By fall of ’87 the only thing in worse shape than my cut-rate variflex board was my cut-rate team Murray BMX bike. This was a problem because, by 1987, the brief flare -up of budget board skating that got turbocharged by Back To The Future in ’85 was beginning to fade away in favor of a return to BMX. The little bubble of interest in skateboards seemed destined to be nothing more than a breather that barely interrupted the BMX mania that had been ongoing in the rural midwest since the beginning of the decade.
I had never had a good BMX bike and skateboarding had temporarily created a level of equality between me and my peers. All our boards were more or less equal in their second rate status. (not that we really knew that). But now BMX was re-asserting it dominance. On top of that there was a new type of BMX bike every kid had to have. It was called a freestyle bike, and with their rotors, pegs and neon colors, freestyle bikes were even further removed from my rusting, wobbly-rimmed department store Team Murray. To add insult to injury, my main partner in valterrorism, Monty, dropped his valterra for a hot pink GT freestyle bike in ’87. This was a harsh blow. I was bummed not just because I was unsure who I would have to skate with while Monty was over-flipping endos on his bike, but also because his subdivision had the best driveways. The vicarious arms race that would later have every parent in his hood scrabbling to buy their little darlings the hottest car was supplying all those cut-rate carvers I had once skated with with tricked out, eye-watering fluorescent Dynos, Haros and, GTs.
I was 13 and I had seen this movie already. It was a cringe comedy starring me and set back when the first wave of BMX hit in 82 and everyone but me had a Diamondback or a Mongoose. The sequel was worse because, not only was I shut out of freestyle by lack of good equipment, but I was also facing the real possibility that an activity I could participate in and one that, miraculously, I seemed to have some skill in (by our feeble, pre pro-board standards) might just disappear.
I spent most of the ’87-88 school year trying to keep up with all those killer bikes on my disintegrating variflex. By the time next school year started Monty’s hot pink GT was collecting dust in his garage, replaced by a Hosoi hammerhead with neon green gullwing trucks. I was popping my first ollies on a Sims Kevin Staab and almost all the other BMX bandits I knew were awaiting drop-boxes from CCS or Intensity skates, kicking themselves for the time I had gained on them. I was, for once in my life, ahead of the curve.
But how did that happen? Why did those kids dump their BMX bikes for skateboards when BMX had so many obvious advantages in our environment? BMX was the one California fad that not only unfolded in the midwest in real-time, but one that actually seemed more suited to where we were than to the coasts. Corn country hesher kids were hardwired to ride in the dirt and throw their bikes through the air. All you needed for BMX was a lot of dirt and a lot of open space. If there were two things we had a lot of in Indiana, it was dirt and open spaces. BMX was everywhere. It was our first real window onto what the Barneys would eventually call “extreme sports”. Most kids I knew didn’t see their first ad for a pro model skateboard in Thrasher or Transworld, they saw it in BMX action or Club Homeboy. But when given the choice, why pick skating? You can’t call it anything like a practical or logical choice. Why take that pothole chunked, gravel strewn, barely skateable road less traveled over the dirty but smooth path of BMX? Answering that question definitively is probably impossible, but thinking about it reveals just as much about skating as it does about BMX.
Now people characterize the 80’s BMX explosion as a fad, but BMX wasn’t really a fad in the midwest. A fad is best characterized by its uselessness and transience, it is a kind of benign market-driven mass hysteria that blazes like a supernova and then disappears just as fast. In Indiana there was nothing arbitrary or ephemeral about why we rode those BMX bikes. Kids in the rural midwest had been riding through woods, up big ass grassy hills, and over dirtpile jumps way before the letters B,M, and X were ever strung together into a piece of slang. If you lived where we lived you didn’t need BMX Action magazine to tell you what you did with one of those BMX bikes, and you didn’t need an ad campaign or even peer pressure tell you that you didn’t just want one of those bikes you needed one.
