Editor's note: This story appears in the Spring 2009 issue of EXPN.
With few organized places to ride in a city of more than eight million people, it takes a certain gritty determination to become a BMX pro in New York. As a kid growing up in Jamaica, Queens, Nigel Sylvester not only embraced the city's urban accoutrements—park benches, stairways and frenetic traffic—he used them to develop a street-riding swagger that has taken him to the peak of his sport. And all without ever winning an event.
Like the city's other four boroughs, Queens has a rich history of artistry borne of kids hanging out in the streets. Sylvester considers his BMX style an extension of that tradition.
"My bike is like a graf artist's spray can," he says, "or like a mike a rapper would use, just a different tool." It's one he's parlayed into a pro riding career and lucrative endorsement deals with Nike 6.0 and Gatorade, which tapped him as the first BMXer ever to rep the brand.
Sylvester built cred through underground videos and word of mouth about his street skills—especially going for broke in New York traffic.
"In our culture, video parts stand for what you're about," says the 21-year-old, who was featured on a mammoth Nike billboard in Manhattan's West Village last summer. "In a competition, you cram everything into two minutes, and if you fall, you might be out of it. But a video can represent a whole year of development as a rider."
Still, Sylvester loves a challenge. He snagged a seventh-place finish at his first X Games, in Dubai in 2007. And last year he opened his own bike shop/clothing boutique in Queens called Format. That's where we met up with him on a cold, sunny February day, as he took us on a tour of the choicest places to ride in his hometown.
1. BROOKVILLE PARK
Sylvester rode his first Big Wheel in front of his parents' house, 10 minutes from this park, where the benches are missing their green paint along the top edges.
"There were no skateparks in my hood at all," he says. "We have regular public parks and things, here and there outside of
He got his first bike at 5 and soon followed big brother Adrian around the neighborhood, learning and copying tricks from other kids. He also played basketball (he wasn't good) and football (he was a decent wideout), but they didn't turn him on like riding, which went from being a mode of transportation to an obsession. He'd bust up the occasional birthday bike so quickly that he had to come up with Plans B and C in order to keep riding.
"My parents weren't rich, so I'd get hand-me-downs from older guys or ride around on garbage days to see if people threw out bikes and take the parts or tires," Sylvester says.
As a teen, he'd hog the TV every summer when the X Games came on. While he idolized stars like vert-ramp king Mat Hoffman, Sylvester's skill set was destined to be different.
"We'd also just ride in and out of traffic," he says, "bob and weave on sidewalks and jump on cars and stuff. The way I ride is because of the way I grew up, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
2. FLUSHING MEADOWS CORONA PARK
Queens is enormous, but back in the day there were lots of tricks for Sylvester to conquer at this easy meeting spot. The intricate pipe system in the dried-up fountain beneath the globe—a 1964-65 World's Fair relic—and a deceptively deep six-stair jump were once training tools.
Among the crowd of skateboarders and tourists taking photos, Sylvester links up with a couple of younger guys. The roles have changed—they look up to him now, the way he did to local pros Karston "Skinny" Tannis, Edwin De La Rosa and Tyrone Williams.
"The first time I rode in Manhattan I was 15, and I didn't tell my mom," Sylvester says. "I took my bike on the train after school to Union Square. My eyes got big when I saw all these riders from videos and magazines."
When Sylvester's parents informed him that he was going to college, not pro, he was crushed: "It made me ride even harder." After a year at SUNY Farmingdale, his work paid off. Sylvester impressed BMX videographer Glenn P.P. Milligan, who saw him riding in New York in 2005. With his slick style and laid-back attitude, Sylvester turned a cameo in Milligan's "Livin' in Exile"
into other invites: "They accepted me because I wasn't a cocky kid."
His big break came a year later—a featured role in Milligan's terrain-swapping video "Flipside," in which four street riders ride park in Greenville, N.C., with pros including Dave Mirra. Afterward, Miracle Boy Mirra tapped the then-18-year-old Sylvester for his Mirraco team.
"That was a true stamp of approval," says Sylvester, who convinced his parents he could make a living at BMX.
3. LOST BATTALION HALL QUEENS BOULEVARD
Our last stop. This city rec center is on the list for two reasons: (1) It's a convenient location down the street from Format, on Queens Boulevard, and (2) it boasts a fairly steep, eight-stair set hidden in a little lunch area next to the building. The spot is frequented mostly by skateboarders and BMX hopefuls, and both groups are gazing at Sylvester in admiration because of the photo shoot—and because he's doing clean 180s and 360s down the stairs.
"I just want to make riding look effortless," he says of his style. "When somebody does a trick and it looks sloppy, it doesn't have the same appeal."
After nailing the stair shot, Sylvester rides around the corner to do some freestyle street-riding at the corner of the Boulevard and 62nd Avenue. He pops super bunny hops alongside cars coming through the light, and like typical New Yorkers, the folks waiting at the nearby bus stop watch Sylvester without a trace of excitement. But after a few attempts he gets about three feet high, and a couple of guys hoot and applaud.
"I love how it feels to ride the streets and not need a skatepark," Sylvester says. "I've been to other places, and people don't do it how we do it out here."
When the bus pulls up to collect his audience, Sylvester is inspired to do one last trick: Signaling the photographer to get ready, he races in and wallrides the MTA bus. People are still getting on, so he circles back and does a wall tap with his front wheel up on the window, prompting the driver to charge angrily off the bus. But Sylvester is gonzo by then. There's no damage, just tread prints on the bus's dusty windows. For Sylvester, it's mission accomplished.
"New York is chaotic," he says. "It's like a jungle. There are so many different flavors and people, and it's grimy and dirty, but that's what makes it New York. And I love it."
Carmen Renee Thompson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.