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Origins of Racing BMX Bikes

If I say the phrase “extreme sports,” what comes to mind? Something involving wheels? Any sport that distinctly does NOT use a ball of any kind? There’s a good chance that BMX racing is high on the list. You’ve likely seen it before on television, maybe in a bar or simply flipping through channels. A bunch of thirty-somethings ride bikes and do tricks on a hilly dirt track, right? Well, as with anything, there’s quite a bit more to it than that.

The first step to understanding BMX racing is knowing what BMX actually means. The term itself actually stands for “bicycle motocross.” BMX bikes are typically shorter than other bikes, and made of materials such as steel or aluminum. In professional BMX racing, there are two types of wheels. One is a 20” wheel, which is more agile, and more popular with younger racers. The other, called the Cruiser Class, is any bike with a wheel that’s 24” or more. There are also three subcategories of BMX bikes that vary depending on what they’re used for.

A “true” BMX bike is multipurpose, able to handle anything from off-road terrain to dirt racing. It has a lightweight frame and a strong rear brake. These bikes started the BMX craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when children took inspiration from motocross racers at the time and began racing and doing stunts on their own neighborhood bikes. As the trend grew, these bikes evolved to become more lightweight, faster, and sturdier, becoming the BMX bikes we know today.

A freestyle BMX bike is used for stunts and tricks in locations like skate parks, so it has a sturdier, beefier frame. Its tires are more oriented toward pavement than dirt, so their treads are smoother, and it usually comes with axle pegs for the rider to stand on when in the air. A jump bike is basically a mix of both BMX and freestyle bikes, and is meant for both small stunts – such as jumping ramps – as well as trail riding. It more or less mixes the wheels of a freestyle bike with the frame of a BMX bike.

As mentioned above, BMX bikes are usually made of a chromoly steel or aluminum frame, and each has its own benefits. Chromoly steel is denser than aluminum; as a result, the frames are heavier than aluminum, and more economically friendly. On the other hand, aluminum frames are lighter, with wider tubing. Aluminum, unlike steel, also doesn’t rust. So although an aluminum frame might get more scuffed up, there’s also less of a rush to replace any banged-up parts.

There are also different frame sizes for BMX bikes, depending on the riders’ ages. These include Mini for ages 4 to 6, Junior for ages 6 to 9, Expert for ages 9 to 13, and Pro for ages 12 and up. These can be customized by the store or the rider as well.

As mentioned above, BMX racing began with neighborhood kids in Southern California. In fact, we can trace the craze back to a single model of bike: the Schwinn Sting-Ray. It was small and widely available, and its ability to be easily customized for better performance made it a natural choice for aspiring bike racers. By the mid-70s, BMX racing had become extremely popular in the U.S., and hit the U.K. as a new trend in the early 80s. 

However, unlike the short-lived U.K. fad, the popularity of BMX racing never left the States. In 1977, the American Bicycling Association (ABA) was established to organize the growing sport, and the International BMX Federation followed suit in 1981. In 1993, BMX racing was added as an official sport in the Union Cycliste Internationale, a global organization that oversees and governs sports cycling; in 2003, the International Olympic Committee added BMX as an official Olympic sport, which began in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. 

Professional BMX racing itself is an exclusively off-road sport, performed on a single-lap race track of varying materials, depending on the race’s location. The level of the track, as well as other rules regarding rider conduct and bike standard, are overseen by regional, national, or international groups who manage the races themselves. For example, in the U.S., the two major sanctioning groups until 2011 were the National Bicycle League (NBL), and the ABA. In Australia, the Australian Bicycle Motocross Association (ABMXA) has sanctioned BMX racing as a professional sport since 1975. The first was more of a personal project by an Australian businessman, who admired American motocross racing. The second, more professional organization, was formed by merging three regional groups together in 1981 to make what we know today.

When shopping for a BMX bike, there are three main things to look for: the brakes, handlebars, and tires. The brakes are the most important when considering the rider’s safety, especially depending on the activity of the rider. True BMX bikes and jump bikes usually sport rear brakes, while freestyle bikes have both front and rear brakes. The type of brake is just as important as placement as well. The two most common types of brakes for BMX bikes: the linear-pull brake and the U-brake. 

The linear-pull brake offers a stronger grip, which leads to a quicker, more complete stop. This is more useful on an off-road track, so BMX bikers prefer linear-pull brakes. On the other hand, U-brakes offer a more controlled stop than linear-pull brakes, so freestyle bikers who perform on more level ground prefer them. Think of them as light switches: if linear-pull switches are simple on/off switches, U-brakes are dimmer switches.

As far as handlebars go, there’s a tiny difference between BMX bikes, and freestyle and jump bikes. Handlebars for the latter two rise at more of an angle than the BMX bike, to give the rider better mobility when doing stunts on pavement. In addition to this, handlebars on 24” BMX and jump bikes have a shorter rise on them than 20” bikes.


As we’ve covered before, there are also subtle differences in the bike’s tires, depending on the bike’s function and the terrain it performs on. BMX bike tires are more focused on traction, to make better turns and changes in speed. Freestyle bikes, as mentioned above, have tires with smoother treads, better suited for pavement than dirt. These are also available in a premium standard, which means they inflate to higher pressures, providing less roll resistance, better rim protection, and more absorption during landings. Jump bikes aren’t usually made for racing, so their tires are better designed for traction, making the treads bigger. 

The story of BMX racing is more or less a story of the power of youth across the world. A adrenaline-fueled passion – a bunch of kids in California inspired by watching motocross racing – has grown into an international sport that’s recognized not only by governing bodies in many nations, but also by the Olympics. A closer look at its workings (literally as well as historically) reveals something that’s nothing short of inspirational.