Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mat Hoffman, BMX, and the Birth of Big Air

Before I became a Christian at 18 years old, my religion had been freestyle BMX. I lived and breathed to ride. (I remember a corny adaptation of a Harley-Davidson ad that I made the caption alongside my senior photo in the high school year book: "Some people ask me why I ride. For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who don't understand, no explanation is possible.") Even in the long, cold winters of southwestern Ontario, I rode all winter long in my basement, with U2's Joshua Tree as the primary soundtrack (with an eclectic mix of Metal Church and Slayer!). I remember a crew of us scarfing lumber and scrap from wherever we could, building ramps of every shape and size. I remember saving up to finally build my own 8 ft. quarterpipe in the backyard with plans from BMX Action magazine. The feel of riding is something that has seeped deep into my bodily memory. Some nights lying on the couch I can still transport myself into the fluid feel of riding a quarterpipe, can still relive the contortions of freestyle. It's as if my bike is a kind of phantom limb.

Magazines were an alternative universe for me: in a little village of 600 people I waited hungrily each month for the next BMX Plus! issue to arrive, then BMX Action, and later Freestylin'. I lived vicariously through all of those beautiful people who lived in exotic places like Redondo Beach and Torrance, CA! I had always dreaming of making a pilgrimage so I could ride on the Redondo Pier (many years later, I'd teach just up the road in Westchester and regularly spent time in Redondo and Torrance, sans bike). Eventually, back home I started my own 'zine devoted to skating and BMX, with photos, commentary, even poetry! Deep in the recesses of our basement is a milk crate with old issues of the 'zine, my first forays into writing and publishing.

So, as you might imagine, I'm a bit of an X-Games geek (downloaded the app on my iPod!). But nothing (re)captured my imagination like ESPN's recent documentary--one of the 30 on 30 docs--on Mat Hoffman, one of the real pioneers of vert. I still remember when this yokel from Oklahoma started emerging in the magazines--crazy, crazy air (=height!) coupled with tricks that were unthought of before his advent. In fact, I would later compete against Hoffman in a halfpipe contest in Grand Blanc, MI. I say "compete against" in a generous sense: all that means is that Hoffman was still an amateur (he would soon turn pro), and we were participants in the same competition. He finished first; I think I finished 31st. But I did see his first attempt at a 900 in competition.

The ESPN documentary, "The Birth of Big Air," is very well done--and for anyone with any memory of this era, quite moving. It tries to set the record straight by showing the extent to which X-Games hype owes much to Hoffman's insane, unheralded efforts on rickety ramps in Oklahoma. Indeed, the contrasts between Hoffman's backyard zaniness and current X-Games televised glamor is striking (and, to be honest, disheartening).

But I'm also quite excited: my youngest son has expressed an interest in learning to ride more seriously. So I'm looking forward to tuning up my old GT Pro Performer still out in the garage.