This all sounds like textbook pre-adolescent faddishness, but it really wasn’t. It was a rare instance of childhood covetousness intersecting with practicality. Before I traded it in for a crappy team Murray BMX my shitty k-mart banana seater had clocked just as many miles on homegrown dirt tracks, backyard short cuts, and cornfield raceways as it had on the roads and I had the broken spokes and crooked forks to prove it. The whole BMX phenomenon was intuitive for us from the start. For a decade BMX wasn’t a subculture or a niche, It was the status quo. When you said “bike” the picture that popped in your brain was a BMX bike. Even if your first bike wasn’t a Mongoose it was probably on the BMX template. BMX was the default setting.
So why did skating, a sport only slightly less suited to our neighborhoods than downhill skiing or, well, surfing, kill it so quickly in my neighborhoods? Its a complicated question.
The onset of BMX in 80-81 was wildly different form our first encounters with skateboarding. Skateboarding was an enigma, a sketchy, second-rate form of transportation that whispered of possibilities we could only guess at, but with BMX, it was almost like the rest of the world had finally caught up to us and given a name to something we had been naturally doing for years. We didn’t have to figure it out, and we weren’t lokin at it through a time lag. Once kids started getting their grubby palms on Diamondbacks and Haros we were on an equal footing with anyone anywhere in the nation in terms of potential venues. Getting tose bikes was nowhere near as hard as getting boards either. Every town had a bike shop, and when BMX hit, every bike shop stocked them. The local motocross tracks ran BMX races, and there were no less than 3 kick ass BMX spots in my neighborhood alone. BMX truly was just as much for us as it was for the California cultural elite.
Parents had an easier time figuring out BMX too becasue it came with an easy point of reference for our suburban boomer parents. To them BMX was just a slight twist on a suburban necessity. The $300 Diamondback bike was just our generation’s version of the rocket red Schwinn Stingray dad had coveted and never got when he was 9. To parents BMX was just “riding bikes”, just like they had in their lost youth. In a lot of ways, their ignorance was our bliss. Early on at least, they had no idea of what we were really doing on those bikes or who we were doing it with.
This fact that parents could comprehend BMX was almost as important as the fact that we could grasp it because BMX bikes were expensive, especially by 1980’s standards. A decent Diamondback or Haro could run you $300 easily. Even a legit schwinn BMX could hit $200. In retrospect, its surprising that the sport was so universal and popular across class lines, and maybe even more popular among working class kids.
Middle and upper class kids, of course, could rely on the unstoppable parental impetus of “keeping up with the joneses” to get them a hot BMX ride. Since boomer parents already had a nostalgic hard-on for bicycles, price was often no object. If Junior wanted a $300 Dyno, he got it. This sociological force put a lot of killer BMX bikes out on the streets really fast and lots of kids who just wanted a decent bike to pedal around the neighborhood ended up with drool-worthy Redlines or Diamondbacks. Some of those kids got a clue and eventually gave those bikes the workout they deserved, others didn’t and their bikes ended up getting boosted, re-sold for cheap or traded for atari cartridges and commodore 64 games, making overzealous conspicuous consumption its own sort of back channel pipeline flowing gear to kids on the margins.
Later on, this eternal suburban penny-ante conspicuous consumption pissing contest would benefit skateboarding a little, but on nowhere near the same scale. Unlike BMX, the cat was out of the bag with skating from the very beginning. Even at the height of its trendiness, skateboarding came pre-loaded with a bad reputation. In ’82 or 83 a hot BMX bike was a flashing sign telling the bourgoisie that mommy and daddy loved their child and were well off enough to spoil him. On the other hand, even at the height of the skate boom of 88 or 89, a top flight skateboard was a crudely scrawled piece of graffiti that said: “Budding Hoodlum on board, mommy and daddy are probably alcoholics”
The customization and general tinkering element of BMX was another hook, one that got even working class parents on tight budgets to commit cash to a BMX bike. For gearhead parents giving their child a nice bike to maintain and customize was a way to teach them real life skills. In that context, $300 spent on a customizable bike wasn’t just money wasted on a toy, it was an investment in teaching things blue collar parents saw as essential: things like basic mechanical aptitude, use of basic tools and the pride instilled in building or repairing something with one’s hands. Many of those working class BMX parents were involved in biker culture too and for them a kid’s passion for bicycles was the first step on the road to discovering motorcycles. A BMX bike was a potential bonding tool for these parents, especially divorced fathers wanting something they could share with their kids at a time when they were reaching the age of pulling away.
