At the end of 2017 I knew that I was pretty much done with chasing titles and found it difficult to commit to flying to the other side of the country for our 2018 national championships. I mean heck, I’m a 50-year-old man riding a BMX bike. Wasn’t it time to grow up and maybe buy a MTB? Or a carbon road bike to stick on the roof of my VW? Racing motivation was lacking, but fate is funny and I found myself dropping full-time work in 2017 to work very part-time for a BMX only store here in West End Brisbane LUX BMX, helping the crew expand their racing product range to their incredibly successful freestyle shop, plus concentrate on BMX coaching. I had ticked the Grands off my BMX bucket list in 2016, taking my steel Colony GTi all the way to 5th place in the 46x semi-final. I really didn’t need to do much more to satisfy my racing appetite. I just love riding BMX and keeping the aging process at bay by riding a kid’s bike.
But then USA BMX announced late in 2017 that next year they were introducing 51x in the 20” class and I thought ‘God bless the USA’ and it re-ignited my passion. Around the same time Jason Carnes’ (Berm Academy) had formulated an Old School tour in July/August to hit two USA BMX triple headers and shot me a message saying you better book because there’s one spot left! Screw it I thought, if I’m hitting a couple of triple headers, I may as well hit the Grands too and booked both sets of flights to the US. Telling my wife that the Grand’s trip was for work more so than racing, and convincing my accountant that I would be having “meetings” for LUX BMX and that racing was coaching research.
I had written about my 2016 Grand’s experience and the echo chamber fans seemed to be genuinely interested in the trip and the experience. Being deeply involved in BMX, both with LUX BMX and coaching, I try to share my passion for BMX as much as I can and I tentatively raised the possibility of sharing my 2018 Grands trip with a few racers from my older coaching group and next minute I’ve booked 5 rooms at the Expo Inn in Tulsa and have 9 others committed, from both my group, and extended BMX friends. Shit, all of a sudden, I’m a tour leader and do my best to really convey to those in the group that hadn’t yet been to Tulsa that you won’t be doing any sightseeing. You’ll eat, sleep and breath BMX for 5 days. I explained to them that Tulsa is just like Shepparton (a rural country town in OZ) but with a few skyscrapers. They were still keen! After all, the Grands to Aussies is the Mecca of BMX. Joining the crew was the second saltiest BMXer on the earth, and track racing, lycra wearing defector – Brett Scruse. The #2 salty one asked me to keep it a secret that he was going to keep the John Farnham ‘coming out of retirement’ jokes to a minimum. He too had felt that his BMX racing days were done, but he wanted to tick off the Grands on his personal bucket list.
What’s the attraction of traveling almost 14,000km (that’s over 8,000 miles in American, Carnes) for us Aussies? The majority of the traveling crew were over 40 and started racing in the 80s, reading BMX Action/Plus and devouring their exotic contents, and I guess the event billed the ‘Greatest Race on Earth’ had been burned into our psyche. About half of us had been before, the other half were Grand’s virgins and hats off to USA BMX’s Gabi and Jen for making it so easy for us all to license up and nominate. It still blows the minds of Aussies that you can nominate to race the day before when domestically our governing bodies close off noms up to 6 weeks prior to the race…. Yeah, I don’t get that either.
Come Monday of the Grand’s week, almost the entire Queensland component of our group is flying out on the same QANTAS Brisbane to LA flight. We get there nice and early in accordance to the unwritten Aussie rule that you should hydrate thoroughly before boarding a 12-hour flight. Two hours later we are laughing and joking about BMX, and what it means to us. The laughing and piss-taking will continue all week until we land back in Australia a week or so later. I quietly tally up the years of BMX experience of this group, and those who we are meeting in Tulsa, the number of state/national and world titles, and I’m inwardly impressed of the talent of the group that’s come together. They are serious players locally, but I also know they will have their eyes opened by the comp in the US as I certainly did in 2016.
