In 1999 a young working class man from Ripley, in Derbyshire resigned from his job, said goodbye to his family and friends and moved to America to pursue his lifelong dream of being the best vert rider in the world. 12 years down the line, we flew over to see how he’s getting on.
It’s midday at The Staples Centre in Downtown Los Angeles, the sun is shining and the streets are alive with extreme haircuts, scantly clad PR girls and Monster Energy logos. This is the first day of X Games 17 and the day I’m due to meet the current BMX vert champion for a weeklong shadowing exercise. On a map of the extreme city, I find the vert ramp with my finger.
It’s the first time I’ve been to the X Games and, walking around the sprawling venue, it’s all rather overwhelming. It seems young Americans need Extreme to live. They’ve been bred so as to be dependent on a daily fix of something loud, bright and dangerous and this place is the heart of Extreme. TV and the internet are the main arteries through which Extreme is distributed and, this year, Skateboarding, MotoX, Rally Car and BMX are the wheeled vehicles identified as the most effective mediums to distribute Extreme fixes to the masses.
The vert ramp is on the stage of the Nokia Arena, a stage that is frequented by the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga: the most famous people on the planet. The air-conditioning is on and it’s cold and empty inside. It’s practise day, the arena isn’t open to the public, so I climb up to the ramp and look for the man whom I’m to shadow. I find him and join the queue. I’m third in line. He’s not sat behind a desk signing posters or anything official like that, he’s just stood near the ramp watching. Some people have entourages, others have a posse or a crew – Jamie Bestwick has a queue. ‘A queue’. . . How very British.
When it’s my turn I shake his hand and say hello, he’s polite and professional and sounds almost nonchalant. He has the demeanour of a man ‘going through the motions’ rather than one of a defending champion, there to gallantly defend his title. His calmness isn’t a surprise, Jamie is far and away the best vert rider to have ever graced a ramp – of that there is no dispute – but I thought he would at least be acting like there was a competition on this weekend.
Jamie has won gold in X Games vert for four years on the trot. I’m reminded of this fact through the looped interviews being played on the gigantic television screens all around town X. He’s on for the much coveted and much hyped ‘5-Peat’: an X Games first. ‘5-Peat’ is a phrase coined by someone in marketing at ESPN in a vain effort to make things sound more exciting and divert attention away from the fact that Bestwick winning five times in a row is actually quite boring.
Bestwick watches attentively as Tabron drops in for his first run on the ramp. “Here goes Simon” Jamie proclaims in a still distinctly northern voice. Although he doesn’t act like he is – and although he doesn’t need to – he still surveys the competition, keen to make sure no one has upped their game by any considerable, potentially threatening, amount since the last time he saw them ride. And unsurprisingly given the rate of progression amongst the vert elite over the last 10 years. . . they haven’t.
We agree to shoot some photos there and then, while the Nokia Arena is still relatively quiet – before the 15,000 screaming kids and just as many TV cameras show up tomorrow. His bike is freshly painted in mint green. While he does exchange pleasantries with his fellow competitors on the ramp, he doesn’t appear to be especially pally with anyone. He takes up his starting position, sitting alone on the far corner of the deck. His first run is a statement, and a bold one at that. His first air on each wall is a comfortable six feet, and that’s all the water testing he needs. With the two cautious walls out the way a green light flicks on inside and he’s up to 10 feet by wall four and by wall five he’s ally-opping the whole width of the ramp. His airs are silent and flawless, floating out effortlessly before lightly brushing the coping with both tyres as he dives back down towards the flat bottom.
Floating around high up there in silence, with his bright clothing and light coloured bike, there’s an almost angelic quality to his riding. As Jamie cruises gracefully above I look across at the other athletes on the ramp: they’re all sat watching with envy. Jaded expressions creep across faces as the realization they are competing for second place sinks in. And it’s for good reason, Bestwick has dominated vertical half pipe riding for over a decade. He is the most decorated rider in the history of the sport with seven Dew Tour Championship Cups and eight X Games gold medals among his vast cache of shiny contest keepsakes. Watching the practise session induces a feeling of sympathy, the vast chasm between the elegant grace of Jamie and the awkward stiffness of the others really emphasises just how out dated some riders have become.
After shooting photographs I decide to get a few words with some of the other athletes, to see what their impressions of Mr. Bestwick really are. I introduce myself first to Chad Kagy, he was the last rider to beat Jamie in an X Games final, way back in 2006. We shake hands and exchange pleasantries as I explain that I work for a UK based BMX magazine. The conversation is going well until I reveal that I am in fact not there to cover the contest itself, but I’m working on an interview with Jamie. Kagy’s mannerisms turn hostile. I ask if I could get a few words on their relationship and whether he was willing to make a prediction as to the outcome of tomorrows final. Kagy mugs me off. He claims he doesn’t have time and mumbles something about Mega Ramps as he gives me the shoulder and walks away. Another encounter with a top five rider goes the same way and it’s not until I speak to the ever cheerful Simon Tabron that I get a positive reception. In hindsight his kind words may just have been the patriotism of a fellow Brit, but it was warming to discover it wasn’t a full deck of animosity.
