Just Dew It: With Great Reward Comes Greater Risk
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
WOODWARD, Pa. -- Early on this Monday morning in May, Zack Warden spent more than two hours in a dentist's chair. He sat there, eyes shut and mouth agape, as the dentist chipped away at the gnarled remainder of his two front teeth. He held up a mirror and watched the dentist shove temporary replacements into his gums. Then, like any real trooper, Warden drove directly here, to work.
Except, surrounded by other professional BMX riders, Warden received no sympathy. With his cheeks swollen and his eyes watering, he stood on top of a two-story bike ramp and complained. "I feel like hell," said Warden, 18. "I'm not even sure I should be riding today."
"Dude, you've got bigger problems," said BMX rider Chad Kagy, a veteran of seven tooth replacements. "I think your dentist messed up. Your teeth look all crooked."
"I know," Warden said. "I would have been better off just jamming in Chiclets."
And with that, Warden barreled down the ramp on his bike and flew 10 feet into the air. He flared the bike behind him and spun 180 degrees -- a trick similar to the one that resulted in his cracked teeth a few days earlier. There was no other choice, Warden explained later, but to forge ahead through his aches and anxieties. Such had become the reality of life as a modern action athlete: One day off, one tinge of hesitation and Warden's sport would leave him behind.
When the Dew Tour starts its annual, five-stop series with the Panasonic Open on Thursday in Baltimore, action athletes will begin another season under suffocating expectations. BMX, skateboarding and motocross have progressed so rapidly that fans and judges now expect the impossible for every run at every event. In order to earn respect and prize money, athletes are forced into an unenviable bind. Winning requires innovation; innovation requires ignoring risks and inhibitions.
"It better slow down, because it's getting too ridiculous," said Scotty Cranmer, a BMX rider from New Jersey. "People are doing things every day that nobody thought would ever get done. We don't get paid enough to take these risks. Some of this stuff is basically crazy."
On a Monday afternoon in May, about a dozen professional BMX riders stood on top of a vert ramp and brainstormed ways to further stretch convention. They'd come from California, Missouri and New Jersey to congregate at a farm in the middle of Pennsylvania's Amish country. Once a gymnastics camp with a small skate park attached, Camp Woodward has blossomed into action sports' premier training ground. The 425-acre compound includes 17 skate parks, miles of dirt trails and almost 50 ramps.
By combining cutting-edge equipment and new technology, Woodward has altered the action sports scene by making any trick seem doable -- at once a blessing and a curse, athletes said. In a converted barn located on the far corner of Woodward's property, BMX riders enjoy amenities not found anywhere else in the United States: a pit of blue foam for soft landings; a cushioned vert ramp; a flat-screen television that rolls instant, automatic replays.
Early one afternoon, Dennis McCoy climbed 22 stairs to reach the top of the vert ramp and looked down into a structure that resembled a snowboarding half pipe. McCoy, the oldest professional BMX rider at 40, traveled from Kansas City to spend three days experimenting. On this day, he planned to try what he called an alley-oop, flatspin 540. He hoped to launch off a ramp and fly parallel to the ground, spinning one and a half rotations before descending back to the ramp.
"I'm too old for this crap," said McCoy, who is about 15 years older than the average BMX rider.
McCoy has seen hundreds of tricks pass from extreme to extinct during his 22 years as a professional, but the breakneck progression since the launch of the Dew Tour in 2005 still shocks him. What was once about four elite riders innovating and competing for prize money has become more than 50 professionals sacrificing good sense in pursuit of the Dew Tour's $15,000 first-place checks. McCoy's sport has become a rat race. He dropped into the Woodward ramp, determined to keep up.