We arrive the same day as we leave because Australia exists in the future with flying cars and shit, and spend a couple of days throwing off jet lag and checking out the race track. The Grand’s track, as you probably know, is built every year from the same dirt and you get a total of 30 minutes practice per class. If you ride the big bus, you get 30 minutes on that too. The 46+ practice is at 9.40pm on Thursday night! You got to dial it in pretty quick and my roomie Brett Scruse and I get out there and basically smash through the jumps and I wonder if I can reclassify as 51 novice instead of 51x. Hmmm. Not feeling as cocky as I was on the Berm Academy tour now…
From experience I know that the track will dry out and harden up. Almost all the group nom for the ROC in the open classes for Friday. I sit it out as it’s a long day for a couple of practice laps. I do some work and meet some of the industry people I know that are here as the Grands has become a quasi Interbike for BMX racing. I catch up with Chad Powers form Powers Bike Shop to say I had just listened to the BMX In Our Blood podcast. The shop dog is an Aussie kelpie and that’s rad. I agree to send over some LUX BMX gear in a show of independent BMX shop comradery. This adds to the coolness of the trip because everyone is so into BMX in this building.
ROC done for the group on Friday and what to do? Well, we’re a well-prepared group and have thoroughly researched Tulsa’s best breweries and head to Welltown Brewery to work our way across their taps. We might be finely honed athletes, but we didn’t come all this way to drink herbal tea and go to bed at 9pm. Afterall, I’m only racing 20” and calculate that my first moto will be about 5pm the next day and I wasn’t far off. And that’s one of the crazy things about this race. It starts at 9am and takes 8 hours to do ONE moto. I wake up a little dusty and so does my roommate. But we handle it and transfer through from our first moto. I then recalculate that my semi-final will be in around 24 hours, and final 3 hours after that. It’s a long way to go for 3 laps if you go all the way. For the others in the group riding two or three classes they are getting in plenty of laps with higher rider counts meaning they have 8ths/quarters/semis before a main.
But first we hit the Pro Spectacular on Saturday night and just take in how well USA BMX runs this show in the way that they really make the riders the focus, as well as the title chase(s). Sponsors are mentioned, riders are hyped and previous champions acknowledged. In fact, all round, USA BMX do an incredible job of acknowledging their history with banners everywhere of past champions and lists of winners from all the classes containing names of our heroes from the 80s and 90s, and an awesome montage of all the previous Grand’s tracks. The racing is incredible, and we are all pumped for Sunday’s elimination rounds. I’m pretty sure we have pizza again for dinner and I’m so serious, I eschew a beer for a coke. That’s tapering kids!
Again, even though I’d done this before, it is really difficult to fathom that I will wait until 5 o’clock Sunday afternoon to race my first race of the day, and it’s a semi. No warm up on the track, nothing. Just slot it in and pull the trigger! It’s nothing like a normal race back home where you are running 3, or more, motos on the same day before progressing. It takes a totally different mindset and something that I’m well aware of that my competition has plenty of experience doing, with names like Eric Rupe and Bubba Hayes probably having 50 Grands between them. In fact, the depth in all the 35-year-old and up classes is amazing, being littered with ex-pros and amateur champions alike.
Scrusey and I have been back and forth for months about our training approach for this race since making the decision to come over. Between us we agree that we just have to have 100% faith in our ability and back ourselves that we can rise to the occasion. Pretty basic really. As a coach/rider, it’s quite a self-learning journey managing anxiety levels and pinpoint the time frame to mentally build for your race. We’ve been mates for nearly 30 years and we reassure each other with a few phrases that can’t be printed here in case the kids are reading. There’s something special that we are both trying to achieve, lifelong dreams of winning a Grand’s final. To prove we’re faster than the Yanks! But it’s also a long way to come to get your arse handed to you. It’s a real exploration of ‘self’, not to get too Byron Bay on you.
There’s even an Aussie joke that lanes 7 and 8 are the ‘visitors’ lanes and true to form, I pull lane 7 in the semi, with Harry Leary in lane 8. I raced Harry in SLC a few months back and he was a dead set legend, giving me his plate and saying what a pleasure it was to raced me over that weekend. Eric Rupe is inside and Gorgeous George Goodall is next to me in 6. Eric Sweets is in there too and I know everyone thinks that their semi is the hard semi, but F me! This is going to be a tall order, but I gotta walk the talk that I’d been laying down on the BA’s Old School Tour and make this final. I tell myself just GO on the first horn (thanks Dwighty) and pedal that CroMo Colony like my life depends on it and get the job done, finishing 3rd behind Rupe and Sweets, feeling an immense sense of relief flow through my veins. I just made a Grand’s final!
Time to reassess my goal. Could I win? What is the minimum I’ll be satisfied with? Again, more self-learning in an environment that’s way out of my comfort zone of racing back home. I can confidently say that the semi-final I just rode in was harder than any Aussie championship final I’ve raced. Just as satisfying is that my roommate Scrusey had walked through to his finals too. That nugget is a class act and mentally tough, but it’s lucky I booked an extra room for our egos, otherwise it would’ve been a cramped hotel room for a week.
