On a trip to Newport News, Virginia, I drove down Warwick Boulevard on my way to visit old friends when I decided to stop at a Food Lion to get a cold drink and a box of Cheese Nips. As I walked out with my traveling goodies, I heard a couple saying “What a shameÃ¢Â?Â¦” and “It looks too dangerousÃ¢Â?Â¦” to one another. I looked in the direction they were facing and watched as a group of young skateboarders and BMXers skidded across the hand rails of an abandoned bank at the corner of the strip mall.
The two adults just shook their heads. Their expressions screamed a complete lack of understanding of what it meant to be those kids on those skateboards and bikes at that moment. It reminded me of a group of young BMXers I met one summer in Kodiak, Alaska. They too were misjudged by those outside their tight group. However, just as each learned how to take the big jump, they all learned how to earn the respect of the city’s officials and residents.
Robert Dewey, 19, spun his bike around and sped back down the side of Spruce Cape Road. His handle bars shifted right to left, like mad gears hungry for more speed. He cleared his mind. His eyes focused on the target ahead, laser locked on that special groove.
Just before he hit the first stage of the ramp, he streamlined his body over the frame of his bike. Then, man and machine rocketed skyward, and for that moment, it was total freedom. That was why they do it, for the rush, for that one moment when everything feels right. Then, just as fast as it started – whump – it was over. Dewey landed on the other side of the ramp, a satÃ?Âisfying thud echoed up and down the road. He skidded to a stop 15 feet away, as the other BMX bike riders looked on with approval. Dewey had been where they wanted to be, in that moment of complete freedom.
“That’s the greatest fun of it,” Eric Hinkle, 17, said. “You do your own thing. There are no rules and no one is judging you.”
However, Kodiak’s BMX bike riders have had little success sharÃ?Âing this philosophy with some city residents and officials.
“Other people don’t like us,” Hinkle said. “We get lots of reÃ?Âjection from people who just don’t understand. We avoid other people’s property when we’re riding. We’re not out vandalizing the city.”
“Of course, not everyone on a bike is a complete angel,” Dewey said rejoining the group. “But, not ever adult is either.”
Junior Valladolid, 15, motioned to Dewey’s helmet and got ready to take his shot at capturing that moment. As he made his way down Spruce Cape to gain speed for his approach, the others exÃ?Âplained some of the problems they have had.
“We’ve hand shoveled runs and dirt jumps in places around the city. In clearings outside of neighÃ?Âborhoods and in empty lots,” Hinkle said. “But the police or some government official would tell us to leave, and go somewhere else. But they don’t say where we can go.”
“It’s an insurance thing,” Dewey said as Junior sailed over the ramp -whump – then landed on the other side. Another perfect moÃ?Âment captured.
“They’re afraid we’ll hurt ourÃ?Âselves and then sue somebody,” Dewey said. Eric and Tony Walker, 18, laughed at the idea of their suing the city.
“Of course, this is a dangerous sport,” Dewey said. “I’ve broken my ankle, chipped my hip and broke my shoulder. But it’s not like we don’t know the risks.”
“Yeah,” Walker said. “Maybe everyone should sign an agreeÃ?Âment when they buy a bike saying they won’t sue if they bust their head.”
As Junior rode back into the group, Eric said he was ready to try the jump, to savor a little of the rush for himself. Junior handed him the helmet. That was Robert’s rule. No one jumped the ramp without a helmet. Understanding how bad the moment could get, no one arÃ?Âgued the point.
Recently, several area businesses and individuals had begun to recognize the dedication of the BMXers. In fact, the group had received financial help from busiÃ?Ânesses like Spenard Builders SupÃ?Âply and National Bank of Alaska to build their first jump ramp. Also, the Kodiak Borough set aside land behind Safeway as a track area for BMX bike riders. “We finally have a place of our own,” Dewey said.
Eric rode back over after his second jump. “It’s pretty tight,” he said. “It sets me off. It’s a lot different from’ the original ramp.”
The original, in an ironic twist, was destroyed by vandals only a few days earlier. But, in another twist of irony, it was people from the community that helped put the ramp back together.
“It was amazing,” Dewey said. “People heard about what hapÃ?Âpened and inside of a week $400 was donated to our bike associaÃ?Âtion to rebuild the ramp.”
ApparÃ?Âently, some people in Kodiak did understand. The four noded in thoughtful approval of their rising core of supporters.
Tony looked at the others and smiled. “It’s my turn,” he said takÃ?Âing the helmet.
“This is the guy that scares us,” Junior said. “He tends to crash on the big ramps.”
The group did have protective gear besides their helmets. They pulled up their pants legs to reveal thick strap-on shin guards. They also used knee and elbow pads. But, their most important piece of gear was that helÃ?Âmet. Of course they all agreed that the best way to protect themselves, was by avoiding a big fall.
“The best then to do is not think about it,” Junior said. “Just do the jump. Think too much and you’ll hurt yourself. Of course, you got to fail a little before you succeed.”
Everyone watched as Tony shot up the ramp, sailed across the darkening sky and then – whump – made a one foot landing on the other side. He skidded to a halt and looked back at the ramp and then at his friends and smiled big. Tony made it. He had captured his own moment of freedom. It was the ultimate pay-off for all the hassles, the injuries and hours of exhausting pedalingÃ¢Â?Â¦that momentary rush when they fly above the world, above their problems.