Hitting the track

Silver Dollar BMX hooks kids on exercise and fun

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BMX basics:
For more info about BMX in Chico, visit www.silverdollarbmx.org

One year ago, Susan Steffani had no clue what terms like “manualing” and “clearing” meant. But now, when her son Anthony Williams-Steffani, 11, says that’s his favorite maneuver in BMX racing, she’s quick to explain.

“Manualing is when they pull up on the back wheel before they hit all the jumps and fly over them,” she offered. Smiling at Anthony, she added, “It’s what all the really fast people do.”

Steffani first brought Anthony and his sister, Angel, 13, to the Silver Dollar BMX track shortly before the kids’ last summer break from Rose Scott School, while considering sending Anthony to the Chico Area Recreation and Park District’s (CARD) BMX Summer Camp. While Anthony’s interest was piqued—he loves bikes but prefers his skateboard, his mom explained—the BMX bug bit his sister even harder. Both children started racing soon after.

Thus Steffani became a track mom, and now finds herself at the course, tucked inconspicuously down a gravel road off Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, between three and six nights a week. Thursdays and Sundays are race days, Tuesdays are practice, and special training sessions are offered between one and three nights in an average week, she explained.

“It’s great exercise, for one, which a lot of kids today don’t get enough of,” she said of the sport’s benefits. “They have to focus and work hard to race, and there’s a great group of kids out here, so it seems to be healthy competition.

“But most of all, it’s just really fun, and kids need to have fun.”

Steffani said she also found a friendly and helpful community of parents and officials at the track that helped her learn the basics, like the sport’s lingo and a bit about bicycle maintenance and mechanics. Once the kids were committed, she helped build their bikes from the ground up, she said.

While Anthony likes to sail through the air, his sister prefers to keep both wheels on the ground as much as possible, and said her main attraction is the speed. Since getting involved, the children have also taken road trips to races in Reno, Roseville and Napa. Angel said the Nevada trip, to a national event on an indoor track with thousands of other riders, is the highlight of her BMX career thus far.

“I didn’t win there, but it was really fun,” she said. “There were so many people, it was exciting and made me feel like I was famous.”

Angel said BMX is her favorite hobby and she intends to keep doing it for a long time: “I’m going to be in the Olympics!” she said confidently.

Since its beginnings in the early 1970s, when Southern California teenagers started hot-rodding the smallest Schwinns to race them on obstacle-ridden dirt tracks motorcycle-style, BMX bicycling has remained consistently popular and gradually gained more respect as a serious sport. In 2003, the International Olympic Committee made BMX racing a full medal event, its first official appearance being at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

BMX racing’s offshoot—freestyle, which involves elaborate acrobatic tricks on ramps or on the ground—is also a popular international sport and staple of ESPN’s annual X Games. In the U.S., BMX racing’s ruling body is USA BMX, a division of the American Bicycle Association.

Jake Peebles, 22, is a professional rider who has overseen training and CARD summer camps at Silver Dollar BMX since 2008. He is also a Chico State University business and marketing student scheduled to graduate in May.

Peebles, a native of Roseville, said he started in BMX at age 5 and just recently committed to three more years of professional racing. In addition to helping young riders in Chico, he uses the course for his own training purposes, and spends several months a year traveling around the country, competing in national events. He tried out for the 2012 Olympics but fell just short, he said, and now has his sights trained on competing in the games in Rio in 2016.

“This is a very individual sport,” Peebles explained of his ongoing love of racing and sharing the sport with the younger generation. “You have to learn to completely rely on yourself. It’s not like some team sports, where you can get lucky and get drafted onto the best team.

“USA BMX has a saying that ‘nobody sits on the bench,’ and that’s completely true,” he said.

Peebles explained training at the track focuses on a variety of techniques, such as keeping a steady speed throughout the course’s big jumps and burmed turns, how to ride when out front or in the pack, and starting from the track’s hydraulic-powered gate.

Safety is an obvious concern in any cycling sport, particularly BMX. Peebles said good training in the fundamentals is the best way to stay safe, and certain safety equipment is required, including pants, long-sleeve shirts, a full-face helmet and padding. Many riders wear optional neck braces.

“Of course there’s a risk of crashing every time you get on the track,” he said, a sentiment Steffani repeated. She said she’s seen riders break some bones, but said injuries are possible in any sport, and thinks the risk is worth it.

Steffani also said it can get expensive, with track and training fees and bike equipment. “But there’s a lot of used bikes and equipment available, and good deals online,” she said. “The track also has loaner bikes and helmets for anyone who wants to try it out first.”

It’s apparent that, since starting, the Williams-Steffani children don’t intend to stop soon. Long after most of the parents and riders had gone home last Wednesday (April 17), Angel and Anthony were still in their gear and ready to ride.

“Can I roll one more time, Jake?” Anthony asked.