The BMX racers were still rounding the final banked turn at the Bank of the Cascades Center, jostling for position as friends and family cheered them on, but on the other side of the arena the next heat had already begun.
Every 30 seconds or so, a new group of riders lined up eight across at the starting gate, waiting for the hydraulic hiss then crash of the opening gate to tell them it was time to get moving.
“The main thing that I try to think of is all positive, just try to get to the first turn first,” explained Olivia Armstrong, 16 and of Bend, during a break between races Saturday, the second day of the three-day Great Northwest Nationals. “That’s like the first checkpoint, and you’ve got to get there first. And then you can work on the rest of the track.”
As in any other bicycle race, speed is an asset, but in BMX the goal is to take advantage of obstacles and manage the crowd of competitors to come out ahead. Competitors in each age and skill division race against each other throughout the day, eliminating the trailing cyclists until the field is narrowed to eight for the final round. And with more than 240 entrants competing in dozens of divisions over three days, the races had to keep moving.
The only pause between heats came when a rider (or riders) crashed during a race and needed help leaving the winding, packed-dirt track. But with plenty of “trading paint” on display, wrecks were just a matter of time.
“It’s a grueling and aggressive sport, so there’s going to be a lot of crashing,” said Brighton Alvey, a 17-year-old from Salt Lake City who finished sixth in the women’s 17-20 age group on Saturday. “In the main event, you’ll see a wreck in almost every expert race, and it’s probably just because everyone wants to win, everyone wants to come out ahead, and you have to give an elbow to pass.
“People just kind of go all out, so I’m not sure if there’s a way to prevent it, really.”
With brightly colored bikes and helmets, loud music, an enthusiastic announcer and aggressive riding, every 25-second race was a spectacle. But many of the riders said they get to see very little of the action, and instead spent much of their time warming up outside or getting in line in the staging area outside the arena.
“The warmup and cool-down is probably the most important part of the race,” said Taylor Stephens, 19 and of Redmond, who finished third in the 19-27 expert men category. “It just makes you better, quicker throughout the day. You might feel the most worn out after the first lap, and you might not have gone as fast, but even though you might feel tired towards the end of the day you’re going faster than you were when you were fresh.”
The event is one of 34 Nationals spread across the country this year, and many BMXers in attendance said they try to hit one or two a month in order to secure enough points to qualify for the Grand Nationals, which are held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, each November.
Armstrong has plenty of experience at Grands and other high-pressure events: She won her second national title in the girls cruiser category last November and became the 16-and-under cruiser world champion in Belgium in July. She and her parents are now preparing for the next world championships in Medellin, Colombia, this May. But that does not make a weekend event in Redmond any less exciting.
“I still get really nervous,” Armstrong said. “When you’re in the staging (area), you’re still super nervous, and it’s still super exciting, and it’s different every race you go to, no matter what. It’s still a new experience at every national.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org .