This week, South Carolina is in the international spotlight playing host to what many anticipate will be the largest international sporting event ever held in the state. Rock Hill is the site for the 2017 UCI BMX World Cycling Championship. The event is just shy of the Olympics in terms of prestige and prominence in the cycling world. More than 20,000 spectators are flocking to Rock Hill to watch 3,300 riders from more than 40 countries.
BMX means bicycle motorcross and uses an off-road sport bicycle for racing and stunt riding. The bikes remind you a bit of the old Schwinn Sting-Ray with the banana seat and “mustache”-style handlebars. The sport’s history goes back to Southern California in the 1970s with children racing their bikes on dirt tracks looking to imitate the motocross superstars of the time. Today, BMX cycling is an Olympic sport with races run on a course that starts with a two-story high hill that leads to jumps, turns and tightly banked corners.
Rock Hill won the bragging rights to host this event in 2014, two months before the track, modeled after the 2008 Beijing Olympic track, even opened. The last time the BMX world cycling championship was held in the U.S. was 2001 when Louisville, KY hosted it. The last two championships took place in Zolder, Belgium, and Medellin, Colombia.
So yes, this is a really big deal for Rock Hill and for South Carolina.
A work trip recently took me to Rock Hill to participate in a media day event leading up to the race. Local reporters got the chance to try out the course and race against each other on the BMX track to get a sense of what it’s like.
When I arrived at the BMX Supercross Track, I eyeballed the rack of BMX bikes parked and ready for the reporters to try out. These bikes are small, even for someone of my petite stature. They reminded me of my childhood pink Sting-Ray bike. But these seats are tiny and uncomfortable (there’s a reason for that – you aren’t supposed to spend any time sitting on them during the ride).
The city PR staff assigned each of us rookies in the reporter group a coach to teach us the essentials of riding this squatty little bike and negotiating the course. The bike I picked was yellow – it looked like the plain younger sister of my beloved yellow bike. The helmet they gave me made my regular bike helmet look as sturdy as an old baseball cap. This one was huge, squeezing my head and framing my face, reminding me of what it must feel like inside a football helmet.
My coach was one of the local adult riders, and her “assistant” was a 10-year-old girl in the full BMX uniform – brightly colored long sleeves, long pants, with matching gloves, helmet and shoes that clipped to her pedals. She had been riding since she was eight, and both parents race. I was a bit intimidated by both coaches.
My intent was to experience the course in a very passive way. I wasn’t planning to actually race. Looping the track a couple of times to get the feel for the bike suited me fine. Slowly pedaling over the rippling hills and avoiding the steep “starting hill” at all costs were my goals.
I lost my adult coach in the shuffle of the practice rides, but the 10-year-old coach stuck close. She showed me how to stand over the handlebars and how to get into the push/pull motion needed to avoid losing speed or spinning out when cresting the hills. After a few laps, she pronounced me ready to try the “start hill.”
No way, I thought when I learned it was 16 feet high and about 40 feet long. My second story office window is probably 16 feet off the ground. Speeding down a sharp hill from there didn’t seem like a really smart idea for someone who’s not a daring athlete.
Just to be clear…I’ve never been an athlete. Never wanted to be. I’m fine with the middle-aged satisfaction of participation without the spirit of competition.
Until…this young girl convinced me to try the starting hill. I pushed my small bike up the back side of the steep ramp. Looking down those 16 feet, the angle of the hill seemed even steeper than it did looking up from the bottom. She gave me a few strategies for managing speed, braking and avoiding collisions.
Then she gave me a pep talk. After that I thought, why not? I could grip the brake on the way down to carefully deposit myself safely at the bottom. I figured I could take the hills and turns at a respectable speed without losing my balance or my dignity. My coach got me situated, reminded me to stand and not sit, and use the brake sparingly.
Whoosh. Down I went. Then a loop around the 1,200 feet of rolling hills. Yes! “Over the hill(s)” was beginning to take on a new meaning to this middle-aged amateur. I can do this! I wanted to try again. Even better the second, third and fourth practice rides. I hadn’t intended to actually race, but after gaining a little confidence I decided, why not give it a try.
I found my name on the heat list and headed to my spot at the top of the starting hill. There were four in my heat. Positioning was important to keep in mind, my coach noted, as I pull around the curves during the race. I was in slot number five of eight situated to the right side of two others and the left of one.
I eyed my competition. All seemed a good bit younger. A couple looked athletic. Others were wearing jeans or sweats.
The starting gate popped up from the ramp about 10 feet down from the top. We inched our bikes to position the front wheel against the gate so we would be ready for what I figured would surely feel like a free fall once the gate lowered.
Professional riders balance on the bike at this point – feet on the pedals ready to start pumping as soon as the gate goes down. We rookies kept our feet firm planted – fingers gripped on the brakes.
The announcer called the start. The gate dropped.
And there’s not much I remember for the next 30 seconds.
I was in “the zone” that I knew existed but never stumbled in to – the zone where all you’re aware of is the experience.
Standing over the handlebars as my coach had taught me, I pushed down as I hit the bottom of the hills and pulled up as I headed back up. I edged past the closest competitor. I was pedaling with all I had while still trying to pay attention to the hill strategy of pushing down and pulling up.
A number of folks who work for the city were lined up along the fence. As I topped the final series of hills, I could hear them yelling my name – I had a cheering section! But by this time my zone was so focused that all I could think about was the finish line that was less than 100 feet and two more hills away.
I might just win this thing, I thought. I’ve never ever won anything athletic. I never cared before. At that moment, I cared!
Twelve-hundred feet and about 45 seconds after I’d careened down the 40 foot hill, I was crossing the finish line ahead of my three competitors. My heart was racing. My mouth was dry. My legs were shaking. So this is what the adrenaline rush of winning feels like, I thought. I liked it, much to my surprise.
When my young coach came up with a high-five of congratulations, I quickly shook off the daze I found myself in. She gave me a quick critique of what worked well and started coaching about what I might want to try in the finals.
When we got lined up for the finals, we were situated much more closely together than last time, which made me a little less confident about not running into someone. But at least this time I knew I didn’t have to hit the brake until I was close to the bottom of the starting hill.
The gate dropped, and we were off. As I rounded the second turn, intent on passing the third place rider, I saw a rider down on the curved embankment. Do I stop? Ride around him? Help him up? As others passed me, I realized that moment’s hesitation knocked me out of the top three. So I scooted around him and finished a respectable fourth. No medal ceremony for me, but I wasn’t the least bit disappointed.
When I woke up that morning I had no intention of speeding down a two-story 40-foot embankment on a little bike. I woke up intending to learn from others what that felt like. I found out it sure was a lot more fun to experience it rather than watch it. Even if I didn’t hit the medal stand, I left there knowing I had won something else – the whole experience had given me the taste of competition, of pushing, of risking. And I liked it.
(Plus if the race had included age brackets, I’m pretty confident in saying I would have won mine – given the fact I had a good 15 years on the rest of the competitors. This middle aged woman found out she can get “over the hill(s)” with the best of them.)
When not working to promote the interests of SC cities and towns as deputy executive director of the Municipal Association of SC, Reba is passionate about travel, writing and keeping connected with old friends. Reba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her blog at http://randomconnectpoints.blogspot.com.