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|September 11-17, 2008
• Upcoming Events
Success is no pipe dream
by Chris Rosenblum
Minutes from rocketing up and down curving walls on a bike, Jamie Bestwick pauses. Something bothers him.
Surely, it’s not the drop, 13 feet from the wooden half pipe ramp’s deck to its trough. For him, that’s no more worrisome than brushing his teeth.
And it certainly can’t be soaring another 12 feet or so over the opposite rim, corkscrewing, flipping upside down and sticking the landing so he can rush toward another aerial feat. When you’re a legendary BMX vert rider, all that’s as daunting as grocery shopping.
No, he’s fine with everything inside Camp Woodward’s Cloud Nine building, his regular training grounds in Haines Township, Pa. — except the music. That’s got to go. All afternoon he and other pro riders have trained to a bouncy dance mix. Now someone below is changing tapes.
“No more techno for tonight,” Jamie calls out.
That’s better: Punk guitar throbs and buzzes, a fitting soundtrack for the upcoming show.
Jamie hurtles over the edge — spokes whizzing, his low, aquamarine BMX bike resembling a beefed-up child’s birthday present — and swoops up the other side of the scuffed, U-shaped ramp.
Into an arc he blasts, pivoting at the top, big air beneath him. He’s just getting started. Check it out: He flies off his seat to one side, eyes wide, holding on like a man in a hurricane while spinning the handlebars around in time for his descent. He rotates, tumbles, raises his arms, clicks his heels, all but changes his tire in mid-flight. Only the sweat matting his brown hair beneath his helmet belies his casual, almost nonchalant, manner.
This isn’t just defying gravity. It’s sticking out his tongue, thumbing his nose, wiggling his backside at it — sheer brio that thrills contest announcers, fans and other elite BMX vert athletes.
“Jamie does the gnarly stuff that we won’t do,” says pro rider Art D’Ambrosio.
“He’s on his own level,” says Jimmy Walker, a Chicago rider who trains at Woodward. “He’s not close to anybody.”
In December, BMX riders voted Jamie the world’s vert rider of the year, adding more hardware to the fireplace mantel in his home. At 36, a decade older than some of his rivals, he’s at the top of his game. He won the vert pro circuit, the AST Dew Tour competition series, for the third straight year. He captured his latest gold medal at the X Games, the Olympics of BMX riding, skateboarding and other action sports.
And there he is, airborne at Woodward, on the cover of Ride BMX magazine.
“Out of all the vert riders, Jamie’s just heads above everybody else,” says Keith Mulligan, BMX Ride’s editor in chief. “The thing that sets him apart is not only the tricks he can do, but the style and the height he does them at... Everything he does looks very good. It looks effortless.”
Ah, but don’t be deceived by the wiry, tattooed, soft-spoken gymnast on two wheels. He doesn’t make the ridiculous seem routine by just showing up, chugging back a Red Bull and letting it rip. Body control takes time in the gym. Showmanship requires planning.
See, those electrifying contest runs aren’t impromptu jams as much as dances choreographed by a former aerospace inspector who prepares like a trial lawyer.
“The majority of people, when I tell them what I do, they go, ‘You guys are crazy,’” Jamie says. “I go, ‘You know what? If I were crazy, I wouldn’t be able to do this.’ I have to make massive decisions in split seconds, and they call it crazy.”
In the early 1980s, in the heart of England, a lad fell in love.
Like his mates in the small town of Riddings, Jamie was smitten with the colorful BMX bikes taking hold of America and Europe. Competitions were springing up. Flamboyant BMX riders were appearing on TV and in movies. Those kids in “E.T.” fleeing the government bad guys? Riding BMXs, all of them.
Jamie dug that, as he did everything about BMXs. “They were so radically different than anything else on the market that I just felt they were the most fantastic things I had ever seen, way better than any other bike around at the time.”
His father, a mining engineer, gave him his first bike for Christmas. Wherever he pedaled, he made friends, regardless of class, neighborhoods or soccer allegiances.
“If you had a BMX bike, all the barriers were broken,” Jamie recalls. “People would come up and check out your bike, and you would check out theirs. ... All the BMXs looked amazing; even the cheapest bike looked great. And nobody cared whether you had a $20 or $1,000 BMX. It didn’t matter, really. It wasn’t status. It was just like: Everybody’s riding. We’re all having a good time. We’re doing wheelies in the car park.”
In the BMX magazines, their idols were cranking out more radical stuff. So Jamie’s crowd followed suit, hacking their own quarter-pipe ramp out of the shale bank next to a local tennis court. They pored over photos to divine the secrets of high-flying gods.
“There were a lot of English heroes, but the ones who really caught my imagination at first were the American guys, just because all the pictures that used to come out of the States were blue skies and somebody blasting out awesome-like,” Jamie says. “It looked really cool.”
Despite some misgivings, his father supported his son. Down the elder Bestwick went to Nottingham to buy a serious freestyle competition bike and gear for Jamie’s 12th birthday — and for his health.
“Some nights I would roll in and I would have the surface of the track just embedded into my skin because I had crashed and had been just wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt,” Jamie says. “And so my dad had had enough of that and he bought me the freestyle bike. We got the pads, too, because he didn’t want to keep picking grit out of my wounds.”
On the local half-pipe ramp and in a BMX club, the daredevil kid kept honing his chops. Then, at 16, he left school and wound up working as a floor fitter. On weekends, he tacked on vacation days to hop in a car with friends, take the ferry across the channel and hit competitions.
Next came a spot as a seasonal delivery man for a chocolate maker. Eventually, he landed a solid job inspecting airliner engine blades. He punched the clock and rode in his free time, improving all the while.
Then he made perhaps the biggest leap of his life.
