A small group of BMX riders takes turns riding their bikes straight up a 10-foot wall next to Koka Coffeehouse on Riverside Drive in the East End. They pop off the wall, turn around in the air and come straight back down. The parking lot next to this tiny coffee shop hits a slanted wall at an angle, accidentally creating an urban quarter-pipe.
Tony Neyer, 21, lays a broken piece of wood at the bottom to smooth the transition and then rides up the wall, violently spins the back end of the bike around underneath him in the air, lands high on the wall and rides back down.
Nick Beiting high-fives Neyer and says, "I thought about doing that trick here, but fuck that."
Beiting, 20, pulls the same trick on much less scary terrain a half hour later, jumping off a sidewalk, whipping the bike around and landing on a grass hill. But Neyer's version is the type of stunt that gets a rider noticed.
Neyer recently signed contracts with two BMX companies, making bike riding his new primary source of income.
A fire engine pulls into the parking lot, and the riders dispute whether firefighters would actually stop to kick them out. The engine pulls up, stops and firefighters' heads pop out each window so they can watch the bike riders. Neyer high-fives the guy in the front seat, the riders show off a few tricks and the engine leaves, its occupants not knowing they just witnessed a group of semi-professionals practicing their craft.
Obscure and unexpected riding spots like this wall-ride make up for Greater Cincinnati's lack of one centralized bike-riding location, like a public skate park or large set of trails, by instigating a progressive brand of bike riding popular within the BMX world. Dedicated local riders find and create their own places to ride by frequenting various run-down, crooked parts of town where new-school street riding meets old-school architecture.
Despite the immense dedication and general obscurity of the Cincinnati BMX life, local riders work hard to maintain a progressive and well-respected scene.
From dirt to street
By the time television familiarized society with action sports during the early 2000s, Cincinnati had already established a respected BMX scene. Local riders appeared in bike magazines doing tricks over dirt jumps far from sunny Southern California, where the sport originated during the 1970s.
Dirt jumping paved the way for BMX's mainstream success, as televised contests focused on the flashy "extreme" BMX stunts in the late 1990s. Cincinnati's numerous sets of trails drew professionals from all over the region during this time, and bike companies headquartered in Dayton used local trails to shoot photos for advertisements.
As more kids took up BMX and skateboarding, a need for more courses to ride and skate developed. Once cities started building public skate parks, riders quit building their own trails and the sport changed.
"The scene shifted from trails to skate parks," says Jeff Maurer, 27, who maintained a popular set of trails during the late '90s and early '00s. "I grew to enjoy skate parks, but it just isn't the same feeling. The younger rider's attitude is different than what I shared with the people I grew up riding with."
Even though local riders had to drive to the suburbs and other cities to ride public skate parks, the scene moved away from its dirt-jumping roots as riders spent more time riding and less time digging. Riders didn't have to lay the groundwork themselves, like Maurer and others before them did.
"People's attitudes changed from just hanging out at the trails with some buddies, putting some work in and respecting what you ride," says Neyer. "Now all you have is kids that ride their local park, learn a few big tricks and want to go pro with it."
Consequently, a new breed of BMX rider developed throughout the sport. With more emphasis on ramp-riding technicality than big air, riders turned to smaller, lighter bikes and components. Bike companies produced frames with thinner walls that sacrificed some strength for lighter weight. And people started riding without brakes, adding yet another degree of difficulty.
While the industry shifted its focus to efficiency, riders focused on technicality.
But without a single, identifiable place for locals to regularly ride together, the overall scene here broke apart into smaller factions of scenes.
"It isn't like it was back in the day when everybody rode together and everybody knew each other and influenced each other," Neyer says. "Not everyone is riding in one place, so it seems like it's smaller."
Maurer notes that the sport's increasing media coverage sometimes takes away from what he and his friends valued, which was the camaraderie, friendship and overall relaxing, noncompetitive experience. It was the competition for sponsorships and exposure, however, that continually forced the sport's evolution.
