The extreme BMXperience
WHEN the London Games coverage on the screens in the Echo office switched to the Olympic BMX track, a colleague scoffed.
"That's not a sport," he grumbled, with his steady descent into middle-agedness starting to show, "it's just kids on bikes."
And as Team GB's Lewis Phillips and Shanaze Read gave it their all, he continued: "It looks like some feral teenagers from a park have broken into the Olympics."
When I repeat this anecdote to Carl Harris, the chairman of the Exeter Eagles BMX Club, it seems that I have not only touched a raw nerve, I have yanked it out and started skipping with it.
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"I urge anyone who thinks that BMXing is not a sport to come down here and try it," he says. "You need to see the commitment of our riders first-hand, as well as their enthusiasm, their skill and their courage."
Carl did not actually use the word "courage". He said something which cannot be repeated in a family newspaper but it is a word that many of the parents around me who are watching their children – some of whom will only just have started school – tear around the Marsh Barton track with incredible fearlessness clearly feel is justified. But while it is undeniably a dangerous sport, safety is paramount.
Yes, I am talking to a man who is encouraging me to take part while also telling me of the damage he has caused to his spleen and various bones while riding, yet there is a clear sense that the volunteers who run this club do all they can to keep their members safe.
Every club committee member is first-aid trained, and no one is allowed on to the track without wearing appropriate safety gear from top to bottom (well, more head to shin – oddly, the posterior is about the only thing without protection).
And serious injuries, although they can occur, are rare. What is fantastic to witness is the way the riders, and parents, are always looking out for each other; offering help and support if someone does have a slip.
"It's very family-orientated," said Carl. "Most of the parents who come down end up volunteering and some even end up getting on a bike themselves.
"It's superb for fitness – there's not many better ways to keep in shape."
BMX racing became a phenomenon in the late Seventies, with Exeter getting its own club and track in Polsloe Road in the Eighties. When interest dwindled in the following years, so did the club, before a resurgence with a move to Cofton Road in Marsh Barton.
The land is leased to the club by Exeter City Council and, after surviving plans to flatten it and turn it into a lorry park, the track was revamped and remodelled by Tiverton-based specialist Steve Jenks.
"We've probably got around 50 active members at the moment," said club secretary Rachel Foster.
"The Olympics has certainly helped. It raised the profile of BMXing higher than ever before and, since the London Games, we're getting an unprecedented number of inquiries every week."
The club's aim is to ensure the site is open as often as possible and this has a dual purpose.
"We just had some lights installed which means we'll be able to open through the winter for the first time," said Carl.
"It's going to help us get more people involved and it helps stop some of the problems we've had in the past – we've people trying to break in and get on to the track without permission."
This sort of brings us back to the problem of perception. Doubtless, the negative views that are expressed about BMX riding are rooted in a notion that it is linked to anti-social behaviour.
And parents at the club are realistic about this.
"Would I rather my teenager was out riding his bike at night in the centre of Exeter or in an environment like this club where he's making friends and learning some incredible skills?" said one.
"The answer is obvious. We're here most nights and I volunteer for the club because it's a brilliant way to spend our time."
The Exeter Eagles also give their members the chance to compete at the highest level. Several riders have just returned from the BMX national contest at Cheddar, laden with trophies, and they also take part in regional competitions and their own mini-race series.
"It can be difficult to get noticed down here in Exeter," said Carl. "But we are always represented at the national events and there's no reason why, if our riders continue to shine, they can't go on to get picked by British Cycling for the national team. We have a British champion, national champions and regional champions."
Training takes place every Wednesday with a qualified coach and with riders tackling the jumps, bumps and berms (banked corners), starting from the superb hydraulic gate on the opening ramp.
"It's easy to get involved and we'll take members from as soon as they are comfortable on two wheels," said Carl, his words in evidence as a couple of four-year-olds come charging past with supreme confidence. "You don't need a top-of-the-line race machine to start with, you just need one that can get you around the track and meet the basic requirements. We can help you out with kit to start with and it's important you try it out before you go buying all the body armour."
Having not ridden a bike for the best part of ten years, it's all a bit Bambi on wheels as I take my first baby-pedals round the track. For the unaccustomed the physical effort needed to navigate the bumps is much higher than anticipated but you can't help but grin. We were recently asked if we could host a birthday party here," said Rachel. "We said 'why not?' although it wasn't something we had done before. We had a group of young children who were initially very nervous but by the end they were speeding round the track and laughing their heads off.
"That's what this track and this club is all about. If you want to be good you have to put in the effort but you will have such a great time doing it."
Anyone who wants to find out more about the Exeter Eagles, including membership prices, admission fees and opening times, should visit www.exeter-eagles.co.uk or contact Rachel Foster on 07804 892441.
The club is always looking for additional sponsors or donations to help it improve facilities such as additional surfacing for the track and new toilets. Businesses can also advertise at the track and if anyone has any BMX bikes or spare parts/equipment they are willing to donate, the club would also be very keen to hear from you.