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The Weekend World of Sport // Pedal with mettle

(ran TP edition)

When he's 5 feet in the air and pedaling hard, BMX Bicycle Motocross racer Mikey Paschall has a couple of thoughts going through his head.

"I think that I might fall, or that I might win," says the Northside Christian Academy second grader. "Mostly I think I'm gonna win."

Mikey, 7, has good reason to think he's going to win. In his age group, he's ranked No. 1 in the nation in bicycle motocross, a fast-paced sport that takes competitors over clay tracks riddled with jumps and steep-walled turns, and occasionally into hair-raising crashes. BMX is sometimes compared to motorsports like dirt-bike racing, but BMX competitors reach speeds of up to 25 mph on their own lung and muscle power.

Saturday, the Florida BMX state championships come to the Lake Park BMX track in north Hillsborough County, bringing an expected 1,500 competitors and 3,000 spectators from around Florida.

Many of the top BMX racers in the competition, including Mikey Paschall, will be racing on their home track. Some of the best include Pasco County's Angelica Alexander, 9, also ranked No. 1 nationally in her age group; Tampa's Phillip Rossi, 8, ranked sixth in the nation in his age group; and Rick Herrick, 22, of Land O'Lakes, ranked No. 1 in his division and headed toward a professional BMX career. In all there are about 40 ranked competitors registered in Lake Park BMX, giving the Tampa area a strong showing in the sport.

"This area is strong because we race all year long," says Mark Gonzalez, Lake Park track director and stepfather of Phillip Rossi. "Up north they can race only four or five months out of the year."

BMX is a sport that doesn't get much mainstream publicity, but it has a devoted and growing following worldwide.

Thousands nationwide line up behind starting gates every weekend, and wait for the drag-racing style lights to go from red to yellow to green before they bolt down the starting hill and into the first harrowing series of jumps. The clay tracks are anywhere from 900 to 1,400 feet long, and one lap _ the distance of a race _ takes about a minute to complete. Racers as young as 4 are allowed to compete, and some participants continue into their 40s and 50s.

Many competitors wear slick, hi-tech uniforms covered with the logos of equipment manufacturers, and usually sport sneakers like Vans or Simple or other surf-style footgear. Helmets and gloves add to the road-warrior look, and talk that hangs somewhere between skateboard talk and dude lingo adds to the subculture cachet.

"You've just got to pump it," Angelica Alexander said after a practice race last Sunday to explain how she came from second place to win on the final straightaway.

Angelica wears pink and light blue racing gear and sports a scar on her right shin from a nasty spill she took at the Grand National races last September in Kentucky. She said it was the only time she's been scared in her three-year BMX career, and the only time she didn't place first in a major competition.

Amanda Gremal, 7, of Clearwater, says she doesn't get scared either, proper demeanor for someone who's ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 7 Girls division. Amanda got involved in BMX after watching her older siblings, Melissa, 13, and Chris, 11, compete at the Lake Park track.

"Jumping is the most fun," she says. "I like to be up in the air."

But Amanda doesn't try it at home on the curb. In fact, she doesn't even get off the sidewalk.

"I'm not allowed to ride in the street," she explains.

AT A GLANCE

1996 Florida State BMX Championships at the Tampa-Lake Park BMX track, in Lake Park on the west side of Dale Mabry Highway, just south of Van Dyke Road.

Practice and registration, 4 to 8 p.m. today. Races start at 10 a.m. Saturday. Barbecue and party with live band and DJ at 7 p.m. Saturday. Awards ceremony at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Spectators get in free. $30 to register for rookie, novice, expert, girls and cruiser classes; $20 for open class; $40 for pro/super 20-inch class. Price for barbecue is $5.

For information, call the Tampa-Lake Park BMX Track, 265-1269, or Mark Gonzalez at 996-4817.

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