So with practise wrapped up and all but three competitors resigned to the fact that they were just there to make up numbers, I leave Bestwick to smile and wave his way through the long string of interviews and signings he has lined up for the afternoon. Later that night is Mega Ramp finals, the event where grown men dress like astronauts and fling themselves off a ski jump. No one pulled anything. It was embarrassing to watch. Never have the motivations of money been so apparent in BMX as during Mega Ramp at X Games. Take away the prize money and how many people would be strapped into their space suits up there on the tower block high roll in? None, that’s how many. And if it weren’t for fear of sounding self-indulgent then I’d say that when Kagy snapped his leg in half on his 3rd run, it was at the hand of karma in response to his earlier rudeness.
[The Night Before]
Vert Finals is tomorrow and I’m keen to see how Jamie goes about preparing for the biggest event on his calendar. We arrange to meet in the bar of the hotel where he’s staying, the JW Marriott. I feel under dressed just hearing the name. The hotel is among the most lavish in Los Angeles, a colossal building that dominates the skyline with its mirrored exterior and neon light show. Walking in through the giant glass doors I feel poor. I glance around the busy lobby and bar area across a sea of tattooed Extreme athletes and platinum blond airheads. While I figure out how I’m going to find Jamie I reach to a table and pick up a drinks menu: $80 for a glass of red wine. $280 for the bottle. . . I hope this chat doesn’t drag on.
I find him by the bar and immediately there’s a fight for my attention. Blond hair, enhanced features and hot arses go head to head with the world’s greatest vert rider. The combination of my English manners and not being famous means I turn to chat with Jamie. These girls are reserved for famous people. “How do you deal with distractions like that?” I ask nodding to a cluster of dolled up cute girls. He said he was used to it, he’d seen it all before. “This is LA” he continued “they all come out the woodwork – all wanting in on the action. Even when I was back in the dingy pubs of Derby, I was never that bothered with girls. I’d just go out for a few beers and then get up and go riding.” It’s the first conversation of many that we will have over the next week that focus on his unwavering determination, professionalism and commitment to the task in hand. Not succumbing to temptations like these is a testament to his dedication, for they are the most tempting temptations I’ve ever seen.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I was going to win”
The bar is busy and loud. To keep themselves afloat, the inflated Extreme egos demand much attention, and that creates a lot of noise. But Jamie isn’t like that; at 40 years old and happily married with a young son his agenda is one more focused on bike riding than hedonistic narcissism. Frustratingly he’s not offered to buy me a drink yet, so in an attempt to be polite I ask if he wants a beer. “Just a coke for me please mate” My wallet breathed a sigh of relief. We stand and chat, I cut to the chase “Are you going to win tomorrow?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I was going to win.” He replies in an instant.
“Nah, I just want to do well. I don’t get paid to come in 10th.”
The conversation sways around to today’s practise slot and his dominance of the session. We talk about how competitive it is at the top and how hard it is to have meaningful friendships with people you compete against. “Do you think it’s fair to say none of the other riders really want you to be here?” I enquire.
He laughs “Yeah, if I were to sleep in late tomorrow and miss the contest then a few of them would be more than happy.”
I laugh too because, in my mind, I’m thinking a few of those riders would prefer the rather more sinister scenario of him not waking up at all. We exchange a glance. And I’m sure that’s what he was thinking too.
We chat some more about English stuff and his past life in a small town near Derby. Despite the glitz and glamour of his surroundings and his undeniable fame, Jamie speaks in a down-to-earth voice, free from the attention seeking tones that can be heard all around. He’s a friendly, polite and funny chap. Good easy company. We talk about his past in England, his working class youth and about how booze, bling and bimbos is never a good mix. I say goodnight and leave him to it.
Today is finals day and Jamie is looking calm and refreshed. He has an air of confidence about him that is only afforded to those who have put in the work. It’s a sureness of a world-class athlete. The appropriateness of referring to a rider as an ‘athlete’ is much contested in BMX politics. But whether you want to admit it or not, to compete at this level requires intense training, physical agility and mental focus.
The lights in the Nokia Arena drop and a silence of anticipation descends. Spotlights swoop in giant circles, illuminating the crowd and ramp in a strophic effect. The music crescendos and Americans are out of their seats, all clapping and screaming. If I didn’t know better I could be fooled into thinking that an actual contest was about to happen – a fierce battle between the world’s elite to see who will emerge victorious and be crowned as the undisputed best vert rider on the planet. But in reality, behind the TV cameras and faux hype, Bestwick has it sewn up already. When his time comes he drops in and lays down four flawless, perfectly polished runs and wins gold. His runs are so shiny you can see his face in them. Stevie McCann put up a valiant effort in his first two runs, laying down a couple of really solid efforts, but he ran out of steam way before the end and Jamie won his 9th X Games gold medal without really even breaking a sweat. The hard work had all been put in long before the X Games 17 clock started ticking down. In every aspect of the word, Jamie Bestwick is very much an ‘athlete’.
