Words and photos by Mike Drummond
4 hire bikes
27,418 grains of rice
6 smog masks...
Over the course of a fortnight, Chengdu was host to not one but four BMX events of a world class standard. With each of the events book-ending the two week stint, it opened up a week in the middle to really soak up the culture of a city some five thousand miles away from home.
Before arriving in Chengdu, the journey took us via the nation’s capital, Beijing. The city looming in the distance amid a yellow acrid haze, lived up to the media’s coverage as being a very smoggy city indeed. Witnessing it first hand was something else, sprawling and impressive as it was, the full experience is surely had from the ground, on the streets and amongst the people.
Following a rushed transfer during the first of many layovers, our aerial endeavour continued. The remainder would see us crawl over vast plateaus of orange and black rock, separated by what appeared to be repeating, identical valleys of mountains, carbon copies of the previous dotted with small settlements and hairline dirt tracks laid over the impressive landscape. Fractal patterns from above, etched into the planet’s surface hundreds of thousands of years ago by flowing waters and ice. Earth’s veins now dry and arid. These views would have been the clearest of the trip and, somewhat ironically, there are no pictures.
"The full experience is surely had from the ground, on the streets and amongst the people."
As the view diminishes into vanta black (Google it, that shit is like, way black) all scale is lost. The odd splash of light offers a fragmented idea on what lies beneath and then the sparse spotting of amber beacons grows denser and denser. The city limits then become obvious, looming towers and trailing highways illuminate the low lying smog which would become a foreboding and normal feature soon enough.
A complacency for skyscrapers soon washes over the wide eyed gazes through murky tinted glass. Like a ball of knotted christmas lights, the roads cut amongst pillars of steel, glass and marble. Wide lanes, tall buildings and brave driving, followed by braver pedestrians, (both foreign and domestic) seem to sum things up... So far.
Hotel check in was smooth, despite an obvious language barrier. We found our room and bed down in preparation for what would be the first of many days where the senses receive a bombardment like no other.
Alarm, snooze... Alarm, snooze... A clatter and a scramble as my phone bounced to the floor, under my bed.
Met with lines of rattling dishes and an odour not uncommon at dinner, a sprawling breakfast buffet catering to all timezones and mealtimes sat dotted around the hotel restaurant. Continental breads and cheese meet chow mein mixed in with skateboarders, inliners and BMX riders.
"I never made the murky leap into a spicy clam stew before 8.30am, and did my best to avoid the turtle nuggets."
There appears to be no great distinction between meals, the venn diagram of food suitable for breakfast, lunch and dinner would appear as one large and very full perfect circle. Though delicious as much of it surely was, I just never made the deep and murky leap into a spicy clam stew before 8.30am, and did my best to avoid the turtle nuggets.
Outside of the fairly familiar hotel settings, the city of Chengdu differed from any other I had visited before.
The excitement was electric, a new city means new streets, and new streets mean new spots, but not only were there new spots littered about the enormous glass clad skyscrapers surrounding us, there were also late night cafes, massage parlours and 7 Elevens to be sampled. It turns out that 7 Eleven in China knows how to throw down some powerful cuisine – call me a cheat, but their grub is good.
Whilst being whisked from airport to hotel, a large blue pulsing light appeared to race across the skyline and back again. Scott told me it was the big mall. I found it hard to swallow – this thing was 2 miles away, and looked like it would squash Wembley along with a sizeable chunk of the surrounding area.
But whadya know, after a brief spell at the FISE course in the morning, armed with two questionably acquired city bikes, we spun our yellow Ofo beauties towards this monstrous place of worship to the gods of capitalism.
Five star hotels, cinemas, floors and floors of shops, an ice rink, a water park with wave pool, plus a huge arcade – topped off with a Monk playing shotgun safari. There’s nothing like seeing a man of the cloth popping a zebra in the dome with a 12 gauge.
"There’s nothing quite like seeing a man of the cloth popping a zebra in the dome with a 12 gauge."
The scale of the place is totally incomprehensible and pictures don’t even come close to really doing it justice. After a high rate cadence back through the rush hour crush we were back by the hotel, where we threw the bikes down and threw up our hands to whistle for a cab, Fresh Prince style, to get us across town.
