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This is fair warning that Southern California has struck again. This time it is a game called bicycle motocross, and it will be loose upon the rest of the land sooner than you think and certainly before you are ready. West Coast hills that once were alive with the sound of kids rolling, and often bouncing, down the streets on skateboards are now jammed with young daredevils sliding and wheelying along on tiny 20-inch bicycles, slouched behind paper plates with racing numbers scribbled on them. The craze is just starting, but already there are plans for a national championship bicycle motocross series to be held around the country next year. Gentlemen, start your pedals.
The unsuspecting world got a sneak preview of bicycle motocross not long ago with a glimpse of some kids sailing their Schwinns over dirt mounds in the opening scenes of a motorcycle movie, On Any Sunday, by Bruce Brown. The bicycle jumping was filmed in a vacant lot with a couple of youngsters from down the block and was included just for laughs before moving on to the grownups and their big machines. But naturally, every kid who saw the movie might as well have left the theater right there.
The fad grew when the rest of the neighborhood, including Brown's own children, got into the act; soon they were holding their own "nationals." They painted their helmets like those of their adult motorcycle-racing heroes and they gave themselves names like Wild Wade, Dangerous Dana Brown, Mad Mark Shoemaker (son of Don Shoemaker, Brown's frequent partner in film making), Jumpin' Jeff Alter (son of Hobie Alter of Hobie surfboard and catamaran fame) and the inimitable Booboo Stubbs (son of the captain of the San Clemente lifeguard crew who one day vanished, eventually turning up in Tahiti). The kids built a track around the block that cut through lots and driveways, vacant or not, up and over curbs, around trees and down sidewalks. They filled garbage cans with water and emptied them in ruts to create gooey mudholes, and for a jump they liberated the gate from Brown's backyard fence and used it as a ramp, perched on cinder blocks. This frivolous band retired from round-the-block sandlot competition when bicycle motocross became better organized, but the scars of their Saturday afternoons remain; there still is a chunk out of the fireplug on the corner of Santa Clara and Violet Lantern in Dana Point. Calif. That corner used to be Turn Three.
From such early blossoms a sport has burgeoned. There are now more than 100 tracks in Southern California alone, and a few city park and recreation boards and even a couple of police departments have either built their own tracks or sponsor races. The first official sanctioning body, the American Bicycle Association (ABA), is in the process of being formed, and it will provide computerized point tabulation for the dozens of weekly races it will run, each with an average entry of 200. On a sunny Saturday the list may be twice that. Some bicycle shops sponsor teams of kids—one Los Angeles-area outfit helps support nearly 100—and they travel the "circuit" in station wagons and vans. They could pass for any Little League team on its way to a game, but instead of baseball gloves and bats filling the back seats there are helmets and tire pumps.
Most of the tracks are about a quarter of a mile around and basically level with built-up mounds of dirt, but some are laid out heading downhill, like summertime ski slopes. Depending upon the course, the advantage goes either to the kid with the strongest legs and longest wind or to the kid with the most courage. Sometimes it takes a lot of that.
Recently, one aggressive team sponsor announced plans to promote a race that would begin at a mountaintop Nike missile site and wind down a dirt road for five miles, dropping 3,000 feet in the process. "Kids already practice there," he says, "so why not race there?" He'd like to mount wind-cheating fairings on the bikes so they will be capable of reaching 50 mph in spots. With some luck, there will be no broken bodies at the bottom, but there will no doubt be some white knuckles and wide-open eyeballs.
Fortunately, the average bicycle motocross isn't quite that hairy, so injuries are rare. In the two years of organized racing there have been only two broken bones, insists Bob Bailey, a former professional motorcycle racer and the man behind the ABA. The crashes—"endos," in bicycle motocross vernacular—are indeed spectacular, but even the domino collisions are really no more bruising than an ordinary football gang tackle with a couple of tumbling bicycles thrown into the pile. Because many bikes are abundantly wrapped in foam rubber and tape, so much so that some of them look like giant mutant tennis balls, there are few sharp angles to poke tender organs. And the riders are required to wear helmets, so the likelihood of a head injury, at least during supervised racing, is greatly reduced. A first-aid station is present at every race but it doesn't do much business in anything but Band-Aids and antiseptics. As one kid said upon regaining his feet and dusting himself off after a spectacularly unsuccessful "Flying W"—the move in which the final effort to avoid getting thrown over the handlebars is to sit on them while clapping your heels over your head—"Aw, an endo ain't no big deal. Dirt's pretty soft, you know." It also helps to be young enough to have bones like marshmallows.
The Flying W is just one of the numbers in a bicycle motocross racer's bag of tricks. Any kid worth his salt can do a wheelie, but it is the variations of the stunt that really count. A motocross ace also can perform the wheelie-while-doing-an-arabesque-on-the-seat, the wheelie-while-flashing-the-peace-sign-with-one-hand, and the wheelie-up-a-tree. Then there is the bunny hop, which is a front-wheel wheelie; the fork-stop-jump, which involves pitching the bike virtually sideways in midair over a jump, an act of wild abandon corrected only at the last possible instant before touchdown; the cross-up, a full-speed slide radical enough to excite a restless sprint-car crowd (also very hard on the soles of sneakers); and the one-eighty: while moving slowly the rider jumps up with the bike, lifting both wheels off the ground, and does a half twist. When he lands, he rides off in the other direction. It is probably just a matter of time until some kid masters the three-sixty.
But the real ne plus ultra of bicycle motocross stunts so far was a dido by one waggish 10-year-old who tested his new frame by riding it off the roof of his neighbor's house. "They told me it was strong and I wanted to see how strong it really was," he said. "The other guy's parents were inside eating supper and they didn't even know I did it. We threw the bike up on the roof from a brick wall, and I rode down off the second story onto the porch roof to get a good start, then I just flew off. All that happened was the axles and pedals got bent. I fixed them with a hammer and did it again the next day. It was fun."
Competition between the manufacturers of motocross bikes is heading the sport into an exercise in engineering, and an expensive one at that. Yamaha was the first to manufacture a pukka bike—a bouncy little number it calls the Moto-Bike, with rear shock absorbers and front forks borrowed from one of its minimotorcycles. Other companies followed and several more are about to enter the market, the biggest of them being Kawasaki, which is well on the way to building a motocross bike. But the most anxiously anticipated bike is the Dan Gurney Eagle, namesake of the Formula I and Indianapolis race car chassis. Gurney himself had a hand in the design of the Eagle, which will be a chrome-plated, automated wire-welded gem with a monoshock suspension system consisting basically of a shock absorber on the frame between the rider's knees, the latest in bicycle motocross design. The Moto-Bike sells for about $130 and the Eagle will cost $190. Sundry build-your-own kits go for less, but these are mostly for rich kids, as are the more exotic special parts, such as the latest hot racing item: magnesium wheels at about $100 a set.