To Be Young
by Chris Pink
Of little importance to me in 1990 (but strangely captivating for the rest of the world in a really boring adult way) was some bloke called ‘Nelson Mandela’ being freed from a South African prison after 27 long and tedious years. I wished the man well, of course, but owing to the fact that I lived in a fairly middle-class English cul-de-sac where ethnic groups were yet to become more than a distant sci-fi novelty, it was hard to know what to make of it all, and what any of it really meant. That and the fact I was nine, so it should be obvious that I had much better things to do with my time than pay attention to the world and all its minor comings and goings, of which there were far too many to count. Frankly, even though one year had elapsed since getting my bike officially airborne (achieving a respectable height of 0.000012 inches), I had bigger fish to fry; for example, the newly discovered mysterious bicycle-jumping feat known as ‘bunnyhopping’ required my concentration 99% of the time. Likewise, getting on and off my green and vomit orange Matterhorn mountain-bike without ripping my super-tight purple cycling shorts at the crotch required not only great patience, but a serious amount of luck.
As a nine-year-old boy I also had no idea, like most people around me, that a certain hardcore group were quietly revolutionizing and redefining both UK and US BMX. The words ‘The Backyard Jam’ were alien to me and would remain that way for some time to come, eventually becoming locked in a fierce battle between Samantha Fox, my unlockable door and the concept of ‘masturbation’. (Not to mention being English, nine-years-old, and ignorant of American words like ‘Backyard’, I probably wouldn’t have known one had I walked into one.)
Chris Pink through a doorway
I would much later find out that these Englishmen were doing something pretty amazing (and that the whole Nelson Mandela thing was actually a fairly big deal and I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself for thinking a 0.000012 inch bunnyhop was more important, of course). What made their achievement even more impressive was that in these early days, as will come as no great surprise, the word BMX (or as the stunt-riding faction called it ‘Freestyle’) was generally not considered worthy enough to be spoken out loud without spitting immediately after; if you were a BMXer back then then you were both lucky and unlucky: in the first case responsible for bringing the best thing ever to the world’s attention, and in the second facing a long hard road of piss-taking and frequent hospital visits. (Looking back at some of the ‘fashion’ from the time I have to admit that it’s easy to understand why the former was the case.)
Back to why The UK Backyard Jams were so down-right bloody impressive:
Unlike some members of society with little between their ears and an inability to bother doing anything unless sure success and monetary rewards are a certainty, The Backyard Jam guys weren’t relying on sponsors or money from huge corporations to get things moving (plus they didn’t own a filo-fax between them); the thing which made BMX special and unique was that the events would have happened had only five people turned up and four of them were riders. The fact is that BMX crowds back then were (and this is no exaggeration) rarer than shagging Pandas are now. The guys responsible were putting on events in fields for the hard-core for next to no return, making dirt-jumps—back then, laughably by today’s standards, a couple of metres between a take-off and a landing was considered massive and scary—and launching themselves off them with ‘raditude’ just because it was fun. As for rules, there weren’t any, and nobody gave a shit. No wrist-bands to prove you’d paid or not either. You were met with smiles and handshakes from total strangers, whatever bike you rode, regardless of how you rode it. There was also no security in place to stop gatecrashers, and this was combined with the kind of breathtakingly crude health-and-safety rule breaking that’s actually quite scary as you move through the world and discover that it’s sometimes a good thing (for example: like when a bottle is hurtling towards your face). In fact, gatecrashers, chaos and bedlam, as long as it didn’t involve ‘normal’ adults and had something vaguely to do with BMX, was encouraged. If you wanted something to eat you were sorted too: you could walk down the road without being mobbed by a gang of carnivorous Red Bull groupies, spend a fiver, and come back an hour later, happy and ready for more.
A couple of BMXers from the Hastings area—to the riders who knew them, they weren’t just riders, they were heroes—called Stu Dawkins and Ian Morris (plus a close group of friends) were the Main-Men behind The Backyard Jams from the beginning, which started in 1989, the same year as the terrible human crush at Hillsborough in Sheffield. The Jams’ existence and location was a lazy secret which was officially confined to Hastings, but that spread throughout the country on trust and good will, through word-of-mouth and riders meeting at skateparks and at the trails, on BMX tracks and in the streets. The public didn’t care about BMX, so no-one was too worried about the jams getting out of hand (which was fine for BMX, because getting out of hand was something BMXers excelled at).
It was an awesome time, and, to those who witnessed it first hand, something that will never be forgotten. The Backyard Jams, which would unfold throughout the 90s and well into the 00s, were the BMX equivalent of Woodstock—the numbers weren’t as great, of course, but for UK BMX it was nothing less than monumental: ramps everywhere, people going-off: warriors in full-face helmets attempting tricks they never had before, then limping to work the next day with a massive smile on their face.
Above everything it was about the freedom: the don’t-give-a-shit attitude combined with the rawness of unbridled, unrestricted youth.