[State College PA]
After X Games the plan is to fly to State College and stay with the Bestwicks for a week. I meet Jamie and his wife Kerry at Philadelphia airport where our flights from LA have joined. It’s been a long day of delays and they’re both feeling the effects of letting their hair down for a rare blow-out to celebrate Jamie’s latest gold medal [Although the competition might not have been the closest on record, the prestige of winning gold is still a massive deal – and even if it wasn’t – $40 grand is $40 grand!].
It’s 2am when we land at our final destination. Our flights were 9 hours late getting in. When we walk into the baggage claim area of State College’s tiny airport, Jamie is greeted by a guy of about 18 holding a small cake with the number five stuck on it. Visibly taken aback, he thanks the cake guy profusely and poses for a photo with the mysterious, but dedicated local fan. Winning five consecutive X Games medals is a big deal in America. X Games is beamed into every household in the country [every household in 47 countries to be specific]. Jamie Bestwick is a big deal around here.
It’s late when we get to their house, we’re all tired, and I’m asleep before I really can take in where I am. I wake up in the morning in a comfortable double bed in a light and airy room. I can hear some noise coming in through the window, the sound of a lawn mower running nearby. I walk over to the window to check my surroundings and am surprised to see Jamie cruise past on a sit on lawn mower. He’s wearing sunglasses, headphones and his X Games gold medal. Just two days after standing on top of the podium, and after not nearly enough sleep the night before, Jamie is doing Bo Selector impressions to himself as he happily goes about his daily chores.
The airline has lost his bike so we spend the day lounging around the house. The Bestwick residence is comfortable to say the least. Situated on a leafy executive housing development on the outskirts of town the building is set-out over three floors and is modern and expensive looking. The neighbours are doctors one side and lawyers the other. The minimalist interior has been well considered with a close attention to detail. The walls are adorned with a combination of original artwork and title winning BMX bikes. There are no medals, cups, plates or trophies on display anywhere.
I compliment him on his beautiful home. We’re sat in the cavernous open-plan living/dining/kitchen area and talk about how he came to inhabit such a lavish abode – the story of how he came to be the world’s greatest vert rider.
“Back in England I worked for a company repairing compression engine blades for aircraft” he begins “It was a really involved job and I loved it. I loved working there, had some cracking mates.” I can hear a genuine nostalgic tone in his voice and I’m immediately aware of just how much of a big decision it was to quit his job for the uncertain future of his BMX dream.
“It wasn’t like an overnight decision, it wasn’t like “Yeah! Let’s go riding!”” he went on “I used to go to work every day and use my holidays to go to contests, then I started doing better and GT Bikes came in with an offer and said “Do you want to ride your bike for a living?” FUCKING HELL! THAT WAS A CRACKING GOAL!! [Jamie has one eye on the footie match on the 50” plasma tele] I went into work and said “in three months I’m leaving” Bang straight in there! [watching the replay]”
“You either sit there and suck your thumb, or you step up to the plate”
“Yeah keeper was well beat!” I add “Nowhere near it!”
The fact that Jamie gave his employer three months notice reinforces my point about him being a well mannered, conscientious, stand-up dude – it would be rare to find such integrity in say, a modern day street rider.
“It meant I could concentrate on contests more. It was a dream I’d always had. I’d always dreamed of being a pro rider. I wanted a piece of that and it finally came around and I left work.”
Jamie found that first year hard , his wife-to-be was still in England holding down the fort of their modest council house, he was travelling back and forth to America for six week stints and the time apart was far from ideal. Back then Jamie was riding Derby Storm’s indoor vert ramp on a regular basis and was enjoying a good year on his bike. He flew out to compete in the ’99 X games and, with all the work he’d been putting in, was quietly confident of placing well. His first run started off strong and things were looking good, but towards the end he lent too far in on a frame stand icepick grind and smacked his head on the flat bottom. He wasn’t badly injured but the crash left him dizzy enough to knock his focus and considerably blunt his second run. He was livid at himself for letting such a small laps of concentration ruin all the time and hard graft he’d put in. After the contest he gave all his stuff to the people from GT and asked them to take it back to the hotel, they obliged and asked where he was going. “I’m going for a bike ride” he told them, and buggered off. He rode for miles all around San Francisco having a good think about quitting his job and about his future as a pro BMX rider.
“What am I doing?” he asked himself. “I’ve just given up a really good job and I keep screwing up at these big contests. What is it that’s the problem? Maybe I’m just not supposed to have given up work. Maybe the pro riding thing is a bit too much.”
That bike ride proved to be a significant turning point in his BMX career. The words he had with himself were enough to start a fire in his belly and after the event he went back to Woodward and started riding with a heightened intent.
