Rise above

Pub date June 3, 2008

Also in this issue:
>>An interview with outlaw biker Ian Schwartz
>>An interview with SJBMX.com’s Chris McMahon
>>Sit the fuck down: The Sean Parker story

› duncan@sfbg.com

I push off and head down a makeshift plywood runway, compressing as I roll over the edge and into the Technicolor graffiti of the drainage ditch. The transition between the banked wall and the flatbottom has an abrupt kink in it, enough to send you to your face if you’re caught sleeping. I take some weight off the front end and try to maintain my speed as I pump into the opposite corner and carve the far end of the ditch where there’s an over-45-degree wall that runs behind what my friends and I call the "death pit" — a gaping cutaway in the bottom of the culvert, five feet deep, filled with broken glass, and frequently used as a urinal. Since I’m at the apex of my backside carve, up a wall 10 feet above last week’s Miller Time, I’m jolted by the crackle of a loudspeaker:

"You are trespassing. Leave the area at once or you will be arrested."

My concentration shot by the sheriff’s announcement, I jump off my deck and over the chasm at the base of the bank, barely clearing the skater’s version of a Vietnam tiger pit, and land on the rough concrete beyond the edge. My board bullets straight in, though, so I’ve got to lower myself — gingerly — into the mostly dry detritus and rescue it before my friends and I jet out of the spot and into the manicured back nine of Pleasanton’s Castlewood golf course. We get to the car, throw the boards in the trunk — mine has a "Skateboarding Is Not a Crime" sticker on the bottom — and head to the next spot, a ditch called the Rat Trap.

The year is 1987. I’m 16, in high school, and living with my parents in Fremont. The scene plays out over and over in much the same way: a drainage ditch, a nicely painted curb or ledge at a shopping center, the occasional backyard pool, and night sessions at the Tar Banks, a set of embankments around a loading dock with curbs at the top. It’s an underground railroad of repurposed architecture, none of it designed with a skateboard in mind but all of it highly skateable.

Taking the $4.7mil Cunningham skatepark. Video by Jarrod Allen, www.jarrodallen.com

Every weekend my crew hits as many spots as we can, and the constants shape up like this: urethane, aluminum, Canadian hard rock maple, concrete, and asphalt. Maybe blood, maybe beer — we’re teenagers after all — but nearly always: cops.

Skateboarding may not be a crime, but it sure as hell feels like one.

Flash forward 20 years. I’m with a different crew as I pull onto a street in suburban Redwood City, and I’m no longer rollin’ in my mom’s Plymouth Sundance, but my own truck. The other thing that’s changed is the number of wheels per head. There are four heads to eight wheels, and we’re here to ride the Phil Shao Memorial Skatepark. On bikes.

The park does not disappoint. There are a million kids trying tech ollie flip tricks around the perimeter of the park, but the bowl is what I’m about. Big and shapely with almost burlesque hips poured into her concrete, I’m in love as soon as I roll in. There are a few local bikers who have the place dialed, nonchalantly airing a few feet out and throwing the bars before heading back down the tranny. The only two skaters riding the bowl are a tall skinny teenager and his little sister, who looks to be about 10, and they have it on lockdown: lipslides on the spine, grinds, rock and rolls — everything smooth and fast. "Yeah!" I yell as they take their runs, stoked on their skills.

I know the times have changed when I see the little girl come up out of the bowl in the $450,000 public piece of silky-smooth concrete perfection, walk over to her mother, who’s posted up on a ledge, get a cell phone and make a call. Not five minutes later there are seven (I counted) Redwood City police officers converging on the bench where my friends and I are sitting. They randomly collar my buddy Scott — though I was the last one to drop in — and write him a ticket for $100. I have to admit, I’m flabbergasted.

Guess what: skateboarding isn’t a crime anymore — it’s gone mainstream. Successful companies hire lobbyists to promote the sport, and communities spend big bucks building new facilities for skaters. And now some skaters, many of them kids who never had to live in the underground world that I did, are using their legitimacy to push out the new outlaws — people who ride BMX bikes.

It’s crazy — two cultures that share so much, fighting over how many wheels they ride.

"Is that your daughter’s bike?"

