OLDSMAR — Josh Meyers moaned. He stood on the edge of the hard clay track under bright lights. It was 40 degrees. A stiff wind from the west worked its way under his jersey into his old racing fractures, inflaming them. Meyers is 21. He groaned in the cold like an old man.
Children as young as 3 surrounded him. They wore racing jerseys and massive crash helmets like Meyers'. They rode 20-inch bicycles like his that cost a thousand allowances. They whirled their bikes around, down and up a 1,200-foot-long banked and furrowed clay circle of thrills. None of them cared about the cold.
This was a last-minute night practice before their Oldsmar BMX track hosts the American Bicycle Association's Gator Nationals this weekend. Some 1,000 racers from Europe, Asia and Australia, including past Olympic medalists, will descend on Oldsmar trying to earn points toward the 2012 Olympics.
They'll compete on a track where parents do the work, cook the burgers and pay the city light bill. Their payoff is a sport for their children that is physically challenging, environmentally friendly, does wonders for kids' esteem, but often breaks bones.
The night practice was a cold one, a proud one. Pro racers, some with thick foreign accents, mingled among the children. Meyers took laps, looking like he rode a rocket.
Whatever Meyers has, every kid there wanted.
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Meyers tells the little ones not to be jerks. Just work hard. Take the hits. He was just like them. He began racing at 7, always intent on going pro. He's now a professional Double A Elite racer, competing for a spot on the Olympic team. He travels the country, lives mostly on his winnings. His sponsor is Ssquared Bicycles, a new BMX company started by the director of the Oldsmar track, John Sawyer.
Meyers' female counterpart at the Oldsmar track is Amanda Geving, also a 21-year-old pro. She has raced since she was 9. She has her own sponsor. She's headed for an Olympic training center after the races this weekend. Like Meyers, she goes like a rocket around the Oldsmar track. On the cold practice night, her long blond hair flew out the back of her helmet.
Geving has two collarbone fractures. Meyers has one. She broke her wrist, ribs and ankle. He broke his hand, thumb, wrist and ankle. She lacerated her liver. He separated his shoulder. She can't remember all her concussions. He remembers nine. Could be more.
Once Meyers woke up from a crash in Arizona and thought he was in Orlando.
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Bailey Brannen has long blond hair, too. She's 8. She goes to San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin. She's so small you'd never guess she can fly on a bike. On the practice night, she soared past boys.
She started riding when she was 6. She surprised her family. Her brother was supposed to be the racer. She competed in the BMX Nationals in Oklahoma when she turned 7. She came home ranked the third-best girl racer in her age group.
On the freezing sidelines on practice night, she looked and sounded like a miniature version of Meyers and Geving. She has that look of quiet, controlled aggression.
When she passes packs of boys, she claims the right of way:
"I put my elbows out. They know I'm there."
Bailey would like to turn pro one day. She wears a top-rated helmet, like Meyers and Geving and the rest of the pros. She has had no serious injuries, her dad said, despite "some pretty horrific crashes."
Like the pros, when she crashes, she gets back up, gets back on.
John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or [email protected]