“It wasn’t like Rocky 4” he remembers “I wasn’t out in the cold of winter lifting up logs and running in a sheepskin jacket” [laughs]
But from that moment on, whenever he went to ride he just had a bit more about him and his riding had a bit more of a purpose about it. He had more of a stride in his step: and that year he won the Gravity Games.
After receiving the gold medal and the giant cheque he phoned up his misses and was like “Right, quit your job, we’re moving to America” she was like “You what pet?!” he says “You ‘eard. Walk into the bank tomorrow, quit your job, I’ve just won the Gravity Games. I’ve made enough money here to last us for the next two years, so we’re moving out to the States”
So he moved his wife out to America and they bought a house near Woodward, in State College, PA.
This may sound like an idyllic situation. Like a dream come true. It may sound like Jamie’s gamble paid off and he lived happily ever after – enjoying the life of Riley as a globe trotting BMX pro – but things are seldom that easy. And luckily for him, Bestwick has never been one to under estimate or take things for granted. . .
“People look at it like ‘It’s cool, it’s a lifestyle! I like to ride because it’s cool, I like hanging out with my bros’ and all that bollocks, but when you have bills to pay. . . yeah, there are some fun times in BMX but there’s a time when you’ve got to get a little bit real because you know that the guy who collects your mortgage each month ain’t gonna accept you ‘having fun on your bike’ as a down-payment. So you have to start mapping it out and getting paid, and that’s what I had to do. That’s how I made money at my last job, I took my job serious and I got paid for it. When I wasn’t taking BMXing serious I wasn’t getting paid.”
At this point we’re sat talking over a cup of coffee at the breakfast bar in the kitchen and he’s speaking with a sense of conviction. It’s another reiteration that Jamie’s career has been no free ride. I ask what motivated him, what pushed him to knuckle down, train hard and make it happen. He warmed to the topic and a conversation ensured which revealed some deep seated emotional drives resulting from a typically British working class family up-bringing:
Jamie: I didn’t want to go back to my old job. I didn’t want my old man to say “I told you so!” Like when we left, my old man said to me smugly “You’ll be back!” and I just went “I won’t!” Me and my old man have knocked heads over the years.
Albion: What, about whether riding BMX is a viable career move?
J: Just in general, me riding BMX has never really gone down too well with him.
A: What’s his background?
J: He was a miner. Just a hardworking guy.
A: Was he working down the pits?
J: Well he started down the pits but he worked up to a mining engineer. He comes from a family of hard workers and he couldn’t accept that riding a little BMX bike for a living was a career move. But for me I was like “I’m not going back” I would have hated to walk back in the country and have to face him all like “I told you you’d be back” That was never gonna happen, so I knew I had to do something drastic to make it work.
A: Now that you’re the undisputed best vert rider in the world, what does your dad think about it now?
J: Probably the same. [laughs]
A: What about when he comes out here and stays in your massive house and watches you on TV making bank and winning medals, does he ever say “Sorry son, I was wrong. Well done, you’ve done well”
J: No. To my Dad it’s not a real job. To him, a real job is going to school, getting an education and putting some hard graft in, you come home, you have your tea, you watch the 9 o’clock news or the 6 o’clock news – or even both – and that’s what made him tick. That was his week, that’s what he enjoyed. He doesn’t understand that BMX is the hardest job I’ve ever had. Nothing’s guaranteed in BMX, it can be taken away from you so easily; it’s a hard job.
A: Would you say you’re one of the most professional bike riders out there today? In terms of being in control of all the variables that need to be in line to make it work.
J: Erm. . . well I’ve always had a strong work ethic, even from working back in England, I knew who my bosses were, and I knew that in order for me to keep my job I had to do good work and keep everybody happy. . .and I treat it no differently in BMX. I’ve always looked at it that I have a part to play in the relationship and I’m gonna uphold my part in the bargain.
I find the dialogue fascinating. The perplexing relationship between father and son: the need to impress, the need for approval, the need to save face. The non-acceptance of BMX as a legitimate career by his Dad clearly outlines the passing of time, the shifts in thinking and the evolution of society across a single generation. But although the power of the father/son bond is clearly profound, I push a little further and ask what else there was inside that made winning so imperative. Already knowing the answer, I ask if he considered himself an overly competitive person:
J: Yeah, I’m competitive. I’m hugely competitive. I like to compete. I’ve always been fascinated by the side of people that competition brings out, it intrigues me and it’s great to experience the ultimate high of winning, but it’s also humbling to experience what it’s like to come up short and you’ll only find that when you’re competing – whether that be with other people or with yourself.
The conversation moves round to how some people look up to superstars and think their position is unattainable, they put formidable talent down to some kind of gift from God or a genetic gift:
A: Would you say you were lucky or necessarily gifted bloke?
