Ramp It Up

BMX: Lake Ferris, California

Brandon Nicholls, now 14 years old, got his first for-real BMX bike on his seventh Christmas. "I just started riding from there," he says in a voice so newly dropped to baritone that he uses it slowly and carefully. Where he rode to was BMX glory. Last December, Brandon became the number-one–ranked amateur rider in the American Bicycle Association, BMX's leading sanctioning body.

At five-foot-nine and 170 pounds, Brandon is fast growing into his voice. On a Sunday after lunch in Moreno Valley, California, 70 miles east of L.A., he wheels his $1,900 aluminum-frame GT Speed Series UltraBox, provided as part of his sponsorship deal with the GT/Panasonic Shock Wave BMX Team, to the family minivan. Brandon, his parents, and his brother Kyle are about to decamp to the nearby Lake Perris BMX course, as it has on nearly every Sunday afternoon for the last seven years. Brandon's parents, Bill and Marci, will help officiate while their boy cranks out lap after lap in a local-level race, hurdling dirt-packed jumps and 25-foot-long stretches of dirt lined with 15 one- to two-foot bumps.

Once rolling, the Nicholls van takes on the glow shared by all family vehicles on the way to uplift and togetherness. "I think it's important to do things with them, not just drop them off and pick them up later," says Marci, a zaftig motherly sunbeam who works as a state truck inspector. (In lieu of a nametag, she's wearing a T-shirt that proclaims her to be Brandon's Mom.) Bill, a contractor who grew up in nearby Huntington Beach, brags about the preeminence of BMX here in the suburbifying drylands of Riverside County, the sport's Fertile Crescent. In fact, BMX was born in these parts in the early 1970s as bicycle motocross, a nonmotorized version of motocross that pits eight torso-armored racers against one another in one-lap heats, or "motos," on the 1,100 to 1,300-foot-long tracks.

Bill's own recreational background—he used to race Baja buggies and motorcycles—says a lot about why this is BMX country. Daddies here share a predilection for things that burn gas and go like hell. Motorless kiddie motorsport, then, is a natural. Some dads turn to BMX when their kids get hooked, and the 60,000-member-strong ABA is more than accommodating: Age groups range from five-and-under to 56-and-over, with the 13-and-14-year-old division the biggest. Yet despite its competitive bent, BMX boasts a thriving recreational side, too: Nonracers flock to homemade dirt courses—outfitted with short, swooping downhills and steep jumps—in parks all across the United States.

Today at Lake Perris, Brandon Nicholls is in his element. He rockets down the starting hill, looking like a steelhead swimming with catfish. "Check this moto right here," machine-guns the announcer, somebody's dad being unhinged. "Check out Brandon Nicholls!" Kids who hope for BMX fame can see it in their midst, while parental hope is spelled out on the side of the Chevy pickup that belongs to the guy who runs the track: Keeping kids clean in the dirt.

The Dirt: More than a dozen L.A. suburbs have BMX tracks. Armoring up for your first moto requires ABA membership ($35 per year). At the Lake Perris track, practice times and races are scheduled throughout the week; call 909-657-4917 for details.

SPECIALIZED FATBOY HEMI

VITALS: $600; 800-245-3462; www.specialized.com
WEIGHT: 4 pounds frame, 24.7 pounds complete
FRAME: No tubes, just an aluminum monocoque
FORK: Stout, chrome-moly unicrown
COMPONENT HIGHLIGHTS: A smattering of Specialized's own parts (cranks, tires, handlebars) built to handle the high-flying rigors of the BMX track
THE RIDE: Whether you're perfecting a gate-start at the track or simply hamming it up on the local trails, at $600 the Fatboy Hemi is cheap enough that you and Junior can think about getting matching bikes to work on your double-jumps together. (Sure beats hucking fastballs at each other.) The Hemi's trademark monocoque construction makes it stiffer than most BMX frames, and it comes adorned with nice touches like a built-in pad on top of the frame—which, when you come up short on that double-jump, means Junior won't necessarily be an only child.

S&M KRIS BENNETT

VITALS: $915; 714-835-3400; www.sandmbmx.com
WEIGHT: 6.95 pounds frame; 25.7 pounds complete
FRAME: Chrome-moly steel
FRAME: Stout, chrome-moly unicrown
COMPONENT HIGHLIGHTS: Pricey Profile three-piece cranks are worth every penny for their balance of durability and light weight
THE RIDE: Show up at any BMX street scene or dirt-lot jump astride the Bennett—named after the famed racer—and the local competition will immediately classify you as one of two breeds: dark horse threat or witless poser. You are, after all, riding the signature bike of one of the best "dirt-jumpers" in the country. Haven't heard of Bennett or his niche MTV-style sport? You're obviously not a threat. But that's OK because the Bennett, with construction and componentry designed to handle the impact of the occasional flat landing on hardpacked dirt, is tough enough to be ridden away from all but the worst rookie-beaters. —ANDREW JUSKAITIS

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