Taxis are cheap as chips but don’t be too surprised for some drivers to try and shaft you. We got lucky this time and made it to our destination, the ancient Jinli Street Market, thoroughly chuffed in knowing we had enjoyed a bargain basement trip of wonders in our propane powered automobile.
Crowds were heaving, traffic was darting between eager shoppers and police were casually standing adjacent to the chaos, sticks and shields in hand, cordoned off like a street act waiting to start a performance – all the while looking hard as nails.
On squeezing between the hordes of selfie stick humans around the grand entrance we were greeted by an updated taste of ancient China – traditional roofs and ornate window frames encasing modern shops selling everything from tea sets and jade jewelry to dumplings.
In amongst the bustle there were a lot of quiet moments to enjoy (and some not so quiet.) The sounds of live jazz and soul pouring out of late night bars gave some added nostalgia to the local artisans making ornate wooden sculptures, engraving jewelry and writing calligraphy on the street.
Beyond galavanting around the city to enrich our cultural encyclopaedias and grow our knowledge of far flung lands, we did have to bare witness to a lot of BMX riding.
A lot of BMX riding.
Kicking off what would be seven whole days of unbelievable park riding was FISE. Now in its twentieth year and more international than ever, this year’s final stop of the World Series was nestled in amongst trees and towering tenements in the south of Chengdu.
Heavy hitting park riders appear to have tripled in the last few years, along with the trick list. I’m not sure what a flip double whip translates to in Venezuelan or French, but ‘The Helicopter’ is now a par for the course, and a lot of riders are producing!
Saying this, not all are in desperate need of getting loose upside down to make their mark. A lot of dudes were rewarded highly for some creative course use and original lines, which goes to show the judging model and judges themselves are certainly giving notice to the subtleties some riders add into their runs. Examples of this? Pat Casey and Declan Brooks – they stood out as really showing the rest of the field how to get around the course in style.
“Pat Casey and Declan Brooks stood out as really showing the rest of the field how to get around the course in style."
The roster of female riders seems to be ever growing too, and this time with the event being held in Asia it was great to see Japan’s Minato Like click some great looking turndowns and no handers. Korea’s Mini Park got some strong visits to the course under her belt, too. With Minato from Japan clocking a respectable 4th overall, and Park coming in 6th, they both proved consistency plays the ultimate role at any comp.
The top spots were filled by the usual suspects. The style and flow of Nevada local Angie Marino secured her third place and podium spot, boosting the hips and dipping toboggans like no one else on the day. German ripper (and prodigy of tech machine Tobias Wicke) Lara Lessman safely placed second with some solid lines, a truck driver and a rarely-seen barspin crankflip. Hannah Roberts swooped in to win, throwing Flairs, Truckdrivers and hitting almost all the ramps on offer.
The time taken between the two events seemed to differ greatly between the different crews. The larger whole dispersed into many, some going for the early morning train excursion out to panda sanctuaries and 70 meter tall buddhas (made of stone, not living) and others choosing to spend their hard earned winnings on local street food and some seriously sweet ‘authentic’ Gucci £15 T-shirts. I imagine most return flights contained swarms of Gucci clad riders.
Littered around our hotel were marble plazas, nice bits of street architecture and ledges galore. The modern cityscape spilling onto the streets in every shape and attracting skaters and riders alike. Fast forward 3 days and our surroundings changed drastically with a hotel transfer and a whole new section of the city opening up to us.
This time the shiny office blocks were swapped out for densely packed tenements lining the main highways taking you west, out of the city. It felt like a more honest part of the city, no nonsense, local markets and neighbourhoods with an incredible buzz like no other.
Waiting outside the hotel lobby, collecting a fleet of bright yellow hire bikes we waited on Inaki Mazza, a young Argentinian rider. Recently added to the Superstar team roster (remember them?) Iki is one to look out for, trust me. Also joining us and leading the spot hunt around the unfinished sections of motorway was Van Homan. The man needs no introduction, and the streets weren’t ready for the session that was about to go down. (They actually weren’t ready, we only found 2 spots on a solid hunt.)
