In 2004, Dipak Panchal, then 17, went with his older brother to watch the Moto X race at the National Sports Club of India grounds in Worli. A shy child, Panchal had grown up emulating his elder brother. At 13, after seeing him do a mean wheelie on their old bicycle, Panchal began trying out stunts too. A year later, when his brother began watching Moto X races with an all-consuming interest, Panchal realised he simply loved motorbike races as well. But when the duo went to watch the competition that warm spring day, Panchal didn’t end up going beyond the parking lot.
He stood there mesmerised for two hours as he watched four men perform stunts on their bicycles that he’d never imagined were possible. When one of the riders approached him, he was all too glad to show them the stunts that he’d been practising over the past few years. They weren’t too many or too complex, but they were done with an ease and grace that impressed the riders. One of them, Rahul Mulani, told Panchal he’d keep in touch.
All for one, one for all
A week later, Panchal found a package at his doorstep. It had a VCD of flat land stunts called Ground Rules, by Matt Wilhelm, and a piece of paper that had Mulani’s phone number. That was Panchal’s introduction to the world of bicycle stunting, called BMX because it’s like the all-terrain motorcycling sport Moto X, but on bicycles.
For the next three years, Panchal, Mulani and five others met regularly at Shivaji Park in Mumbai to practice their stunts and learn new ones. They called themselves, simply, the BMX Group.
Mulani (38), who now sells BMX bikes, believes that BMX freestyle — which includes flat land stunts and street riding (see box) — is one of the few sports in which competitors are friends. They encourage each other to push the limits of their skills and be creative with the kind of stunts they can perform on a bicycle.
Mulani, who began practising stunts at the age of 15, himself grew in the sport when he met other BMX riders at Worli seaface. They boys called themselves the ‘Radicools’ and practised stunts at ‘Scandal Point’ in Breach Candy.
“Back then, there was no Internet or cable TV. The biking magazines that book shops stocked were too expensive for a teenager with less pocket money. So I’d go to the raddiwala, and take the magazines from him. The cover would have been torn off, but at least the pictures of stunts were there,” says Mulani.
“A lot of what we did as stunts was self-taught. Then we’d exchange tips on how we did them,” says Mulani. Perhaps this is why Mulani was driven to help Panchal, who, like him, had no guidance in the beginning.
It’s not a deathwish
Like any other urban adventure sport that involves pushing your skill and your equipment to their limits, BMX comes with its share of danger. Cuts and scrapes are part of the game, but good safety equipment goes a long way towards ensuring there are no broken limbs. Even so, most parents don’t view bicycle stunts as a sport but some sort of teenage rebellion that is too unsafe an activity for their children.
Preetpal Singh (17) recounts what his mother told him when he began practising bicycle stunts on the wide road in front of his Sector 23 house in Chandigarh, four years ago. “She said, ‘Why can’t you simply go cycling? What’s the need to do all this?’,” says Singh, a Class 12 commerce student.
“My older sister would cringe and shut her eyes, as she was too scared to see what would happen to me whenever I tried showing her a new stunt I’d learnt,” he adds. His family tried very hard to get him to stop. They’d tell him that it was too dangerous.
“They just couldn’t understand my craze for stunts,” says Singh, who won the prize for the best Bunny Hop stunt at a BMX event in Bangalore in October.
It was only when Singh won his first competition by performing stunts on the mountain bike he then owned that his parents realised that what their son does is a sport in its own right.
“BMX freestyle is an alternate sport. It’s not a deathwish, it’s not dare-devilry. Like any other sport, it too has building block moves, which must be mastered before progressing to the more difficult ones,” says Mulani.
“You can suffer an injury on the hockey or cricket field too,” says Mulani. He adds, “To minimise injury while performing stunts on the BMX, you must wear proper safety gear.”
But the attraction of someone doing stunts on a bike is unmistakable. When Singh practices street riding in the park near his house — riding on the benches and jumping over fences — a crowd of children gathers around, full of questions and eager to know more. In true BMX rider style, Singh always obliges.
He has grand plans of participating in international competitions like X Games (a competition for extreme action sports that takes place annually in the United States). But, he admits, his level of preparedness isn’t enough. There’s no infrastructure available to motivate X-Game enthusiasts. So Singh has decided to take matters into his own hands. He plans to create a wooden ramp in his backyard and practice ramp riding and other stunts.
In a cricket-crazy country, it’s no surprise that infrastructure for BMX biking is hard to come by. “But we bikers are just happy riding our bikes and being in the sport,” Mulani says.