The question comes from one of my coworkers, and, believe it or not, it’s not intended to be snarky. I can’t ride in public without someone saying "cute little bike," while giggling to themselves — or laughing and pointing. Seeing a six-foot-tall, 200-pound, bald-headed, tattooed white dude on a "kid’s bike" is like being passed on the sidewalk by a bear on a unicycle. At one point reactions like these would’ve rubbed me the wrong way, but nowadays, I nod and smile. Sometimes, I try to explain what constitutes a "full grown" BMX bike. While it’s got small wheels — 20 inches in diameter — the top tube, from the seat to the stem, measures 21 inches, and the handlebars are considered pro-sized at eight inches high by 28 inches wide.

Bicycle motocross, or BMX, is purported to have started in 1963 when the Schwinn corporation of Chicago unveiled the Stingray, which was basically a downsized version of the company’s balloon-tired cruiser-type bikes. Kids pretended to be grown-ups by aping Roger DeCoster and other moto heroes — launching their bikes off jumps, racing in empty fields and abandoned lots, and cranking wheelies down the sidewalks of Anytown, USA.

"It all began the way most individual sports start," motorcycle customizer Jesse James says in a voiceover at the beginning of the 2005 BMX nativity story/documentary Joe Kid on a Stingray, "kids pretending to be grown-ups, but acting like big kids."

I have been riding since I was seven. After three decades, one truism remains, and I can’t candy-coat it. I’ve got to speak it like a true BMXer: BMX is rad. It is and always has been an entity unto itself, progressing from wheelies, skids, and bombing hills to encompass myriad styles and surfaces, from streets to pools to dirt jumps to ramps to the balletic grace of flatland freestyle.

This summer, big kids on little bikes will be jumping 30-foot gaps at as many miles per hour as BMX pays homage to its racing roots at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. On June 12 in New York’s Central Park, Kevin Robinson will try to break the legendary Mat Hoffman’s record for the highest quarter-pipe air on a bike — 26 feet, 6 inches.

It doesn’t take death-defying world records, the X Games, the Olympics, or the stupefaction of squares with cameras to make BMX legit. That feeling of overcoming fear and doubt by jumping a little farther, a little higher, the rush of nailing a trick, or carving a bowl, hasn’t changed in half a century. The legitimacy lies in that feeling, behind your breastbone, and it doesn’t change as you get older. Your wrists hurt, your ankles hurt, and your back hurts, but the feeling is the same. Kid’s bike? Hell yeah, it’s a kid’s bike.

It’s not as though I was blissfully unaware of a beef between bikers and skaters that day in Redwood City. Ask any BMXer to tell you a story of friction between the two and four-wheeled sets, and it’s not going to take them long to come up with something.

"When I was 12 years old, a skateboarder threw my bike out of the bowl at Ripon skatepark," says Jackson Ratima, now 19, a Daly City rider sponsored by Fit Bikes. "He was, like, 20 years old or something."

Tim "Wolfman" Harvey, 21, another up-and-coming pro, tells a similar story about a visit to the Bay Area from his native Massachusetts, when a local skater hassled him at the Novato skatepark. "I didn’t even know anything about California. It was my first time out bike riding, period. The guy was giving me all kinds of crap, yelling at me."

Ironically, Harvey, as friendly and easygoing a guy as you could hope to meet, almost turned pro for skateboarding before an ankle injury made it nearly impossible to ollie, an essential trick in street skating. He now lives in Petaluma and is a member of the painter’s union in San Francisco, where he’s a familiar face at street spots, but now on a bike. Back then, though, he "thought California was a scary place."

The Bay Area — and SF in particular — may be the worst place for bikers seeking a vibe-free session. "I’ve never experienced hostility like it is out here," Ratima says.

Smoldering after the Redwood City incident, I began to fixate on the "Skateboarding Is Not a Crime" slogan from my youth. Originally a bumper sticker made by Transworld Skateboarding magazine in the mid ’80s, Santa Cruz Skateboards currently makes a deck with that written on it, so the skate community has gotten a lot of mileage out of being oppressed.

"Skateboarding isn’t a crime?" I’d ask myself. You’re damned straight skateboarding isn’t a crime: it’s the law. BMX is a crime. There isn’t a biker alive who rides transition who hasn’t rolled into a taxpayer-funded park and had a knee-high grommet point to the sign and say, "Bikes aren’t allowed."

Not allowed, huh? Son, I skated my first pool when you were doing the backstroke in your papa’s ball bag.

Look: I love skateboarding and always will. Both skaters and bikers are doing the same thing, copping that same feeling rolling over the same terrain. The war makes no sense.

"We have religion and race and class dividing us. I refuse to be divided by what type of wheel size I have," says Jon Paul Bail, a local at Alameda’s Cityview skatepark.

