For the last few years, I’ve found myself intrigued by pools. Rideable pools. Pools with transitions and no water. You know... The perfect compromise between street riding and bowl riding. Clearly, BMX pool riding is nothing new.
We see pools almost every day in edits from American riders – it seems that in places like rural Cailfornia and Arizona, riders can’t move for the abundance of empty pools. I’ve been lucky enough to have had the pleasure of riding a couple of pools over there but still I longed for something this side of the pond.
Unfortunately, the UK doesn’t have much to offer in this regard. Aside from a few old spots that spring to mind, usually indoor municipal pools with big flatbanks that closed down and became rideable for a brief period before demolition / repurposing, rideable pools in the UK are rarer than hen’s teeth. There are some very nice skatepark pools around, such as Preston, The XC, and Hereford’s excellent ‘backyard style’ pool, but these obviously don’t really count.
With all this in mind, last year I set some time aside to hunting out some pools along Portugal’s Atlantic coastline. From Lisbon down to the Algarve, I found the allure of the coast and its potential for rideable pools totally intoxicating. I got obsessed with it. Portugal’s economy has seen some ups and downs in recent history, which means that there are more than a few abandoned houses around. With Portugal’s climate being generally pretty warm, some of the bigger houses have pools. And so, this idea started. With help from João Soares, Olivier Rosset, Filipe Rosa, Bruno Soares, Ida, Hugo Almeida and Skoya, pools were found, cleaned, drained and ridden. Read on...
Words and photos by Robin Pearson
Google Maps is your friend. I found many potential spots on satellite view, checking the dates on the images and street view to be sure before visiting in person. For the most part, I showed up to a recently levelled plot or a house under renovation, with the pool filled in or cleaned up and full of water. It’s just how it goes, spots come and spots go.
Property websites are also your friend. You can specify all kinds of things in a property search. If you look for ‘renovation opportunities’ or ‘houses for reconstruction’ and tick the 'swimming pool' checkbox, you’re away!
Urbex websites are also a good shout. Urbex = Urban Exploration. Often there are places well known in the urbex community that haven't yet made it out to the BMX and skate communities.
"If you search for ‘renovation opportunities’ or ‘houses for reconstruction’ and tick the 'swimming pool' checkbox, you’re away!"
João and I found three disused water parks on urbex websites, with loads of images that gave us hope for something being rideable. Unfortunately, the water parks were either a bust, already redeveloped, or not worth riding. Still, urbex was a good network of information.
On a few occasions we found whole areas, like housing estates, where there were plenty of empty houses with empty pools. I thought to myself, this must be what it’s like in the areas of the USA I mentioned above. I’ve certainly read about places like that. Again, annoyingly, these pools were no cigar. Despite looking perfect on Google Maps with the classic kidney shape, that was the full extent of the curves in those pools. There was zero transition. Although we swore that you could see a transition in the aerial view, we found that a number of these pools had recently been demolished – perhaps we got there just a touch too late.
CLEANING THEM UP
Friends are your friends! Depending on how long it's been left for, you’re going to need a bunch of people to help move debris and general detritus out of a pool that's not been used for a while.
During this project, I found the things in an old pool can range from old furniture, suitcases and waterlogged carpets (heavy as fuck) to whole trees, dead birds and snakes, live newts and frogs, plus various other creatures.
One pool was full of damp, rotting palm leaves. That took around an hour and a half to clear, and then another half an hour of sweeping and drying up. Another pool was unbelievably clean – we couldn’t believe our luck. However, one was a real dump and needed a major shift put in to make it work.
The blue and white pool in Lagos was by far the biggest effort in terms of cleanup. We had plenty of manpower and a few brushes and tools, but there was just so much stuff in there it took us a full day to clear it.
Thick weeds took around an hour to fish out and move. Rocks, bricks and breeze blocks took another. A table, some chairs and clothes took a couple of hours. Countless bottles, bits of bottles, leaves, mud, rags and bits of plastic were an ongoing effort. Five of us spent around eight hours total preparing the pool. That’s forty man hours! We were committed.
DRAINING THEM OUT
There are two methods you can use to empty a pool. The first, most obvious option is a water pump. For this, you need a generator. Fast work, but you need to be prepared with all the equipment! You can hire these things but when there’s no guarantee of finding something rideable, this becomes a trickier option.
"We must have done hundreds of bucketloads. It was hardcore."
The other way of draining water is with buckets… This is the method we went with in Lagos. The problem with this is that it’s very easy to underestimate the amount of water... Yeah… This is exactly what we did. It didn't look like much... Five of us in the height of summer breaking our backs going up and down with buckets for hours on end… We must have done hundreds of bucketloads. It was hardcore.
We found the best method for making progress was having one person on the deck emptying buckets while the rest of the crew brought full ones up to them. A good system, but everyone had a bad back by the end of the day.
FIGURING THEM OUT
Pools don’t really ride like bowls. They might look like bowls, but the transitions are all over the shop. They’re usually really tight. Plus, there’s usually a lot of vert. Like, half of the transition is vert. Then you have the coping to deal with, which can either be vaguely as you’d expect or like nothing you’ve ever seen before. All these elements are what make pools so awesome – the challenge of working them out.
Let’s talk about the Lagos pool, the big blue and white one. Because the transition was so tight, I found myself wanting a shorter bike! Seriously… My bike is pretty much set up for trails, with its 21.25" top tube and the back end sitting at about 14". João, with his short and snappy street setup, handled the tightest transition like a boss. Later in the day, when he tried riding the pool on my bike, he got quite upset.
"Pools don’t really ride like bowls. They might look like bowls, but the transitions are all over the shop."
When riding the dark blue pool with Kevin Kalkoff, it was a different approach altogether. That pool didn’t really have a transition – it was more like a laid back curved wall, like part of a cone, off axis… Hard to describe, strange to ride. After scratching heads for a minute, Kevin and Rich (Forne) went to the shop and got a few beers to help make sense of the pool. It seemed to work! The tyreslide shot is one of my favourite photos I took all year.
Kevin was filming for a Monster video and was being very careful and calculated about what he chose to ride. Other spots earlier in the day were refused by Kevin – he only wanted to put time into a spot if he and Rich could picture the clip and only at that point would they commit to riding it. A very precise, analytical style of working, building video content in a purely deliberate way.
The big pool right on the beach was an interesting find. João had spotted it on a skate blog, then tracked down the location to a luxury gated community – pretty much a ghost town out of peak season.
We showed up to a totally empty, clean pool, sitting picturesquely between a beach bar and the Atlantic ocean. Although it wasn’t transitioned, there were plenty of flatbanks to ride, including a bank to curved wall. Perfect for a session, except for the fact that we got there about half an hour before sunset. That meant two things – learn how to ride it and shoot photos quickly, plus get eaten alive by mosquitos. Seriously, it was savage. I lost it. Screaming at insects every ten seconds. Although I wasn’t stoked on having 20+ mosquito bites, I was definitely stoked on the photos we shot and the simple rush of showing up to that amazing spot. Good memories.
"The transition was so tight, I found myself wanting a shorter bike!"
From my brief efforts with BMX pool riding, I’ve learnt a lot. Every pool is different – that’s for sure. Every transition, every surface, every bit of coping, every cleanup operation and every location is different. Because of this, every experience with a pool is a different adventure and I can’t wait for more of them. On to the next!
See below for João Soares' 2017 video featuring a couple of these pools... Plus a bunch of other mad spots.