In Defense of BMX


Disclaimer- This essay was written by Mike Hinkens, Mike is a Husband, a School Teacher, the Brand/Team Manager for Madera, more importantly, Mike is a life long BMXer, and Mike is also a part of FBM.

This is HIS opinion…. But Like other FBM Riders, he has his own voice and we encourage that!

Some more on Harry Mania and the discussion of the current state of BMX culture and industry.

The present debate raging in the BMX world is about a vision of and a belief in BMX that is bigger than assuming that what we do is just a “hobby.” It is a discussion about BMX as a culture. To define it here, culture is the manifestation of the amassed achievement of human activity. In our case, BMX culture is everything we have built in the last 40 years and it is a thing that shaped and continues to shape many our lives. For many it is a part of daily life, a livelihood, a commitment, and an outlet for life’s energies. It is not a hobby. It cannot be put down and it cannot be walked away from. Many of us can easier become a brain surgeon that know a life without BMX. It is more than riding a tiny bike, it is a lifestyle; and this is our culture.

In the moment, that brings me to what I see as a blatant attack on the culture of BMX. Though Harry Main and his perspective are not new to BMX, his considerable voice and influence make what he says that much more dangerous. His specific belief system cannot be shook off as “he is doing his own thing,” or “its just some dude and his dumb opinion.” Rather, it cuts to the very heart of our culture and threatens to help grow and spread a viewpoint on BMX that can have a detrimental affect on BMX culture as a whole. At a time when BMX is in need of solidarity during its transition into new type of economy (the internet-based global market), Harry Main is using his voice to shout down the realities of what BMX culture is struggling with. His demeaning of BMX, most-likely and hopefully not aimed at intentionally destroying it, will do just that if believed and perpetuated.

The biggest inaccuracy of Harry’s perspective on BMX and, scarily, many riders’ perspectives on BMX culture itself is that BMX intentionally and maliciously uses its resources unwisely. Namely, that riders deserve a lion’s share of the money in BMX and that companies are ripping off the riders. Riders certainly deserve more of the pie, but, according to what I see from the inside and from outside observations, the pie is truly not that large. With so many brands, so few customers, and people not willing to spend money for what something is worth, there is very little money to go around. Do riders who ride at a professional rider deserve to be paid? Does the risk inherent in promoting a brand deserve compensation? YES! YES! YES! The issue is: how big do we think the pie is? Harry Main may drive a $100,000 Audi, but most of the company owners, sponsored riders, and industry people I know drive 10 year old cars and patch their inner-tubes to save a bit of cash. Though the balance may be a bit off in some places in the industry, it is not nearly as bad as Harry paints it to be. If there is so much money in BMX, where is it? I doubt that the owners of many of the companies we are surrounded by have off-shore accounts with BMX profits stashed away. We, as riders, know and interact with the owners, managers, and purveyors of BMX. Do they live so large as to show that riders are being shorted while they live extravagant lives? Maybe I am naïve. Maybe I don’t know about everyone’s pocket books, but from my 20 years in BMX, I have seen very little to suggest that there exists a huge pile of money that is being withheld from riders by other riders. Harry’s solution to the pie dilemma: Cut out everyone and sell kids what they want for next to nothing. That is a childish and skewed perspective of economics, the industry, and our culture and will only lead to the demise of BMX as we know it.
Yes, the raw materials and cheap Taiwanese labor do produce that piece of metal between your legs for a fairly low dollar amount, but the cost of the bike parts that you buy from a shop, a mail-order, or rider-owned company incorporates the cost of funding and supporting our culture.
There lies the crux of all of this. From a purely economic standpoint, incorporating extra and unseen costs into the cost of a product is a bad idea; as seen by the financial struggles our industry now faces. The important thing to note here is that we don’t have a culture in BMX that is designed to maximize profits. We have a culture that is designed to maximize awesomeness (more on that later). In one way, financially, Harry Main is right: he can make cheap bike parts happen and him and his sponsor, Mafia Bikes, can reap the benefits in cash form. Call it self-righteousness, but BMX is bigger than Harry Main. I suppose it is within his right to do whatever he wants to do, but it is certainly within our responsibility to shout down actions that can hurt the greater culture of BMX.

