BMX History – From Humble Beginnings to the Olympic Games

As the Seventies blossomed, new growth was starting to appear in Southern California. Kids began to use their bikes to imitate their motocross heroes on patches of ground all over Southern California. The bike that many of them used has now passed into infamy, the Schwinn Stingray.

Before we learn more about the Stingray, let’s clarify what BMX stands for.

What Does BMX Stand For?

BMX (bee-em-ex) biːˌɛmˈɛks stands for Bicycle Motor “Cross” or Bicycle Motocross for short. Put simply a cross between cycling and motocross.

The Schwinn Stingray

The reason for people using a Stingray was pretty simple. Nearly everyone had one. In the first five years of the model run, Schwinn sold 2 million of them. If you watch the famous motocross movie “On Any Sunday”, you will see pretty much one of the first BMX races, and your TV screen will be full of Schwinn Stingrays. From this pivotal scene, the number of kids riding off-road on these bikes grew and come to the mid-seventies bike companies started to cater to them.

In 1973 in Soledad, California Ernie Alexander created the National Bicycle Association (NBA). It was the first BMX sanctioning body in the world, and until 1980 it was also the largest. It even created its professional race division late in 1974, showing how fast this sport was growing.

In 1974 a motocross promoter called George E. Esser started the National Bike League (NBL) as the NBA had stayed in the West coast of America and he was living in Florida. He started this as his two sons as well as riding motocross also raced their bikes with the other kids.

BMX on the rise

Despite the rise of the NBL and other regional bodies, the NBA was the leader of the scene. It modeled it’s races on the rules of the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) for motocross. In 1974 using this basis for races the NBA ran the Yamaha Bicycle Gold Cup, a series of 4 races all held on different tracks in California. This can be seen to be the early precursor of BMX national events.

The first major race held outside of California was held in Phoenix, Arizona in March 1975. This race in a series of firsts was the first race outside California to have national series points  By the end of the year David Clinton was declared the national champion. At the age of 17 in 1977, David was also to become the first official pro BMXer. This could be challenged by the fact that Thom Lund was the first racer to race for money, but David was the official first.

The ABA is born

The next major influence on the shape of BMX to come came from the formation of the American Bicycle Association (ABA) in Gilbert, Arizona. In 1977, Merl Mennenga and Gene Roden founded what was to become the largest BMX sanctioning body, having not only tracks in the United States but also in Canada and Mexico.

The ABA held its first race in Azusa, California in 1978. At the time they were still smaller than the NBA. The ABA had 3000 members and the NBA 5000. The NBL was sitting in the middle of them with 4100 members but still only had 18 BMX tracks compared to the ABA’s 35 and the NBA’s 50. During this time there was a lot of controversy between the various bodies as they all battled to be the biggest.

The NBA crumbles

As time went on the NBA started to work against itself. They organized conflicting races with other series, took their time to announce where their yearly grand nationals would be and when they would happen, and they allegedly defrauded their principal series sponsor. They had a management change at the start of 1981, but the writing was already on the wall, and the Long Beach, California Grand National in 1981 was the NBA’s final independent race. They now went into partnership with the NBL. The NBL was now a national body and a rival to the ABA.

Now the ABA started to feel the fall of pro feet. The NBL had a bigger prize purse, and there was now an ESPN race series. The pros began to move to the NBL and with them went the BMX media. The ABA started to run the race season the same way as the NBL. To be number 1 with the NBL you had to be consistent all season, to previously have been number 1 with the ABA you have won the Grand National. Winning this way was seen as being about luck and not skill by the racers.

Enter the UCI and Olympics

This has the way the two main BMX race organizers in the United States have spent their time. Jostling with each other for superiority. The NBA eventually joined USA Cycling in 1997 and is, therefore, a recognized Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) body. This move was managed to help race BMX become an Olympic sport for Americans.

There was no BMX body in America affiliated with the UCI, which meant no affiliation with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). USA Cycling was the UCI affiliated cycling body in the United States and after consideration amalgamated with the NBL rather than the ABA. They picked the NBL because the NBL had already worked at an international level and was a not-for-profit company.

The ABA though has tried to grow and become the most significant BMX body. In 2002 it put an offer into USA Cycling to buy the NBL off them. This move was turned down by the USA Cycling board. They still run a Grand National every year, and it contains the highly respected Race of Champions, an invite-only race for the top 10 of each category.

As you can see the history of BMX governing bodies has been complicated, and so far we have only looked at the United States. Let’s take a look at the history of BMX racing around the world and a small bit on some of the biggest names that the sport has produced.

Where did BMX Start?

