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The birth [and rebirth] of BMX

The Masterton BMX track is nearing the end of its refurbishment and will soon be ready for a new generation of riders. Wairarapa Archive’s MARK PACEY looks back to when the course first opened.

BMX, or bicycle motocross, started out with young enthusiasts riding their bikes on motocross tracks in Southern California in the early 1970s. By the early 1980s, it had a massive following and a BMX was the preferred bike of choice for kids with even older teenagers and adults taking a keen interest.

In almost every movie or television series from the 1980s, the preferred mode of transport for kids was the BMX bike. From ‘The Goonies’ to ‘ET’, the BMX was synonymous with two-wheeled transport for the young ones.

The growing interest in the new sport in New Zealand was reflected locally when the Central League BMX Association First Spring Championship race was held in Masterton in 1981.

In the leadup to the event, the region’s newspapers ran several pages covering all things BMX. Featured prominently was a safety checklist that covered 10 things that should be checked before riding, including brakes, handlebars, cables, nuts, and the seat, all of which were meant to be adjusted for the individual rider’s specifications.

Local bike vendors also saw the supplementary pages as a wonderful opportunity to advertise their wares, with each advert accompanied by an action shot of a mid-air bike and rider.

The event was officially opened by Mayor Frank Cody at 9am on November 15, and more than 400 BMX riders from Manawatū, Whanganui, Wellington, Waipawa, and Wairarapa converged on Masterton’s Queen Elizabeth Park. Hosted by the Central Wairarapa BMX Club, the day consisted of more than 200 events. There were three qualifying races, one semifinal race for the top 12 riders, and a final for the remaining six.

The course was set depending on the riders. While there were older riders up to the age of 24, there was a junior track for riders who were 20 years younger. There was also a race and a course for girls to compete in.

There was even a ‘sidehack’ race that had a BMX rider with a sidecar and passenger. This was not a race for the faint-hearted, with only the fittest of the riders able to keep up with the demands of the track.

St John was on hand to deal with any injuries from mishaps during the races.

As the day progressed, the number of riders still competing dwindled, and the top riders fought it out for the remaining places. While there were riders from all over the country taking part, including the capital, the local riders proved they could BMX with the best of them. Central Wairarapa rider Lee Steven, for example, made it to the group final where he finished in a very respectable third place.

The Masterton track had been built to a high standard, and it was hoped that with the success of this competition, other events including national championships would be held in Masterton.

However, when the nationals rolled around in 1982, it was Auckland that landed the chance to host them. In that same year, there were over 70 BMX tracks around the country. Two years later the national championship in Whanganui had over 1400 riders representing 82 clubs.

Today, BMX still has a strong following. In 2003 the International Olympic Committee even made BMX an Olympic sport that was included in the 2008 Summer Olympics Games in Beijing, with Māris Štrombergs and Anne-Caroline Chausson becoming the first Olympic gold medallists in the sport.

After four decades, the Masterton BMX course was in need of some TLC and a group of volunteers that include Wairarapa BMX Club president Kane Harris spent their spare time upgrading the course for the first time since the late 1990s.

Harris is very enthusiastic about the project.

“We have had support from many businesses and funding agencies in the region and are now in the last stages of the gate rebuild to get the concrete slab poured. Then we will be off and racing once more!” he said.

“So far, we have cleared, reshaped, and widened the track, poured new lime [tonnes and tonnes of the stuff!], done planting, and put in a new gate and mechanism. Our aim is to get kids on bikes to learn fundamental skills for BMX as a gateway to better physical and mental health. Some of New Zealand’s top riders in the mountain biking and track cycling disciplines got their starts in BMX … Maybe Masterton may have a future Olympian waiting in the suburbs?”

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