An American company, GT Bicycles, liked Jamie’s strong finish in a 1999 event and made him an offer too good to refuse — all expenses paid, and a salary to boot. For years he had yearned to ride full time. Here was his chance.
The catch: He had to quit his job, pull up stakes and come to America.
Friends thought the idea insane, but Jamie felt an urgent pull. He had become a respected rider in England and Europe. But he had something to prove across the Atlantic. “[The year] 1999 was when I basically had to be accepted by the American freestyle scene and the judges. I mean, people knew I was a good rider, but because I hadn’t been to America that much, I sort of had to pay my dues.”
Two weeks before he left England, he married his longtime girlfriend, Kerry, now a pilates and yoga instructor. In November that year, they arrived in Woodward, Pa., already an international action sports mecca, to a chilly, largely deserted camp. The gamble was on.
They moved into a house. When he wasn’t remodeling his home, Jamie would pound the ramps by himself in an unheated building as Kerry, bundled in two ski jackets, kept him company. One bad crash, one broken leg to sideline him, and the dream might have flickered out that winter.
Instead, he shined, knocking off big names to win a 2000 X Games vert gold medal and launch his rise to stardom.
Ever since, he has turned heads, but fame apparently hasn’t turned his. In the close-knit BMX community, he’s known for his zeal and fearsome arsenal, his ability, as Jimmy Walker says, “to replace hard tricks with harder ones.” But he’s also well-liked for his sense of humor, friendliness and solidarity with other riders. During training sessions, he’ll give insightful tips. At contests, he’ll compliment others.
“He’ll take the lowest guy in the competition and make him feel like he’s No. 1,” Walker says. “I think that’s a rare quality.”
Fear of flying
It’s hard to believe about a guy who performs two stories in the air, but Jamie is scared of heights.
Tall ladders unnerve him. So does flying. But a downside tailwhip flair — a show-stopper move combining a back flip, 180 spin and other acrobatics? No problem, mate.
“I’m a bit of a control freak,” he says. “Anything I’m on that I don’t feel I’m totally in control, or anything I’m high up on and don’t feel stable, then, yeah, I have a problem.”
On the bike seat, however, he’s in complete charge. He chooses the approach. He picks the right moments. The more he plans, the better he’ll create. Dew Cup stop ahead? Like a chess player, he’ll work out combinations of moves, giving himself alternative routines in case of surprises. Maybe the ramp will be slick. Maybe, as in Orlando last year, something will break on his bike and he’ll have to borrow an unfamiliar replacement for his final run. He’ll be ready with plan B or C.
To Jamie, it’s a job — more fun than sanding floors or scrutinizing blades, but a job nonetheless.
“Each competition is almost like an interview,” he says. “You want to have all your deck of cards neatly spread out so that you have the best hand. ... That’s kind of the attitude I take into contests. I never leave anything to chance. If you wing it, you might get by one or two times, but for the most part, you’ll fall flat on your face.”
He has been there, sprawled on the ramp, dazed. Everyone has. Jamie’s resume includes a broken arm, busted ankle and fused neck vertebrae.
But he doesn’t practice just to stay in one piece. From experimentation comes style. It doesn’t trump substance — landing matters, after all — but it tends to make jaws drop lower.
“It’s not so much about ‘just pulling off’ the trick for me,” Jamie says. “It’s about doing that trick to the fullest and making it look easy. That’s the way I like to ride.”
Jimmy Walker, no slouch himself with a fifth-place Dew Cup finish this year, marvels at his pal’s drive. “The tricks that scare most of us, we’ll only do once or twice a month. He’s doing that stuff on an hourly basis. Every time he rides, it’s a contest run. In our sport, anybody can basically get lucky. With Jamie, there’s nothing about luck involved.”
Then how about good fortune? He and Kerry recently moved across town to a spacious home they designed. He’s returning to NBC as a BMX color analyst after a successful debut last year. Now he’s the magazine hero, idolized by fans who greet him at contests and post awestruck online tributes.
Only one admirer, however, accompanies him on medal stands.
That’s Sam, almost 3, beaming in his father’s arms after competitions. “It’s such a big deal for me to have him by my side at the podium,” Jamie says. “I get more of a kick having him there than getting up there myself.”
With fatherhood have come other adventures, many captured in the photos decorating the Bestwicks’ kitchen: he and Sam, who has his own little BMX bike, riding together in the basement, dressing as pirates for Halloween or just rough-housing around. Even an ordinary moment can be special. Early in the afternoon, Jamie sits at his dining room table and smiles as he waits for a hug from his son coming in the door.
“Hey mate, how was your day at school?” he says.
After a while, Sam heads upstairs for a nap, and Jamie’s off to work. Now that he’s a dad, he’ll refrain from a couple of particularly high-risk tricks, but that’s as far as he’ll compromise. If he dials back his style, he might as well stop, period.
“Since my son has come along, I’ve probably rode harder than I ever have in any point in my life,” Jamie says. “I find him quite inspiring, that he’s on the side at competitions, and he’s cheering away, and he’s friends with a lot of the guys I compete with, and he knows all the tricks. He gets a big kick out of it. If he’s enjoying it, then I’m probably going to ride twice as hard and give him something to really cheer about.”
Chances are, Sam will root for his dad for a few more years. BMX riding may be a rock ‘n’ roll sport full of young stars, but Jamie is hardly a dinosaur.
“All the guys who are really good are in their 30s,” says Steve Hass, operations manager at Woodward. “It takes that long to get that good.”
And Jamie has a few more surprises to unveil before he retires and possibly continues with his broadcasting.
“I do a lot to stay on top, so who knows?” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen from one day to next, but while it’s going good and while I still feel like I can push the level of progression in my sport and still contribute, that’s going to keep me in competitions.”
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