To say skateboarding lacks these conciliatory elements is a bit of an understatement. In terms of adolescent psychology maybe that was an advantage, but in practical terms it was a definite drawback. All the customization involved in skateboarding came from buying things, not tinkering with them. A board only has 3 basic parts. There’s not much you can fix on any if them. If your board breaks dad isn’t going to be able to show you how to fix it with a welder or a mallet. All he can do is open up his wallet. The only tools you are likely to get familiar with by skateboarding are an allen wrench, a 9/16 ratchet and a roll of duct tape. When mini-ramp fever hit, some parents would use ramp-building as a bonding and educational opportunity for their kids but building a ramp required lots more money and lots more space than many middle class kids had. It also entailed turning your backyard into a possible neighborhood association headache, a probable insurance hassle, and a definite hangout for maladjusted teenage deviants. Even the construction of all of those launch ramps and quarter pipes that littered suburbia in the late 80‘s was a mostly parent-free affair (my personal, bizarrely constructed launch excepted, but that, as Mako says, is another story). Building a good skate ramp was a lot more esoteric than adding a deck to the house. Skaters were often on their own in the garage. For the most part, ramps or no ramps, the only parental bonding skateboarding was likely to produce in the 80‘s were lots of “friendly discussions” regarding why you needed a new pair of shoes every two months.
I was neither an indulged young poseur nor a hard-luck blue-collar troublemaker at the height of BMX craziness. I was really in the category of the wanna-be-BMXer. My parents didn’t give a crap about keeping up with anybody’s standards of materialism, my dad wasn’t a motorcycle guy either, so I was never destined for a new Mongoose or Kuwahara every birthday. As a child my dad had been one of 13 siblings growing up on a farm. Bicycles had been communal property for him so me just having any bike of my own was something beyond his childhood experience. He wasn’t a stingy man necessarily, but he had way too much common sense to blow $200+ bucks on a fancy bike when you could get a perfectly serviceable one for $89.95 at Montgomery Ward.(This same thinking assured that, later on, there was enough money to get me a used car at 17 and a college education after high school, so I can’t be too hard on him.) When BMX bikes stared hitting the stores I already had a red, k-mart special “Star-Fire” banana-seat bike. My dad had neither the time nor the inclination to agonize over its complete lack of knobby tires, hand brakes and a full set of frame, crossbar and neck pads. Of course, the beatings I was putting that bike through on the local dirt jumps and trails soon turned it into a bent, lopsided safety hazard. Even then, just getting my $89 Team Murray to replace it was the result of months of obnoxious begging and a well-timed birthday.
Unlike the generic skateboards I would be shackled with in my embryonic skate years, A generic BMX bike was actually somewhat functional. You could ride to a spot on a Team Murray loser cruiser like mine and still hit the jumps and kick up some dirt, and there were spots were everywhere. Three houses down and across the street from my house was a place we called “the Dump”. The Dump was double-lot sized vacant plot in the middle of our subdivision. Local kid legend said all the gas lines in the neighborhood met under the lot, which was why no houses were ever built there. I remember my friend Kevin naively telling me one day, in hushed tones, that if you dropped a lit cigarette at the dump it could set off the gas lines and blow up the whole neighborhood. Whenever anybody did any excavation in the neighborhood their fill dirt would end up at the dump. Kids in the neighborhood didn’t need an instruction manual to tell them what they ought to do with an open lot piled with loose fill dirt. It wasn’t long before bicycles had rutted crisscrossing dirt paths through the weeds and the loose dirt had been piled into berms, jumps and a wicked double set of side-by side quadruple mogul jumps.
