The BMX speed queens
To celebrate International Women’s Day we take a look at a sport that has typically been considered more of a male activity – BMX. And we talk to US BMX Olympian and Red Bull-sponsored Jill Kintner about her ongoing passion for the sport and the rise in female participation.
Say the word BMX to many adults of a certain age and, at some point, they’ll probably mention the scene in the 1982 Steven Spielberg film E.T. the extra terrestrial in which E.T. makes Elliot and his friends’ Kuwahara BMX bikes fly. For others, the word will bring back memories of bombing down local streets and through nearby woods, pulling stunts and jumps. Even for those who never had one, nothing says 1980s childhood like a BMX.
But its origins go back a little farther. BMX was inspired by motocross – in fact, BMX stands for bicycle motocross – and first took off in California in the 1960s and 70s. The bikes were designed to be ridden through dirt, although it spawned a host of other disciplines, such as street BMX where the cyclist gets handy with stairs, drops and ledges, or flatland BMX, which is performed on flat surfaces without ramps and often has elements of breakdancing mixed in.
In April 1981, the International BMX Federation was founded. As the sport’s popularity grew, it became clear that it had more in common with cycling than motorcycling and, in 1993, it won full recognition when it was integrated into the International Cycling Union. It would be another 15 years, though, before it would make its Olympic debut at the 2008 Games in Beijing, China. For anyone who hasn’t watched Olympic BMX, it’s worth hunting down some YouTube clips. It is one of the fastest cycling disciplines, with eight riders competing on a track packed with eye-popping jumps, tight bends and obstacles. Pile-ups are a risk but the stunts are breath-taking. In the decade since its first Olympic outing the sport has captured the imagination of adults and children alike.
Typically, though, BMX has often been seen as a bit of a boy’s activity. And yet, a swathe of talented female BMXers are taking the cycling world by storm – names like Alise Post from the US, Shanaze Read and Joey Gough in the UK, Colombia’s Mariana Pajón and New Zealand’s Sarah Walker have all competed at the highest levels of their sport.
US BMX Olympian Jill Kintner won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games and although she has now swapped her BMX for downhill mountain biking, she remains a passionate advocate for the sport. Here, she talks to Invision about getting into BMX as a child and why that passion endures.
How did you get into BMX?
My brother and I started with BMX by just riding bikes around our neighbourhood as kids. We would jump off curbs and make little time trial loops at the church across the street. The movie Rad was such an inspiration when I was 10, that I had a paper route, like Crew Jones. We were lucky enough to also have a BMX track a few blocks down the street, so we would spend a lot of time down there messing around. Bikes were part of our daily lives from early on.
What is it about the sport that you love?
I like the technical challenge, catching air, going fast etc. It’s kinda like dancing when you get it down; always something happening with a bit of flow, and you can ride however, or wherever, you want. Biking is a good creative way to play, get exercise, and test yourself.
When you were competing, what did you find to be the most challenging aspect of the sport?
From my view, it always seemed easier for the other girls that I raced against; they were from warm climates, had good support, better tracks, etc. I had to work really hard to prove myself as an amateur, and was competitive to a fault. Not getting the best starts were a blessing in disguise, I guess, as I learned how to ride in a pack, make passes, and be assertive with moves. Once I turned pro, those skills served me pretty well and I knew I could deal with some adversity. Racing is a game, so when you win everything, it doesn’t always help your race craft. Eventually, I was able to kinda flip a switch and zone in on what I needed to do to get better and to be successful. Coaches didn’t exist back in the day, so I had to spend a lot of time watching and studying to understand what I needed to do to win.
Do you still ride for pleasure?
Well, I am a professional downhill mountain biker now, so yes I still ride every day and love it. My wheels have grown as I did, BMX tracks are good fun for skills practice. I personally like to ride them more when nobody else is there to make them harder; backwards, across the infield, etc. It’s all about getting creative, finding something new, and trying to master it, gaps in particular. Pump tracks and rhythm sections are the best tools ever for timing and skills, and the challenge remains.
Is it a very inclusive sport or did you find yourself having to fight preconceptions about women and BMXing?
Yeah, it’s not a typical girly sport, but women have proven themselves at the highest level in the sport and it has gained a lot of ground as far as equality. The fun factor prevails for people who aren’t necessarily into team sports. Once you get past the gate, I think everyone quite likes it and is accepted in the community.
What impact, if any, does its inclusion as an Olympic sport have on participation and people's awareness?
It brings a lot of attention to the sport. I think it’s pretty obvious that BMX is one of the more exciting sports to follow in the Olympics. It appeals to a lot of kids and nostalgic parents who have good memories on bikes. It’s a family sport, so parents don’t have to sit on the sidelines. It’s also been amazing to bring awareness to parks departments, which gives access to more locations for tracks. The Olympics legitimised the sport on another level to the general population.
Over the course of your career did female participation levels change much?
Yeah, for sure. Nationally it was a lot more obvious, but now at the world level it’s pretty amazing.
What misconceptions, if any, do girls tend to have about BMX?
I am not sure – maybe that they might get dirty or hurt, but I think you could say those same things about soccer or baseball. Biking is fun, has freedom, and you are in charge of your actions. I never really cared what other people thought about it. I liked doing it, and it gave me a bit of confidence in myself as a shy kid.
What was your best/favourite BMX moment?
Winning an Olympic medal in Beijing was the pinnacle, for sure. That moment really capped a lifelong journey in the sport and made me feel good about how much effort my parents, friends, and sponsors put into my process. I have a lot of fond memories over the years, and wouldn’t even trade any of the bad ones because they all taught me something. Sport is so valuable, winning and losing is just a small part of the big picture, I think.
What advice would you give to girls who aren't sure whether to give it a go?
Why not? Riding a bike can take you all over the world and be really fun. Every skill takes patience and practice to master. For BMX, you mostly just need a bike and curiosity to get started. My advice would be to take your time, make mistakes, learn, and enjoy being in the moment. Dream big!
Jill has excelled in a variety of cycling disciplines, including Downhill, Slalom, 4X, BMX, Pumptrack and Enduro. As well as her bronze at Beijing, she also won three consecutive UCI 4X world titles, Downhill World Cup podiums, Crankworx overall titles, and an incredible 17 elite USA National Championships across all gravity disciplines. You can find out more about Jill and her career via her website.