The sky’s the limit

2010-05-12 00:00

“SO how many of you have broken bones?” I asked the group of eager-faced youngsters semi-circled around me. All but one hand went up and a gaggle of conversation broke out as bits of anatomy were proffered for my inspection and, I gathered, admiration: several arms, collar bones and wrists and one thumb.

I had to examine an assortment of “roasties” or grazes on an array of arms and legs. They varied from the fresh and still bleeding to rainbow-hued scabs in various stages of recovery.

My next question was an obvious no- brainer: “And what do your parents think about all this?” It’s a fair question for a journalist to ask, I thought, squashing my maternal instinct back into its box. Another volley of answers hit me: “They only get angry when I get hurt.” “My Mum hates it but she lets me do it anyway.” “They worry about my safety but they’d rather I did this than take drugs or get into trouble.” “They aren’t too keen, really …” “They prefer me to do this than hanging out at the mall.” “I got grounded and they wouldn’t let me do it for a while …”

The group yelped with laughter as one boy joked: “But he bunked out and came and did it anyway!”

The activity that has such a magnetic attraction for a group of local teenagers that they’d rather be doing this than pretty much anything else, and risk parental wrath too, is dirt jumping. In other words, riding bicycles over a series of jumps to become airborne and perform tricks before landing again (see box).

Just about any weekend, public holiday or day in the school holidays, you can find this group of 15 to 20 teenage boys, mostly pupils at Maritzburg College, plus a few from Grace College, at one of several dirt- jumping venues in the Town Bush Valley area. There are sets of jumps on open land beside Town Bush Road and Anne Stafford Drive in Montrose and Campbell Road in Chase Valley. However, the most popular spot, where the group can be found most often, is on a track beside Cascades shopping centre. No one seemed to know who had built the original track there, but the boys agreed it had been there “for about 15 years”.

That is where I first encountered them, one Saturday afternoon, and my children and I sat for some time watching — they, in awed admiration, and I in amazement tinged with parental angst — as boy after boy took off and flew over a series of dirt mounds, sometimes performing tricks like turning 360 degrees in the air, taking their feet off the pedals or hands off the handlebars.

They assured me it was fun: “Once you try it, you get hooked. It’s the adrenaline rush of risk involved in trying to go higher or do new things. The rush becomes addictive, though sometimes it does get scary trying new and bigger stuff, different tricks or getting to bigger heights.”

Although the group comprises mostly boys, they said there were two girls who take part occasionally. Several of the boys also do downhill racing and participate regularly in competitions.

Denise van der Merwe, mother of one of the jumpers, Ross, explained that the boys themselves build the tracks and jumps. “You have to admire their dedication. They build the jumps and tracks themselves by hand. They come out here on weekends sometimes with their wheelbarrows and spades to build new jumps or modify old ones. They can spend a whole Saturday just working on them.”

Asked whether they followed set designs for their jumps, the boys grinned: “It’s a process of trial and error and we only know if it’s going to work when someone is stupid enough to try out a new jump,” said Sven Pottow, another talented jumper. Dirt jumping is an element of popular culture and has been featured in several films and television programmes. Information on how to do different tricks is available on the Internet, from DVDs and other popular media.

The group recognised that it is a dangerous sport and stressed that they adhere to one of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) rules: “Always wear a helmet”. Some had full-face downhill racing helmets, while others sported skateboard helmets. Protective padding like that worn by downhill racers is also available, but most seemed content without it.

A quick look at some of the types of tricks that dirt jumpers perform confirms that this is indeed a dangerous sport, probably defined as an extreme sport. For example there’s a Nothing, a Backflip Tailwhip (aka Flipwhip), a No-foot Can-Can and a Suicide No Hander (see box).

Van der Merwe commented on the camaraderie among the group and the noncompetitive spirit that prevails. “There is a great team spirit and they really encourage one another and help each other to try out new things.”