Kevin’s older brother, Bryan, was the prototypical early onset Indiana BMX Hesher. He was about 5 years older than me, he had a mullet haircut, dirt crust mustache, and his bikes were always a hodgepodge of variously manufactured forks, frame and wheels cobbled together from who knows where. As a middle-schooler just about every day he’d be in the family garage messing with that bike, and almost every day I could hear screaming matches between him and his parents echoing from down the street. By high school the same ritual would be repeated, only with Bryan banging away at a beat up car instead of a bike. Back then Everyone was into metal, but the standard issue was stuff like Poison and Def Leppard, but BMX Bryan was the guy who had a full collection of AC/DC, Sabbath, Krokus, and Motley Crue’s first album. Bryan was the guy with the Randy Rhodes Tribute t-shirt, skoal painters cap and lit cigarette at the back of the bus. The first time I saw a pair of Vans, he was wearing him. The first time I saw marijuana was when Kevin snuck me out into a soybean field adjacent to our neighborhood and showed me the hidden mason jar holding big brother’s “stash”. Kevin had to explain to me what it was.
Guys like Bryan built those dirty tracks and were the first wave in terms of defining BMX for the next group of kids, but we never thought of those guys as“BMXers”. We just thought of them as bad asses who could go faster, jump higher and raise more hell than all us other kids with muddy bikes and no driver’s licenses. I don’t know how much the first wave self-identified either because, for most of them, their bikes were a memory once they got their drivers’ licenses.
BMX sprung from an organized racing culture, and guys like Bryan raced when they could, but I don’t think it was ever the main appeal of BMX. The local Motocross track, Competitors Park, had bi-weekly BMX races but in the neighborhoods we were really more interested in going real fast for its own sake and throwing ourselves through the air. Most of our homegrown spots had an oval/track sort of arrangement, but there wasn’t a lot of side-by side racing. It was about hitting jumps and seeing how high you could go and with how much style. There was another lot in my neighborhood that we cleverly dubbed: “The Track”. It was a vacant plot we had worn a 1/4 acre oval into, with little dirt jumps on each opposite straightaway. After riding the track for a while, kids started to notice the 5 foot deep ditch over to the side. After that we stopped going around in circles and began to just haul ass and air out of the ditch over and over again. I saw my first table-tops and cross-ups coming out of that ditch. I made my first and last dirt-eating attempts to cross up and table-top soon afterwards.
Some of the best spots bore no resemblance to a track at all. My personal fave was “The Dungeon”. The Dungeon was this crazy patch of woods sitting in the cornfield that divided my neighborhood from my friend Scott’s neighborhood. It was a weird hybrid of local make-out spot and natural pseudo-halfpipe. It was probably less than 100 yards square altogether, but once you walked up to it and peered through the trees you could see that what it really was was: a massive, tree-shrouded gully maybe 9 feet deep and 100 feet wide from end to end. Anyone driving by could see the trees from the road, but they couldn’t see that little ravine inside. A path just about wide enough to drive a golf cart down cut through the center of the dip and little footpaths branched off of it, leading to hidden clearings and crannies away from the main path. Kids did a lot of stuff there they didn’t want their parents to see. There was always a stained mattress tucked away in the brush someplace and there were always burnt out remains of little bonfires and lots of beer cans, discarded condoms, cashed in bic lighters and cigarette butts, sometimes even a poorly concealed duffel bag holding a 12 pack. What we did on our bikes at the dungeon, though, was haul ass down the steep drop on one side, pedal like crazy through the center and then hit the path going up the ditch on the other side. It was ludicrously easy to build up enough speed to blast an air out into the cornfield. Even a kid with a shitty team murray bike like mine could soar out of the dungeon. If you were good you could go ridiculously high and far. You could go back and forth over and over with no hassles and when you were ready for a breather, you could retire to a clearing for a non-parentally approved smoke or an age inappropriate liquid refreshment.
