At Ray's Mountain Bike Park in Cleveland, Kevin Morris and Adam Baumgartner take turns hitting the box-jump foam pit, a ramp that launches riders into a giant box of foam blocks so they can try new tricks without the possibility of crashing and hurting themselves.
Both riders are Cincinnati locals in his early twenties and casual riders who normally treat BMX more like a hobby than a lifestyle. Today they look like they're training to be the next Dave Mirra.
Morris's first run at the jump results in a big, loopy back flip. If a landing sat where he landed in the giant box of foam blocks, he would have ridden away perfectly. Baumgartner's first run doesn't go as well. He rotates backwards off the jump, but slows considerably while upside down and lands safely on his head.
The foam pit, invented at a BMX instructional institution in Pennsylvania, is one of the biggest reasons the degree of difficulty in BMX has quickly increased during the last 10 years. When BMX hit the mainstream in the mid 90's, it instantly boosted the amount of money professional riders could earn. Contests like the X-Games were once-a-year paydays for action sports athletes of all types, and the monetary incentive spurred an intense progression of BMX stunts.
BMXers began earning enough money to ride bikes full time, rather than practicing after work and on weekends, and instructional institutions allowed professionals to progress without injury setbacks. Along with the increased popularity and monetary incentives for riders to go bigger was the opportunity to learn tougher tricks without harder falls.
"The old way of learning new tricks was chuck, huck and pray you live," says Steve Hass, operations director at Woodward Camp, Inc., an instructional institution. "Or you could do some lake jumping or drag out some old mattresses and hope it all works out for the best."
Woodward opened in 1970 as a gymnastic training facility and adopted BMX and skateboarding training in the 1980s.
In addition to the box jump foam pit, Woodward invented the resi-pit -- a jump covered with padding (like a wrestling mat) on top of light springs. Riders land on the cushioned landing and ride away, but if they crash they'll generally come away unharmed.
"There was lot of resistance, initially, to using a training aid versus the old-school way of learning tricks, which was the hard way," Hass says. "But it's now an essential part of the growth of BMX freestyle and also inline skating and skateboarding. It's allowed these guys to progress their sports rather rapidly in the multiple flipping skills that used to primarily be the realm of gymnasts."
Since serious injuries are common among BMX's best riders, these inventions helped riders avoid long periods of injury rehabilitation, in addition to aiding their skill levels.
"It seems like the only times I've ever gotten hurt pretty bad have been when I'm pushing myself to the limit. It's always something I'm pretty scared of," says Josh Suhre, a 23-year-old sponsored rider and University of Cincinnati student currently working his way back from a second shoulder surgery. "I guess it's just part of trying to progress rapidly. Sometimes you get dealt with."
Today, the Pennsylvania Woodward facilities include 17 different parks for BMX riders ranging from trails to cement skate parks to indoor wooden ramps. Two new Woodward complexes in Wisconsin and California recently opened, making it even easier for top-notch riders to find training. Eventually, other skate parks -- like Cleveland's park dedicated to mountain bikes and BMX -- constructed foam pits of their own.
Cincinnati riders Josh Cornell, Adam Volk and Dave Jacobs each visited Woodward during the late 90's as visiting pros and each learned back flips -- BMX's most impressive trick at the time -- during a single day.
"I learned back flips the second session I ever tried them," Cornell says. "From that session it took me one trip to a skate park to wreck on one and break my bike, and a second session to land one clean. So I guess you would say it was pretty easy."
All three riders spent parts of 1998-2001 performing in freestyle BMX shows. During that time, the most-heard request, Cornell says, was "Do a back flip!"
"Flips were the banger back then," Cornell says. "But when I was doing shows in the late 90's people were really into limbless tricks, too, like no-handers, supermans and the nothing. But the flip was usually the show ender."
Back flips don't garner much attention in the BMX world anymore, but they still impress the lay BMX observer. Contest-winning runs frequently include back flips with other tricks mixed in, as some riders do tricks as difficult as tail-whips and double tail-whips while upside down during a back flip.
Today, even casual riders like Morris and Baumgartner can technically do back flips -- they just decide to keep them in the foam pit where they're safe.
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