MARQUETTE - The hydraulic metal gate snapped down with a clang and the first set of riders shot forward, pedaling their bikes to climb up and over the first of the North State BMX track's obstacles.
Included for the first time in the Summer Olympic Games this year, BMX racing remains a popular sport for kids and teens in the Marquette area.
"I like any sport that involves jumping in the air," said 12-year-old Van Ouellette-Balles, of Munising, who travels to Marquette regularly throughout the summer to compete in BMX races. He has also participated in state-level competitions at other tracks.
BMX racing is about making it around the track quickly, but also about controlling your bike over obstacles. Here young riders take a warm-up lap at the Marquette track. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
Van Ouellette-Balles, 12, of Munising, waits at the starting gate of the North State BMX track in Marquette. The sport of BMX is open to all ages from 4 years old and up and teaches kids good bike control. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
BMX is a type of off-road bicycle racing that involves sprinting around a track set with banked curves and various jumps and obstacles.
With riders coming from all across the Upper Peninsula, North State BMX accepts riders from age 4 through adults. Racers purchase a 365-day membership in USA BMX, the national organization, which allows them to race at tracks across the country, paying a small race registration fee for races they want to participate in.
Racers are organized into classes according to their skill level - novice, intermediate and expert - and then into age classes within that skill level, so racers compete against those at the same level, said Dave Niemi, track operator for North State BMX in Marquette.
"It's bike control and getting through the obstacles well," Niemi said. "You have to be able to control your bike well."
During the racing season from May to mid-September, races are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning at 7 p.m.
"What a lot of our parents love is you race when you want," Niemi said.
On a typical race night, 50-60 racers are involved, with races ending by 8 p.m. on most nights. Racers ride three rounds plus a final lap during the summer season.
Racers can participate on any type of bike, though many of the kids who become involved in the sport purchase specialty BMX bikes. All participants are required to wear a full-face hemet, long sleeves and long pants.
Ouellette-Balles began racing when he was 9 years old.
"My friends all around Munising, everyone bikes. My best friend started doing it," he said.
Also participating in freestyle BMX, which involves doing tricks and jumps while on a bike similar to skateboarding, Ouellette-Balles said the only way to get good at BMX is to do it.
"You get better at BMX just from riding your bike," he said. "Just try it."
Now with BMX gaining more recognition as an Olympic sport, Ouellette-Balles said he someday hoped to become a professional BMX rider.
Although races at the Marquette track are fairly relaxed, occasionally crashes do happen, and when they do, Ouellette-Balles said there's nothing to do but get back on your bike.
"You've just got to push on. Just say to yourself do it and don't think about it," he said.
While participating in BMX is fun for the riders, the sport gives kids good control over their bikes, with many of the young participants moving on to other bike-related activities.
"A lot of the kids end up being mountain bikers," Niemi said. "It's just kids having fun."
For those who want to try out the sport without committing to a full year's membership, North State BMX does offer a free one-day membership for kids to come out and ride. Regular memberships are available throughout the year, and are good for a year from the time they are purchased.
For more information, visit www.marquettebmx.com or search for North State BMX on Facebook.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.