Bail, 40, is the artist and pundit behind politicalgridlock.com. Through the Home Project, a program run through the Alameda Unified School District, Bail helped raise $150,000 to build the park, $8,000 of which came directly from his company’s coffers. He helped design the park, and he helped pour the concrete in the park, which opened in 1999. Mixed sessions of bikers and skaters were going down for six months with minor tensions but no major incidents when then–City Attorney Carol Korade advised City Hall that mixed use was too dangerous, and shut the bikers out.

My call to Corinne Centeno, Redwood City’s Director of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services, got off to a rough start: "I understand [the Phil Shao Skatepark] is not bike-legal, right?"

"Right. It was built as a skatepark," she replied, subtly italicizing the first syllable with her tone of voice.

"It wasn’t designed for bikes," she repeated, before adding, "but their having been prohibited from the start hasn’t necessarily kept people out." In an effort to do just that, the city is building a fence around the park, with bids currently ranging from $23,000 to $60,000.

The semantic argument — "it’s called a ‘skatepark,’ not a ‘bike park’<0x2009>" — is usually reserved for laypeople who don’t know enough about skateboarding or bike riding to see its inherent lack of logic.

Drainage ditches are not called a "skating ditches," nor were they designed for skating. Swimming pools are not called "skating pools." Yet, therein lie the roots of the modern skatepark, along with full pipes, which are based on industrial-size drainage systems also not intended for wheels. Every day skateboarders and bikers transcend these limits through creative repurposing.

Collision, and the fear of collision, is the main thing public officials cite when shutting bikers out of parks. "It’s unnerving," Vancouver pro skater Alex Chalmers wrote in a 2004 Thrasher manifesto, "BMX Jihad: Keep It in the Dirt."

"BMXers cover so much ground so quickly, especially when they’re pedaling frantically to blast a transfer, that it’s particularly hard to gauge these collisions," he wrote.

But the fact is that in any given park BMXers and skaters take different lines, and the best way to acclimate each group to the other is through exposure. If bike riders are banned, it increases the risk of collisions when a few bikers decide to chance the ticket or brave the vibe-out and ride anyway. A lot of bikers hit parks early in the morning because they don’t want to deal with hassles. During the overlap in "shifts," this leads to bewildered skaters who aren’t used to the lines a biker takes, and vice versa.

And the head-on menace is greatly overstated, largely disappearing when a park is integrated, if only unofficially. At Cityview, the police have displayed somewhat less zeal in ticketing bikers during the past few years. "They treat us like gays in the military," says Bail. "Don’t ask, don’t tell." And yet everyone manages to coexist.

At the new $850,000 skatepark in Benicia, which opened in October, integration isn’t a big deal. "From its conception, we designed it to be a skateboard park and also for bikes," says Mike Dotson, assistant director of parks and recreation. Technically, the park has designated bike hours, but since it’s largely unsupervised, there’s a mildly laissez-faire approach to enforcement. "In the very beginning there was a lot of concern about the use of both bikes and skateboards," Dotson says, stating that the park was packed the first few months. "Initially we had one or two calls on it. Since then I can say I haven’t had any calls on it — in relation to bikes and skateboards being in it at the same time or other complaints."

And there are mixed-use parks all over the world, as far away as Thailand and as nearby as Oregon: "You go to Oregon, and you can ride wherever you want," says a stunned Maurice Meyer, 41, lifelong San Francisco resident and founding member of legendary bike and skate trick team the Curb Dogs. Long Beach, Las Vegas, Phoenix, even Alex Chalmers’ hometown of Vancouver — all have parks where bikes and skates legally ride at the same time. What’s up with the Bay?

Lawyers, insurance underwriters, and city hall types may never understand how a park works. "It’s out of ignorance," Bail says. "To them it looks like chaos. To anyone who has skate etiquette — which is everyone — we all take turns."

Besides, let’s face facts: a skatepark is a dangerous place — to different degrees at different times, and for different reasons. "I swear to God, every time I go to the skatepark I see a hundred boards flying all over the place," Ratima says, "and I’ve never seen a bike go flying and land on a guy’s head." It’s not an inflatable jumpy house — it’s fun, but it’s not made out of cotton balls and your mother isn’t here. Usually.

Rose Dennis, press liaison for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, seemed baffled that someone would want to ride a bicycle inside the skatepark part of the new Potrero del Sol. Perhaps as a way of distracting me from my damn-fool idea, she kept hyping the park’s "other amenities."

