Start Your Pedals!

"Everyone's out for blood here at the Olympics. There's just so much more on the line. People are going to do what they have to do." —Jill Kintner, U.S. Olympic BMX racer

This isn't some exhibition event or trial sport. Two weeks from now, when the sport of BMX racing makes its Olympic debut in Beijing, all the world's a stage and authentic Olympic hardware—gold, silver and bronze—is up for grabs.

Dan Mooney

BMX racing is a little like boardercross—it's easy to poke fun at until you see them in action.

As the first "action sports" discipline to enter the Summer Games, there's a lot riding on BMX racing's success. There is, of course, among the international field of 32 men and 16 women, the possibility for personal wealth and fame (ala Mary Lou Retton) and/or infamy and scandal (ala Kerrigan/Harding/Gillooly). But as a brand new event, and one that's not widely-known beyond core fans, there's also perhaps a greater imperative: To score a victory for the sport itself. If BMX racing doesn't turn out to be as interesting or as "cool" as Snowboard Halfpipe, another relative newcomer to the Olympics, what will happen in London come 2012? If baseball and softball can lose their rings (both are scheduled to be axed from the Olympics after Beijing), then it can certainly happen to BMX.

In the three years leading up to these Olympics, elite BMX racers have witnessed unprecedented investment in their sport. Back in the day, a top racer might've thought himself lucky to count his local bike shop as a sponsor. Nowadays, countries and large corporations are pouring in the dough. Take, for example, the half-million dollar Olympic supercross track at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA, built to the exact same specs as the Olympic racetrack in Laoshan, China. It's the only known duplicate in the world, and the American racers—Texan Kyle Bennett and Californians Mike Day and Donny Robinson on the men's side, and Seattle's Jill Kintner on the women's—are welcome to ride, train and sleep there as they please. And they do. The athletes seem to agree on this much: Higher stakes have changed the game.

Dan Mooney

This the view from the start of the US team's duplicate training track. It's a lot steeper than it looks.

Since BMX racing is an American invention that dates back 38 years to Southern California (according to the American Bicycle Association, the largest BMX racing sanctioning body in the U.S.), it's fitting that the American riders rank among the favorites. Having proven themselves in World Championship-caliber events, Robinson, Bennett and Day are all currently ranked in the top 11 in the world by the UCI, or Union Cycliste Internationale (at numbers 1, 3, and 11, respectively). As a group, the U.S. men rank No. 1 overall.

But a lot can happen—and go wrong—in BMX racing. And at the Olympic level, apart from the bikes, BMX racing barely resembles the version played out on weekends at the nearly 500 amateur tracks around the United States. Those tracks must be suitable for all racers, from five-year-old novices on up. But the Olympic supercross track is for experts only: Technical, fast and unforgiving.

Riders line up side-by-side in heats of eight, and the action resembles a skiercross or boardercross free-for-all: Big jumps of 30-plus feet, technical rhythm sections requiring precise momentum management with top speeds around 40 miles an hour, and three paved and steeply-banked corners offering an array of fast lines and passing (or be passed) lanes. All this is compressed into a one-lap race of less than 40 seconds with the ever-present possibility of dramatic carnage looming.

Following preliminary heats, the Olympic Finals for men and women—slated for August 21—all come down to a single race. When the metal gate drops at the top of the 26-foot start hill, eight racers will zoom down onto the course, chasing dreams and realizing years of work and stress and struggle. But it's no time to be sentimental. Mike King, director of the U.S. Olympic BMX team, sums up the Final this way: "It's one lap, no crap. Winner takes all."

Dan Mooney

Donny Robinson qualified on a coach's selection, as he currently owns the fastest time at the Olympic track.

Getting to the Olympic Final is a little more complicated. Racers will first need to advance through preliminaries: Beginning with four, eight-man quarterfinal rounds for the 32-rider men's field, and two eight-woman semifinal rounds for the 16-rider women's competition.

All races (called "motos") run one lap, a distance of 370 meters for men, 350 meters for women. (While both men and women will be racing on the same track, the differential in distance owes to separate routes through the course's mid section.) Quarters and semi rounds will include three separate motos, where racers will earn a score equal to their finish spot: 1 point for 1st, 2 points for 2nd, and so on through 8th place. After the three motos in each prelim round, the four riders with the lowest total points advance. According to King, the threshold for advancing is usually 12 points—or 4th place finishes or better in each of the motos.

Lane choice and seeding will initially be determined based on an individual time-trial lap. But—minor yet important detail here—in the men's and women's Final, the rider with the fastest time in the third (or last) moto of the semifinal round gets first lane choice for the one-lap Final. All told, the format rewards consistency in the prelims—a mistake or crash in one moto could be a death knell—and good ol' fashioned guts n' glory in the Final.

Dan Mooney

The rest of Team USA (from left): Bennett, Kintner, and Day.

"The difference between regular BMX racing and supercross—which is what Beijing is—is the huge roll-in off the start hill. It's a high-speed set up instead of a raw power track," says Jill Kintner. "The scale, the size and speed—it's just way more technical. Getting proper backside landings is just as important as pedaling—way different from what you might be used to seeing at your local BMX track."

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