It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting at my awesome New Orleans Hotel called the Old No 77 Hotel on that street name that no one can ever pronounce properly, Tchoupitoulas. I have a mimosa sitting next to me, I’m hungry, and I’m stuck here till about 5pm which is when my bus leaves back to Houston, but I have a lot to say about what stood out most to me at this year’s Flatland Voodoo Jam event this weekend.
The Voodoo Jam celebrated it’s 11th year and never disappoints when it comes to being able to see some of the best flatland riding from all over the world. From what I remember, there were at least 11 different countries represented this year, with Texas making up more than 50% (Texas should be it’s own country by the way. lol.) Back in 2001 or 2002 when I was into my 3rd year of hosting the Elevation Flatland series in Houston, I remember talking with Scott Obrien about a vision that he had for a contest in New Orleans. Who would have thought that Voodoo Jam would have become what it is today and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. This is definitely a contest that has helped keep flatland alive in the U.S.
There will be many videos and write ups from this weekend that will celebrate the riding and the many awesome athletes that competed, however I took home something very different than just great riding and Bourbon street antics. This year I witnessed something bigger than top pro riders taking the podium or an up and coming Am rider blowing our minds with his latest tricks. I saw one kid’s life changed forever and something that will impact our sport more than any bomb trick that someone like Martti Kuoppa could give to us via YouTube.
The finals were over and the judges were doing their magic up on the stage as they tallied the scores and came to some very difficult conclusions from the contest. The “super kids” from Japan were allowed to come out and demo their little flatland ninja skills which culminated into the awesome double decade by a 13 year old name Yu (I think that’s what his name was). The kid really is amazing for his age and is doing some really difficult tricks for his age. Next up was RedBull Team rider Terry Adams who came out and did a trick, his pedal pumping time machine, which I personally thought was going to be the beginning of a Terry Adams Flatland Demo. Lol, I’ll admit that at first I was like “Really, a demo?”, but he surprised us all when he immediately took the mic and gave props to a new young flatlander who came out of Alex Jumelin’s flatland school in New Orleans several months ago. His name is Connor and he stood their listening as Terry Adams shared with the crowd how Connor reminded him of Terry when he first started riding flatland. You could hear Terry’s voice crackle slightly as he gave this kid props and it all came to a huge emotional climax when Terry said “Connor, here, my bike is yours!” (paraphrased) and he handed the bike over to him. Connor was shocked of course and the tears and red face that took over this young kid have no words that can explain the power of this gesture. It was a great moment and I’m sure it changed Connor’s life forever.
Helping kids get new bikes is nothing new to The Byke Project, as we have been doing this since 2000 and was the driving force behind it’s inception and a large part of our vision for Giving Back Through BMX. However, this gesture by Terry was more than just giving a kid a “new” bike, it was about investing in the future of a sport who’s future has been in question. I have been wanting to write about this for quite a while and I feel that there is no better time than now to share some thoughts and insight about what I see in front of me about a sport that I love very much.
Flatland is a very small sport and community and a while back I made some statements on social media that rubbed a few people in this community the wrong way. I had stated that flatland in the U.S. is basically comprised now of a bunch of 40+ year olds and there is no new blood coming into the sport. This weekend was a perfect example as the novice class on Friday only had 3 riders in it and one of the youngest Am riders on Saturday was 22 year old Omari Cato from Houston. Also, take the fact that this weekend there was no paying homage to great young up and coming 13 year olds from the U.S., other than Connor of course, but we had to reach as far as Japan to find that new blood and showcase them here in the states. As amazing as they were, it should bring up lots of concern about the state and future of our sport, which could literally die in the next 10 – 15 years if there is no new influx of dedicated young riders.
