BMX riders to showcase their artful sport on Gasparilla weekend

Performing a Hitchhiker trick is Jay Marley, promoter of the BMX Flatland Jam. As many as 75 BMX competitors are expected at the Tampa event Jan. 28. [Courtesy Matt Coplon]
Performing a Hitchhiker trick is Jay Marley, promoter of the BMX Flatland Jam. As many as 75 BMX competitors are expected at the Tampa event Jan. 28. [Courtesy Matt Coplon]
Published January 17 2018
Updated January 19 2018

TAMPA — There’s more coming to pile on Gasparilla weekend than just the National Hockey League’s All-Star Game.

On Sunday, the day after the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates and just as the world’s top hockey players compete at Amalie Arena, stunt bike riders will vie for bragging rights from noon to 6 p.m. at the Gasparilla BMX Flatland Jam in the rustic, brick Rialto Theatre.

Tickets are $5 at the door.

One purpose of the event is to expose the city to the underground sport.

"It’s like break dancing or ballet on a bicycle," organizer Jay Marley said.

Riders perform stunt routines to music, doing so without the use of ramps or other jump props but by manipulating a BMX into various positions, typically with just one wheel touching the flat surface that serves as the competition space.

"Expect to have your mind blown," said Orlando’s Chad Degroot, 41, who will be one of the judges and helps Marley plan the event. "If you’ve never seen this before, you’ll be amazed at what they can do."

Performers, for example, spin the bike in circles on either wheel, sometimes while standing on the handlebars or performing a handstand on the seat. And they seamlessly transition from one trick to the next.

"It is an interpretive thing," said Marley, 45. "Aside from being a sport, it is as art. It’s why it stands out from other disciplines."

Marley began holding local competitions four years ago, hosting one annually on Labor Day weekend.

A few months back, Marley decided to add a second yearly challenge, scheduling it for Gasparilla weekend to show off the Tampa culture to visiting participants. "Let people see the craziness," he said.

Marley expects as many as 75 riders — a mix of professionals and amateurs ranging in age from 15 to 51 years old, with a third of the entrants coming from out of state and as far as California and France.

Amateurs will compete for five prizes — best front wheel trick, best back wheel trick, best front and wheel trick, best old school trick and best overall trick. Professionals will be ranked first, second and third based on their routine.

Still, Marley said, who wins and who loses is secondary to the art.

Paraphrasing surfing icon Laird Hamilton, Marley said, "Artists feel the need to be better than their previous selves whereas competitors feel the need to beat other people to make themselves feel better."

Degroot the judge echoed that sentiment. "From outside it looks like a sport but I consider it an art. It has personality. It has originality."

Marley discovered flatland BMX riding at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. "I saw guys doing a tricks and wanted to do it," he said.

He performed for the next 15 years until work, personal relationships and "life in general got in the way," he said. "So, I took a break."

Then, 11 years ago, his father died and Marley returned to the sport to cope with the loss.

"Muscle memory is a great thing," he said, adding with a laugh, "It was like riding a bike."

But he realized many of his old riding buddies had also taken a long break and that the sport was attracting little new talent. He ascribed this, in part, to a "dearth of events."

"You still see it during NBA half time shows or at monster truck racing, but that’s about it," Marley said. "So, I started my own thing."

The sport never had a large following in Tampa, he said.

But while his first event drew just 10 competitors, Sunday’s has seven times that many.

"Hey, it never hit the mainstream like skateboarding. But we’re still here having fun and creating. Why stop?"

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.