*This article first appeared in Ride UK (#69) and is reproduced here by kind permission of Ride UK.
This month I want to discuss something a little different. BMX has been around for about 30 years now and so have I. In that time riders have come and gone as you would expect but there are a surprising number who came and never went.
Jamie Bestwick, Matt Hoffman, Dennis McCoy, Rob Ridge, Kevin Jones, and many many more top riders are now in their thirties and still riding, even guys you might think of as well out of it like Eddie Fiola, are still at it to a certain degree.
When you try to talk to the council about a skatepark in your town they always think of BMX (and skateboarding) as “kids” sports, you can try to tell them otherwise, but you can just see in their eyes that they don’t believe you. They may believe that there are a few eccentric older guys who still ride but they will never truly “get it”.
BMX WAS a kids sport but the kids have grown up now and are showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. Professional football is generally played by guys in their teens, twenties and thirties which is pretty much the same as BMX, but because it has been around longer its not considered just a sport for kids.
With this in mind how long do you think YOU will be riding? Will you still be riding tomorrow? Next week? Next year? In ten years time? Don’t think that you will change; one of the weirdest things about “growing-up” is that you realise that you don’t feel any different to how you felt as a kid, except maybe a little more tired.
So lets assume that you will still WANT to ride in 10 years time, the question now becomes will you physically be able to ride in 10 years time?
Indulge me for a minute while I relate my own experiences and maybe it will save you some of the mistakes I made.
When I was at school physical education (P.E.) meant running about after a ball of one sort or another, running around the countryside or standing and watching cricket for 2 hours before spending 2 minutes at the wicket. There was bugger-all “education” involved. The saying used to be; “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach games.”
When you are a teenager you can get away with all this un-disciplined exercise, and 90% of people seem to pretty much give up on physical activity after school age anyway so it never catches up with them.
For those of us who ride, this “physical education” is no use whatsoever. I learnt precisely nothing in 13 years of P.E. .At the time I considered running miles through the countryside to be pointless, and I moaned about it, I now realise it was actually worse than pointless, it was building my young muscles with no regard to their length or flexibility.
This mentality of just turning up and going for it will eventually lead to problems. You don’t see professional footballers just amble onto the pitch then hurl themselves about at full belt, they warm up and they stretch first, and they warm down and stretch again at the end. They have dudes paid to rub their muscles and manipulate their joints because it makes a difference, it prevents injury and extends their career. Yet we turn up to ride and pretty much just go for it.
BMX is harsh. Pulling up into a bunnyhop is an explosive action, you work nearly all your muscles at full speed and power, chances are you do this without any warm up or stretching and in cold weather. Then you turn round and do it again, and again, and again.
Eventually this is going to catch up with you. For me it happened in my early twenties. One day while reaching for the ketchup I felt an incredible stabbing pain in my elbow, I couldn’t straighten my arm for weeks and sometimes when I used my arm I would get it again. I became guarded in the way I moved my arm because I was always half expecting another jolt. It slowly improved and I got used to it, but as soon as I started riding again it flared up again and I realised that I needed to do something about it. It took 6 weeks to get a physiotherapy appointment on the NHS and by the time it came around I was pretty much better, but I went anyway and the guy was great. He asked all the right questions and explained to me what was wrong but most importantly he told me how to fix it. A few simple stretches and I could keep it from happening again. And it worked.
A year or two later I had a new problem, one day I bunnyhopped and then stopped. My lower back was in agony and there was no way I could ride again that day, or the next, or the next. After a couple of weeks off my bike I tried riding again, tentatively at first, the aim was to build up slowly but it only took a couple of bunnyhops before I was back to square one.
This time I rested for longer, but when I tried to ride again I only managed a day or two before I was in agony once more. I didn’t feel like waiting this time so I went to a private sports physio, for £30 he gave me a quick prod then “manipulated” me. The manipulation consisted of getting me to lie on my side and relax, then putting his arms round me and “ragging” me into an awkward shape. The improvement was impressive and I felt like a couple more of those would get me back on my bike in no time. But the next session was useless, I knew what was coming and I just couldn’t relax enough for him to do it. By now I had spent £60 which I just didn’t have, and didn’t really feel happy that he know what was wrong with me. So I simply walked away and tried somewhere else.
My next physio was brilliant. She spent nearly an hour asking me questions and getting me to move in certain ways. She felt each individual vertebre of my back and determined its range of movement, finally she made her diagnosis. Years of bunnyhopping and riding up big hills without any stretching had built up muscle but I had lost all the flexibility in my upper back, this was causing other parts of my back to have to work harder to compensate. The fact that the pain was in my lower back was a red herring, lower back pain can indicate a problem anywhere at all.
She gave me a series of stretches to do and sent me on my way. Within a week I felt cured, a single follow up visit was enough and I was cured. But I heeded her advice and I started stretching, I read a lot of books and I tried different stretches, over time I narrowed my selection down to about a dozen different stretches that should help keep me mobile for BMX, despite BMX. In short I finally started some “Physical Education” that should have started at school in the lessons of the same name.
When I started stretching I couldn’t touch my toes but within a year of moderate work I could. You don’t need to spend hours and hours every day to feel the benefits but stretching after every ride will pay dividends in no time.
If you look at the older guys who are still riding, they nearly all do some stretches. Dennis Mccoy is a really good example. The guy has been riding forever and he has taken some of the hardest slams I have ever seen. Often he gets up and just shrugs it off and that is the pay-off. Those few minutes spent stretching each day or after each ride or whatever will make you tougher than you ever imagined possible and that will make it all worthwhile.
Jackie Chan is probably the ultimate example. From the age of 5 he was trained and stretched to an extraordinary degree. His master would push his stretches to points that would be illegal today and he became incredibly flexible and strong.
Watch the out-takes from a Jackie Chan film and you will see him take some terrible hits and massive falls, just watch him falling from the clock-tower in “Project A”, he landed on his head the first time so he did it again! And he is still going strong, if I am still fit enough to ride when I am his age I will be very happy. But not only does his flexibility help protect Jackie, it is a vital part of his stunts. In a similar way it will improve your riding as well as your crashing.
You can spend all the time in the world maintaining your bike, you can try to keep up-to-date on all the latest parts and you can obsess about keeping the weight down but if your body is screwed, nothing will make any difference. Stretching will. What we do IS extreme. We have all grown to hate the word but BMX is fucking nuts, it is physically very very demanding and to do it well you need to take it just as seriously as any professional athlete in any other sport.
A few years ago there was a “novelty” song in the charts by Baz Luhrmann called “Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen)”. Its an old guy trying to pass on the hard won wisdom of his life, to save the coming generations from the pain of making the same mistakes. There is a bit in it that I always remember where he just says; “stretch”. When I first heard it I just though “Too fuckin’ right!”.
If there was one piece of advice I could pass on to the next generation of riders (or even the current one) it would be to stretch. You are never too old to start on it, so do it now. This tech column started out to help you understand and maintain the machine you ride, but don’t neglect the machine that rides.
(another cheesy ending… sorry)
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