With road racing and mountain biking already receding into the distance of the Tokyo Games, Team USA still doesn’t have any medals hanging over the rearview mirror.
On Saturday, all that could change.
In one of the most anticipated cycling events of the Games, American Hannah Roberts will make her Olympic debut in the BMX Freestyle event. It’s the sport’s own first-ever Olympic appearance, too. The inaugural event kicks off on Friday with seeding events for men and women, with the best taking center stage on Saturday.
While critics might have their ‘but this is not the X Games’ say, the inclusion of BMX Freestyle and its concurrent elevation of athletes like Roberts to a wildly popular world stage is a crucial move toward a more modern and inclusive Olympic Games.
Here’s why you should tune in to watch the 19-year-old from Michigan in her Olympic debut on Saturday.
1 – Hannah Roberts is the winningest athlete in the sport.
Roberts grew up with BMX in the family.
Throughout her childhood, Roberts watched her cousin, former pro BMX rider Brett “Mad Dog” Banasiewicz, crush the pro BMX circuit throughout his early twenties. When she got her own BMX bike at nine years old, Roberts became the token “grom” at Banasiewicz’s personal skate park, The Kitchen. Tragically, he suffered a career-ending brain injury in 2010, and in 2011, Roberts would have a devastating spinal injury of her own. Ultimately, both served as an impetus for her to commit fully to the bike, this time with competition as the goal.
In 2012, after a year of intensive rehabilitation, Roberts entered her first BMX competition. She was 11. In 2017, she won her first world title, the same year that the International Olympic Committee announced the inclusion of BMX Freestyle at the 2020 Olympic Games.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Last February, months before the May qualification period cutoff, Roberts became the first U.S. rider to qualify in BMX Freestyle due to the size of her lead in the USA Cycling rankings. In 2019, before the pandemic shut everything down, she had cranked up the volume on competition, winning all three World Cup events leading up to her second world championship in November. In the middle of that, she also added a gold medal at the Pan American Games.
In June, Roberts added a third world championship title to her name.
2 – BMX Freestyle is making an Olympic debut.
The inclusion of BMX Freestyle — as well as skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, and karate — in the Tokyo Games is part of a years-long plan to help the Olympic Games remain relevant in the modern age.
In 2014, the International Olympic Committee released Agenda 2020, a policy document that laid out the Olympic movement’s segue into a new era. It focused on how to include sports that are more youth-oriented, do not require expensive venues, can ensure more gender balance, and are television-friendly.
The IOC was likely also taking cues from the longstanding success of the X Games, an extreme sports competition hosted, produced, and broadcasted by the TV network ESPN.
BMX Freestyle, which debuts in Tokyo at Ariake Urban Sports Park, not only embodies the IOC’s mission to modernize the Games, but it also defies the traditional notion of competitive cycling. Unlike other cycling disciplines where results are determined through racing, BMX freestylers are judged on the creativity and difficulty of their run.
In Tokyo, each rider will have two minutes to display their best flips, skills, and tricks, with points awarded for originality, execution, and height. According to Roberts, the competition will be incredibly entertaining to watch.
“Judges look for how we use the whole course, the tricks we do, our speed, and height and, of course, if we mess up,” she told VeloNews. “No one rides the park the same.”
3 – Roberts will have new tricks up her sleeve.
At the 2019 UCI Urban World Championships in Chengdu, China, Roberts became the first woman to land a 360 tailwhip. A tailwhip is a trick in which the frame of the bike performs a complete rotation around the front end (bars and forks), which remains stationary throughout the move. In the 360, the rider spins in a 360-degree circle while the tail of the bike rotates in a tailwhip.
While Roberts frequently posts videos of new moves she’s working on to Instagram, her best-kept secrets won’t be displayed until Saturday.
“We’ve had a full year to hide tricks,” she said, “and people are going to be sending it for that gold.”
4 – Representation matters
BMX bikes in general are typically not a women’s world. While countless professional male cyclists wax poetic about getting their start on a BMX bike, most women come to the sport through other means. Roberts is an anomaly in that way: BMX is the only cycling she’s ever (chosen) to know.
Thriving — and surviving — in the male-dominated sport has been challenging every step of the way. From being taken seriously at the bike park to convincing sponsors to support her, Roberts has never not been paving her own way.
“There just weren’t any girls riding full-time,” she said in a recent interview with Michigan Public Radio. “Maybe riding for one or two companies but not making it a full-time thing. I didn’t even know if it was possible to make it a career. No companies were looking for women riders. I just knew that I loved it. It was like, ‘if I ride good enough and if I can hold my own against the guys, then there’s no way they can deny me a spot on the team for being a girl.’ If I can ride like everyone else, there’s nothing holding me back.”
With three world titles and hopes for Olympic gold, Roberts has shown that not only can she ride like everyone else, she can also do it better. But her ability to inspire applies off the bike, as well.
Roberts is young, gay, and by some — outdated — standards doesn’t fit the part of an Olympic athlete. She refuses to let any of that stand in her way.
“I hope that I can inspire young kids to chase their dreams and never give up on themselves,” she said. “Not only that but to be the best person they can be in and out of their sport.”