"Today's riding isn't anything like it was when I was a pro," says Josh Cornell, 26, a Cincinnati native who now lives in Portland, Ore. "It's all about circus tricks -- front flips, double back flips and tail-whips all over the place."
Today, local riders continue the trend started by Cincinnati trail riders, earning regular coverage and sponsorships on ramps and street. As always, the current riders build on the creations of their predecessors.
"They start off where we left off because the things that they see in the media become the norm for them," says Dave Jacobs, 28, who moved to Los Angeles and started a clothing company called Micreation. "The expectation, as far as what they can do, is much higher. For them to do something as simple as a 360 or something like a 360 down 10 steps like Matt Bischoff did 10 years ago is not such a big deal. Back then it was a big deal."
Since the trail-riding days, Cincinnati locals have had trouble maintaining that one identifiable, centralized spot where the city's best riders regularly meet.
Matt Bischoff, 33, looks like the type of guy your parents told you not to hang around with -- part Rock & Roller, part skateboarder, part homeless man.
The tattoo-laden BMXer and his 12-inch red beard stand atop an 8-foot platform in his suburban backyard. Ramp skeletons crowd the nearest corner of the half-acre Union Township backyard and worn-down, crumbling dirt jumps take up the rest of the fenced-in yard.
Last summer, Bischoff organized a contest called the Red Bull Backyard Build-Off, coercing the energy drink company to fund a 4,000-square-foot ramp in his backyard and fly professional BMXers to Cincinnati to build, ride and judge a contest. The event was a hit, with former X-Games winners shredding ramps and trails and trees and whatever else the builders included in the makeshift ramp design.
The fun was short-lived, however. Neighbors complained about the ramps, and the township forced Bischoff to tear them down due to zoning violations. The worst part, he says, is that the people who complained live behind the yard on another street and can see the ramps only during winter.
"They're just fucking assholes," Bischoff says. "PBS TV called me and filmed some little kids' show here one day, so there was this TV crew here. I think people are nosy and have nothing better to do than get into other people's business. All my neighbors on my street wrote letters on my behalf saying, 'We love Matt. We love the bike ramp.' But that didn't matter."
Bischoff purchased the home in 2000 after renting a place nearby and building a set of trails in the backyard. For a couple years he hosted some of the best trail-riding sessions in the country.
He's always taken it upon himself to facilitate the Cincinnati BMX scene -- during his 20 years of riding he's built numerous sets of trails, created clothing companies and made videos of local riders. He created Failure Bike Company in 2005 and currently sponsors four local riders and nine others, including an X-Games gold medalist. He says he started the company to distance himself from the uptight, corporate BMX world that erupted when action sports' popularity introduced loads of money into the sport.
Bischoff looks out on his suburban skate-park wasteland. His long beard tilts slightly to the side in the cold spring wind.
"All I ever wanted was a place for me and my friends and Cincinnati people to fucking ride, you know? It just got shut down," he says.
Bischoff plans to rebuild 1,000 square feet of the ramp according to code but still thinks Cincinnati riders deserve a public place to call their own.
Other riders agree.
During high school, John "Burny" Dixon was the official chairman of the Wyoming Skate Park Committee and helped persuade the suburban town to build a public skate park near his parents' home, which it did in 2004. The skate park has been an asset to the community, according to Wyoming Parks and Recreation Director Mike Pearl.
"People saw the kids skating down the sidewalk and running people over on public property, so everyone knew there was a need for it," he says.
The city received a state grant to help fund the upgrade of Oak Park, a public park a block north of the Municipal Building that already included soccer fields, basketball courts and public restrooms. The free cement skate park has loosely enforced hours for BMX, skateboarding and in-line skating.
"Since we've had it, we get nothing but compliments on it," Pearl says. "This time of year people are noticing it. When big sister goes down there to play soccer, little brother goes over to the skate park."
