To practise BMX, you don’t necessarily need a purpose-built track (see panel). All you need is an area of tarmac or close-cut grass (at least 20 square metres), the basic safety gear, some markers such as cones or empty plastic bottles, a bike and a willing attitude, says Grant White, the coach in charge of the small-wheeled crew in the Olympic cycling team.
Get the right gear
Your bike will need to be in decent order, particularly the brakes. Inspect your handlebar ends – if the rubber is torn, the metal may be exposed, which can be a danger.
Grant also makes the point that newcomers will find a 20-inch wheeled bike easier to control than its 24-inch wheeled counterpart.
Another prerequisite is a helmet. This has to be a special BMX one with a chin guard – not a standard road helmet. You will also need loose-fitting clothing (long trousers and a long sleeved top to help minimise grazes) and gloves. Rubber-soled shoes are also a good idea.
Skills and drills
“Even if you can’t get to a track, there are skills you can practise so that when you do go, you’ve got some of what you need,” says Grant. For example …
• Learning to do a basic wheelie is the best way to figure out the balance point of the bike. It sounds simple: while pedalling along, lift the front wheel, and try to use the power in your legs to control the height of the front wheel. If the front wheel drops, push your weight a little further back. At a more advanced level, it’s possible to “manual” – lift the front wheel while freewheeling – a vital part of controlling the bike over jumps.
• The bunnyhop is a three-stage exercise: get up speed, get the pedals at quarter to three (ie level on either side), lift the front wheel, then lift the back wheel anywhere from two inches to two feet depending on your strength. The aim here is to have the bike level while in mid-air over the obstacle. When you are over the obstacle – which could be just a plastic bottle laid on the grass – put the back wheel down a little before the front, and most importantly – control the landing by flexing the arms and legs like shock-absorbers to take the strain.
• The balance game is another drill that will be useful when racing. It’s dead simple: in a small area, see how slowly you can go without dabbing a foot to the ground, standing still if possible. “The crossover to racing is that when you line up behind a start gate, if you can make a standing start that will get you away faster,” says Grant.
• Slaloms (or figure of eights) around a series of cones or plastic bottles will improve your control – so too will an obstacle course.
• Work on contact as well: “find a friend and just ride along somewhere flat bumping off each other” suggests Grant. “Don’t be aggressive about it: it will happen when you are racing so you need to get used to it. And be progressive: start small and you can go on until you can ride an entire track touching elbows as much as you can.”
• Another exercise is straight-line braking, where you sprint up to a marker, then stop in as short a space as you can with your pedals parallel to the ground, feathering the brakes and keeping weight over the back wheel to maintain control. “This one is about getting the balance between the downward pressure on the brake levers and weight distribution at the back,” says Grant. “You will find you have a dominant leg – one foot which you always put forward when the cranks [pedals] are at ‘quarter to three’ – so to increase your balance skills try putting the other foot forward.”
• Slide braking, in which the bike is pushed sideways on the edge of losing control, is best done on grass. Start at speed with the inside pedal up, remove the foot from the inside pedal and lock the back wheel. “You want the bike to slide so push the body weight forwards; the bike’s a little bit out of control, so if you lose it on the track, you know what to do.”
Take it to the track
Once on the track, Grant’s advice is to take it bit by bit, mastering your skills in each area.
• “Start with the jumps on one straight, pushing your bike on the down ramps, taking it nice and light on the ups. Getting body and bike working together – getting a feeling of ‘flow’ – is one of the most important things on the track.”
The skills you have practised when bunnyhopping and pulling wheelies will be useful when it comes to jumping. “Take a small, safe jump, say a short ‘table top’ with a small ramp, where it’s not an issue if you don’t manage the full length. Getting into the air and landing is the same skill you will have used bunnyhopping, using the arms as shock absorbers.”
• From there you can progress to manualing – lifting the front wheel over the jumps with the back wheel still on the ground. “You learn from doing wheelies to ride on your back wheel, then you transfer that to ‘manual’ between double jumps – you extend the legs on the first jump, keep the front wheel in the air and over the next obstacle.”
• Cornering is the same as off the track – make sure your outside pedal is down with your weight on it (this will lower your centre of gravity), and look at the exit point from the corner.
“You can progress again to going through the corners and obstacles with friends, practising different cornering lines to pass on the corners – the basic one is to swoop through, starting wider, using the banking to gain speed and passing inside as you exit the corner. But above all, be progressive: don’t start with the biggest jump, go from one partner to two, three and so on – step by step makes the whole process more enjoyable.”
Where to find your nearest BMX track
There is a well-established network of local BMX clubs all around Britain, as well as custom-built BMX tracks in the most unlikely of places. The BMX section of the British Cycling website is a good starting point, as it lists both.
Many of the clubs are registered with British Cycling’s Go-Ride coaching scheme; they will, typically, have club training nights from April to September. And if you want to race, there is a plethora of age categories beginning at under-six!
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