Marc Willers believes BMX has been brought into the Olympics to target a younger audience, and he and his peers are hoping to keep it there.
The guy hurtling his wee bicycle up a street near you could be an Olympic superstar, and Marc Willers is here to prove it.
The lanky, 22-year-old Cambridge car painter, or make that ex-car painter, and his BMX bike are almost guaranteed a trip to Beijing after he won the fourth and final world supercross title of the year in France this month.
Yes, BMX is in the Olympics for those who missed the news and New Zealand has a couple of leading contenders in Willers and the brilliant Kawerau 19-year-old Sarah Walker, who ranked No 1 in the world for 2007.
BMX is a rapid-fire deal of eight-person qualifying and elimination races. In the case of someone like Willers, it takes a tad over 30 seconds to complete 350 metres of straights, corners and jumps.
Willers had endured a run of disasters at four previous world supercross events and was having an "unlucky" year until he struck gold in the breezy coastal town of Frejus.
Helped by a stint at the world cycle centre in Switzerland where he honed his starts using the Olympic ramp, he jumped to the lead in the final and roared to victory.
The win pushed him to the top of the Oceania rankings, should have him close to a top-10 world ranking, and - most importantly - means he is in good spirits for Beijing where qualification is reached via a complex rider and country ranking system.
When we caught up with Marc at his family's home in the suburb of Leamington, he was tinkering with the gleaming green and chrome-engined Toyota Corolla he and his father have been doing up for the past five years. His $4000 supercross prize money was already bound for the car project, he reckoned.
This driveway scene of modern man was a far cry from the images of Russian shot putters and Bulgarian weightlifters which infused the Olympics of old.
Marc wheeled the green machine back into the garage before answering a few questions about life on a bike.
So Marc, where did it all start?
I first got on a bike when I was 2 or 3 years old. My parents took me to the local BMX club when I was 4 - they were sick of me busting wheels on the kerb. Looking through our photo albums, I'm always on a bike. I can't remember a time in the last 18 years when I haven't been riding apart from a month or six weeks off for injuries. I've always wanted to ride professionally and my parents [Alan and Yvonne] have always backed me although Mum made sure I had got a trade - any trade would do she said - first.
Were you a child star?
I first went to the nationals when I was 6 and placed sixth. My strongest early recollections are of getting my first New Zealand title when I was 10, at Rangiora. It was cold and wet ... I'd been No 2 for a few years. There had always been someone different ahead of me. Crossing the line first was a big weight off my shoulders.
You could hardly have been thinking about the Olympics back then.
I think they have brought BMX into the Olympics because they want to get more of the younger generation watching again. I guess after Beijing and London 2012 they will see how it has gone with the viewers in deciding whether it stays in or not.
You are in the right place at the right time.
I wouldn't still be riding from New Zealand if it wasn't for the Olympics, with Bike New Zealand and Sparc helping out. I've been full-time riding since 2005. I still plan to compete in America anyway.
BMX looks like a very easy way to break a few bones.
I've done my left wrist four times - broken twice and all the tendons torn the other times. I've dislocated the collarbone from the sternum, at the world champs in Brazil last year, destroyed ankles a few times, plus fingers, hands, concussions, a lot of stitches. I don't bounce too well. The worst crash was in Tauranga, 2005, when I over-jumped and crashed head first into the next jump. It knocked me out cold and absolutely destroyed the helmet. I can't remember anything except waking up with a load of dirt in my face. It's a normal run of injuries although a lot of riders also do their knees but luckily I haven't.
I do 15 to 20 hours a week of weights in the gym, plus practising down at the track and sprinting up and down the road on the bike.
What do the neighbours reckon?
Most of the neighbours are BMX-ers anyway. The guy next door, Scott Nelson, is from the family which pretty much started BMX racing here. His father Errol Nelson was kind of the father of BMX racing in New Zealand I think. Errol died in a jet skiing accident in Whitianga in 1998 - he was fishing in a little dinghy when a guy on a jet ski hit him. His sons have been a big part of BMX racing.
This is BMX country then. Did it catch on with the rest of your family?
My sister Genelle came second in a race at the world championships in Canada this year. She's a couple of years older ... she started BMX after I did. I guess we just stuck at it long enough for things to come together. She's in the sport for fun though.
What did the victory in France mean to you?
I just couldn't believe it had finally happened. This year has been stressful - a lot of crashes and bad luck seemed to come my way. It was really getting to me. I'd got sick and tired of being pissed off all the time. That's why winning in France meant even more. Sarah Walker was there and I'm also good mates with the Australian team. They knew I'd always been fast over here and they knew my time was coming soon. It was just good to finally get it done.
What are your Olympic chances - of getting there and doing well?
I'm really confident about getting there. I think New Zealand will get places for one or two guys, and two girls. I'm looking pretty good now, only injuries will stop it. The Olympic course is set up for everybody - a big wide open straight for people with the horsepower and all the jumps on the next two straights for people with the better skills. My strength is probably the horsepower part.
Page 1 of 2 View as a single page 5:00AM Friday October 26, 2007
By Chris Rattue on www.nzheard.co.nz
Photo / Alan Gibson