The fact that cut-rate department store BMX bikes were marginally functional lowered the barrier to entry to BMX, but the commonality of tricked out, pro-brand bikes flying around at spots like The Dungeon meant the scene was pretty intimidating if you couldn’t score a Redline or a GT. If you had a cut-rate BMX bike in ‘80s there were always lots of reminders that you were riding shit. Even though BMX riders weren’t a clique, the gear helped form a sometimes cruel hierarchy and kids like me knew immediately that we were shut out of the top tier if we couldn’t get a better bike. I met more bullies at the BMX spots than I ever did at skate spots. If you had a Murray or a Huffy you were fair game. As in most other things, the real players never bothered with pushing kids around, but the kids in the middle echelons were always trying to prove something. I didn’t just get snaked or cut off on the tracks and jumps, guys would kick-out into my spokes and bend the cheap-ass rims I had and even my friends, eager to avoid being low man on the totem pole, would pile on just to keep themselves safe.
I don’t mean to cast BMX as some sort of “bad guy” or make some sort of juvenile “skating was better than BMX” statement, but my experiences with both activities are pretty stark in their contrasts. The same prominence that gave BMX such a cultural foothold in the midwest early on deprived it of many of the group bonding elements that would make skating so appealing to marginalized youth later on. From 80 to 85, when it was at its peak, BMX wasn’t a subculture, it was a microcosm of the existing preadolescent social order. There were cool kids and there were losers and my Team Murray was like a pair of K-mart pro-keds in an age where it was Nike or nothing. BMX kids didn’t need to stick together to protect their sport and since BMX culture was something anyone could plug into there was no need to pool knowledge with other kids. Spots were very territorial and there were places you just couldn’t go without someone having your back. Even if someone had your back, you didn’t go on a cut bike. Today, skateboarding suffers from some of this nonsense as well but at the beginning, in that first big wave, skaters in my town didn’t have to prove anything beyond that they loved to skate. You didn’t have to be good, you didn’t even have to have the best board (in fact, if your board was too nice, you were a little suspicious), you just had to skate and give respect.
Since BMX is what everyone with a bike did there wasn’t really any broad group solidarity. Skateboarding was never like that in my town, not even when it got sort of big. If you saw a kid walking through the mall in a skate tee no matter what he looked like, what color he was, or how else he looked you stopped him and asked the two magic questions: “What kind of board have you got? How high can you ollie?” If you saw a kid sessioning a Nash, you’d roll up to him and show him your new H-street or Powell-Peralta set-up and let him push around on it just so you could see his eyes light up when he felt the difference in what was beneath his feet. It was downright evangelical, and you didn’t pass up the chance to spread the gospel. I never had an older kid let me run his Dyno around the track or let me hit the jump at the Dungeon on his Mongoose. A lot of this is because of equipment issues: A bike is a lot more idiosyncratic and personalized than a skateboard and there’s a lot more that can break if some kook eats dirt on it, but superseding that was the fact that the BMX scene didn’t need new blood in the early 80‘s. It wasn’t desperate.
Peer pressure notwithstanding, knowing you weren’t riding proper equipment was psychologically frustrating. Even when there was no one pushing me around, knowing I was on a crap bike robbed me of any fun I might have had learning the basics. I could pedal as fast as possible and try to jump higher and farther, but no matter how much I improved there was always that nagging feeling that, as long as I was riding a generic bike, I would never get good enough and I would never get to the same place older more skilled kids did. On top of that, a crap bike couldn’t take what a nice ride could, making the gap just that much bigger the longer I rode my inferior bike. I was not as good as a lot of kids in the neighborhood but was it just that I sucked at BMX, or was it my crappy bike?
This was radically different than the time my friends and I spent on Nash and Valterra garbage boards. What we didn’t know not only didn’t hurt us, it helped us. The department store crap boards were less functional than generic BMX bikes, but we had no idea what was possible with a good set-uo anyway and we had no idea what a better board was. The limitations of those decks meant we spent a long time just carving and feeling how good it was to roll. We had years to get hooked on skateboarding before any magazine or any person could tell us we weren’t actually doing it.