J: Not at all. I’m just a regular dude who worked hard and gave it his all. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly talented at anything, in fact a lot of my friends were better BMXers than I was, but through my life if I’ve ever found something I’ve liked, then I’ve always stuck with it and made it work. What I’ve done is just a product of hard work. The times that I’ve been sat broken in two, in tears at the amount of pain that is going through my body. . . you only have to look at the individual and appreciate what he’s actually put in to himself and the people around him and you have a better appreciation for why good things come to good people.
The dialogue swings back round to competition and to what it takes to be the best:
J: It’s a hard scenario to be in: To actually bring everything you’ve got to a situation. It’s physically impossible. . . if you were faced with certain death you would be amazed how much you’ve got in reserve, but you can’t tap into that whenever you like. It’s there but you’ll never be able to get it all out. People say to me “Well, you just make it look effortless.” But it’s not really as simple as that. The finished product may look effortless, but the whole time I’m doing it I’m constantly trying to control my aggression. If I get too aggressive then the riding will look like shit, but if I can get to where I’m on the edge, just ‘alright’ and not quite turn into the Incredible Hulk just yet, then everything goes to plan, but it takes so many years to figure out how to do it, how to stop yourself from physically shaking and just throwing-up under the pressure of the competition.
A: So you feel like sometimes people don’t appreciate that that two minute run in a contest environment is the product of your life’s work. . .
J: Everybody always looks at me like I have to be this person that constantly progresses vert riding, but anytime you land one of your hardest tricks right at the top of the ramp – that’s a big step. Because one, you’re nervous as hell.
A: What, so you are still nervous as hell when you’re on the deck, even though you might have those nerves in check?
J: Yeah, if I don’t get nervous before a contest then I start panicking. . . If I don’t get nervous then I think I’m gonna get broke off. So I’m always nervous, but it’s healthy. It’s only when you get into your riding, and start hitting your tricks and lines, that your nerves get calmed and adrenaline takes over. But you can let that get you too much, or you’ll end up spannering yourself! You can’t let that “Let’s Go!!!” get in your head.
A: What, like the red mist?
J: Yeah, you’re like “Hang on a minute, where did that “Let’s Go!!!” come from?” And that “Let’s Go!!!” can easily find you on the flat bottom with some guy rubbing your sternum going “Wake up, are you all right?”
A: [laughs] It sounds like that’s happened a lot?
J: Yeah, it has.
Sam, Jamie’s son, wants to play golf. He is a strong and healthy six year old lad. Energetic, clever and also well mannered, he often goes to ride his BMX at Woodward with his Dad. Sam stayed at home with his baby sitter over the X Games weekend, so I leave Jamie and his son to catch up on some missed time together. Kerry, Jamie’s beautiful wife who he’s been with for 20 years, prepares a meal of organic noodles, salad, nuts and berries. I’ve been away from home for a month now and this is by far the healthiest, most nutritious and delicious meal I’ve eaten since I left. In fact, it’s the best damn meal I’ve eaten all year. Kerry has played an epic role in Jamie’s success. She is a life coach, people come to her with goals and, through a program of Yoga, nutrition and meditation, she helps them realise that goal. And Jamie is very much a client of hers.
Jamie’s bike shows up the next day in a taxi and we both set about unpacking and rebuilding our bikes in the garage. The plan is to head to Woodward, to ride for the afternoon. I’m excited as, after seeing the BMX Mecca in videos for half my life, I’ve never been before. As we reassemble our bikes I ask who he rides with usually and whether it’s weird to have a mellow session with someone he competes against. He asks for the Dictaphone to be switched off. I oblige but I’m unsure whether that means he doesn’t want me to mention it in this piece, or whether he doesn’t want there to be hard evidence of what he’s saying. . . either way, I can’t turn my brain off.
He talks about Stevie McCann and Chad Kagy and the whole ‘competitive vibe’ there is between riders at the top. He talks about the rivalry and how Kevin Robinson was crying under the vert ramp after Kagy and him learnt double flairs.
He talks about the time he had to fly back to England to have his neck fused. Kagy and K-Rob were stoked as they thought, in his absence, they were going to frolic centre stage in the limelight for once. He bumped into K-Rob randomly at the airport when he was on his way home and the atmosphere was strange. Even though Jamie was hurt and having to fly back to get serious surgery on his neck, K-Rob couldn’t hide his elation at the fact Jamie would be out of action for a while. Even an insincere “Good luck, hope it all goes well buddy” would have done the job, but such is the competitive nature of these guys at the top, all emotion and common courtesy goes out the window at the first sniff of gold.
“It’s easy to find yourself on the flat bottom with some guy rubbing your sternum going “Wake up, are you all right?””
He talks about Stevie McCann and about how they no longer ride together. Whenever Jamie rode at camp McCann would make his excuses, saying he was too tired or hurt and just watch from the deck, not dropping in himself but just sitting there taking mental notes and figuring out what he had to do to beat him. He’d hang around waiting for everyone to leave. Once the ramp was free, he’d sneak back in and set about learning what he’d just stored in his brain.
