Taylor Stephens is experiencing plenty of firsts this week.
His first time on a different continent. His first time competing at the International Cycling Union BMX World Championships, scheduled for this Thursday through Sunday in Birmingham, England. And if all goes well for the 15-year-old Redmond resident, perhaps his first appearance in a world championship final.
“I’m just excited just because I came off some really good races just now,” says Stephens, a Redmond High School sophomore. “Everything feels good. I feel like I’m just ready for it.”
In BMX, short for bicycle motocross, riders race single-speed bikes on serpentine courses with features such as rollers and banked turns. At the world championships, Stephens is scheduled to compete on Saturday in the boys 16 challenge division. (Riders compete based on their age at the end of the calendar year.) He will be able to accustom himself to the indoor track at the National Indoor Arena, the competition site, in 90-minute practices on Tuesday and Wednesday with the rest of the attending U.S. riders.
On Saturday, depending on how far he advances, he will compete in up to eight motos, or heats, in about three hours, he says.
Stephens says he will be happy if he reaches the final field of eight riders.
He appears ready to do just that. Stephens currently is ranked 10th nationally in his age group, and he took fourth in his class at the 2012 USA Cycling BMX National Championships earlier this spring to qualify for the world championships — the top eight finishers in each class were eligible to compete in Birmingham, Stephens says.
“To me, it was really good just because I was coming off an indoor track,” Stephens explains of his performance at the national championships in Chula Vista, Calif. “And it was really early in the year. At that point last year I wasn’t even really racing. So it was good to come off of that.”
And he has already won races at USA BMX nationals events in Redmond in April and in Chilliwack, British Columbia, earlier this month, when, he says he placed first in his class on both days of the event.
Though these world championships will be Stephens’ first as a participant — he attended the 2007 worlds in Victoria, British Columbia, as a spectator — he says he is up to speed on his competitors thanks to online videos.
“I’m pretty aware of who I’m racing,” observes Stephens, who has been participating in BMX for about five years. “That’s good because now I know what I need to work on and what their strong points are.”
Stephens is carrying quite a bit of confidence into these world championships. Of course, competing well never hurts. Earlier this year, Stephens was not enthused about racing, he says. But some work with a psychologist with a competitive BMX background has helped change his mind-set.
“The biggest thing I took out of it: It was just taking one lap at a time, and it’s worked so much better now because I used to get stressed off of one lap if I did bad,” Stephens notes. “But now, if I focus on one lap, I do that much better in that lap.”
One instance in which Stephens was able to deal successfully with pressure was at the Redmond national event, staged April 13-15 at the Deschutes County Fair&Expo Center. His image appeared on the event T-shirts and trophies, he says, and he even received requests for his autograph.
“I think I handled it really well because I ended up winning against some of the top guys,” Stephens says. “So I was pretty happy that I handled it that way and then after that, everything took off this year.”
Stephens’ growth is timely. He has already attended training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, where he was able to observe some of the top riders in his sport. Because he turns 17 next year, he will be eligible to compete in elite classes, another step in his development.
“One of my biggest goals, I think, for this year is just to make a foundation for myself just to race at the elite level next year,” Stephens says. “And then just from there, kind of trying to take it and see how far I can get into the Olympic level.”
But first things first. While London is not calling him this year, Birmingham did.