Tall men, small bikes

BMX riders flip tricks on the level below. 

By Sunny Bleckinger

It had been raining earlier in the day; the sun has just set and a nearby heron stands motionless, staring at the water. Artificial light from the Holland Casino, near Leidseplein, pours onto a wet terrace where Hoite Polkamp is spinning around, attempting a complicated trick on his little BMX bike. The bike slips from under him, slides across the cement, and plunges into the adjacent canal. Polkamp darts after it, letting out a few expletives, barely grabbing the handlebars before the bike can sink out of reach. ‘That was horrible,’ he sighs, then rolls his bike back to the centre of the patio and tries another manoeuvre. The heron continues to ignore him.

For years, Polkamp and other local BMX enthusiasts have been meeting on this smooth bit of concrete outside the casino to practice their moves, show off new gear or simply talk shop with their friends. ‘We pretty much come here every day, unless it’s raining or snowing,’ says Polkamp. ‘They even added us to the canal boat tours. They’ll say: “On your right are the BMX stunt guys,” and everyone will wave. But that’s more in the summer, when there’s a shitload of tourists.’

The popularity of BMX freestyle biking in the Netherlands has been steadily growing, particularly since Polkamp and his friend, Michiel Verberg, initiated an annual competition called Flatground—the latest of which will be held this weekend at NDSM.

‘It started out really small,’ recalls Polkamp, ‘just a handful of us in a gym in Amsterdam West. We didn’t even think to make flyers until about two weeks before the event.’

But now, six years on, Flatground has grown to a large, well-sponsored event, with over 200 competitors representing 25 different countries. ‘It’s pretty wild how it grew: from completely informal, to totally international. And we have a shitload of volunteers helping out.’ (Like surfers using the inescapable cliche ‘dude’, BMX riders regularly drop the word ‘shitload’.)

An important distinction of the Flatground competition is that it’s strictly intended for the BMX style known as ‘flatland’, where riders perform tricks on a level surface. ‘It’s a bit like breakdancing on a bike,’ explains Polkamp. It started in the early 80s, ‘with guys just fooling around while waiting for the BMX dirt races to start. From there, different disciplines evolved, like street riding, where you use the city as a playground, grinding rails and jumping. Or park riding, where you ride in the skate parks. But I like flat-land,’ continues Polkamp, ‘because it offers more freedom for creativity, and the technical aspects of tricks are more appealing to me.’

He calls over 15-year-old David Linszen to demonstrate a few moves. To the untrained eye, it looks like Linszen is merely standing on different points of the bike and spinning in circles. But in fact, he’s executing several subtle transitions between a variety of manoeuvres. ‘Yeah,’ says Polkamp, ‘he’s doing a shitload of combinations.’

One of his moves is called the steamroller: he stands on a peg of the front wheel while rolling forward and holding the back wheel off the ground. Another, called the hitchhiker, has Linszen lifting the back wheel directly above the front wheel, leaving the bike perpendicular to the ground, while rolling along with one hand in the air and standing on the front pegs. Polkamp has high hopes for the young biker, who’s competing in the master’s rounds this weekend.

‘I started riding flatland because of the third Flatground competition,’ says Linszen. ‘I really liked the tricks they were doing.’ Since then, he’s been practicing on the casino terrace almost every evening after school.

‘Because of the event, many more people try riding and try to progress,’ adds Polkamp. ‘It’s pretty hard to get into it if pros aren’t coming here every year and inspiring everyone. There’s probably about two hundred serious flatlanders in the Netherlands—I mean guys that are doing it everyday.’

Along with the home team, Polkamp also recommends keeping an eye on the Japanese riders. ‘They come every year—always with a bunch of guys. They have a distinct style: fast and furious. Really spectacular.’

The newest aspect of this year’s Flatground is the addition of a direct, head-to-head battle between the pros in the final rounds. ‘Nobody’s ever done this before,’ beams Polkamp. ‘You’ll get weird interaction this way. There’s always guys who don’t want to ride against each other. It can be a bit political.’

Typically, one rider would perform tricks for a few minutes, then the next rid-er would do the same. But now they must execute their moves simultaneously, improvise off each other, and directly compete to go onto the next round. ‘It should get the audience more involved as well.’

Until then, those representing the Amsterdam crew will continue to practise on the same concrete patio. And they’ll continue long after the event, as well.