Despite skateboarding organizations dedicated to lobbying the local government for skate parks, administrators at the Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC) know little about the interest. A publicly funded skate park has never surfaced as a request or consideration of the CRC, according to Mike Thomas, the organization's interim director of recreation.
He says BMX riders and skateboarders know where to go to participate in their sports.
"We would entertain a conversation if someone approached us, but we don't have the resources at hand to move much closer," Thomas says.
The Greater Cincinnati area offers publicly funded skate parks in Delhi, St. Bernard, Wyoming, Hamilton, Middletown and Florence. Two other public parks exist between here and Louisville, where a 40,000-square-foot cement public skate park is open 24 hours a day year-round.
The Louisville Metro Government built the Louisville Extreme Park in 2002, and the park system operates it.
"It's crazy for Louisville to get that huge fucking skate park when there's a better BMX scene in Cincinnati," Bischoff says.
Finding spots, creating styles
The group of riders drives from the Koka wall down the street to Sawyer Point so one rider can grind a handrail next to the river. They arrive at the scratched red rail to find it has been equipped with skate-stoppers -- curved pieces of metal screwed into the rail at regular intervals. There will be no more grinding on this handrail or the hundreds of feet of ledge along the walkway, which these riders say they've never grinded.
"I didn't want to do that thing anyway," says Travis Kiesow, 27, who moved here from Los Angeles four years ago.
It's not difficult to find handrails with decent runways that are less dangerous than this one, which sits next to a cement wall.
"It was a good spot if you wanted to go down there and do a rail, but whatever," Kiesow says.
The BMXers will have to go back to riding their favorite spots in the more run-down parts of town, where no one bothers to block handrails or ledges. They'll go back to Walnut Hills or Norwood or cross the bridge to Covington to ride abandoned parts of town where crooked walls and collections of ledges form mini urban skate parks.
Cincinnati's odd-shaped urban obstacles actually contribute to the scene's success today. The city's crooked ledges and slanted walls instigate street-riding, which involves riding random objects in the city -- curbs, banks, handrails and park benches -- though more obscure landscaping makes for more creative riding.
Doug Horton, a 22-year-old rider and Electronic Media student at UC, says Cincinnati is well-known for its odd-shaped architecture influenced by hills and age.
"You can't find this kind of stuff anywhere," Horton says. "Street riding has really become riding weird stuff you find rather than just a handrail or generic ledge."
Shad Johnson, a 30-year-old rider from Portland, Ore., visited Cincinnati last summer while filming a BMX road-trip video. The group of professional riders planned to stay at Bischoff's house in Anderson for two days, but after the first street session the riders decided to stay an extra day.
"There was so much stuff to ride," Johnson says. "We didn't want to miss out on some stuff we couldn't explore that one day."
Horton has spent the past three years filming a video dedicated to the Cincinnati BMX scene. From Nothing should be finished in June, with distribution planned for August. Six local riders will have their own sections, and outsiders riding Cincinnati spots will be featured in another.
Horton started the video as a hobby, but as his friends and local riders began getting sponsorships and national recognition he realized there was something special to document. Cincinnati riders have consciously made it known that they're part of a street-riding scene, and the lack of a single formalized bike-riding facility is evident in the video.
Riders like Neyer combine the new-school street-riding skills with the city's obscure landscape by pulling stunts like tail-whips, which are normally done over dirt jumps or ramps, off street objects like wall-rides.
Last summer, Jeremiah Smith watched his friends ride a small set of dirt trails in Greenhills. Recovering from a broken collarbone he suffered while riding his bike, Smith had planned on healing for a few more days before testing it.
As the session progressed, Smith, 19, changed his mind. He decided to borrow a bike and try to do a trick he'd recently learned: a 180 back flip. This is noteworthy for three reasons:
· Professional bike riders didn't perform the trick, called a flair, until the early 1990s, much less injured teenagers still living with their parents.
· Flairs are intended to be performed on a half pipe so the rider is launched straight up in the air and can land on the same ramp that launched him.
