Hundreds of BMX riders from throughout the Southeast converged on the Strausser BMX Sports Complex on Sunday to earn a place at the national championships at the Gold Cup qualifier.
Racers as young as 2 years old and as old as 65 braved the rain, lightning, bees and even a gate malfunction to put on a great show for spectators in what was the climax of a tremendous racing weekend with the help of volunteers and board members.
It all started Saturday night with a double-points race before 263 riders filled the complex in rapid fire heats for all ages and abilities.
Nick Jones, track operator, said this race got all the best from the southeastern part of the country together for this triple-points race and qualifier for the national championship in Clemens, N.C. at the end of September.
“This is the first time for our track to host a qualifier. There are a few riders who will compete in the BMX World Championships this summer in Belgium. And two of them are my kids,” Jones said. “There is another boy from this track (Caden Cunningham) and another (Vincent Danielo) from Venice going as well.”
Avery Jones, 10, has been riding almost three years and joined her brother, Grady, as a national and world qualifier.
“I got bored watching my brothers race so I wanted to do it. I started beating the boys so my dad put me in with the girls,” Avery said, the 2019 Florida BMX Female Rider of the Year. “I was really good at it and I kept practicing to get better.”
Sydney Caldwell, 9, Avery’s best friend and teammate who leads all girls in points at the track, has raced since age 4 and is able to hold her own with Jones and is in the running for the Gold Cup.
“It’s the aesthetics. It makes me feel good that I can do something that’s good for you and super fun,” Caldwell said. “Everybody here helps each other and we all have a lot of fun.”
The youngest competitors at age 2 are called strider riders and ride bikes without pedals on a shortened track and don’t compete for points. At age 5 is when they start earning points and national rankings.
The track features a huge jump after the second turn that is typically reserved for the top riders, which only a handful used. It can be a quicker way down the track, but also very dangerous.
The races came quickly, as soon as one race reached the halfway point, another race was getting started, with a hydraulic gate opening to send the riders down a short incline and on their way.
Riders keep earning points right up to the time they qualify for Medicare. Ed Knight, 47, of Wimauma, north of Ellenton, started BMX riding two years ago with the encouragement of two friends who have cystic fibrosis like he does. They started a race teams called Oxygen Fiends.
“We were formed to raise awareness about cystic fibrosis and to bring everyone together and have fun,” Knight said, He is coming back after a crash broke his shoulder blade, collarbone, two ribs and collapsed a lung. “This sport helps keep my lungs clear with all the jumps and bumps and my body and mindset strong.”
Knight did well, but was unable to qualify for the finals.
Some older riders got back into the sport after their children got into it. Wayne Hardman, of North Fort Myers, 39, raced for six years as a kid from 1991-96 before growing up and having a son, Wayne Jr.
“My dad said there was a race here and he told me to take my son. He loved it and a week later we were out riding. We’ve been hooked for more than five years,” Hardman said, who travels with his son to competitions nationwide. “It brings back old memories and it’s in your blood. You feel like you want to compete.”
Wayne Sr. came into the event with a huge lead in his 36-40 age group. His son is second in his group to Cunningham.