SAN FRANCISCO—Street style landed in force on Justin Herman Plaza April 30th, when the RedBull Ride + Style event mixed 60 top freestyle street cyclists from across the USA and Japan with a collective of urban contemporary artists at an event Seattle rider Tyler Johnson described as “the sickest contest that’s happened in fixed gear.” (which was a compliment).
Sport may not be art, but the kinetic energy at this novel event, co-conceived by Red Bull and Oakley, may have seemed to many like poetry in motion. “This could be the start of something big,” said Oakley’s Steve Blick, who’s been around edgy sports long enough to spot something sharp.
A crowd numbering in four figures stayed around throughout the afternoon to watch first a collection of 30 cycle messengers contest a series of high-octane sprint style races, and then on a more flowing note, another 30 former skateboarders, bmx’ers, and random talented dudes show their skills on a collection of artfully decorated obstacles.
Loud music and non-stop commentary, fitted to the youthful age of the contestants, artists and audience, embellished the happenings of the day. Above this electronic din could be heard the occasional explosions of inner tubes bursting, a normal occurrence in the world of fixed gear street cycling.
“Three years ago there would have been a lot more,” observed one rider to another, in reference to the invention of heavily treaded tires specially designed for fixed gear bikes that brake by locking up the rear wheel. None of the bikes used by contestants in this event appeared to have the conventional caliper brakes that slow the bike by squeezing ungently on the rim.
Competition began with an urban hurtle on a track of maybe 300 yards, which some said was so tight as to virtually prohibit passing. Action in this one-on-one race was heightened by the crashes of riders attempting to… pass, and by others who simply miscalculated their ability to negotiate the railings and the radii of the curves.
After a series of solo time trial qualifiers, then a knock-out contest for the fastest among these, Jason Clary, a 28 year-old bike messenger from Oakland, emerged victorious. Clary said, “It was a close and technical course that allowed me to show my style of riding. That’s what it’s like out there among the traffic,” and, “This race wasn’t about time. For head-to-head racing the course was too skinny. I knew if I got the hole shot into that first corner I’d be OK.”
A few minutes later, in the freestyle riding qualification rounds, Japanese rider Kozo Fuji, from Nagano, Japan, pulled a backflip off a ramp with a large spider painted on its face. It was the first time anybody had seen this move in a competition, and in addition to the admiration of the other riders, Kozo was awarded a carbon fiber and titanium Oakley Minute Machine watch with a value of $1500.
“They’re a fun group and very talented.” said Kozo of his US counterparts.
For all his aerial prowess, Kozo did not make the final cut of riders for the ride-off round of solo performances.
Urban artist N8 Van Dyke has spent more time illustrating comic books and video games than making street art, but he seemed happy enough to see bicycle tires scuffing the surface of the work he’d provided for this event. “It’s a neat thing to see a collaboration between riders and artists. They fit together very easily,” he said.
The final hour of the day was given over to the finals of the freestyle event. The finalists performed two two-minute segments.
Seattle rider Tyler Johnson, 23, led after the qualification rounds. In the finals he rode the rail like nobody else, but a bobble at the one-minute mark and a crash at the end of his first round may have been what put him back to third place.
Josh Boothby, 25, of Castro Valley, has been riding fixed for one year now after 12 years as a bmx rider. He pulled a creative move on the Spider ramp, putting one hand down on the wood while arcing his 25lb bike high over his head. It took him two attempts to get this improvised trick right, but combined with some very solid riding throughout this earned him second spot on the podium.
Local impressario Matt Reyes, 21, from Gilroy, California, had been skateboarding everywhere on his trips to San Francisco until two years ago. “I got tired of pushing wood and started riding,” he said. Reyes flowed through his two routines with the grace and continuity that one might expect to see in a gymnast. He pulled a 360-degree mid-air turn and finished his second act by leaping his bike over the crowd barrier.
“You feel like you have to go big, all out, pull out all the stops. I try to think of it not as a run, but as one big line. That’s the way I go at it,” he said.
And did he expect to win here today? “Of course not! I just came to kick it with the guys and maybe go on a ride later in the evening.”
“I didn’t think I did that well, I usually don’t win these things,” he added.
Somewhere amid the bubbly champagne sprays spurting from the podium one of the riders said “I hope to see these ramps again some time. I hope they don’t sit in a warehouse and rot.”
If Blick called it right, they should be back in use before too long.