The racing heritage and BMXs context as a subset of bicycling, both things that gave the sport a huge boost early on, might have backfired on it as years went by. As much as kids loved hitting the dirt jumps and kicking up mud on their bikes, to many of them, there was still a bug implanted in their brain by generations of cultural tradition that said you just didn’t ride when you could drive. Deep down, mainstream society saw a bike as a way little kids got from point a to point b. Sure, society saw skateboarding as a kiddy activity too, but somehow skaters stubbornly resisted this. BMX never seemed to have this sort of punkish intransigence. By 84-85 the first wave of older BMX kids, guys who were 11 and 12 when they picked up the first BMX bikes in 80 were getting their Driver’s licenses. Guys like Bryan, the scary, vans-wearing, hell-raising sibling of my best friend Kevin disappeared from BMX in a cloud of automobile exhaust. It was like Logan’s Run. You hit a certain age and Bam! You were gone. Why mess around with some kiddy bike once you had access to even a beater of a car. Goodbye no-handers in the gravel pit behind plaza north shopping center, hello donuts in the high school parking lot.
In addition to this die-off, there was also a fracture in the BMX community that coincided with skateboarding’s slow infiltration of Middle America. The fascination with trick BMX maneuvers, as well as an increasing urban and suburbanization of the sport gave rise to freestyle BMX. Freestyle ditched racing altogether in favor of a focus on expressive riding. The aesthetics of BMX freestyle were a radical departure from the core of the sport, but an easy segue to skate culture. In terms of visual design, BMX was no longer taking its cues from motocross. The checkerboards and chrome gave way to vintage 80‘s, so.-cal valley culture and retina bleaching fluorescents.
The relationship between skating and BMX started off symbiotic. BMX mags ran skate ads and did equipment reviews of skateboards. Promotional events like contests or the Swatch Impact Tour lumped the two sports together as pieces of the same cultural movement. I saw my first ad for a pro model board in a BMX mag. I chose my first set-up based on reviews in BMX Action, not Thrasher. The development of freestyle BMX also meant skaters and BMX riders began to share a habitat. Bikes started to show up on the half and quarter pipes skaters hacked together. Taking the BMX bikes from the dirt to to the driveway meant, For the first time, the two subcultures could coexist in the same space and cross pollinate. Eventually, however, this relationship would become parasitic, with Skateboarding playing Count Dracula to BMXs Mina Murray. By ’89 Freestyle, and BMX in general, was a bloodless husk of what it had been in ’87 and surfer moguls like Stacy Peralta were growing bloated from the proceeds of the thousands upon thousands of McGill snake decks and Caballero Dragons being sold to exsanguinated BMXers in the flyover states.
This is the point where the question of why so many kids in the Midwest dropped BMX for skateboarding becomes so troublesome. This is because the two activities, on a philosophical and aestehtic level, seem to fulfill the same sort of need, but the freestyle bike was unquestionably more versatile in our environment. Trick riding in BMX and freestyle BMX was about taking your environment, in BMX’s case, dirt-filled vacant lots and roughneck patches in the wooded interstices between rural subdivisions, and turning them into something new and exciting by manipulating your bike in creative ways. Skateboarding was based on the same aesthetic, but it was centered on ramps and urban spaces we just didn’t have. Swapping BMX for skateboarding made about as much sense as, say, our parents trading in the family stationwagon for a sailboat.
Of course, for me, the switch was purely economic. A hot skate set up was about $100 ($89.95 if you hit up Skully Brothers for your first set up like me) Pops was never going to shell out $300 for a freestyle bike, but If I made honor roll and lobbied real hard around christmas, he could swing 89.95 for a board. By the time school started in ’88 for some reason all those BMX kids with teh sick bikes were lusting after visions and powells and santa cruz’s. For these kids, who already had the BMX hardware, something besides economics was dictating their needs. The mass switch to skating was not pragmatic and not easily parsed. Maybe it was just the momentum of a new fad, maybe it was just the appeal of the shiny new California thing. I tend to think there was a lot more to it than that.
That little Wrath of Khan earworm that told the old-school metalhead BMXers that BMX wasn’t viable once they turned sixteen and started slapping bondo on an old chevy nova was still crawling around in the cerebral cortex of all the freestylers bailing tailwhips and under-rotating 360’s off the local dirt jumps. Sure, the bike was a rite of passage for every American suburban and rural kid, but ditching the bike at age 16 was just as big a part of that rite of passage as anything else. Maybe the BMX implosion was just a matter of too much cultural baggage weighing down on even the most hardcore riders. In this sense that lack of a stubborn, confrontational group identity comes in against BMX. Giving up BMX wasn’t giving up a lifestyle or a peer group for most. BMX, for too many kids, came with a pre-ordained expiration date from the very beginning. You knew it was temporary.
