By Fred Dreier
With a crowd of past, present and future BMX stars proudly looking on, USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson and Steve Roush of the U.S. Olympic Committee officially opened the Olympic BMX training track on January 21 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California.
Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, four members of the U.S. BMX Olympic talent pool sped down the 19-foot-high starting ramp and onto the 370-meter course, which is dotted with berms and sizable jumps.
“We made a conscious effort to finish construction as quickly as possible,” said Roush, the USOC’s chief of performance. “[The United States] may be strong [in BMX] now, but this facility will ensure that when the rest of the world catches up, we will continue to be prepared,”
Indeed, ground wasn’t broken on the project until November 4, 2007. Overseeing the construction was famed BMX track maker Tom Ritzenthaler, who also built the Olympic course in Beijing in 2006. Ritzenthaler’s course in Chula Vista is an exact replica of the Beijing course. Both tracks boast a taller starting ramp and bigger course features than previously seen on the international level, which means all potential Olympic riders have had to up their game.
“We went to Beijing and saw the Olympic track and it made our jaws drop because it was so much bigger than the regular Supercross tracks,” said American Donny Robinson. Robinson, 22, won the Olympic test event last August in Beijing. The Napa, California, resident is the reigning U.S. champion.
“The track [in Chula Vista] has even bigger jumps than in China,” Robinson continued. “I don’t know if we can get any bigger than this — our speed is topping 40 miles per hour and we’re hitting 40-foot jumps.”
The USOC track dwarfs regional BMX courses because both elite and amateur riders compete on the same course at national and regional-level races. Understandably, regional courses feature shorter starting ramps and smaller jumps to accommodate riders of different levels. But with only elite athletes competing in the Olympics, organizers have decided to test athletes’ skills with tougher courses.
“An accelerated evolution is something you see quite often when a sport becomes an Olympic event,” explained Johnson.
The course stands as a giant leap forward for the United States in its ambitions for Olympic gold in BMX, a sport Americans have dominated at the international level. Six BMX riders now live and train full-time at the facility — Jill Kintner, Kim Hayashi, Arielle Martin, Amanda Geving, Steve Cisar and Mike Day. Riders Kyle Bennett, Donny Robinson and Randy Stumpfhauser also have access to the facilities.
The USOC and USA Cycling had previously taken flak from some within the BMX community who felt the country was lagging in its preparation for the Games. The International Olympic Committee announced BMX’s debut at the 2008 Games in 2003, but USA Cycling didn’t begin its push toward Beijing until mid-2006.
Johnson explained that USA Cycling had to secure proper funding first. Revenue from selling road and mountain-bike licenses helps fund U.S. cycling programs, but USA Cycling does not issue BMX licenses.
Indeed, U.S. BMX has two competing sanctioning bodies, the National Bicycle League (NBL) and the American Bicycle Association (ABA).
“We decided we were ready to make the commitment, and then we wrote the check,” Johnson said.
So did the USOC. The two groups picked up the estimated $450,000 tab for the construction of the Chula Vista track. USA Cycling also hired its own BMX coordinator, former BMX and downhill mountain-bike world champion Mike King. King, who managed the Haro mountain-bike team up until 2005, signed on with USAC in 2006, and has spearheaded USA Cycling’s talent identification.
“I think we’re right on target — there was no real urgency in getting the program started too early,” King said. “We have two huge governing bodies [the NBL and ACA) in the United States, and that’s our grassroots program right there. In early 2006 [USA Cycling] dabbled in support, and then turned the notch up as the year went along. I think now, with the building of this facility, we’re ready.”