In the end, it was barely a race. John was ahead by perhaps fifteen feet at the line, having taken the lead at the start before widening the gap over pretty much every jump afterwards. Not only was this John’s second win in two consecutive indoor BMX weekends, it was against three kids who were older and bigger than he was. One of them was a girl, but we have learned the hard way that there is little difference between boys and girls in BMX until they hit the magic age of thirteen, at which point the boys start snapping chains under power and the girls start wandering away from the sport. (There are, of course, some magnificent exceptions to that rule.) So this was a big win, made more so by the convincing fashion by which he’d smoked both his first-moto competitors and the riders in the main event.
As is his usual practice, my son stayed for a minute near the finish line to shake hands with his “friends”. I do not encourage this. “They aren’t your friends,” I hiss at him, “they’re the competition.” To drive the point home, I scheduled an evening showing of Ender’s Game before this last race, with particular attention paid to the scene where Ender breaks the neck of another child. “That’s what I expect to see from you… if, uh, only metaphorically,” I snapped. “Go out there and kill the other children.”
“I don’t know how I feel about that,” was his response. John can be awfully naive when it comes to the down-and-dirty world of pre-teen cycling. Yet he’s also remarkably observant, as he proved yet again as we stood in line for his trophy afterwards. “Did you see,” he whispered, swiveling his head to make sure he wasn’t accidentally upsetting anybody around us, “how the kid who got second… his mom was there… and she kept touching him?” As a matter of fact, I had noticed. It had set me to thinking, even before the race itself was run.
I started BMX racing at the age of fourteen, as did many of my peers. We were almost entirely self-taught; there were no clinics or camps back then except for Pennsylvania’s Camp Woodward, which at $495 for a week-long session might as well have been located on the dark side of the moon for us. We didn’t ask much of our parents except for some financial support and the occasional ride to the track. Well before I turned sixteen I was already washing dishes to pay my entry fees and hitching rides with other racers who already had their own cars. I didn’t think of BMX as a way to become closer to my parents; I thought of it as a way to get away from them.
Not coincidentally, I developed an active dislike of the Typical BMX Dads sharing the paddock with me every weekend. By and large, they were uncouth blue-collar creatures who jammed their beer guts up against the track fence and yelled “PEDAL!!!” at the top of their lungs. (John Baruth, discussing that behavior: “Don’t they understand that we already know pedaling is important?”) They made their children miserable by screaming at them before, during, and after the race. They would “improve” the bikes by changing the gearing between motos or drilling holes in components to save weight until, as was the case with Colin Chapman’s Seven, the whole shebang would fall apart in competition. The amount of physical child abuse at any BMX track of the Eighties was heartbreaking; it got to the point that, after I turned Pro in my twenties, I would occasionally get on the public-address system at our local track and announce that “The next person I see hitting their eight-year-old will be struck, in similar fashion, by me.”
On the other hand, a really good BMX Dad could make all the positive difference in the world. My fellow 14 Beginners and Novices tended to be unparented in our late and sullen arrivals to the sport, but the 14 Experts were all provided with McLaren-Mercedes levels of trackside support by fathers who could swap gears in the ten-minute gap between local motos and build a fresh rear wheel in time for the main. My Central Ohio neighbor Todd Lyons, who went on to be in video games and rap videos and God knows what else, had a father who paid his way to every race up to and including the World Championships, negotiated sponsorships for him, did all his mechanical work, and still had time to maintain a detailed record of every race in which Todd ever competed. When Mr. Lyons died, Todd went through all the old logbooks and put selections from them up on Instagram. They read like the opposition research of a skilled major league baseball scout. It is any wonder that Todd makes his living now riding and designing bicycles, while I serve the lesser God of automotive pursuits?
