BMX & The Summer of Rad

My first introduction to a bike culture was the BMX scene in the early 1980’s – a simple and carefree time when boner jokes were super funny and life experience was measured in bases. Back then, riding bikes was all about freedom, cherry Slurpees, and hanging out with your friends away from the prying eyes of your parents. After all, this was the pre-facebook era in which social interaction required leaving your house.

I grew up in a small, insulated neighbourhood in Winnipeg called Woodhaven. It’s a quiet and cottage-like community where, at least in my pre-teen opinion, nothing exciting ever happened. Ever. When my parents moved there in the late 1960’s their friends wondered why they were moving out to the country. I often wondered the same thing.

In 1981 I made my great escape onto the gritty streets of the Big City – or rather got to cross Portage Avenue (something until then I had been strictly forbidden to do) to go to the Junior High School. It was here I met the BMX kids – who were not necessarily as cool as the hockey jock crowd, but were still way cooler than me. They were exotic and dangerous kids who smoked, gave each other hickies, and didn’t wear ski pants.

They hung out on the bank of Sturgeon Creek, by the footbridge in Woodhaven Park. This was extremely serendipitous and granted me admission into the group, by proximity if nothing else. They had chosen this location because of its relative privacy, and a natural dip in the ground that happened to be the perfect depth and diameter for practicing BMX jumps.

On warm summer nights I would wolf down dinner, jump on my ten speed and tear down to the creek to hang out with my friends. The boys would spend all night practicing their tricks and jumps, while we girls sat watching, smoking menthol cigarettes and drinking Slurpees from the 7-11 up the street. They would practice the same move over and over, until it got boring, then move onto something incrementally harder. If someone really nailed a trick, we would show our appreciation by not booing. If they crashed, we were merciless.

Totally engrossed in the pursuit of trying to outdo each other, the boys paid us girls little if any attention. Sometimes, when they got bored they would ask us to line up side by side like logs at the edge of the dip so they could jump over us with their bikes. In spite of the inherent danger and occasional mishap, we happily obliged. This was usually as close to flirting they came with us. If a boy was particularly enamoured with one of the girls, he might be so bold as to throw her in the creek (which even back then we knew was borderline toxic). That was love.

We would stay at the creek until it got dark, our parents really only having the vaguest idea of where we were. Back then you could do that. I always came home safe, if a little late sometimes, smelling of dirt, cigarettes and cherry Slurpee. But God help me if I had a hickie.

I did have a little crush on one of the boys. With his blonde shaggy hair and checkered Vans he was a bit of an oddball compared to the others, who had hockey hair and listened to bad 80’s metal. He was (in my opinion) the best rider of the bunch, and rode a Haro, which was considered The Shit.

One night, for whatever reason we all rode home together and he gave me a double on his handlebars. We were at the back, just out of eyesight of the others. As I put my hands on the bars, our hands accidentally touched. “GOD your hands are cold!” he yelled. We were teased mercilessly for a week. I was in heaven.

Sometimes, the boys would be involved in competitions or shows at the Unicity Mall on the edge of town. We would pile on the bus to go watch them perform the same moves we had seen them do hundreds of times at the creek. It seemed so much cooler and more dangerous on the enormous wooden half and quarter pipes they had set up in the parking lot. It was weird to see them wear helmets. And I remember feeling proud. I was amazed to find this awesome video (posted by Igor Svengy) of some of the guys goofing around and practicing in the parking lot at the Woodhaven Community Club.

I don’t know why, but it never occurred to us girls to join in and ride. Not even the girls who were more butch or athletic than I was. Maybe it was because we didn’t have the right bikes. Maybe it was because we were too shy and didn’t want to look stupid in front of the boys. In any case, looking back now I think that was a real shame. I don’t think the boys would have cared much, unless we were better than them.

Over 20 years has passed, and lots has changed – the dip where we spent those long summer nights has been filled with dirt and a park bench is perched smack dab in the middle of it, as if to punctuate the fact that no one plays there anymore.

And of course now I ride instead of watch. I don’t smoke or drink cherry Slurpees anymore, and I’m way to old to ride a BMX, but bike culture and riding bikes – any bikes – is still mostly about freedom and hanging out with rad friends. That hasn’t changed at all.

Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of those summers at the creek. Thanks to Defgrip, Cameron and Johnny Revolt for these sweet old school BMX shots, that look exactly like the pictures I keep in my head.