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Downhill derby

Seven BMX riders will battle for the final two U.S. Olympic spots over a course with a 29-foot start tower

June 14, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

CHULA VISTA -- Growing up in Conroe, Texas, Kyle Bennett used to pedal his bike over to the local BMX track to test his already prodigious talent on a course he shared with kids who still needed training wheels and older folks on touring bikes.

It was like forcing Tiger Woods to hone his skills on a miniature golf course or asking Michael Phelps to work out in a wading pool.

"Tracks are built for 5-year-olds all the way to 50-year-olds," he said.

Which leaves little room for elite riders like Bennett, who race at more than 40 mph and make jumps of more than 40 feet on their 35-second sprints around a snaking layout.

So when U.S. BMX riders stepped up from the domestic National Bicycle League or American Bicycle Assn. to race in international supercross events, it was a difficult transition.

"We were basically winging it," said Bennett, a three-time BMX world champion who has already clinched a berth on the U.S. Olympic BMX team. "We weren't used to it."

To remedy that, the U.S. Olympic Committee has sunk more than half a million dollars over the last seven months into a modern BMX supercross complex at the USOC training center here. The track, one of three permanent supercross facilities in the world, will make its competitive debut today with seven riders battling for the two remaining spots on the Beijing Olympic team.

And the facility, with its 29-foot start tower, has already made a difference in preparing U.S. riders for the first BMX event in Olympic history.

"We would go to these supercross events and the only time we'd have to ride the track is in practice," said Mike Day of Santa Clarita, the top-ranked North American BMX rider of 2007. "So it's been kind of nice being able to figure out and just get used to that speed. Because you don't really feel that speed anywhere else.

"Not only is it one of the best tracks ever but that starting hill, it's the only one in the whole country that we have to train on."

Standard BMX tracks commonly have a dirt starting ramp about 10 feet high with a slope of around 18 degrees. But supercross races start atop a tower nearly three times as high with a slope of about 28 degrees -- a huge and dangerous difference when you're racing down it at breakneck speed, elbow-to-elbow with seven other riders.

"It's a rush," Bennett said. "I don't care how many times you get on it and get used to it. Every time I get on it I get butterflies in my stomach. You're just going fast right off the bat."

While the U.S. has dominated international BMX racing since 2006, training the last five months on the Chula Vista track -- a replica of the Beijing Olympic course built by the same man, Ohio track designer Tom Ritzenthaler -- has taken American riders to a new level.

In the three World Cup events staged since January, U.S. riders Donny Robinson of Napa, Calif., and David Herman of Wheat Ridge, Colo., each recorded a win while in the third event, the Americans had the best team finish.

"We started to see instant results," said team director Mike King, a former supercross world champion and a BMX Hall of Famer. "Everyone had more time on that ramp and everyone's confidence level definitely stepped up."

And that could make today's trials a true test of skills.

In addition to Day and World Cup winners Robinson and Herman, the field will include Californians Tyler Brown of San Clemente, Danny Calaug of Chino, world championship runner-up Steven Cisar of Altadena and Kristopher Fox of Phelan, which is near Victorville. Another top rider, Bubba Harris of Goodyear, Ariz., had to pull out after being injured while training Thursday.

Under the trials format, riders will accumulate points over a series of five races, beginning with a solo time trial on the 390-meter track. The overall points winner secures an Olympic berth. One other rider will be selected by officials for the third and final spot on the men's team for the 32-man field in Beijing.

"For us to have a trials event with seven competitive athletes says a lot for how much depth we have," King said. "Any one of those eight can win. Other countries probably have three or four [Olympic-caliber riders]. That's why we decided to have a trials.

"The pressure that they're going to experience, it's something that we want to basically replicate. Because that's what they'll feel when they go to the Games."

The women's field at Beijing will have 16 riders and one American, Seattle's Jill Kintner, as decided by an international points system.

Kintner, who thought her Olympic hopes had been dashed when she re-injured her right knee in a training accident in early May, clinched her berth with a sixth-place finish at the world championships in China two weeks ago. Those 14 points gave her a 129-128 edge over training partner Arielle Martin of Pleasant Grove, Utah, in the 17-race battle for the U.S. championship.

"It's pretty cool," she said of going to the Summer Games. "It's taken a while to hit me. I've heard from people I haven't heard from in years."

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