Flying Bikes in Fulton
Published on October 10th, 2019 by Molly Brind'Amour
It’s a hot, sunny weekend in early September. Schools have just opened up, pools have started to close, and the leaves around the track have started to turn a little orange, but at the Gillies Creek Park BMX track, summer is in full swing.
It’s race day for Richmond BMX, but no one at the park looks too stressed. Families are spread out on folding chairs and bleachers, their tailgates open. Little siblings munch on snacks, parents cheer on racers and black-clad teenagers gather on a bench. Burgers sizzle on the grill. But with the park tucked away in Fulton, many Richmonders have no idea that this track exists.
The area, in Richmond’s East End, had once flourished as Fulton, one of Richmond’s most historic African-American neighborhoods. But when vacancy rates rose in the 1970s, the city decided to raze the neighborhood, displacing its residents.
In 1998, the BMX track was created in the new Gillies Creek Park, Richmond BMX track operator Gary Craig explains.
For 20 years, the track was stewarded by the Gillies Creek Park Foundation. Today, Richmond BMX is partnered with Enrichmond Foundation for financial stewardship.
“To allow for some future growth we have turned to Enrichmond to help with the next phase of our journey,” Gary explains, “and with helping provide a long lasting non-profit foundation that will live on long past my tenure as Track Operator.”
Life at the Track
Today, bikes and their riders make the park as lively as ever. While city Parks and Recreation takes care of basic maintenance like mowing and trash collection, Richmond BMX is tasked with keeping the track clean and safe — and that’s no easy feat.
It requires a lot of volunteer hours for Gary, who also works full-time for Capital One and lives about an hour away from the track. He often spends four days a week at the track: Tuesdays for clinics, Thursdays for gate practice, Saturdays for cleanup days and Sundays for races.
It takes a lot of work to get to those fun Sundays: from long hours practicing at the track to all the setup, cleanup, staffing and coaching the sport requires from parents and riders alike. But by the time Sunday comes around, families are ready to reap the rewards of their work.
And race day really is a family affair, with multiple generations enjoying a breezy day in the park. At the track, you might hear a parent cheering on their small child (“Pedal, pedal!”) or a small child cheering on their parent (“Go daddy!”).
The first event of the day is for the youngest riders. The three-year-old racers use balance bikes: bikes without pedals that allow kids to get used to the feeling of balancing their weight on the bike.
Two very small children sit on chunky-wheeled bikes for their shorter race. Sarah is wearing a unicorn mohawk helmet, while Lukas is wearing a shark helmet.
It’s a good example of the atmosphere of the track; everyone’s excited for them, even if the little ones don’t quite know what they’re doing yet. Sarah doesn’t really seem to know where to look, and has to keep being reminded by Gary, today’s announcer.
“Sarah! Over here! Sarah!” Gary says, with a laugh in his voice.
Meanwhile, Lukas keeps going around after he finishes his lap.
“Hold on, Lukas, once is enough!” says Gary. “Lukas taking bonus laps!”
But progress is progress, and Gary reminisces with the crowd on Sarah’s growth.
“Remember when it was all she could do to just walk the bike, and that was just a few weeks ago!” he exclaims over the microphone. “Now she’s cruisin’ around on the track!”
Because Gary is at the track so much, he’s able to really get to know the riders, whose ages range from 4 – 71. He’s been working here since 2013, and became track manager in 2014.
A few days after the Sunday race, Gary is back at the track for a racing clinic on a warm Tuesday evening.
“When you’re here as much as I am,” Gary explains, “…you watch ‘em grow. It’s kinda hard to not pay attention to their individual stories.”
BMX is sorted by three proficiencies, determined by number of wins. Riders need a certain amount of wins to go from novice to intermediate, and intermediate to expert.
Gary likes to make notes on his sheets based on what he hears from parents about their rider’s wins. One of his favorite parts of his job is learning when a rider is about to move up a proficiency level and being able to announce that special win as they near the finish line.
“That’s the most fun that I have,” Gary says.
Race day Sundays are a mix of skill levels, with the youngest kids testing the waters while older kids and adults fly over jumps with their wheels in the air.
A Sport for Everyone
While those jumps may seem impossible to an outsider, the moral of the story, for Gary, is that anyone can ride. Richmond BMX welcomes anyone out to the track, of any age, as long as they can stand on a bike and pedal.
The track is open to the public every day of the year, except when special events are going on, like races and clinics. To get started, a racer just needs long pants, long-sleeved shirt, a helmet and a bike.
But if riders don’t have that, they can borrow a bike or helmet from Richmond BMX during one of their programs. For those who want to come to a skills clinic, on Tuesdays, the cost is just $5.
And as an “at will,” sport, BMX allows riders to race without any sort of skills test, so long as they can ride a lap without assistance. A yearlong license to race is $60, and race fees are $10.
But Gary and Richmond BMX want to make the sport even more accessible. The group sponsors young people who want to ride, often from the nearby area, getting them set up with gear and paying their membership and race fees.
In return, they just ask that the kids come and stay involved with the track, like by attending track cleanup days — or, in Gary’s words, “show us that you want to be a part of the organization.”
For Gary, this is one of the most rewarding parts of his job. He’s witnessed riders turn their grades and behavior around through getting involved with the track.
According to Gary, sponsorship starts when neighborhood children start to hang out by the track. For him, it’s the kids that keep asking questions that stick out.
Once Gary and Richmond BMX decide that they’ve found someone they want to sponsor, usually a young person between the ages of 10 and 16 who really wants it, they sit down with the child’s parents and explain what they can offer.
“Here’s what we can do. It’s not a lot…but it’s a positive space,” Gary will explain.
It comes down to that communal mindset that anyone can ride.
“Nobody here is on their own,” Gary explains.
In addition to the kids biking on the track, today’s clinic brings a huddle of kids, probably from nearby, gathering around the fence, watching the bikers.
“I wanna race too!” exclaims one of them.
Gary’s quick to encourage them to come back on race day, Sunday.
“Long pants, long-sleeve shirt, and bring a parent!” he calls out.
For all the hours of announcing and coaching and recruiting volunteers, the work is a labor of love for Richmond BMX.
The sun is setting, and Gary is telling stories of the progress he’s seen, watching kids who struggle with disabilities or behavioral issues get involved with BMX.
Gary says he’s seen firsthand how BMX has made positive impacts on kids with autism spectrum disorders.
“That’ll gloss over all the long days and frustrations of running a track,” Gary says.
The sun slips below the treeline behind Gary, painting the sky golden pink and signaling the end of the clinic.
“You can’t get that anywhere else.”
The track is open to the public. Clinics are held on Tuesdays, gate practices are held on Thursdays, and race days are on Sundays.