He talks about how it can be lonely at the top. There was a social scene amongst the other riders, united by their shared jealousy, thirst for recognition and their contempt for the one man standing in their way. They’d all go out on the weekends and Jamie wouldn’t get an invite, when he enquired as to why that was, he’d hear back “we thought you’d be out with your doctor mates.” It’s salty at the top.
With our bikes now built up, we pack up Jamie’s brand new 5.7litre Toyota pick up – one of many perks that comes with sponsorship from a car company – and head to Woodward. On the drive we talk more about the importance of having decent facilities at your disposal and about the significance of Woodward to his career.
Jamie first visited Camp for an ESPN contest in ’98. He travelled with the rest of the GT crew, arriving two days before the contest started. On his first day there he was so excited he rode from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. With such a vast array of vert ramps, foam pits and resi ramps: he found it hard to comprehend what was going on. When he finally finished riding for the day all his team mates had gone and he was left there alone, in the middle of nowhere, 40 miles away from his hotel. So he walked into the office and told them of his predicament. A friendly man with a moustache offered him a lift, which he gladly accepted. Getting left that night turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the man with the moustache turned out to be Gary Ream, the owner of Woodward Camp. On the journey back to town they hit it off and it was the beginning of a strong relationship between Jamie and Camp – so much so that in 1999, Jamie and his wife Kerry bought a house nearby. “Maybe if I’d never have been left there and I’d never got a lift off of Gary, then maybe I’d not be where I am today” speculates Jamie.
We’re getting closer and my excitement is growing. We talk more about the Camp regulars and who regularly riders the vert ramp there. The conversation swings back round to competition and Kagy. I ask whether, although they’re not really close friends, whether he had called him to see if he was OK after his rather savage leg snap three days previous.
Jamie: Nah, I saw from Twitter that he’s OK. Like I said before, it’s not natural to be friends with people you compete against. With anything competitive, the guys at the top will always knock heads, because everyone’s going for the same goal. When you’re out on course – it’s all business.
Albion: What about Dave Mirra, was there any animosity there when you two were competing?
J: Dave Mirra? That guy’s a champ. He’s the same again, he’s a competitor. At the end of the day you try to be civil with people, but he didn’t want to be knocked off his perch and he puts that above everything else. Look what happens when he has a bad day! Christ! You’d think the sky’s fallen in!
A: Do you think that Mirra moved away from riding because you knocked him off his perch and he couldn’t climb back on?
J: I think he lost his focus for riding vert a few years ago, when he started a few too many projects that he had going on. At the end of the day we both knew what we were doing and we were both heavy competitors and there were a fair amount of times that I had to endure when the decision went his way. But because I had a healthy respect for BMX – you can take those decisions on the chin. Being from another country it’s not like I can go barking at everybody to try to rally the troops to be on my side, once the scores have been put down you can’t change anything. So it went his way for a while and I upped my game a bit and things started swinging my way. At X games 2000, when you watch the TV footage, as I dropped that turndown flair for the first time, it looks like his jaw is smashing through the bottom of his helmet [laughs]. It was one of those moments that was a tough pill to swallow for him. But then I missed the next two X Games after that through injury and his riding was awesome.
A: In my eyes he was the first person who really made vert riding look amazing. It all just came together for him, he was flowing properly. The tricks and the style all came together, and he stuck out because at the time it was all up and down and a bit ragged and awkward.
J: Yeah I know. Everybody kind of looks at Mat as this pioneer of vert riding, and I mean, he did some amazing things but look at Dave, he was the first one that made it look really good. Mat was going up and down and Dave just did so many big tricks that were so cool and went together real nice, so everybody wanted to ride like him. And that style transitioned into his Park riding as well, that’s why he was the most eminent athlete at X Games for so many years.
A: Yeah, I’ve heard he’s super competitive, him and Jay Miron. Ruben told me the other day about how at old BS Contests Mirra and Miron used to be stood under the judging tower just shouting up at them. That’s what I wanna see, I wanna see people shouting swear words with bright red heads with veins bulging out!
J: Everybody was, and still to this day, everybody is trying to establish themselves and people take things very seriously. I would not like to be a judge, they’re not biased or anything like that, but I just think it’s a very very hard job to do.
We’re still driving at this point – through the rolling hills of Pennsylvania – deep in Amish country. We talk some more about the old days, when he was making a name for himself, when the competition was fierce and fiery. We end up talking about Hoffman again. I’ve slowly been getting the impression that Jamie has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about him.
A: You were talking off record the other day about how Hoffman has always been regarded as the Grand Father of BMX. . . .?