The argument that Harry and many others are making is that cheap bikes will allow a greater amount of people to be exposed to BMX culture. I feel this is skewed in a few ways. First of all, how does this help BMX? He states that all he cares about is: More kids, more bikes. But that is a shortsighted and an incorrect assumption about the present industry. Our culture is created, regulated, and grown, for the most part, by its own people. Big companies from outside of BMX come and go, as does their money, but the best parts of BMX cannot rely on the passing interest of these disinterested investors. Our culture is built around our creation of it. From making videos to digging trails, from holding jams to running contests, from organizing road trips to writing thoughtful articles, BMX culture is ours. It requires our energies. And, in a real world, yes, it does require money. Yes, money. We need it. That’s reality. What we do to bring that money in and how we spend that money is at the heart of this debate. Back to the kids Harry Main and Mafia wish to “bring into BMX.” They cannot and will not support the culture of BMX… its jams, skateparks, events, media, etc. If we used the money bike sales made solely to make a profit for the select few and walked away with it to buy fancy cars that “we deserve,” our culture would cease to exist. Companies and riders have to balance making a profit, making a living, and giving back. Some do this better than others, but none are so brazen as Harry to say: FUCK BMX, I’ll make all the money for myself because I deserve it. It is a lie that this attitude is strong and independent. It is selfish. Of the “thousands of kids” that Mafia could “bring to BMX,” very few will stick with it as they will be passing through like a kid who collects baseball cards, or plays soccer in middle school. Yes, more kids coming through, means more can potentially become part of our culture, but with this extreme method of “growth,” the trade off is that rider-owned companies can’t survive. Companies that struggle to find the balance and build our culture will go out of business as Mafia reaps the profits and does… what with it? Lines their pockets. And when the few kids who have survived Harry Mania and wish to grow with and become part of the complex and rich culture that is BMX, there will be no culture left for them. No companies. No events. No jams. No media. No culture. BMX will become a simple activity like everything else. And all so we could gain a few more kids on bikes in a get-rich-quick scheme? That is not a sustainable way to grow our sport/culture/industry.

Why do I defend companies so much, and not the riders themselves? First of all, I see that many companies are run by bike riders. Even if the owner doesn’t ride, bike riders shape the policy. From creating the products to making the media, from helping riders travel and experience life, to supporting events and jams, rider-owned companies are the bedrock of our culture. They are the solidification of what we do. Some go astray, but most companies exist in order to help riders do cool stuff and help build our culture. Don’t get me wrong, I would love everyone to see the light of the awesomeness of BMX, but we need to understand where we are as an industry as well as bring people into our culture in an intelligent and thoughtful way. Sound a bit structured? Well, it is. We are not just kids on bikes; this lifestyle is one that needs to be cultivated, protected, and monitored. I am no hobbyist. This is life. I know, not as flashy sounding as “bringing thousands of kids to BMX,” but this is reality of sustaining a culture. We don’t have to spread BMX just for the sake of spreading it. How does getting a million more kids to see a bike on TV help grow our culture? Eventually it sells more bikes and lets us make more profit with which we can then hold more events, etc., but I don’t see this as the goal of Harry Main and Mafia bikes. His plan is not a responsible plan. And yes, we have a responsibility to this culture. If you don’t think so, then maybe you need to think about what it has given you. A million kids on Mafia bikes with an attitude of entitlement is not a BMX culture. It is a million kids doing some silly activity for the sake of it. If people are drawn to it, great, but marketing it as the thing for everyone that everyone has to try turns us into nothing better than salesmen interested in peddling our product for profit only. We need to strengthen our culture and industry so it can grow appropriately. People can then become part of our culture, not just become hobbyists with the entitled idea that it’s a cutthroat business and another “sport” to master for fame and glory. Everyone rides for different reasons, but there is very little room in this culture for the attitude that being sponsored, famous, and an egomaniac is cool even if we have to sell our souls.

Harry Main and the people supporting this perspective are denying that bike riding is many peoples’ lives. Many of us live and breathe it. I wish we were big enough to indiscriminately spew resources, but at this time in BMX, we are far from that. We are NOT skateboarding (for better or for worse) and we have always struggled to maintain our identity as hardcore and independent in the face of economic realities. The balance of profit and reinvestment is a hard one to maintain. Is our industry perfect? Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, as many have pointed out, we make many of our own mistakes. I would like to think that most of those mistakes are done in the hopes of growing our industry in a way that supports the many facets of it. Do greed, pride, and ignorance show up in “hardcore” companies? Yes. And Harry Main and this attitude are not new to BMX, but they are a threat to it nonetheless. And in the weak state many companies are in right now, this is scary stuff.