There’s also something to be said for the purity of the skateboard as a tool for expression and manipulation of the ambient environment. The skateboard, by virtue of its limitations isn’t much use as anything but a form of amusement and self-expression. You pick up a board and that has to be your focus. Once you make that jump, you’re in the cult, expression and manipulation is your sole mission. If expressive movement was what we were latching onto, skateboarding, on a purely logical level, was superior by virtue of this simplicity. Simplicity can create limitations, limitations breed creativity. The skateboard was unclouded. There’s no point where you question whether its is appropriate to be riding around on a vehicle that goes at running speed when you have access to one that goes 100 miles per hour because skateboarding was never, even peripherally, a way to get around. It couldn’t be one-upped by a car.
There is a level of novelty involved in skateboarding that BMX couldn’t compete with as well. Stepping on a board and just learning to carve was a brand new thing and for midwest kid it was al our own. None of ur parents had done it. None of them had ever done anything like it. Even the basics of skateboarding was a bit of an adventure. If you had a board and just rode it you were skateboarding whether you could do an ollie or not. If you weren’t hitting a jump or doing a tailwhip on your BMX bike you were just...riding a bike. If BMX did develop a group identity, this element made it boundaries kind of murky.
The comparative difficulty of each sport had a lot to do with the decline of BMX. The difference in the actual level of difficulty is probably less important than the sort of developmental curve endemic to each sport. The basics of BMX: a simple, clean jump, riding a wheelie, the bunny hop, the endo, were all fairly easy to pull off. The first time I saw someone do a bunny hop, I could do a tiny one almost immediately. Not so with skateboarding. The first time I saw someone Ollie, I had to go home and smack my tail in the garage for two weeks or so before I could snap even a microscopic one.
This, it would seem, is an advantage for BMX. In reality it is not so simple. It’s the intermediate level that becomes crucial in this comparison, and at the intermediate level the advantage tips greatly in favor of skating. Hitting a small jump and staying up on a bike was simple and instinctive. Hitting that same jump and spinning a 360 or kicking out a can-can was something completely different. The basics of BMX were simple enough that any kid could achieve them at a beginner level with minimal hassle, but once those basics were down the wall that separated them from next level was massive. It was almost like there was no intermediate level in BMX, especially freestyle BMX. You either had your basics down and plateaued there or you busted through the wall and became a total bad-ass. There was little positive reinforcement or landmarks of achievement between the two. If you didn’t have a lot of natural talent and physical ability, it was a long, dirty, bloody slog to journeyman status.
With skateboarding the basics are maddeningly hard, but after that the curve is steady and rapid. It takes weeks to learn to stand up, carve and simply get comfortable on a board. The ollie, the basic unit of modern skateboarding, is an absolute nightmare. There is nothing intuitive or straightforward about the ollie. There is no athletic experience or training that can condition you for it. Being stronger or faster or even smarter does not give you a leg up on it. It’s almost impossible to really crack without seeing it in person and, preferably, having a someone nice enough to break down what you are doing wrong the first hundred tries or so. This was even worse in the late 80’s when the street board was still just a scaled down, ten-inch wide, square tailed vert deck and wheel sizes hovered around the low 60 millimeter range.
However, the payoff for sticking with it and breaking the ollie, was massive. It was kind of like the movie They Live. Once you had your ollie goggles on you instantly saw the world in a whole new way. Only, instead of seeing subliminal messages like “obey” and “consume” we saw messages like “grind me” and “jump this”. It was just a tiny step from an ollie to an axle stall, and an even tinier step from an axle stall to a 50-50 grind. The frontside 180 ollie falls right into place once you can pop off the ground and so on and so on. Skateboarding is constantly paying you back for picking up a basic maneuver. On top of that, even before you picked up the new tricks you could easily spend an afternoon just rolling around popping little ollies over manhole covers, parking curbs, sidewalk cracks, whatever, and still have a really good time. The ollie was a great filter as well. Anyone who was willing to put in the time to achieve it was probably not going to set their board aside nonchalantly for some other fad. The ollie was a force that not only tempered the troops, but massively rewarded the faithful.