J: Yeah, what’s that about? He’s a year younger than me! Here I am, just won X Games 17, just won five in a row at 40 years old. And then there’s Mat behind the scenes running the event and I’d bet he’d cut his right testicle off to be where I am. He’d give anything to be riding at the level that I am, and the level that he was. I read the interview in the first Albion and after that and his documentary, I got the impression that he had a very rough up bringing and he had to fight hard for things he had, but I know I sure-as-shit didn’t grow up with a vert ramp in my back garden, and my Dad didn’t give me my own private building to stick a vert ramp inside. Yeah, he made money through his sponsors and his bike company, but his foundations are all built on his own private vert ramp. The only other person I knew who had their own vert ramp was Carlo Griggs, and his has still got a dodgy height pole on it where there’s eight inches for every one foot on the stick [laughs] Mark Atkins was nine and a half feet tall last time we measured him on Carlo’s height pole. . . That’s why Carlo could 540 at 18 feet.
A: Do you ever feel like you get over shadowed in the American BMX media by people like Mirra and Hoffman?
J: Oh yeah. I’ve always felt like I’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place: I’m never gonna be the American hero because I’m from England and I’m never going to become the English hero because they don’t give a shit about action sports. I get a ton of messages saying how I should be in for a shot for BBC Sports Personality of The Year, but in reality I’ll be lucky to get two paragraphs next to the Tit Count in the Sunday Sport [laughs]. It’s just the way the English media are: they like sportsmen who rack up a tab, frequent their local cocaine dealer and are banging every ropey chick who walks the earth, to them, that’s a sportsman. But to me, that’s the complete opposite: I don’t get inspired by people who do that, I get inspired by people who do amazing things in their field of choice. But I’ve never minded, I feel like I’ve succeeded in my goal, and that was to quit my job and earn a living riding my bike, it never mattered that I’ve never been considered in the same light as those big dudes. They’ve gone on to other things, one’s gone on to rally car and one collects metal objects to insert into his body. To me, all I wanted to do is ride my bike. I’m never going to be England’s Sweetheart because some chick from Crewe crashed and got dead last in the Olympics – they make more of a deal about that than they do about a guy who goes out there and destroys everybody on a weekly basis.
A: That must be hard to swallow?
J: Yeah, it’s tough. I’ve seen the English media build people up, people who don’t deserve it, but I’ve also seen them just cut people down, people who do deserve to be where they are. I’m just glad they’ve never come knocking on my door because you have to accept that, while they might do great things for you initially, even the people they love the most, they will eventually just burn at the stake. And I’d hate it for them to drag up any old images of me out on the razz in Ripley out of my brain on snakebite! [laughs]
He flicks the indicator on to turn right and the truck starts to slow. I look out the window at a sight that feels familiar, even though my eyes have never seen it first hand. We pull into Woodward and park up. All around are cute gymnast girls and kids on bikes and world-class ramp facilities – I feel like I’m trapped in an adolescent BMXer’s wet dream. My eyes are torn between the gymnast instructors and the ramps. I probably shouldn’t be looking at the girls but, you know, ‘you can’t help what your eyes like’. The building of most interest to us is fittingly titled ‘Cloud Nine’ – the home of Woodward’s gnarliest indoor vert ramp. It takes us an age to get there as everyone and their dog wants to shake Bestwick’s hand and congratulate him on his performance at the X Games – the 5-peat. Being the friendly professional he is he takes the time to speak to everyone and it’s not until an hour later that we’re sat 13 feet off the ground on the deck in Cloud Nine. The ramp is big and perfect. The ramp has a foam pit section at one end and a resi section at the other. When combined with a burning desire to be the best, a boat load of creativity and 10 years of your life – the ramp is all you need to win gold at the X Games.
I’m still intrigued about the competitive environment and about what it takes to be at the top for as long as Bestwick. I think back to something Nyquist told me a week before. He said “Jamie has Insurance” After probing him for what he meant by the statement, it turns out he was referring to tricks. He was using ‘insurance’ as an allegory to highlight that fact that if a rider were to up his game and learn a whole load of heavy hitting tricks, then Bestwick has an answer for it. If he were to ever find himself in a silver medal position during a final, then he has an unseen repertoire of tricks to see off any challenge. The only reason he doesn’t use them, is because he doesn’t have to. He has secret weapons. Weapons of mass destruction that actually exist. I swing the conversation round by once again asking about judging
Albion: At the X Games the other day I heard a couple of people say they thought McCann should have won, he did some big tricks and really pushed himself. He really laid it on the line, where as you took it steady. What do you think about that?
Jamie: Well in his first run he did do better than me. Steve McCann scored better than me, and if it was ‘one run counts’ then he would have won the contest, but unfortunately for him it’s four runs where the top two count. The kid went out and did the same run three times! And I switched it up three times.
A: And then he gave up?