Why write this you ask? Why not let Harry and Mafia do their own thing? As stated above, it can negatively affect the survival of our culture. In addition, it is our responsibility to work hard to keep BMX strong and healthy. It is human nature to look out for your self and by extension your crew or brand, but those actions are often checked by the culture itself. To see this in action, think of the recent drama surrounding a certain popular brand and their choice of a new team rider. In an effort to grow (for better or worse), this brand took some extreme actions that offended many people. They undoubtedly thought what they were doing would grow their brand and grow BMX. Others disagreed. And the backlash from riders, professionals, and industry insiders was loud and clear. Say what you will about the actions this brand took, but our culture checked it. People who are part of BMX to the core took action, made their voices heard, and worked to balance what they saw as an injustice. I am not here to weigh in on the politics of that issue, but what I will say is that it was not a direct attack on our culture and lifestyle. It was a decision made and based on how a BMX company, run by mostly bike riders, could grow. The community spoke out about it and you better believe other teams and companies paid attention. This is great! We are self-regulating and can police/shape our future. This is proof that we are more than kids on bikes. There are structures in place to keep BMX awesome (though they don’t always work). On the other hand, putting faith in the cutthroat method of the economy at-large with no understanding of how BMX culture works is a risk and insult. Mafia bikes certainly did not begin its plans with this mission of ”making BMX awesome for the people within it.” And that’s fine… if this was not BMX. My personal belief that underlies all of these arguments is that this is our culture and it is our responsibility to keep it open and free, but also awesome. Does that mean we all have to be the same and follow the same business practices and ride a certain way? Definitely not. But it does, in my opinion, mean we have to work to keep it real. And to me, the intrusion of large companies seeking large profits at the expense of rider-owned companies is wrong and has no place in our culture. This is more than a profit-driven market. Say what you will about many BMX companies, but I would argue that almost all of them who have been in the game for a while care about BMX as a culture first and profit second. And that moral code is regulated by us, even if it shoots us in the foot sometimes.

The balance is difficult, but possible, and worth working for. If real rider-owned companies were to follow strictly sound economic policies, BMX, as we know it, would end. Take a look at two extreme examples. Brand A: This company is so damn hardcore that they aren’t even really a company anymore. And good for them! They have stuck to doing what they believe and though they are very small, they are run by and supported by true bike riders who believe in their mission. Sadly, this translates to a company that can’t offer many products and can’t grow in many ways. And that is fine for them, but it sure doesn’t help kids down the street get bikes and go to jams. If everyone decided that BMX was just for themselves, which everyone claims, then we would all end up like Brand A. Hardcore. Pure. And with limited reach. That works for some people, but it is a small part of the greater part of BMX culture and does not have much room for things like making quality bike parts available to kids or having large and inclusive events. On the other end, look at mountain biking in general: pretty darn sustainable. There are tons of events, lots of paid pros, cool communities, but good luck buying a real and badass product for less that your whole paycheck. Good luck shaping and growing that culture as a DIY and rider-controlled culture. And good luck growing and shaping the unique and hard to contain force and energy that BMX culture is. The MTB culture/industry and its people understand that products and companies and the associated culture all cost money and that is why it is a sport/culture that is not easily accessible to kids or people without money. It is also a more rigid and rule-based culture much more akin to a sport than BMX is. I don’t think many of us want to sacrifice our style and personality to become like that industry. Faced with these two extremes, this doesn’t mean we should abandon all morals and destroy so much just to sell bikes at the lowest possible price. When we do that we sacrifice all the built-in awesomeness of our culture. We need to find a balance. It appears to me that most companies in BMX work hard to find that balance. Those that cannot find that balance, adapt or disappear. This refutes Harry’s main argument that the “high” cost of bikes is what is causing the present downturn in our industry. Unfortunately, the way to balance and support our culture is ever-changing. It is difficult to maintain and bike companies and shops work on it every day. Harry is correct in that our current model for running our industry/culture does need to change, grow, and adapt, but he is incorrect in assuming that destroying the whole system and putting his faith in outsiders is the simple solution.

The way these issues connect to the current sales/bike shop/distributor/producer model is complicated. And, as always, it is presently changing and adapting. This moment of change is also a moment of vulnerability. We cannot allow our fears or our self-interest to blind us from some important realities. On the ground level, we need a connection between the riders and the industry. These go hand-in-hand in our culture. Bike shops are the most obvious of the connectors. Distros and mail-orders are a bit more convoluted of a way to connect, yet are still very important. For simplicity’s sake we can mass all of them together here in saying: we need the connections that these infrastructures maintain. Are they set up perfectly? No. Is that an issue to address? Yes. But, as I have stated above, eliminating them all together is a dangerous and unsuitable option. Just because they have not served your every interest (Harry), does not mean they don’t serve a greater good for our culture. These structures are what hold us together as riders. They are what support the culture we create as well what shares the culture with new and uninformed riders. We as riders cannot do this alone. We need these structures. And when we try to solidify the nebulous awesomeness of BMX, guess what grows: The very things Harry Main and this field of thinking wish to destroy. People want to do. They want to create. BMX brings out the creativity and energy in us and things start to happen. People start crews, open bike shops and skateparks, create media, and start bike companies and apparel lines. The structures that Harry Main wants to eliminate are here because we created them. The real issue is that they sometimes run askew of what we created them to do. We should certainly channel energy into shaping, controlling, and utilizing them, not destroying them.

