In the fall of 1988, Haro Bikes pro Ron Wilkerson was the points leader in the American Freestyle Association (AFA) pro ramps class going into the Wichita, Kansas finals. Halfway through his run to secure the year-end title in the pro ramp class, Wilkerson crashed on his then trademark trick, a nothing air (no-hander, no-footer). According to what Wilkerson has been told (he doesn't remember the incident), he hung up, slammed into the bottom of the quarterpipe and didn't get his hands out in front of him. The next two weeks, he remained in a Kansas hospital in a coma with blood clots on his brain. Eventually, Wilkerson recovered, but the injury affected his short-term memory -- he didn't remember that he was a pro BMX rider or how to do the tricks he had invented.
Less than a month later, Ron Wilkerson returned to his home in Leucadia, Calif. and dropped in on his backyard vert ramp.
Wilkerson's crash in Kansas was hailed as a major turning point not only in Ron's life as a pro rider, but in the new and growing sport of BMX freestyle as a whole. According to Freestylin' Magazine editors Mark Lewman, Andy Jenkins and Spike Jonze in 2008, Wilkerson's crash was "the day that freestyle changed." Wilkerson was quick to agree. "That was the beginning of the end. And the beginning of the beginning for other people," he said.
At the time, Wilkerson was 22 years old and reportedly earning close to $100,000 a year in endorsement deals. But despite a quick recovery from a life threatening crash, not all was well in Wilkerson's life. "After the accident, the edge was gone," Wilkerson told Freestylin' in 2008. "I'd still ride for fun, and I loved riding, but the whole time, I'm considering, what should I do? All my sponsors are dropping off, they got no money, how am I going to live? And so I made a smart decision. I started Wilkerson Airlines."
Wilkerson Airlines (WAL) was Ron Wilkerson's own BMX brand, as well as the start of a new era for BMX bikes -- an era that championed strength over weakness in frame construction, with attention to the newer riding developments such as bash guards, peg bosses, 990 mounts and more.
Wilkerson Airlines' first ad appeared early in 1989. A mugshot of Ron was positioned above the Wilkerson Airlines graphic designed by Andy Jenkins with a declaration of sorts: "If something isn't happening for me, I make it happen. Freestyle is the raddest sport. I have been into it for 10 years and it is my life. I wanted rad ramp contests, so I did 'em. I wanted street contests, so I did 'em. Now I want a rad bike..."
Over the next several years, Ron Wilkerson and Wilkerson Airlines endured the first major recession of BMX, manufacturing US-made frames, forks, bars, stems and components for riders that had outlasted the '80s wave of BMX success. Everything branded with the name Wilkerson Airlines was built to last. It may not have been the lightest or the best looking thing going, but it was made by a BMX rider that was in it for the right reasons and trying to push the organic growth of BMX into the next millennium.
Over twenty years later after WAL's inception, Ron Wilkerson is still at it, now manufacturing bikes under the 2hip Bikes name. And the bikes he created through Wilkerson Airlines have grown to become somewhat of a phenomenon with BMX collectors the world over, sometimes tripling in value depending on the condition of the frame. Recently, I emailed Ron Wilkerson to talk about the creation of the WAL brand, enduring the great recession and what it took to come out the other side still wanting to give back to BMX. Of course, Ron got back to me right away, with about a hundred exclamation points added on. This is Ron Wilkerson on his first brand, WAL.
ESPN.com: What made you want to leave Haro and start Wilkerson Airlines?
Wilkerson: At first, I had an inspiration one day going across the Bay Bridge, looking down at all the containers in the shipyard and thinking, "Woah, that would be cool having a bike company bringing over containers of bikes from Taiwan." I also really wanted to learn graphic design, and what better way to learn than to have your own company where you had to design stuff on the regular. Third, through my history with Haro, they'd always been really into what was going on with contests and the team. And then, with the "slowdown" of the business of BMX, they just were not into it anymore -- that was my major reason for leaving.
You went from riding a Haro Sport to designing riding the WAL Riot. The Sport was light, under-built and notorious for breaking, whereas the Riot seemed indestructible. What made you want to revamp the bike you rode so drastically?