The group’s biggest disappointment was that their sport is not an official school sport. “If we could have a set of jumps at school it would be awesome and the sport would definitely become more popular and grow,” said Peter Bentley, one of the most experienced jumpers.

The director of sport at Maritzburg College, Mike Bechet, said: “To be recognised as an official school sport, it has to have a coach, be properly organised and have regular inter- school fixtures. None of that applies to dirt jumping, though if boys do well we acknowledge their achievements by announcing them in assembly, for example, as we do for other unofficial sports like karate.”

The sports co-ordinator at Grace College, Kyle Emerson, said that the school’s approach is similar. Mountain biking is a recognised school sport, but “if a pupil achieved success in dirt jumping we would publicly congratulate him, but it’s not an official school sport”.

Another downside of dirt jumping is the cost. The boys admitted that it’s an expensive sport as most of the equipment is imported from the UK and Canada, which Bentley described as “the biggest biking country in the world. It’s not big in South Africa because it’s hard to find sponsorship, there’s no money in it so there are no professional dirt jumpers here. We do it for the love of it and to have fun. It’s also something we can carry on doing for a long time.”

Although none of the group saw themselves trying to make a future career of dirt jumping, they all agreed that they could see themselves still doing it in their 20s when studying or working: “Most definitely.”

Their advice to anyone wanting to try the sport was simple: “Don’t go out and buy a bike as you may regret it later as a waste of money.” They explained that most had known people who had bought bikes in a fit of enthusiasm only to discover once they tried it, that the experience wasn’t quite what they had thought it would be.

Their suggestion instead was “Come and watch and talk to us.” Van der Merwe confirmed that the group welcomes new converts and is always happy to help anyone interested in finding out more about dirt jumping. “They are very encouraging and often spend time coaching newcomers,” she said.

“We’ll be here every day during the World Cup holidays in June and July,” they assured me before racing off to get back to their passion: flinging themselves and their bikes through the air.


Dirt Jumping:

WIKIPEDIA defines it as “the practice of riding bikes over cement-type jumps of dirt or soil and becoming airborne”. The idea is to ride at speed up to a takeoff platform that launches the rider into the air before landing again on the landing. It can be done on almost any kind of bike, including mountain and BMX bikes.

Dirt jumping evolved alongside BMX racing and is similar to BMX or mountain- bike racing in that riders jump off mounds of dirt, but differs in that the jumps are usually much larger and designed to propel riders higher into the air. In addition, the objective is not to complete the course in the fastest time possible, but to perform the best tricks with the best style. Trails are most often hand- built, with attention to detail.



Double: the most common form of dirt jumps consisting of two separate earthworks, one for takeoff and the other for landing (also known as a gap jump);

T abletops: more common among those new to the sport, they are a single earthwork with a takeoff at one end and a landing at the other, with a flat table on the top;

Step ups : a ramp just before an incline to enable a rider to jump from the top of the incline; and

Whoops/Rhythms: a series of usually three or more small rounded ramps close together to enable a rider to “manual” over them.



Tyre grab: grabbing the front tyre;

Cannonball: taking both feet off the pedals and grabbing the seat with both hands;

Suicide No Hander: hands behind back with legs pinching seat;

No Footer: both feet off pedals;

One-foot CanCan: one foot taken off and put over top tube to the other side of bike;

No-foot CanCan: similar to One Foot Cancan except done on both sides so that both legs are together, off the pedals and on the same side of the top tube;

Backflip: rotating bike and rider completely upside down and continuing to rotate 360° of vertical rotation until facing the original angle or direction;

360˚: rotating the bike and rider completely round 360° horizontally until facing the original direction;

Front flip: inverse of a back flip;

Tail Whip: kicking the bike while holding the handlebars so that it makes a 360- degree rotation while the rider does not rotate;

Nothing : nothing is touching the bike, hence the name; and

Backflip Tailwhip (Flipwhip): as the name suggests, doing a tailwhip while upside down (halfway through) a backflip. — Wikipedia.


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