J: Yeah, he tapped out after two runs as he didn’t have anything left to do. I saw that he didn’t have anything left to throw. It’s not like he was going to do that same run again, for the third time, because he knew he would get scored less, and the likelihood of him pulling that no-handed 900 again was very slim [laughter]. So it’s like, to me, my deal has always been: I go in and if I can get it done in two runs then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll post some good scores early on and then I’ve got one last run. And if I’ve won before that last run, then guess what? I’m taking a victory lap because I’ve got another contest next month. I mean, what’s the point? They’re not going to plaster me all over the X Games because I went nuts in my last run. If I have to, then great, I’m more than prepared to do that. But I’m not going to get anything extra from the contest, and I’m not going to risk being sat there in a cast, eating hospital cheeseburger and watching the shittyist cable TV on a cheap television set. Or I can enjoy winning and move on to the next contest. I saw McCann do the same run three times, and I saw him do that no-handed 900 and I knew that it was over. Where as he knew damn well that I still had plenty in the tank [laughs].
A: Can we talk about that a bit. Hypothetically speaking, say he dropped in on his fourth run and dropped a double flair, what would you have done then?
J: I would have dropped in and done a double flair.
A: [Laughs] I’m not sure if you’re being serious or not. But if he’s dropped the no-handed 9 and a double flair then he would be in front. Would you have anything to trump his no handed 9?
J: You know what’s funny? I had no-handed 9’s dialed for the 2002 X Games [laughs] and when I broke my ankle and had to sit that one out, low and behold, Mat Hoffman went and did one. I’ve been doing no-handed 900s for 10 years.
A: But what about now. Just say he had pulled a double flair and no-handed 9 in the same run. What would you do then?
J: Well then it would be on then wouldn’t it!
A: You’d have to wheel out the big guns then wouldn’t you?
J: You either sit there and suck your thumb, or you step up to the plate. You never know what people are going to do, while Stevie McCann was still jumping up and down celebrating his third run I’d gone. I was in the ramp. I’ve been against Mirra in these situations and I know to just get in the ramp, shut him up and get the eyes on you [laughs]. And all I thought about was putting a score up by his to shut him up. Because I knew that when we go to that 4th and final round, I’ve got way more experience than anyone else on that ramp in being under that sort of pressure. And you just make it happen.
A: But what are your big guns? What are you packing in your arsenal? I want trick names [laughs].
J: Ok, so hypothetically, if he does pull a run out of his ass that is incredible, then I’d have to stick on my Paul Daniels hat, cape and wand and make it happen.
A: But you would have done it though yeah? If you had to.
J: I would have done it. My misses is there, she would have taken care of things if things would have gone tits up. And you just do it don’t you?
A: So you would have stepped up?
J: You have to. Because if you don’t then you make yourself look like a bit of a tit. And you never know, it could be a turning point. I even thought about it when I was riding in. If you ever get put in the position where someone beats your run, then it’s the same in every competition: you’re going to stand your ground. I’m always really proud that English BMX is still number one when it comes to vert riding. And for me, I’m not ready to pass the torch on to the Australians yet [laughs]. I saw him [McCann] win in mega-ramp last night and I was like “There’s no way I’m letting you walk in here and trousing me!” But if somebody does put a golden run together then you make it happen.
A: And you’ve prepared for that scenario though yeah? You have tricks in your bag that you don’t do but you could do if you needed to?
J: Yeah. I was at Woodward for one day in between Dew Tour and X Games and all I worked on were the banger tricks.
A: Into the foam?
J: Into the foam, then on to the Resi.
A: Is it like just flipping a switch? Do you have those big tricks hard wired into you?
J: Yeah. You basically shut off when you take off. And you don’t say too much shit, it’s not like Brave Heart where you go ”AAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!” and you’re in the air all like “THIS IS IT!!! DO OR DIE!!” [laughs] You just take off and everything is real fucking quiet, you could hear a pin drop, even though there’s thousands of people there and the music’s up full blast. But when you take off it goes dead quiet and you either hear an almighty bang, or you find your pedals and you ride off and think “That was amazing!”
A: I guess it’s only through practise and experience that you can do that?
J: Yeah, if you talk to anybody that has ever done anything where it’s all about 100% focus and making sure that all the practise you put in goes perfect, there is this kind of quiet. . . kind of quietness. . . and you can’t hear anything and you’re not really thinking like “Shit! OK! I’ve gotta do this!!” It just happens. And then you land. And you’re like “That was amazing” After I dropped the double downside whip flair I popped out on the top of the ramp and people were freaking out and I was just like “Well I guess that worked out”.
Jamie Bestwick is a professional. If BMX were ever to be accepted by the mainstream media then as far as skill, professionalism and dominance are concerned, he’d be up there with the likes of David Beckham, Valentino Rossi and Kelly Slater. He’s very competitive professional who holds his cards close to his chest. After we are done shooting, in one last ditch effort, I asked if I could have a quick look at one of his big guns. He smiled, dropped in, hit two set up airs before floating a perfect double flair – he made it look like child’s play. I laughed out loud. Witnessing the ease with which he spun and how perfectly he landed, it dawned on me that – much to the frustration of a lot of vert riders and even though he’s in his 40’s – Jamie Bestwick and the English flag are set to be on the top step of the podium for a good few years to come. And to anyone brave enough to challenge him – I bid you good luck – for you’ve got one hell of a fight on your hands.