‘Are you a lady?’ he said, peering up through his helmet.
We were lining up to race against each other in a relay race. I couldn’t work out which answer might throw him off his game so I settled for: ‘Are you ready to race?’
And we set off.
An hour earlier I’d been kitted out with a helmet, gloves, knee and elbow pads before taking my place at the end of the line in the beginners group. All the BMXers in front of me were about half my height and were regulars. I did not feel intimidated.
Instructor Tim explained how to pump the bikes and reminded us to avoid pedalling over the humps. I was the only one who asked questions and I realised the difference between instructing children and adults. Tell a child to do something and she or he will have a go. Tell an adult to do something and we want to know about the technique and the exact moment when we should do that thing. I made a note to do whatever Tim said – no more questions.
And so I found myself going over a few humps. I hadn’t expected that would happen so early in the session and took it a bit too gently – so gently that I ended up having to pedal to get over a hump or two. After two or three turns up and down, Tim pointed to a spot about two-thirds round the track. It towered above me and, as I wondered how I’d get there, the rest of the beginners cycled past me. I pushed my bike to the top and looked at the humps and berm ahead. It looked daunting.
Tim told us to pump over the humps then pedal fast round the berm to turn and pump over the next set of humps. I watched everyone else fly round the track and gave myself a talking-to.
I pushed off, managed to pump over a couple of humps, panicked on the berm, bashed my shin on the pedal, and pedalled over the last few humps. We all did it again. And again. I started to get the hang of it.
Tim called us together and led us to another hump – the highest on the track. From the top of the hump all I could see was a descent, then a climb, a few humps, a berm, more humps, a berm, more humps, a berm, more humps. I realised Tim expected us to make our way round the whole track – a series of S shapes. He told us a BMX race starts with a descent and explained how to use the brake to control the bike on the descent. I must have looked anxious because Tim told me to wait until everyone else had gone round. He told me to hold the brake as I descended and let it go when he shouted.
I whizzed down the slope, he shouted, I took my hand off the brake and found myself flying up the hump. I pumped, pedalled, pumped, pedalled, pumped, pedalled. And I’d completed my first circuit of a BMX cycling track!
Back to the start line at the top of that hump and a bit of chat broke out. Someone asked me if I could bunny-hop and what grinds I had. I looked at him blankly and muttered about it being my first time at the track. Another BMXer, barely 40 years younger than me, told me how well I was doing and told me to pedal faster on the berms. A couple of dads, ex-BMXers and coaching from the sidelines, joined in and said I looked a natural. I beamed and pumped my way round the track.
We gathered on the start line again and Tim positioned some cones on a hump and a berm. He explained how important it was to be in the right position during a race and how to shift our weight on the bike to move faster round the berm. One by one we made our way towards and through the cones: some of us got it, some of us didn’t. Tim called out to each of us, giving advice, encouragement, and praise.
Tim divided us into two teams and set us to race against each other. And that’s when my rival asked if I was a lady. We raced. He beat me. Twice.
After the session I told Tim how much fun I’d had and wanted to come back. He told me to wear long sleeves next time and said parents often brought their children then took up the sport: ‘There’s a woman who came along with her grandchildren, now she competes in regional events.’
BMX cycling. 29 August 2015
Hornfair Park, Greenwich
Cost: Free for first session, then £2 per session for members and £3 for non-members