Racing on a BMX track is about way more than pedaling. It's a full contact sport, with riders jostling for space while flying from jump to jump and speeding into steep turns. While it's been around for decades, it wasn't till 2008 in Beijing that it earned the imprimatur of the Olympics, and it wasn't till 2016 that Sarasota became a destination for global riders preparing for international competition.
Sarasota BMX, located at Tuttle and 17th and built in 1974, is actually one of the oldest tracks in the country, but wasn't up to the level of international competition till Sarasota County invested millions to upgrade the facility with the course builder Elite Trax. With work just completed, the track now bears a long series of huge humps and a pair of towering starting ramps. In recent weeks, men and women riders from countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Colombia and Thailand, some of them past medalists, hit the track to train and prepare before shipping out for Rio. The men began their quarterfinals at 12:30 p.m. today; the women will head into their semifinal match-ups at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow.
So what's it like to go BMX racing? Associate Editor Hannah Wallace and I decided to give it a go, strapping on helmets to try out the Sarasota track with borrowed bikes. Coached by Elite Trax's Johan Lindstrom, who will oversee the BMX World Cup competition in Sarasota in early October, we started with the basics: Don't pedal too much, stay off the seat and try not to fall. So much for that last part. I made it about 10 minutes before wiping out.
We learned one very important lesson: This sport is difficult. Really, really difficult. My legs felt like Jell-O after we finished, giving me a newfound awe for the athleticism and toughness of the men and women screaming around the track at top speed.
Scroll through the slideshow above for a sense of our morning on the track, and here's some video evidence of our derring-do. Trust us, it felt much faster than it looks, and that starting ramp is way steep: