Above Relief Road, jet planes from the nearby Santa Cruz airport surged like arrows. Beyond the adjacent wall at Juhu’s helicopter base servicing offshore oil platforms, the choppers hovered, danced and headed seaward at a casual pace. On the road, a large collection of exotic cycles were parked — road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, folding bikes, children’s bikes, and bikes with digital gizmos and gadgets. Disinterested in that crowd, absorbed in their stunts, and waiting for the cycling community to finish its socialising and focus attention on the simplest, barest bikes around were the BMX lot. Ten minutes later — as they performed stunts — the crowd seemed enthralled. What no one realised was that few of those BMX addicts considered themselves ‘cyclists’. A couple of them owned commuting cycles. All lived at the deep end of an obsession to do BMX stunts. Whatever else cycling meant, it didn’t interest them.

Starting in the US in the 1970s, BMX was a full medal discipline at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Mumbai has a small but dedicated BMX group. The lot I met in mid-February included Dipak Panchal, Ronald Chudasama, Rajas Naik, Bharat Manjrekar, Shailesh Sawant, Hasmukh Parmar, and Shahbaaz Khan. The youngest was 17; the oldest around 27. The oldest had taken time to mature in the sport; the youngest was maturing faster. They are among the city’s second wave of BMX bikers. The pioneers rode in the 1980s. Rahul Mulani, respected for his continued commitment to the sport, was one of them. He started a cycle store in Bandra, called Gear. It wasn’t his choice of business, but there was no other way to survive in a sport that consistently thrashed bikes thanks to poor availability of spare parts. For some years, Mulani also organised an event called Gear Hang Five Series, which drew bikers from other regions — Pune, Chandigarh and Manipur — to compete. The Mumbai competition was usually followed by a jam session permitting bikers to share their skills, ride and enjoy.

If you ask around in the Indian cycling community, Mumbai is remembered for its BMX groups. However, the city’s BMX bikers have no place to practise. Some miss social acceptance. “We are treated like clowns,” Panchal said. Several years ago, his attempt at college education ended as college drop-out and emergent BMX biker. Television with its programmes on extreme sports and X-Games played a role in shaping his passion. After a stint working at a cycle store, he now advises the wealthy on what cycles to buy, how to maintain them, and waits for someone to offer space for stunts.

“Our biggest problem is space to practise,” Chudasama said. At his housing society, he was used to hard-found space being usurped by a car coming back to park, and the owner insisting that his vehicle was more important than the youngster on two wheels. “Why can’t they convert one of the cricket grounds into a BMX park?” Naik, who specialised in stunts on flat surfaces, quipped. “No need for that,” Chudasama intervened, “an old dance hall or one of those unused basket ball courts would do. Can’t they allow us a few hours every day?” Not having a place to do stunts hurt; not having a place in society because they do BMX stunts hurt more. At least two or three in the group had been picked up by the police for doing stunts on the road.

“The police think we are akin to motorcyclists racing in traffic. We are not,” Panchal said. Furthermore, when foreigners perform stunts on BMX cycles in the city, people watch and clap. “We don’t receive such support,” Chudasama said. Ask Mulani, and he would tell you that right from his days as pioneer, space to practise has been a challenge. “The Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) is good on Sunday. But that’s just one day,” he said of Mumbai’s new financial district.

Where did all this place Mumbai’s BMX community when compared to foreign bikers? “They are a thousand times better,” Chudasama said ruefully. After all, practice makes perfect. Elsewhere, changes are happening. Chandigarh has a dirt park now, but Mumbai — the city of abject congestion and severe population pressure — has no space to spare. Panchal said he cannot articulate his fascination for BMX. How can a practitioner communicate the intensity of engagement? That also appeared to limit this community in interactions with resident cycle companies and new ones entering India. Talking to companies for support was a challenge because, as Panchalput it, “I understand BMX, I don’t understand marketing.”

Conversation over, I left them to their search for space. Above, jet planes soared to meet limitless sky. Below, those young men, their BMX cycles, and Relief Road — all merged into crowded Mumbai.

BMX mania!

BMX hails from Bicycle Motocross. It started in the early 1970s in California with youngsters racing their bicycles on dirt tracks, just like motorcycles. The sport’s early history mentions a particular model of bicycle, the Schwinn Sting-Ray, as catalysing the spread of BMX. On any Sunday — a classic motorcycle racing documentary, which showed youngsters riding their bicycles off-road in its opening scene — was also reportedly helpful in popularising the sport. By the mid-1970s, BMX had acquired critical mass to be an independent entity. It has since spread to other parts of the world.

BMX cycles are typically smaller in dimension than regular bicycles, and built sturdy. They are designed to take abuse, and the stunts — which challenge rider and cycle — are the sport’s primary obsession.

Many BMX cycles have frames made of steel and high-tensile steel. Those used for racing have aluminium frames. There are various riding styles, which become separate disciplines during competitions. The surfaces for BMX range from off-road to urban built-up spaces and ramps at specially designed BMX parks.