The few spots that we did find proved to be great fun – a double kinker attached to an access ramp was hammered home pretty easily by Van, while Iki made real good use of the high ledge to the right, sending a nollie bars and way clicked turndown onto the ramp. Each attempt made by each dude saw more crowds draw in, closer and closer while others carried on with their lunch and daily lives.
"We pedalled on through the hot and hazy streets, cranking along cracked brittle concrete beside enormous pillars supporting beige dashes of unfinished highways."
Running the spot dry of ‘safe’ options we pedalled on through the hot and hazy streets, cranking along cracked brittle concrete beside enormous pillars supporting beige dashes of unfinished highways.
A buzz and murmur escalated as we drew closer to buckled steel fences, overgrown with weeds and plants. Beyond this, a street market revealed itself. Locals huddled and crouched around low tables, grazing on hot pots and noodles under the shade of makeshift awnings which nearly touched across the narrow walkways.
These are the moments that are simple and beautiful, the times you can’t plan. We didn’t rush through and instead let our minds switch from spot hunting mode to a more serene observational mode of thinking.
Piles of feathers littered steps and doorways, as if a series of ruthless pillow fights had been waged just hours before, and just opposite, the next contestants were caged up awaiting their fate. A compact menagerie of ducks, cocks and rabbits.
"These are the moments that are simple and beautiful, the times you can’t plan..."
The market turned to lanes, lanes to streets and our convoy eventually spilled out into a wide and wild road five lanes wide.
One more spot offered itself up to us, an accidental quarter made of subsided grass bank, a decent nibble but worthy only of a minute or two cardiovascular exertion. Iki shot the Bs and with that, the street mission began to wind down.
Our glossy hotel catching the afternoon light twinkled in the distance, a washed out cityscape enhanced by the contemporary beacon home to our modern comforts. There we retire and make preparations for an evening of buffet treats, and some surprisingly good sushi.
The three days that lay ahead would turn out to be some of the most surprising of the trip. As part of its first official toe dip into freestyle BMX the UCI created a new animal – the UCI Urban Worlds, a brand new platform of three very different cycling disciplines that would see each other in action at the same event for the first time.
It took place in a once placid and well landscaped public gardens with everything from towering rock faces to flower beds and boat lakes to the odd water feature even Charlie Dimmock would be proud of.
The whole of this quaint and idyllic oasis in the heart of Chengdu was purposefully transformed: random tyres, felled trees and pieces out of a real life tetris game saw the Trials contingent catered to, while bridges, random rock gardens and some ramps that resembled something you would have made out the front of your house in the early days kept the Cyclocross crew happy. The park course for Freestyle BMX was a rearrangement of the ever familiar black trannies used at FISE but also a concrete practice bowl had been purpose built for the event, just… because.
Like many of the bigger BMX events out there, practice was rife with numerous riders going over and under, swerving on flat to avoid head on collisions, wary of the classic T-bone.
"The UK flag got a little dirty after Coleborn went over the bars in a pretty savage T-bone with Jack Clark..."
We had all of that and then some, with a bunch of riders getting worked more than others. The UK flag got a little dirty after Coleborn went superman over the bars and jerked his knee in a pretty savage T-bone with Jack Clark. Sandoval and Konstantin Andreev of Russia performed a beautiful under over on the Box, 9 points to both sides there.
Fortunately there weren't too many more full on clashes and as qualis and finals started, the course was locked down for destruction one rider at a time.
It goes without saying the level of riding was crazy high. This time, everyone competing was gunning for points to secure positions for future events – not only for the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires next year, but also to put in a solid first effort for what is the first of many UCI events to tally up team points for Freestyle BMX’s introduction to the Olympic platform, Tokyo 2020.
There are big changes going on behind the scenes in BMX currently, with teams being created and the support behind them expanding in an effort to be ready for 2020, it’s exciting and it’s only going to help grow the sport. Despite the divisive nature of it all, the riding that happens at the events is awesome and the people doing it are the same as me and you.