I remember Jimmy LeVan very well. He and I raced Superclass together at the Louisville BMX track between 1991 and 1994. He was a natural talent, but he was also heedlessly courageous and thoroughly devoted to his craft. Somewhere in my basement is one of the first twenty or so T-shirts that S&M bikes made for him. It was yellow, with a can of Jif on the front that had been redrawn to say “Jim”.
He was braver than I was. Not just because he would try stuff that was obviously stupid and/or risky, but because he lived the BMX lifestyle when I was too much of a coward to join him. While I sat in 400-level classes debating philosophy and poetry, he was on the road, sleeping in a car, doing odd jobs or even panhandling for gas money, traveling the country and riding for the sheer joy of it. I closed my mail-order bike shop on my father’s orders and got a real job, working for Ford Credit. Jimmy started a stunted stub of a BMX brand (Metal Bikes) and toured the world promoting it by doing the stunts and the gap that nobody else would do.
In the video above, you can see Jimmy making “The Church Gap” in Austin. Click the jump to see somebody trying to imitate him, and failing…
This kid has balls, to be sure, and he has luck (pause it at 0:03). But I think Jimmy is still the only rider to make it. And he was the first one. We put a lot of stock in that kind of thing, back then. To find a gap or a drop and be the first one to do it. ‘Cause after one guy did it, you knew it could be done. But until somebody took the chance, it was all up for grabs whether it would be an achievement to remember or a shortcut to a broken neck.
In 2007, I had long since left BMX and I was racing NASA Spec Focus. But Jimmy was still out there riding, still doing the crazy stuff because he knew that he needed to do it in order to sell bikes and keep moving. The big bike companies can pay an endless line of replaceable kids to come in, do the dopest shit, break their skulls, then retire. Look at Dave Mirra. He was just another cog in the machine for Haro. But Jimmy was Metal Bikes, so he just kept riding and doing the stuff himself, at an age when most of us had long stopped taking every risk regardless of rewards.
Jimmy was pretty badly hurt in 2007. He was in a coma. I didn’t know, because I’d sworn off everything related to BMX at that time. I feel guilty. He needed money and help and I was in a position to give him both. But I didn’t know.
We are both in our forties now. I think he’s still riding. Not sure where, not sure what’s going on. He had a house; I don’t know if he still has it. I hope he’s okay. I think about what BMX took from both of us, and what it gave. I don’t know if the scales are balanced for him; I know they are not balanced for me. But I also know that there’s nothing we can do about that.