We head back to our Aussie pit attached to the Berm Academy set-up and find that Sam and Alise are still hanging around and both of us get to spend a few minutes just having a quite chat about BMX and life in general. It’s a nice diversion from thinking about racing the final in a few hours’ time. I ask Sam for some advice and he laughs and says he’s got nothing. I secretly think that he’s on Rupe’s side! So, I ask fellow Aussie Lauren Reynolds her inside tip, and she tells me to drop my pedal lower on the gate. Thanks girl!
Scrusey heads down to race cruiser and pulls a 3rd place and I feel sorry for the others in his 20” final because he’ll be fired up now. We have a chat and we tell each other how we are going to light up our finals and I believe him. To have someone believe in you and reaffirm what you already know is the power of a having someone in your corner. More learning and understanding at 51 years old.
Even though both our finals are the last two racks of the entire event, there’s still riders and family in the stands and USA BMX are still hyping the event with banging tunes even though they have been going at it for 3 solid days, plus all the prep. I spot Shannon Gillette a little earlier and say hello. He looks ready for a holiday!
The curtain is down behind the gate and we get to push through it. I’m secretly that 13-year-old kid again that’s just discovered BMX racing and have a true moment of pure joy that seems rare in adult life. I watch Scrusey take the win in the 46-50x class and I pack that away and focus on slotting into lane 3. Rupe outside, and in lane 1 is Bubba Hayes. He is such an incredible person having hosted the whole Berm Academy crew on our tour in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean I won’t move over on him once that gate drops! But it’s going to have to be one of the gates of my life because both those guys are as fast as alley cats. Immediately on my outside is John Pringle and he’s about twice my size. I better get the hell out of here quick or otherwise I’m mincemeat at the first jump and will probably just be buried there and then by the track crew when they pack down.
Gate drops and I manage to pull Bubba, but Rupe is just too good and gets on the gas early over the first jump and leads in to the corner as I slot into second. I’m having that internal conversation that seems ludicrous considering all the things going on around you and time slows down as you have that ‘chat’. If you’re a racer you’ll know exactly what I mean. I tell myself to get on those pedals as early as possible and keep my shit together down this second straight knowing that there are 6 guys behind me ready to, if necessary, punt me through the Tulsa sign on the second berm to make a pass. I go a little high and Bubba’s experience shines through and he gets under me. He magnanimously leaves me 5cm of track to work with and I slot in to follow him in for 3rd place. Rupe gives us a lesson with a big win and I give him a hug and tell him that was one of the most awesome moments of my life. He looks a little perplexed. I’m on the podium at the freaking Grands in an expert class, and it’s probably his 50th.
I see Brett and we exchange f#ck yeahs and immediately think beer! After all, the beer and pizza diet helped power our crew to a win (Brett Scruse), a 2nd place (Letitia Whetherhead), two 3rd’s (Scrusey – big bus and me on 20”) and a fourth for young W1 Portia Eden. Not a bad result of a small Aussie crew of 9 racers. For Dave, Joe, Zack and Glen, they all had a blast making a mix of quarters/semis and are all planning their next trip based on the price of Corona and the sheer radness of racing Stateside compared to back home. Poor old (young) Yasmin from our group crashed and will have to come back next year, but she still had a blast.
We sprint across the car park to the Expo Inn and drink beer with our new minted Aussie mate, Brent Lee, who happened to be staying in the same joint. I had shared a photo of him back home in Oz on a salty BMX FB group just weeks prior, a photo of him shredding on a cruiser with a rear fender, open face helmet and gloveless. He’s mad as a cut snake (Aussie term for top bloke), and we adopt him as an Aussie as he’s funny as hell and been awesome all weekend with our crew. He’s the sort of guy our governing body would ban for life and of course we love him!
2am Monday morning and the thought of packing bikes and gear ready to fly home in a few hours means that the dream has to end! Massive thanks USA BMX for being awesome hosts! The friendliness towards us Aussies and the easy-going acceptance of us coming over and tearing up the track is the mark of a BMX organisation that’s truly rider focused. The venue, the track, the acknowledgment of the history of BMX are all things that our country could really take on board. I’m sure there will be more of us heading back next year and hopefully USA BMX includes a discount code for Welltown Brewery for 2019 for the salty old Aussies.
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