When I arrived back in BMX late last year as a father rather than a competitor, I saw that the BMX Dads had raised their game significantly in all respects. Instead of being fat, mouthy hillbillies who reveled in their willful ignorance of the sport and its subtleties, today’s parenting crew appears to mostly consist of trim and fit former racers in their mid-thirties who can draw on decades’ worth of National-level competition experience. They speak softly to their children and when the kid doesn’t pedal they solve it by getting on their own bikes and showing how it’s done. John’s strongest competitor of the summer, who has since gone up to Intermediate class, was the son of an extremely successful late-Nineties Midwestern pro racer. Three of the five entrants in my 46-50 Expert race this past Sunday were also parents of competitors, self included.
Given the sharp increase in BMX-dad competence, it’s no wonder that today’s youth racing is far tougher than it was back in the Eighties. Today’s rookies show up on properly-sized bikes, wearing name-brand protective gear. They use the two-pedal start, in which the rider balances against the gate, rather than the one-pedal standing start that was common even among race-winners in novice and intermediate classes prior to the turn of the millennium. I am reasonably certain that if my nine-year-old son got in a time machine and had to face the rambunctious post-puberty competition of 1987’s 14 Beginner class in Pataskala, Ohio, he would not finish last.
Naturally, the same kind of skills acceleration is going on everywhere in youth sports, from soccer to baseball to bowling. What sets BMX apart from those sports, however, is our relative lack of infrastructure for training and developing new riders. It’s not a problem once kids get to the higher levels, at which point they effectively self-coach by riding with, and competing against, faster competitors. At the beginning, however, most riders rely on their BMX Dads for bike setup and advice.
Which perhaps explains why I caught myself frowning as I watched, and listened to, the mother of John’s competitor in the last few minutes before the main event. She was rubbing his back and encouraging him: “You’re going to do great! I know you can win this!” I couldn’t help but contrast that with the specific advice I’d given John as we headed up to the gate: “Swing the bike hard for the first five pedals. Get one pedal rotation between the second and third roller, then cut to the inside to control the corner. In the third turn, pedal all the way through and exit high. I don’t want to see you being lazy in the final section. Keep your weight behind the seat over the biggest jump and if you’re winning, stretch the gap.”
After the race, I saw John’s competitor sobbing lightly as his mother comforted him. There’s a lot of post-race crying in BMX. God knows that after I got smoked in my second moto of the day I felt like crying, although in my case it was mostly because my knees hurt. John asked me if I’d seen the other kid’s mother rubbing his back before the race. He intrinsically knew that there was something wrong with that, even after five years of the finest indoctrination our gender-free educational system can provide. In a discussion afterwards, he took care to clarify his position in terms that seemed tailor-made to be recited before a Harrison-Bergeronian equality commission of the not-so-distant future: “It’s not that a mom can’t be as helpful as a dad. It’s just that she didn’t seem to know anything about BMX, and you do, so that seems like an unfair advantage for me.”
“Yeah, well, kid, you’re going to have to learn to accept that unfair advantage, along with every other one I can possibly provide, at any cost up to and including my own death.” John and his “friend” went off for post-race practice, which came to a sudden halt when a new BMX dad without former professional experience faceplanted on the back straight. We waited thirty-five minutes for the ambulance to come — downtown Dayton is not exactly on the leading edge of community services — then we loaded up for the drive home. About halfway back, my son put his tablet down and piped up again.
“The other kid was bigger than me. How did I beat him?” I gave him a litany of potential reasons, ranging from our weekly practice schedule to the titanium spindles in his single-bearing pedals, but in the back of my head I could only think of one true cause: I was there for the race and the other father wasn’t. Because he was working, because he was deployed overseas, because his wife left him to Eat-Pray-Love and he’s restricted to one weekend a month plus Spring Break. Because he killed himself. Because of cancer, embolism, Crohn’s disease, the Kawasaki ZX-14R. It doesn’t matter why he wasn’t there, only that he wasn’t there. And it reminded me of something that I would occasionally like to forget, whether through selfishness or fear: The absences of the father are visited on the sons even more harshly than are their sins — and in parenting, as in bicycle motocross, you must be present to win.