Thirteen years after BMX racing made its Games debut in Beijing, the off-road cycling pursuit has welcomed its flashier sibling, BMX freestyle, into the Olympic fold. Both disciplines are fast and furious, but with distinctly different styles.
The debutant discipline is mesmerising: freestyle riders are given 60 seconds to cause havoc across an obstacle-filled park. They pull as many tricks as they can, receiving an average score from a panel of judges based on 11 distinct criteria. In the final, each rider is given two runs – the best single score wins. The manic front-flips and back-flips make for compelling viewing.
BMX freestyle has its origins in the United States; an early pioneer, Bob Haro, was also a stunt-driver in the Steven Spielberg movie ET. The sport became a regular fixture in the X Games, and was eventually endorsed by cycling’s global governing body, the UCI, which held an inaugural world championships in 2017.
Inaugural men’s world champion Logan Martin, an Australian who regained his crown in France just last month, will head to Tokyo as a firm favourite. His gravity-defying front flip, where he fully disconnects from his bike, is a fearsome trick. But America’s Daniel Sandoval, a former X Games gold medallist, provides strong competition.
Despite her youth, Hannah Roberts – a 19-year-old from South Bend, Indiana – has dominated the women’s field since 2017, claiming three of the four world titles. Britain’s Charlotte Worthington, who finished third at the championships in June, is another medal prospect.
While BMX freestyle rewards tricks and flair, BMX racing has a singular focus: get to the finish line first. On a bumpy, 400m dirt track, riders pedal hard and hope to avoid the frequent crashes. The courses are short – an average race lasts for less than 40 seconds – and the speed is high. Riders progress through quarter-finals and semi-finals, each involving three runs, before the single-race final.
With the 2020 BMX racing world championships cancelled and the 2021 edition not scheduled until late August, it is harder to judge the form of the frontrunners. The American Alise Willoughby (née Post) won silver at the 2016 Olympics and remains reigning world champion. The 30-year-old will be riding with added personal motivation: her Australian husband, Sam, would have been in Tokyo with her, looking to avenge a disappointing finish at the 2016 Games but months after Rio he suffered a career-ending injury. He remains in a wheelchair, and is now Willoughby’s coach. Her main competition will come from the Colombian Mariana Paj´ón, whose two Olympic gold medals have earned her the nickname “Queen of BMX”.
In the men’s field, America’s Connor Fields will be looking to defend his 2016 gold medal. But the 28-year-old will face a stiff challenge from the Dutch duo of Niek Kimmann and Twan van Gendt and the Frenchman Sylvain André.
Both disciplines will be held at the Ariake Urban Sports Park, in the centre of Tokyo. Fittingly, given much amateur freestyle BMX is performed in skate parks, the sport will be held alongside skateboarding, which is also making its Olympic debut.