· Smith pulled the trick on someone else's bike, having not ridden for weeks.
"I looked for the bike that felt the best and tried a few of them," Smith says. "It wasn't too difficult. I thought it was going to be a lot harder than it was."
Smith currently rides for Failure, and his willingness to combine BMX styles -- pulling the flair on a dirt jump -- is an example of his own innovation and the sport's attraction to creativity.
The grimy life
Burny's roommates hang out on his back porch in Clifton drinking beer on a chilly spring evening. It's Friday night and there's fun to be had in college town, but Burny, a 22-year-old Industrial Design student at UC, refuses to get involved.
Instead he'll ride his BMX bike around the UC campus like a 12-year-old kid ramping curbs in his parents' neighborhood. It's 40 degrees and dark and breezy, but Burny is going riding.
"This night was made for BMX!" he yells, adding dramatic, surfer-sounding sarcasm, "It's like when a surfer waits months for the perfect swell."
Not only is Burny willing to ride his bike by himself in the cold, he's willing to sleep in a closet in order to afford living with BMX friends. He lives what he calls "the grimy life" -- a quasi-communal college life of nine dudes living in a five-bedroom house.
Living with a bunch of BMXers means he always has someone to ride with. He's currently sleeping in a closet for $60 a month and doesn't mind it at all.
"My room's fucking sweet, I don't know what you're talking about," Burny says when asked if living in a closet might be inconvenient.
Travis Kiesow sacrificed his closet for Burny and saved a little cash in the process. Kiesow's rent dropped from $175 to $115 when Burny moved into the room.
After randomly moving here from California, Kiesow stayed for the opportunities to live cheaply and ride with guys he liked. By living in the big grimy house with eight roommates, six of whom ride BMX, he keeps his bills low, allowing him to work part-time and ride when he wants.
"I'm trying not to work," says Kiesow, who was recently added to Bischoff's Failure team. "I really don't want to have any responsibility or restrictions. I didn't move to Cincinnati to have a wife or kids, so I'll do whatever it takes for me to live cheap and still keep a roof over my head."
Part of the BMX life is the relaxing, laid-back social interaction, says Burny, who enjoys such simplicities as sitting on his porch waiting for roommates to come home and hang out with him.
Another housemate, Josh Suhre, rides for two British bike companies and studies graphic design at UC. In addition to allowing him to work less, the grimy life gives him the opportunity to skip town every three months to work co-ops for his college program.
Known for jumping off buildings and down sets of stairs onto handrails, Suhre is one of Cincinnati's most technical street riders. He's also one of the most often injured, as evidence of his five major surgeries.
"It's kind of crazy to be doing something so dangerous and getting broke off more than most people do in their entire lives," Suhre says. But even after multiple knee and shoulder surgeries, Suhre says he doesn't really consider the possibility of re-injuring himself and going through the entire rehabilitation process for a sixth time. By now, it's just another part of the lifestyle.
Suhre and another rider, Kevin Morris, pedal around outside UC's new recreation center during a recent weekday afternoon. They ride across curved ledges on their back wheels and try 180s and 360s off the end. A campus security guard pulls up and drops this painfully lame line: "You can't do tricks on campus."
When the officer drives away, Suhre starts "doing tricks" again, and Morris sarcastically points out which moves are tricks and which aren't. They think it's funny that no one in Cincinnati takes their skills seriously.
"I think it's cool that this really underground amazing thing thrives here," Suhre says, "and nobody knows about it." ©
John "Burny" Dixon hops a handrail and then 360s down five steps on the University of Cincinnati campus. Burny, a UC student, has no books with him.
Travis Kiesow stalls on a steep cement wall after crossing a busy street and riding up a slanted parking lot. Cincinnati's BMX riders frequent random places in town like this East End grade school. Tony Neyer slides a handrail during non-school hours.
Tony Neyer pulls a 180 in an East End parking lot as a fire engine pulls in and checks.
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