not think I would have done had I never touched foot to pedal. Through concerted efforts, I have been promoted twice and started new jobs twice. I recently moved 1500 miles away from everything I’ve known for 25 years and started a new life. Last year I trained for and ran a marathon. None of these things have been easy. All of them have been outside of my comfort zone. Some of them have been harder than anything I’ve ever had to do, but they are all so necessary for me to live a better life, and I truly believe they would not have been possible without getting on a gate for the first time and taking my first shaky laps around the track. I am so grateful to the sport and to my BMX family for restoring me to the self I remember and love.

My relationship to BMX is constantly evolving. I still love racing, but lately my favorite part is practice. I’m keen to learn new skills like manualing and jumping. The beauty of the sport, for me, lies in its ability to help me evolve by facing fears head-on. Full send, in other words, whatever that means for me personally.

And because I’m constantly testing my limits, pushing my body, and experiencing pure, unadulterated joy on a bike, at long last I’ve come to understand that I am brave, and capable of great things. I also finally recognize that I am both an athlete and a cyclist. Every single time I get on a BMX bike, I throw caution to the wind in anticipation of reaping great glory.

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