Charlie Salisbury says BMX racing is for everyone, regardless of age or gender. As the VP of West Michigan BMX (WMBMX), a volunteer organization operational since 2007, he's seen plenty of families start showing up to the track because a child gets interested in the bike sport, only to see other family members racing at future events.
"No one sits on the bench in BMX," he says, meaning there's none of that awkward getting picked last, no positions to be coveted. Each rider can and will race.
BMX racing is different from other types of BMX, such as flatland or freestyle, in that there's a set course to follow and the emphasis is not on tricks. BMX is also different from MotoCross, which uses dirtbikes. BMX bikes are single gear and typically have 20-inch wheels, though a "cruiser" has 24-inch wheels.
A heat begins with riders lining up on the "back of the hill" behind the starting gate. When the gate crashes down, the race begins. Jumps, hills and turns provide challenges for the riders as they compete to be the first to the finish line. "Straights" refer to parts of the track where there are no obstacles.
Tracks are made of clay and generally range from 900 to 1300 feet in length, though each one is different. Younger or novice riders are welcome to take the track at their own pace, and the thoughtful placement of beginning riders versus other beginners allows new BMX-ers to enter the sport with a level of comfort. Additionally, WMBMX pairs new kids up with more experienced mentors. Loaner bikes and helmets are available as well, and a new rider's first day is free.
Contrary to BMX's reputation for being an "extreme" or alternative sport, it's designed to be safe. At the very minimum, racers must wear an approved helmet with long sleeves and pants or appropriate padding. Rules like no intentional cutting off of other riders and no lane changes in the first 30 feet or last straight encourage respectful and cautious riding practices without diminishing the thrill.
While BMX racing can be a very individual activity, the community atmosphere is heavy at Grand Rapids Bike Park. Many riders come as much for the companionship as for the love of the sport and the exercise it provides. Kids line up to get concessions and parents gather to cheer, watch, volunteer, and sometimes, ride. Salisbury says the group is working towards focusing more on mentorship and coaching in the future. Already, some riders choose to form informal teams and wear uniforms declaring their solidarity.
"This is a huge family thing," he says. "It draws a lot of like-minded people."
When it gets cold, the riders can race indoors at Thrifty Acres in Greenville. However, Salisbury says, the completion of Rock City BMX in Rockford will move operations from Grand Rapids Bike Park to the new facility. Enthusiasts can follow the progress of the new track on Rock City's Facebook page
Each time a BMX-er races, he or she receives points for participation, and these points also go to the racer's district. Some races are qualifier races, which gains the rider entry into State Championship races. Anyone can participate in a qualifier. Some races give away prizes like awards and ribbons, while others are held for charity. The Bob Warnicke Scholarship Race
is one well-known event, supporting the Bob Warnicke Memorial Scholarship Fund. Those who participate in BMX events, like those hosted by GRBMX, are eligible to apply. GRBMX also joins tracks all over North America who participate in events like Race for Life.
Interested parties can visit grbmx.com
for more information. Your first day is free, and loaner equipment is available. If you find the sport as addictive as Salisbury and his family, you can purchase a monthly or annual membership
and discover why this family-friendly, all-ages, year-round sport is growing in West Michigan.
Juliet Bennett Rylah is the former Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.
Photography by Adam Bird