I have a street-skating bias when thinking about these things, because, for the most part, the streets were all me and my friends had, but when you factor transitions into this whole comparison the curve in favor of Skateboarding is even harsher. As in skateboarding, in freestyle BMX riding ramps and especially half-pipes had this sort of rock star cachet in the 80‘s that you couldn’t get just riding the streets. In the Midwest there was an even greater veneration for these mostly unseen ritual architectural spaces. Transitions weren’t just a challenging and unprecedented form of terrain for skaters and BMXers, they were exotic monoliths that represented the coastal lifestyle we had all been sold on by movies and fashion designers. Just riding on a quarter pipe or half gave any rider an air of legitimacy, the feeling that they were a part of the subculture. On top of that, having a quarter in front of your house instantly made your driveway the hot pre-teen hang out, even for non-riders. Girls might even show up. If you had a half-pipe, people three or four counties over, hell, people on the other side of the state, would know your name.
BMX riders built the first driveway quarter pipes in our neighborhoods but just riding up a five or six foot quarter and coming back down on a bike was pretty difficult. If you wanted to turn around on a bike you basically had to do a little air and jerk your bike 180 to come back down. There was no kickturn. Going up and riding fakie back was completely counterintuitive on a bike. On a skateboard, even the stiff, rattling scrap wood variflex I was riding, a basic kickturn was already part of our driveway “trick” vocabulary, so going up and down a quarter was no problem. Little axle stalls and slashers fell right in after that. None of these things were as difficult or as cool as taking your bike up and doing a little air, but at least they were something. Unless you were a die-hard BMX rider, watching little skate rats go up and down your quarter over and over, doing their little under-the-lip early- grab airs, had to make you question why you were busting your ass just to get good enough to go up and turn around.
Without a doubt that ass-busting factor was about ten times higher with a bike no matter what our parents might have thought. Bailing a board was just a matter of jumping away. If things go snafu on a bike you have to deal with a heavy, gyroscopically twisting mass of aluminum and brake wires that wants to pummel you for having the temerity to try and make it do anything but take you for a leisurely ride. BMX was always gnarly. Sure I never got deep into BMX because I couldn’t afford a decent bike, but even if I had, I doubted I would have had the will to stick with it. BMX injuries put as many kids on skateboards as Animal Chin and Psycho Skate combined, and, unfortunately, BMX culture’s close relationship with skateboarding made the transition seamless.
After I started really skating I would drive around looking for spots and see empty lots and patches of cleared woods, landscaped hills and trails that made me wish I could skate on dirt. I could have hit all those things if I was a BMXer. Mother nature is full of perfect hips, embankments and even quarter-pipes. On a BMX bike you could ride those organic playgrounds. Sure, the ollie redefined city terrain to budding skaters, but the BMX bike could have re-defined our whole world. No doubt, BMX was the smart choice.
But for me, and my little jr. high skate tribe, that choice got set aside. Was BMX really the better choice? For years I have thought it probably was, especially for the guys who already had the best BMX gear handed to them by their parents. Getting a killer bike where I lived was like being handed the keys to the kingdom of stoke. Picking up a board was more like embarking on an impossible quest into a midwestern Mordor full of harassing hicks, sketchy pavement and arid, sessionless urban wastes.
Maybe the essence of the switch is an of oxymoron only skaters who are still dealing with that decision can appreciate. In the midwest, picking a board over a bike wasn’t the logical choice, it wasn’t the smart choice. It definitely wasn’t the easy choice. It was the loser’s choice, the sucker’s bet, but in some ass-backwards way it was the right one for us, and in spite of it all, it was millions of kids in towns like mine making that dumb choice that helped build modern skateboarding.