The Future of Vert
AUSTIN, Texas -- Only two X Games events have been contested every year since the inaugural games in 1995: Skateboard and BMX Vert.
Many of the sports' kings have made their names in the wooden halfpipe, and although vert's field of devotees has dwindled from the glory era of the 1980s and '90s, you won't find a more fiercely committed group of action sports athletes.
In recent years, however, it has been hard to ignore the divergent paths unfolding between those who ride vert on four wheels and those who use two. This reality was epitomized over a history-making two-hour span Thursday night in Austin.
In BMX Vert, 42-year-old Jamie Bestwick's nine-peat -- the first ever at the X Games -- was coupled with the astonishing fact that the other two medalists were also in their 40s. Simon Tabron, 40, took silver, and Dennis McCoy -- three years shy of 50, for aspirin's sake! -- earned bronze. No podium in the X Games' 20-year history had been swept by athletes who were all 40 or older.
Shortly after the ageless trio exited the ramp, the Skateboard Vert finals began. Bucky Lasek, who won all four X Games contests at age 40 last year, entered as the favorite. Yet after driving his rally car all day in preparation for Saturday's Ford RallyCross competition, he could not live up to those expectations and finished in eighth place. (He also was hampered by a bum elbow, and after a lackluster first run, lest anyone get the wrong idea, he had a friend write on his white T-shirt, "I'm hurt not old!")
With Sandro Dias, 39, clinging to a narrow lead, upstart Jimmy Wilkins laid down the run of his life and stunned the field to win gold. At age 20, he is the youngest vert champion in X Games history.
The future of vert, as it were, got a little clearer on the skateboard side. Wilkins' win could mark the beginning of the end for Dias and Lasek's dominant generation, which dates back to Tony Hawk and also includes Pierre-Luc Gagnon, 34, a six-time champ who finished fifth Thursday.
"It's good for skateboarding," Dias said shortly after Wilkins eclipsed him. "When my generation stops skating as professionals, we know we have a new generation to keep it going. Vert is not going to die."
Indeed, over the past four years, the average age of the X Games Skateboard Vert field has trended younger, from 29.5 to 26.5. Wilkins is joined by 17-year-old Mitchie Brusco, who claimed bronze Thursday, and 14-year-old Tom Schaar, who finished ninth. Longtime vert skateboarders who frequent some of the popular ramps in Southern California claim there are a handful of other teens and preteens who could become elite contenders in the next five years.
The same cannot be said for BMX Vert, which holds a dubious distinction. The average age of its competitors is 34.4, making it the oldest field in Austin. Only two of the eight riders Thursday were under 30. As Bestwick, Tabron and McCoy demonstrated, age means nothing when it comes to performance. But it does mean something when considering the sport's future.
Vert has always been a top-heavy game in BMX. In 20 years of X Games competition, only four men have won gold medals: Bestwick, Mat Hoffman, Dave Mirra and Chad Kagy. BMX athletes face the same accessibility problems as their skateboarding peers: namely, a lack of free, public vert ramps. When Wilkins was growing up in Ohio, he had to drive two hours -- across state lines to Kentucky -- to find a ramp.
"I don't want to see vert go away," said Mike Sinclair, who has been an X Games skateboarding judge since 1998. "But unless there are vert ramps everywhere, I don't see how kids are going to get into it unless they build their own."
"Public skateparks can build a rail and some stairs for significantly less than this massive structure, and they're easier on the eyes," said BMX Vert alternate Zach Newman, 25, while gazing up at the X Games ramp. "Which is unfortunate, but that's why we're here. I'm still trying to teach everyone my age that you can have fun on a vert ramp. It is possible."
Out of a half-dozen X Games BMX athletes queried Thursday, none could name any teenagers who they believe are within reach of the sport's premier level. Vince Byron, 24, was the youngest rider in Thursday's competition and has been touted as the future of the discipline. He finished eighth.
Why are the older men still able to dominate?
"I have an analogy for you," Tabron said. "In martial arts, an 18-year-old at the peak of his physical life can do anything. How can a sensei walk up to that young man and put him on his [butt] before he even looks at him? That's what BMX vert is about. It's about collective wisdom. It's about very good decision-making under the most extreme circumstances. It's so ridiculously dangerous and everything has to be so precise, and only a lifetime on the ramp that will teach you that."
Every rider in the BMX field scored at least 85 points Thursday night. Yet the fact remains, if you go to a skatepark and want to ride vert, chances are you're going to be riding alone.
"It's unfortunate that it's falling out of style," Newman said, "because the level of riding keeps rising."