It’s a brisk February morning and Mile End Park is buzzing with the sound of children playing basketball and the low whirr of passing traffic. Punctuating the calm, Lakhdar Djelloul’s bicycle pump puffs away as safety checks begin on a neat row of upside down BMX bikes.
Djelloul has been a manager and coach at Tower Hamlets BMX Club since it started in 2011. “BMX is getting better and better in Tower Hamlets,” he says, taking a break. “We’re looking for kids to get involved because we have a competition coming up. We support them - we’ve got the bikes, we’ve got the helmets, we’ve got the gloves. We just need the kids to get involved and active.”
Getting new members shouldn’t be a problem. Cycling and BMX are among the fastest growing sports in the UK, according to research by the Local Government Association released this month. Councils across Britain reported, on average, a 51 per cent rise in participation.
British Cycling said: “[There’s] a growing interest across all areas of participation and competition. As a facility-based sport, BMX clubs are able to develop strong communities. The competitive scene is booming, with increased participation across all of the regional and national race series.”
Britain’s best riders must take some of the credit for this popularity. Last year, the BMX World Championships were held in Birmingham and, in the build up to the Olympics, billboards all over the country were emblazoned with the face of 2010 world champion Shanaze Reade. During the Games, she and men’s competitor Liam Phillips became household names. The pair are now gearing up for this year’s World Championships in New Zealand, but race fans will be able to catch the next round of action in the UK as both will be pedaling through the supercross event in Manchester on April 19 and 20.
Locally, this rise in participation is visible in the recent rapid emergence of clubs in east London. As part of its BMX Legacy project, children’s charity Access Sport has set up five clubs in the Olympic boroughs of Greenwich, Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Tower Hamlets.
With support of major sponsors like Adidas, Barclaycard and GlaxoSmithKlein, the organisation has built tracks in these boroughs with the aim of creating and maintaining BMX clubs in the East End that will help to promote cycling in general, as well as offering disadvantaged children access to a sport growing in popularity.
Paulo Cotrim is a sport development officer at the charity who also coaches at Hackney and Tower Hamlets BMX clubs. Helping Djelloul out in Mile End Park, he says: “I started in Hackney BMX Club about a year and a half ago. At the beginning, we didn’t have much help from volunteers, but at the moment, we’ve got about five parents who are very much involved in the day-to-day running of the club.”
Through these clubs, donated equipment goes towards classes on Saturdays and Sundays, with race days and competitions dotted throughout the year.
“At Tower Hamlets, we have between 45 and 60 regular members and that’s just the club - we have schools getting involved separately as well. We will have events in the holidays and we’ve got nearly 100 kids involved already, which is very good.”
Discussing the ethos behind the clubs, he explains that the clubs aim to get kids interested in sport early in an effort to draw them away from gang activity down the line.
Cotrim adds: “What we try to show the kids is that if they listen, they will learn something. It’s something different from school, which sometimes they’re not that interested in. BMX has proven that they can catch an interest and that they can look forward to something.”
Over at Hackney BMX Club in Haggerston Park, its young members seem to have responded exactly as Cotrim and Djelloul hope. Taking a breather between circuits of the impressive, purpose-built track there, Miles, 11, says, “We didn’t know anything about BMX before we started.”
His twin brother, Ruben, adds that the sense of community at the club is the aspect he likes the most. “In the summer, we have barbecues,” he says.
Their friend Finn, 10, agrees: “It’s nice having a social life, outside school and stuff. It’s nice to ride around and be free and do whatever you want.”
To gauge if BMX might help to keep them on the straight and narrow, Eastlondonlines asks what they want to be when they grow up. “An Olympic BMXer!” Finn offers immediately. “I don’t know if I want to do racing or stunt or both,” he explains. Then, after a pause: “I might want to be a paleontologist, though.”
“It’s too early to say what I want to be,” Miles muses, sagely. His brother declares more certainly: “An engineer.”
Then, after further consideration, Finn finishes: “Maybe I’ll be an engineer too.”
To watch an interview with Miles, Finn and Ruben, click here or see the next tab.
By Alan Dymock and Hugh McCafferty
Access Sport works in conjunction with borough councils to provide classes during school breaks. Other purpose-built skate and BMX tracks are available for public use but can only cater to experienced riders.
For example, the bowl at Clissold Park, Hackney is not recommended for unsupervised beginners to try out tricks, and the court-wrapping run at Telegraph Hill, Lewisham, can feel like a gauntlet on a busy day. See our listings and map below for the best spots to race around or pull a stunt, supervised or with friends.
This park in Purley has a small, five foot-tall metal ramp, intended for skaters and cyclists to use. It is free to access, but more information on the park can be found by email email@example.com or telephone 020 8726 6900.
The South Norwood park can be accessed from entrances at Selhurst Road, Tennison Road and Cargreen Road. It has a multi-purpose skate facility with a quarter pipe and a number of ledges. It is free to use, and changing rooms are available. The Park is locked in the evening. More information on the park can be found by email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 020 8726 6900.
Recently redeveloped, the skate park boasts a large area with hip ramps and a spine ramp. The nearest train stations are Waddon Station and West Croydon Station. This park is free to use and more information on the park can be found by email email@example.com or telephone 020 8726 6900.
This park has two bowls and is marketed as a “wheels park”, but the shallow bowl and the larger five foot deep bowl suit riders looking for somewhere to practice simpler stunts. The nearest tube station is Manor House, though it is roughly a 15 minute walk away. The 73, 106 and 476 buses all stop outside the park. This park is free to access, but more information on the park can be found by email eleanor.Potter@hackney.gov.uk or telephone 020 8356 4215.
This dirt track, purpose-built for Hackney BMX, is the flagship race site for Access Sport. The large site is free to use whenever the park is open, but lessons can be taken with Hackney BMX at 10am on Sundays. The first session is free, and £3 per session thereafter. To find out more email the club at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The BMX park at the Catford park – on the route of the 138 bus – takes some finding. With the park circumnavigated through cycle tracks, though, you can ride around until you find it and good things come to those who wait. The facilities are free to use. All Lewisham parks are handled by Glendale, who can be contacted at 020 8318 3986.
Partially shrouded by trees, this wheel park wraps around a games pitch in the middle of Telegraph Hill Park. Its quirky design encourages acceleration as you head for the bowl sections at the end of the run. Favoured by skaters, but accessible for confident BMXers. Free to use.
Home to Tower Hamlets BMX Club, this undulating racing track is free to use. The club has sessions every Saturday; however, they work with local schools like Bow Boys, and run outreach sessions weekly. The schedule for the track can be checked here. The park is very close to Mile End tube station. Details and availability can be checked by emailing email@example.com.
There is also a dedicated skatepark in Mile End Park. This is predominantly a skater zone, but if you’re looking to attempt some tricks, rather than race, this might be the place to go. There is a bowl, some ramps, ledges and plenty of graffiti.
Tricks top the agenda again here with ledges and ramps to pedal towards. Ringed by fences, this is your own little cage to try stunts in. The Island Gardens DLR is within walking distance of this site on Westferry Road.
You can try out tricks at this uniquely-designed roll hole. Bowls, ledges and banks await the intrepid cyclist willing to mix it up with the skaters. Don’t be intimidated by the design; there is plenty of room to shoot around. The park is free to use. The park manager can be reached for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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