At the BMX World Championships in South Carolina, Bend native Olivia Armstrong bested two fields of women — some with a decade more racing experience than her — on her way to becoming a two-time BMX world champion.
Though proud of her accomplishments and impressed that her BMX racing has taken her across the nation and to countries like Colombia and Belgium, Olivia admits she started racing BMX as a kindergartner in 2000 to spend time with her older brother Ryan Armstrong, now 24.
“I just wanted to keep up with my brother ... if he ever got on a bike again, I’d beat him,” said the teenager, who wore her blonde hair in twin “race braids.” She added with a grin: “I also wanted to impress his best friend.”
Olivia owes her success to Central Oregon’s tight-knit BMX community, which revolves around High Desert BMX and Smith Rock BMX in Redmond. Throughout Oregon, 46 people competed in the BMX World Championships; eight were from Central Oregon, according to local race organizers. BMX stands for bicycle motocross.
At the BMX World Championships, Olivia defeated experienced women racers by more than a bike-length. She won both the 17- to 24-year-old women’s class, in which competitors race on smaller BMX bikes fitted with 20-inch-diameter wheels. She also won the 17- to 29-year-old cruiser class, whose bikes feature 24-inchers.
On their own, the bikes look like novelties, yet when experienced riders crank them around a BMX track, their miniature size allows racers to loft airs, perform wheelies and otherwise maneuver quickly around the snaking track. At the World Championships, in order to advance to each race’s final heat, Armstrong won seven successive heats, or “motos,” which lasted around 40 seconds. She also avoided several crashes.
“She killed it. She didn’t lose a single lap,” said Jill Armstrong, her mother and a board member at High Desert BMX. “That doesn’t always happen.”
Towering on titanium wheels
Another Central Oregonian spun heads at the BMX World Championships.
Bend’s Sophia Rodriguez, 8, took home a sixth-place trophy in the girls age 9 category. She has honed her skills at both High Desert BMX and Smith Rock BMX since she first raced last September on a borrowed bike.
“I was excited because there were girls there who were pretty tall, but I knew I could handle them,” said the 4-foot-5 Sophia, of girls her age who are a foot taller. The Rock Hill BMX course features rock-hard dirt sections and paved berms. It is a lot faster and less forgiving than either Central Oregon BMX track, she said.
“It seemed pretty sketchy to me — I had to get used to it and study it,” she said. “The best moment was when I got first in three (heats).”
In the finals, she placed sixth.
“I felt happy about that because of how much hard work I put into it. And how I made my mom and dad proud. And myself.”
Sophia will be participating in a BMX competition called the Lumberjack Nationals in Spokane, Washington, later this month.
Sophia, who will enter fourth grade at Buckingham Elementary School, said she enjoys the newfound attention her BMX prowess has brought her, particularly Olivia Armstrong’s mentorship and admiration among younger riders.
“My life has changed because I’m a World 6. A lot of people look up to me. They want to ride with me and ask me how to do (certain techniques) right.”
Sophia quickly demonstrated her natural talent for pumping smooth, efficient lines on the local BMX courses, which feature starting gates, wide berms and a rhythm section that resembles sound waves.
Her father Albert Rodriguez, 33, was amazed.
“I told my wife, ‘I think we’ve got something special here,’” he said. Albert put his own road bicycle racing on hold so he could develop his daughter’s potential. Albert used his mechanical know-how as the shop foreman at Kendall BMW to assemble the perfect BMX bike for his daughter, which includes a carbon fiber frame and titanium wheels.
“I told her, she’s a very lucky to girl to have such a nice bike at her age. When I was 9, I rode a steel bike,” Albert said with a laugh.
He said his daughter has transformed since they moved to Bend from Anaheim two years ago. Now, his daughter is more involved in the outdoors and receives character awards at school. In addition to the increased self-esteem, Rodriguez said he’s also keen on the bike-handling skills that BMX gives a young rider.
Sophia shares her recipe for success.
“The secret to keeping (BMX) fun is to go hard in the race so you might get to have fun at the end,” she said. “Have one side of your face mad, and on the other side, smile. Just be proud of yourself.”
Now a relative veteran at High Desert BMX, Olivia sees promise in this future generation. On this afternoon, preteens and grade-school students — per track rules — wore full-face helmets and long-sleeve BMX jerseys and pants. They wheeled around shiny BMX bikes on the pump track while volunteers knocked down the course’s dust with water sprayed from hoses.
“I think it’s cool they could possibly become the next best racers,” said Olivia, who trains Sophia and others in her free time at the Bend and Redmond tracks.