Reflect on this chain of events (without Harry’s line of thinking): Little Johnny sees BMX somewhere and he wants to do it. First thing he needs is a bike. The question is: which bike and where to get it? He could ask his friends or they could ask another bike rider; but where to meet them? He has options: the local skatepark (built by BMXers who came together at a local shop to discuss how to get funding or built because a local brand used its adult-sway to push the city into considering building a park). He could also go to a local bike shop. Here he meets a young rider who has learned to fix bikes and now can make money off of a related skill as a bike mechanic. That rider helps fit little Johnny on a bike, gives him a high five and answers the next question of “how do I ride?” by saying: see you at the park later. Little Johnny meets that bike rider at the park down the street. That rider shows him how to share the park. How to cheer each other on and learn from each other. How to do tricks and how to set goals. He is taught what BMX culture is about. When Johnny snaps a pedal, the local rider gives him a hand-me-down set so he can ride more. Months down the road, little Johnny goes to a demo at the skatepark. His local shop was in contact with a rider-owned company that sent their team to the shop for a meet and great, a DVD premiere, and then a session at the park. Little Johnny is inspired and motivated by the whole day and bike riding becomes his love and passion. He and his friends see what its like to share BMX with people and do so with others. People around them start riding because they love the culture: the friendship, support, motivation, outlet, and so much more. They start a crew. They make a DVD and some t-shirts. They include others as they travel and experience life. They meet other riders around the world who share their passion. Some of them get hooked up by a rider-owned company. That company gives them parts, sends them on trips, and does there best to share the limited resources BMX has. They give their used and free parts to kids in need. And it starts all over as they spread the positive and good word about BMX: IT IS A FAMILY. WE ARE PART OF AN AMAZING CULTURE. WE SHAPE IT. OWN IT. SHARE IT. AND ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.

Sound familiar? Now take the shop out of the equation. Take out the local skatepark. Take out the older rider who shared his positive and meaningful outlook on BMX. Take out the rider-owned company. And what do you have left?

You have a random person with a random piece of machinery whom might find a place to use it. A person who will approach BMX like it is any other mainstream sport. A person who will learn about BMX from self-serving and arrogant YouTube personalities. A person who will use online comments and Instagram videos to grow himself as a brand rather than as a person. A person who has no idea that BMX is a culture of sharing and learning, of supporting each other, of road tripping, of modesty and hard work, of DIY ethics and rider-owned events, and of intrinsic gains as opposed to ego-boosting selfish showmanship. A person who will ask: what can I get out of this sport? How can I become famous? How do I get sponsored? A person who has no ties to a community or culture. A person that will use BMX rather than grow it. If you think this is extreme, read ANY study about how the millennial generation and the internet culture we are now a part of has changed the way kids are growing up. This is not what we want BMX to become.

Instead of letting the new culture of the ever-changing world define us, we can utilize its tools to continue defining BMX as our own. We can use these modern tools to spread the good word of BMX instead of letting them shape BMX. And we can tie those tools to the structures we already have: bike shops, rider-owned bike companies, and crews and teams. We cannot afford to throw these structures away. They can and should be made by us, controlled by us, and supported by us.

Harry Main, Mafia Bikes, and many who support these types of plans are taking a short-cut; a dangerous and self-serving one at that. The present BMX industry and the culture encompassing it are not perfect and certainly have room for improvement; but we need to work together to find an intelligent, community focused, and balanced way of funding our culture without selling it out. There are a plethora of brands that have always sought to do just that. It is in this low time for our industry that we need to support those brands so they can support us and our culture. Pay attention to whom you support and what they do. If you believe in Harry Main and Mafia’s ideas about how to best serve BMX, then buy their stuff I suppose. If you believe in companies that are run by bike riders who have literally given their entire life’s energy to this culture, then buy their products from them through a bike shop or a mail order that gives back to the culture we are a part of and that we have the power to control. They are with you. They are you! There are a whole lot of worthy options and I am betting some of your friends would gladly tell you what they are.

Mike Hinkens
January 2016