We’ve covered a bit about the history of BMX, we’ve looked at the antagonistic growth of BMX in the United States. BMX though is an international sport and has a whole history away from the US. Including what may be a controversial point but it is where we will start.

The true beginnings of BMX

It is routinely stated that BMX originated in California in the 1970’s; but there is video evidence of a precursor to BMX racing happening in the European heartlands of BMX, the Netherlands, in 1957.

Watch the video below. This goes to prove that wherever you find adults racing motocross, kids will try and emulate them on push bikes. Ironically this video was first shown in 2009 at the 30 years of BMX in Holland festival, making the festival 52 years of BMX in Holland.

So as you can see it may actually be harder to point out when BMX racing arrived in the various countries around the world if we can not even agree on exactly when it originated. What we can be sure is that for the UK it happened sometime in the 70s and started to build towards a peak participants around the early 80s, thanks in no small part to the arrival of  E.T in 1982.

BMX explodes onto the scene

1983 could be seen to be the year that BMX truly arrived worldwide. The man surfing the crest of this wave, the Californian Stu “Stompin” Thomsen, was almost a household name and was being sent to race all around the world. If you had popped on your TV and despite being dismayed by the lack of channels you would undoubtedly see a BMX advert. BMX was everywhere.

If you tuned into American TV, you could have the ESPN race series, and in the UK there was the Kellogg’s race series being shown on Channel 4. That is correct, everyone’s favorite tiger fronted cereal was sponsoring BMX races in the early 80’s. As iconic as this race series was, Britain also needed an iconic bike like the Schwinn Stingray to go with the BMX growth. Welcome the Raleigh Burner.

The Raleigh Burner years

Although to be fair the Raleigh Burner arrived first, arriving in the year of E.T. The Burner lasted until 1988, a much smaller run than the Stingray had but still long enough to endear it to the population of the UK. Indeed Raleigh has even released special editions since the 80’s to try and catch on with the nostalgia that the Burner created.

By the mid-80s BMX was so big that even the UK has three full-color BMX magazines and countless Xerox zines. It seemed like nearly every kid wanted to get a spot as a full factory racer. BMX looked like it was here to stay, it had become a mainstay of youth culture. But, as with all youth culture movements, it was only ever going to be transient.

We could blame the shrinking BMX market on the newest craze that came on the scene, a small revolution called Nintendo. This shrinking can be shown by the hugely influential magazine BMX Action, which was owned in the 1980’s by RL Osborn, taking over from his dad Bob Osborne and one of the greatest riders ever, as you can see from his riding in the movie R.A.D. In October 1989 BMX Action in an attempt to save itself was merged with Freesstylin’ magazine to create Go.

BMX Plus! the future of BMX

The shrinkage was happening as the BMX market was dying, as fewer people bought bikes for Christmas, less money was available for adverts, and so on. This helped BMX Plus! To start to become the major BMX magazine as they were small and could restructure quickly whereas BMX Action could not just shrink. By 1994 Go was gone but BMX Plus lived on until the internet finally killed it. It managed a full 37 years by the time of its demise in 2015.

So by 1994 BMX racing was tiny. It had grown to be a behemoth, but now it was almost down and out but not quite. What we now had was an evolution of the bikes that we raced on. 80’s BMX race bikes were basically toys compared to where race bike evolution was going to take us, which was much needed as tracks also started to evolve. The old 80’s bikes would have been destroyed just looking at the big doubles to come.

We started to find more aluminum bikes, shorter seat posts, fork rake also started to come back and top tubes went out the way, and what must have seemed like a joy to everyone we left threaded cups behind and joined the Aheadset revolution. The Aheadset is one of the greatest bike inventions of modern times, no longer did you have to carry around spanners to continually tighten a headset that only ever wanted to become loose.

It could all go downhill

The next significant step forward in 2001, which can be seen as the precursor to supercross, was the X Games downhill BMX racing. It only lasted three years, but it brought three years of some of the biggest and boldest BMX racing ever to be documented. What we witnessed was a raw and primal force, and people were excited by this racing, it was easy to understand, and the risks were easy to see. It made excellent spectator sport.

In 2008 BMX racing became an Olympic sport. The Olympics are held on a supercross BMX track, which can be seen as the UCI trying to take the spectacle of downhill BMX and make it more user-friendly. The UCI has basically taken a BMX track, fed it steroids, and urged pros to ride down a two-story high start gate. They want to see riders fly through the air and dazzle people with their speed.

It worked and the Olympics have been boosting the popularity of BMX, and during the last Olympic cycle participation in BMX in the United States has grown by 44.6%. It may not feel like the glory days of the 80s, but they could well be on their way back.

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