Jill Armstrong said High Desert BMX is “like a social club.” Members of the nonprofit pay $60 annual dues, which earns them entry to five races and 10 practices; it’s a bundled price that saves $40. Any variety of off-road bicycle is allowed on the 1,200-foot dirt track, including mountain bikes. After each child’s first BMX race, organizers present them with a towering trophy, one of many donated by older kids who’ve won throngs of them at races near and far.
“It’s a way of saying ‘Welcome to the club,’” Jill said.
Central Oregon’s vibrant BMX community is owed to the volunteers — mostly parents — who devote their free time to maintaining and operating the area’s two BMX tracks.
Jenn Johnson, 40, volunteered for four years at High Desert BMX, where her son Bryant Junior, now 11, began racing when he was 4½ years old in 2010. She and her husband Bryant Johnson, 42, helped with accounting and maintaining the track with heavy machinery, respectively. They ramped up their volunteerism in 2015 when Bryant took over as the track operator at Smith Rock BMX and Jenn joined him as president the following year. They maintain the approximately 1,000-foot-long, snake-shaped track, which features obstacles including various jumps, platforms, a rhythm section and three large berms.
Despite operating a different BMX track, the Johnsons continue to work with Matt Cromwell, who is the High Desert BMX director, to ensure their tracks’ race and event schedules don’t overlap. Both Johnsons competed in BMX until the responsibility of steering Smith Rock BMX took priority. They both donate 10 to 30 hours each week to Smith Rock BMX, depending on events. Despite the workload, they still make test runs on the course, Jenn said.
Cromwell, who has directed High Desert BMX since 2015, dedicates about 20 hours each month to High Desert BMX. While he also takes turns on the track, it’s fostering bike-handling skills in his son Joseph Cromwell, 11, and others that takes precedence. This fluidity will lend itself to other bicycle disciplines, particularly mountain biking or cyclocross, he said.
His son Joseph said there’s a good-natured competitiveness among his BMX friends. They account for a quarter of his social group.
“We have a competitive friendship where you don’t want them to crash, but you want to be faster than them,” said Joseph, who is about to enter sixth grade at Pacific Crest Middle School. “It’s not like at school, where I don’t have that level of competitiveness.”
More than a spectator sport
In addition to volunteering, some parents race, too.
At the BMX World Championships, Michelle Goodin competed in the 40-plus ladies class, racing her 24-inch cruiser bike and a 20-incher. Goodin has raced since 2012. She felt restless watching her son pump dirt.
“You sit around a lot,” Goodin said of the time spent watching back-to-back BMX races. A former roller derby competitor, Goodin is no stranger to rubbing elbows with others at high speed while cornering.
“I love the adrenaline,” she said.
Her son, Spencer Goodin, who is 11 and will be a seventh-grader at Pilot Butte Middle School, has been racing since he was 2. He removed the training wheels from his first bike a week after receiving it. “I crashed a lot,” he said, which taught him invaluable lessons in how to fall.
At the BMX track, Spencer described the vibe as fun.
“Some kids take BMX really seriously, especially if they think they can be good at it,” he said. “Others are just here for the fun of it. The parents are really friendly and everyone is supportive.”
An inclusive community
Chris Wiley, 36, relocated his family from Anchorage to Bend two months ago. When he caught wind of High Desert BMX on Facebook, he brought his three children to check it out. After his kids tested the pump track on bikes the club lent them for free, Wiley has since bought new BMX bikes for his children: Aiden Wiley, 9 and Lyndsey and Matt Wiley, who are twins. The Wileys now visit the track every Monday for open practice and Wednesday for races. Chris is also present at the occasional work parties.
When racers crash on the track, parents rush to make sure they’re all right.
“It’s very family-oriented,” said Chris, adding that the BMX track has been a great way for both his kids and himself to make friends in their new city.
“The people here are just phenomenal.”
Long-lasting victory glow
Two weeks after her race, Olivia Armstrong was hanging out with her mother and grandmother at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center. A couple in their 50s, passing by, stopped to pay their respects. Olivia said she has been fielding such well-wishes all week.
“The victory glow is just as strong” as it was right after the World Championships, she said. “People have been coming up to me to tell me they’re proud.”
Sponsored by a national BMX team called Full Tilt, Olivia is applying to universities with BMX programs. She’d like to pursue a professional BMX career, but at this moment she is trying to peel away from the adults to hang out with her friends.
“BMX keeps me young,” the 17-year-old world champion said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org