One of the last Elevation Series events that I hosted was Elevation 5 and it was all about giving props to “New Blood”. I took a lot of heat for creating a huge event that didn’t include any Pro contests, especially when I included a cash purse of $3000, but I seriously had the desire to show love to Am riders and as I look back it was for the very reason that I’m writing this article now. This was back in 2006 by the way, and my goal was to give props to the younger riders who I feel sometimes show more passion in their riding than we see in some pros. It could be that they’re new, young, and hungry and not to take away anything from our pros, but a new rider who has no sponsors and nothing to lose in a competition other than their pride will exhibit so much raw energy and passion, and I love it.
I remember falling in love with flatland at age 12 as I witnessed someone riding for the first time and it affected me for the rest of my life. Here I am 30 years later, still in love with the sport and with bikes in general. Because I haven’t been riding flat much I decided to bring my single speed bike to New Orleans and I love blasting through the city on that thing. BMX will always be my first love but I have no problem jumping on a fixie, a track bike, mountain bike, or anything with two wheels. In regards to flatland though, I see that I’m not the only one that has seen a need to do more to invest in the future of the sport. I’ve always been about investing in the person, not necessarily a sport, and through the Byke Project we’ve used BMX and bikes as a means to touch lives. However, after this weekend, I now see that both can be done and I intend to do so with the help of other great riders and people who believe in our young people.
“Flatland Schools” are nothing really new as I’ve seen guys like Alex Jumelin and Effraim Catlow start these years ago in Europe as well as Alex bringing that experience to New Orleans, however hearing Scott bring it up this weekend it is definitely something that the U.S. could benefit from and become one of the major tools used to help grow the sport. When we do a Byke Project event it usually includes a massive bike repair element to help kids get back on a solid working bike and we always include flatland and BMX demos with the goal of exposing these young people to the sport. It works, but one thing we’ll do differently now is create a plan that is long term and allows us to build relationships with these kids and teach them either flatland or BMX street. They can then choose which they prefer and as they sift through the program you never know who could end up becoming future pro athletes.
In addition to exposing young people to the sport through “schools”, I feel that BMX industry companies need to step up and invest more in the younger ones. I spoke to an industry leader this weekend who stated that sales across the board for all BMX companies is down which I hate to hear because the sport is so small and it doesn’t take much for one of “our” companies to go under if the slump lasts too long. My challenge to ALL BMX COMPANIES is the following:
1. Invest in anyone in the States and beyond who is investing into young people and exposing them to the sport. This would include more than sponsoring an event or sending product and tshirts as part of your sponsorship. Go further and help fund a school or help provide bikes to kids that can’t afford it. And I’m not talking about just handing out free bikes to any kid, but rather kids that show promise and a true passion for the sport. This will come through the sifting process of course as they go through a program or “school”.
2. Host more contests or events that are designed to expose young people to the sport, not necessarily serve as a place for all of the same pro and am riders to show up, ride, and hang out with one another. Here at the Byke Project we have many ideas on how to do this, we just need funding and support to make it happen. One of our newest events is in it’s fourth year and it’s called the HTX Bike Fest and is a large bicycle festival that we host in Houston, Tx. The event celebrates bikes in general and is a good mix of BMX and other cycling elements. This year the event’s goal is to raise money to help purchase bikes for kids and families in need and we’ll be adding a big bmx bike give away element this year.
3. Bus in kids from different areas or strategically market to these areas with the purpose of “filling up” spectator areas with young people that have never seen the sport up close and use it as a way to get them plugged in. The Byke Project can also help execute such efforts.
So this is what I took home from this weekend and I’m happy to hear and see the many efforts slowly being made towards investing in young people. It should go beyond just one sport though, and I encourage anyone making these efforts to take it deeper and invest in hearts and minds. Those who truly love BMX will stick with it and if they don’t, investing in them as a person will go farther than any bike can take them.
Keep giving back through BMX. And for those who I saw this weekend at Voodoo Jam, thank you for the good times and for being awesome friends and family. Till I see you at the next event, possibly Real City Spin in Canada, much love to you all.