I live three blocks from Golden Gate Park — if I want to play Frisbee, I’m not going to drive across town. I want to ride. When I brought up the possibility of scheduling bike-only sessions in the yet-to-be opened park, she suggested I draft a letter to general manager Yomi Agunbiade, before adding that "the facility wasn’t designed for that type of recreation."

When I (graciously, I thought) let her know that it would be not only possible to ride a bike there, but highly gratifying, she got a little heated: "At the end of the day, the buck stops with us. If one of you guys breaks your skull open and you’re bleeding all over the place, believe me, no one’s going to have any sympathy for Rec and Park if they make really nonjudicious decisions."

In other words, like a lot of city officials, she’s worried about getting sued.

But you know what? There’s actually less chance a BMXer will successfully sue the city. I give you California Government Code Section 831.7, which states the following: "Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable to any person who participates in a hazardous recreational activity … who knew or reasonably should have known that the hazardous recreational activity created a substantial risk of injury to himself or herself and was voluntarily in the place of risk."

The law lists "bicycle racing or jumping" as being a "hazardous recreational activity." It’s on a fairly extensive list, along with diving boards, horseback riding, and the ever-popular rocketeering, skydiving, and spelunking, which, as I’m sure you’ve heard, are all the rage with the kids these days — much more popular than BMX.

But the words "skateboarding," "skateboarder," and "skateboard" are not listed anywhere in the text of the Hazardous Recreational Activities law, commonly called the HRA law. In fact, the International Association of Skateboard Companies has been lobbying to get the bill amended to specifically include "skateboarding" since 1995, when Assemblymember Bill Morrow (R-San Diego) took up the issue. Morrow’s bill was rejected by the state Senate Judiciary Committee in 1996. In 1997, Morrow and skateboard association lobbyist Jim Fitzpatrick gave up on amending the HRA and instead pushed Assembly Bill 1296, which added Provision 115800 to the state’s Health and Safety Code, which states, in part and in much less forceful language — without using the word "liable," for instance — that owners or operators of local skateparks that are not supervised must require skaters to wear helmets, elbow pads, and knee pads, and that they must post a sign stating said requirement.

It doesn’t say anything about "if one of you guys breaks your skull open and you’re bleeding all over the place" while wearing a helmet, then you can’t hold the operator liable.

When I asked San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Virginia Dario-Elizando how the law might apply to the city’s skateparks, she told me, "This question has never come up. I must tell you, I’ve never even seen the rules for the skateparks — no one’s ever asked me to look at them."

BMXers are willing to compromise if that’s what it takes. In May, San Jose opened the 68,000-square-foot Lake Cunningham skatepark, built by the same design firm (Wormhoudt) as the Benicia park at a price of $4.7 million, and the place has bike hours. Like any park, there are rules. Like some parks, there’s supervision, so the rules are enforced: separate bike sessions; helmet, elbow, and knee pads required at all times; brakes required on bikes; no smoking; no songs with swear words over the park soundsystem; no bikes in the three bowls with pool coping even though they only allow plastic pegs, which are undoubtedly softer on coping than metal skateboard trucks … it’s a long list of restrictions. It’s inconvenient for guys who don’t like pads or don’t run brakes, and there’s some griping, but we’ve got our eyes on the prize: the place is amazing, with a huge full pipe, massive vert bowls, and a decent street course.

I would like skaters to realize a couple of things: skating and BMX aren’t so different from each other, at least in the feeling each gives you, right there, behind your sternum, where your heart beats.

Bikers are going to ride no matter what, just like skaters are going to skate. Legal or not, we’re not going to go away. "I got arrested for riding there when I was 14," Ratima says of the Daly City skatepark. "They took my bike and threw it in the back of the car. I just kept going every day, and finally they just gave up."

"I’ve ridden bikes on vert," Thrasher editor Jake Phelps tells me during a phone conversation. "I can ride a bike in a pool, I can do that. I’m stoked when I ride a bike in a pool. Feels hella fun to me. Catching air on a bike is awesome, no doubt about that."

This, from the longtime editor of the bible of the "fuck BMX" set. It’s either baffling or heartening. I can’t decide which. "I don’t mind people that are just regular," he says. "If they’re skateboard people or they’re bike people too, I’ll respect anybody that respects me."

That’s what it comes down to: respect. I respect the fact that skateboarders did not come into this age of skateparks easily. I faded out when there was nothing, and I came back when they were in small towns across America, and I missed all the politicos and dreary meetings. It’s time for bikers to stop feeling like second-class citizens and demand a seat at the table. In the words of Black Flag, it’s time to rise above.