We basically used the same geometry of the Sport that I'd been used to and made a US-made beefed-up version, including a removable bash guard. which was pretty revolutionary at the time.
Where did you get the frames made, and how difficult was it to get right?
We went to the then-current Long Beach manufacturers of SE Racing products at the time, Mike Devitt and SAL, and they did amazing work because they knew quality top notch BMX. But, USA manufacturing, being a "small-guy," was pure hell. Parts were extremely expensive to manufacture, and production times were extremely long. For months, we'd be waiting for product that was "at the painters and platers." The battle for production was always a major thorn.
Do you think that the Riot helped usher in a new generation of BMX frames built to withstand the demands of the riding?
Yeah, it was the very beginning of the times of riders taking over BMX production. The riding was getting more and more burly and what had been produced up to that time was just not cutting it anymore. Riders were jumping off buildings, going big and landing hard. [Chris] Moeller had already started S&M, but they were more BMX racing, and Rick Moliterno started Standard not too long after WAL. Not long after that, the world of the super overbuilt BMX bike was born.
You had business experience running 2hip. Did that translate to running the bike company or was it a new playing field?
I'd always just been pulling it out of my a** with 2hip jams, then did the same with WAL. And still to this day, I'm just doing the same: whatever comes my way. Running a BMX business is easily the most difficult thing you'll ever do. There's really not much else easier. You gotta have the commitment. And if you've been a rider then you already know about what commitment is. Either you slam and go to the hospital, you slam and get backup and try again, or you pull it. But then there's having enough money to do it (it takes money to make money!) There's getting people to work with you that are good, will work for cheap, and also committed -- and that's only the start of the business... There's a lot of guys out there that are riders that turn out to be really good businessmen, like it's their calling in life or something, and their companies blow up and it's awesome to see. And me? I'm okay at it, I guess. I've always made my living off this BMX-thing, even after being a pro rider. I'd always like it to be bigger and am always working' for it to be bigger, but I can't complain. I work hard, I play harder and I don't play any games. I'm happy with where these little bikes have taken me -- and i'm still here doing what I love. The BMX business is about popularity. You run around paying attention to these little stupid fads that come and go (look at handlebars sizes if you want an example), you make little money, and you work your a** off. But you love it. There's never been a day where I woke up and said, "Damn, I gotta go to work," and that, I guess, is the biggest measure of success.
I'm happy with where these little bikes have taken me -- and i'm still here doing what I love.
WAL also manufactured a range of products that included inverted stems and twist lace wheels. Where did these ideas come from?
Things I liked. Always, to this day, a stem inverted, even with a higher bar, feels better than a raised stem and bar the same height. Twist-lace wheels definitely kept your spokes tighter for longer. I don't like working on my bike. Oh, and you forgot San Quentin bars, which featured a gusset under the bend, where bars normally would bend.
How difficult was it to make it through the dark days of BMX freestyle as a BMX brand in the early '90s?
Head down, focused, riding, doing my thing, always working for progress, always trying to do better, but continually playing as hard as I was working. Not so different from today.
Eventually, WAL morphed into 2Hip. What made you want to change the brand?
When I started WAL, I had 2hip promotions and that was a pretty big thing to me. I thought, "Well, maybe companies won't send their riders to a 2hip jam if we also made bikes." So I started WAL with brilliant logo, design and input from the likes of Spike Jonze, Andy Jenkins, Dave Carson, and myself. A couple years later, we combined everything into one: 2hip. Then, Mat [Hoffman] started doing more events, and he started a bike company with the same name as his events. Doh.
How do you think Wilkerson Airlines influenced BMX at the time?
Hopefully the same way as 2hip is now: Take a stand, do your own thing, keep it real, ride.
And finally, are you at all surprised at the cult following Wilkerson Airlines has achieved among BMX collectors?
No, not surprised, really. "Pleased" might be a better word. After observing much of the new school attitudes and BS from riders that have not one clue except how-to-do barspins and tailwhips a couple inches above the ground, it's awesome to learn that there are guys out here rocking it that know what's up.