November 22, 2014

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A risky business

For extreme athletes, putting their bodies on the line just a fact of life

Mike Lakin hit the dirt ramp at about 20 mph and yanked his handlebars backward. He whirled twice, with the ground and sky blending into indistinguishable blurs, before crashing to the ground in a twisted pile of dust.
Lakin was helped to his feet, but received no sympathy from his fellow riders — only laughter.
It was practice day. Within 48 hours, Lakin’s waist and backside would more closely resemble grizzled sandpaper than human flesh.
“This is our sport,” said the 19-year-old from Riverside, Calif., competing in his first pro event. “These are the risks that you take every day.”
Riders like Lakin accept — and even embrace — the threat of serious injury as part of daily life as a modern action athlete. Spills will inevitably occur, but even a tinge of hesitation and Lakin’s sport will leave him behind.
Lakin was on hand for the opening day of the annual Dew Tour, which is on its second stop of a five-city circuit with the Right Guard Open running through Sunday in Cleveland. He was one of a handful of extreme athletes who spoke about the suffocating expectations and consequences that come with their fields of competition.
BMX, skateboarding and motocross have progressed so rapidly that fans and judges now expect the breathtaking — even the impossible — for every run at every event.
In order to earn respect and prize money, athletes have to be innovative.
But as they all soon learn, innovation often requires ignoring risks and inhibitions.
“When people use the word ‘innovate,’ they really mean trying something more dangerous than the last great trick,” said Nate Adams, a freestyle motocross rider from Winchester, Calif., who won the Dew Cup in Baltimore last month. “If you’re not progressing, you’re falling backward. There’s no room for staying in the same spot. Half of the battle is staying healthy enough to ride in all the events all year long.”
On Thursday afternoon, Dennis McCoy climbed a long stairwell to reach the top of the vert ramp and looked down into a structure that resembled an oversized snowboarding half pipe. At 40, McCoy is the oldest professional BMX rider, about 15 years older than most of his counterparts.
He has seen hundreds of tricks pass from legendary to passe during his two decades as a professional. In many ways, that reflects the popularity of his sport. What was once four elite riders freestyling and competing for prize money has become more than 50 pros risking their lives and limbs in pursuit of the Dew Tour’s $15,000 first-place checks.
“Most new tricks require quite a bit of risk and that’s the catch-22,” McCoy said. “The pace which the sport has increased its difficulty is faster than it ever was before. People are trying stuff that within one year becomes outdated. Typically, it might’ve taken three years to evolve. So now you’re shortening the amount of time to try something new.”
But with those ambitions come frightening risks. On June 22, in the BMX dirt finals at the Dew Tour’s Panasonic Open in Baltimore, Stephen Murray attempted to throw a double backflip on his final set of jumps. It was a trick that had won him an X Games gold medal in 2001 — one he had coined and perfected over the years.
But Murray didn’t pull it off. At the full in-air height of the trick, Murray flew off the bike and landed on his head, crushing the C3, C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck. He flat-lined on the way to the hospital, but was revived by the team of EMTs in the ambulance.
Nearly a month later, Murray is now unable to speak or move below his shoulders.
“That’s the scary thing about what we do,” said Ryan Nyquist, a BMX dirt rider from Los Gatos, Calif. “As hard as it is to do the tricks, you almost have to spend as much time learning how to minimize a fall. You only have a split-second to figure out whether you want to roll or land on your feet. That’s why you can never ignore the threat of crashing.”
So why would they do it? Why would they throw themselves into the face of perilous danger?
For the gratification that comes from perfection, said Kevin Robinson.
Robinson, like McCoy, is a dinosaur in BMX circles. At 36, he’s been a pro for 16 years. But few riders can match his reputation for innovation and boldness.
Last year, Robinson became the first rider to pull off two-and-a-half backflips on a bicycle. It still hasn’t been done by anyone else.
Robinson endured three grueling years perfecting the “double flair,” suffering a handful of concussions, bruised hips and tailbones, along with three bulging discs along the way.
But when finally unveiled at the 2006 X Games, Robinson described the sensation as greater than anything he’s ever felt in life.
“It goes way beyond winning contests or getting a medal,” Robinson said. “There’s no better feeling than pulling off a brand new trick that you invented. And if you want to push the progression of the sport, you have to be willing to accept the bad with the good. You know you’re going to get hurt sometimes, but you have to go into the unknown, regardless of the consequences. That, to me, is love of the sport.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or palpern@chroniclet.com.

072007bmx.jpgJASON MILLER / CHRONICLE photos
BMX cyclist Kevin Robinson executes a no-hands move as a videographer gets some up-close footage during action at Thursday’s Dew Games in Cleveland.