By David Van Biema
May 26, 1986 12:00 PM

For a split second it looks like nothing so much as E.T. doing a header off that magic bicycle.

The bike is suspended about 12 feet above the ground, silhouetted against the deep blue of a Southern California sky. The rider seems to have lost all control, his limbs flung out in every direction.

And then, in an instant, the chaos turns back into order; the bike is once more under control; its helmeted rider guides it out of the thin air onto a high ramp and rolls gently back to earth. This, we call freestyling.

But you already knew that. At least, you knew it if you know a teenager. Freestyling, or simply “stylin’,” has, in the last three years, swept through America like a California jihad, its warriors mounted on a fleet of runty 20-inch bicycles called BMXs. It has popped up (and up and up) in jaw-dropping professional competitions and also in the hearts and backyards of millions of kids between 8 and 25. The sport consists of two areas of expertise—balancing stunts performed on a more-or-less motionless bike and death-defying leaps off ramps—and it has its own vocabulary. If your children suddenly start calling things rad, they mean great; to shred is to ride really well; a bog is a mistake, and the bikes themselves are scoots. It has its own look: knee pads, livid red palms, and a thick, lengthwise streak of grease across the sneaker, where foot rubs against drive chain. And it has its own sales stats. According to retailers, 42 percent of the 11.4 million bicycles sold in the U.S. last year were BMXs. And its boosters insist it has not even reached the top of its popularity. Its promoters plan high-profile exhibitions in every major American city over the next four months. Says Andy Jenkins, editor of Freestylin’ magazine, “Stylin’ is a sleeping giant that’s just now waking up. This will be the big summer.”


Styling may be one of the few fad sports that can be authoritatively traced to a single inventor. In 1974 Bob Haro, an ingenious 16-year-old from San Diego, had begun to get bored with bicycle motocross (BMX), an eighth-of-a-mile race over rough terrain on homely, tough two-wheelers with 20-inch tires and only one gear. So Haro began to experiment. Instead of racing his bike flat out, he tried imitating the daredevil stunts some of his friends were performing on skateboards. Soon he found himself trying to balance the bike motionless and running up the sides of culverts to attain free-fall at their tops. “It seemed natural,” he says now. “I’d been on bikes forever and I just adapted to the terrain.”

The terrain might have remained Haro’s private domain had not misfortune entered his life. Shortly after he turned 18, his parents were divorced. A year later he was searching for a job and a new home. The job he found was as a staff artist for BMX Action magazine, a slick publication produced by Bob “Oz” Osborn, then 39, for the motocross crowd. Haro’s home was also with Osborn, recently divorced, and his children, R.L. and Windy. At 14, R.L. already considered himself “burnt-out” as a BMX racing champ, but he was fascinated with the moves Haro had worked out for the little road bike. Haro could stand his scoot on its rear wheel and hop it around like a Pogo stick. He could do an aerial off a homemade ramp. Says R.L., now 23, “I thought he was God.” Together they worked out additional moves and practiced them in Oz’s parking area. One day Osborn looked out his window, got interested and began featuring the kids in a new trick-riding section of his magazine. The following winter he introduced the pair as the between-races attraction at a big BMX race in Chandler, Ariz. “We were real nervous,” remembers R.L., “but when we finished, the people completely lost their minds.” Adds Oz, “They just exploded, whistling and cheering and crowding around saying, ‘What was that?’ ”

They lost no time finding out. Within five years of the Osborn troupe’s debut, there were six professional freestyle teams, whose members traveled all over the U.S. and Europe, giving exhibitions and competing for purses as high as $5,000. The sport’s elite, all from California’s golden ranks, quickly divided into flatlanders, who specialized in bike balancing, and ramp riders, who soared off inclines as high as 12 feet and performed twists and turns of up to 540 degrees before touching down again.

But the sport wasn’t restricted to hotshots. Ramp freestyling could be practiced wherever plywood could be propped up against a vertical object, and flatlanding (as thousands of parents have learned to their dismay) even in the aspiring daredevil’s bedroom. Soon magazines put out by Oz and others had propelled the argot of freestyle into streets and playgrounds around the country.

Savvy entrepreneurs also created BMX mutants to fit the new sport’s needs. The bikes sprouted foot pegs off front and rear axles for extra balancing, and brake cables were relocated so that the handlebar could rotate 360 degrees. The whole ensemble is yours, say delighted retailers, for a mere $200. Or $300 for something a bit more respectable. Or maybe a bit more. “For $600,” deadpans R.L., “you get a bike that’s bulletproof and probably outlives the kid that rides it.”

Here, of course, he touches unintentionally on a question that properly haunts every parent whose child has uttered the word “rad.” Are the things safe? “Sure,” says R.L. Osborn, pointing to a huge array of accessories, from helmets to shin guards. “We all wear them, and we tell the kids to wear them.” He points out that there has never been a freestyling fatality. Eddie Fiola, the current ramp champ, is a convert to protective gear. Before donning it, he broke both arms, both legs and three collarbones (one twice). Since, he says, he has suffered only cuts and bruises.

Freestyling has been good to such pioneers. In addition to about $45,000 a year that Fiola earns in competitions, he has been in TV commercials and performed in this year’s not overly successful stylin’ movie, titled (but of course) Rad. This summer he will embark on a European tour. R.L., now married, makes $100,000 a year performing and is heavily invested in condos. And Haro, whose restlessness started it all, is, at 27, the biggest winner of all. In 1983 he quit riding to devote full time to his BMX manufacturing company. Haro Cycles grossed $5 million in business last year.

My, my. It certainly is a lesson in something. And Oz Osborn, reflecting on the twists, turns and 17-foot jumps of the last 10 years, thinks he knows what. “When R.L. was 8,” he muses, “I sat him down for a talk. I told him, ‘I really admire how good you are and how much work you’ve put into it, but this bicycle riding is a dead-end street.’ What I’ve learned since is that it doesn’t matter what you do. What matters is, do you love it? If you do, the whole universe will move over and make a space for you.”