What Happened to Flatland Coverage?

Marcos Jesus, pursuing his own brand of solitary flatland in an Orlando, FL lot. Cody York

The first pair of pegs I had on my bike were made for a motorcycle. They were bolt-on, fold-down foot pegs designed to be used for passengers. I bolted them on the fork legs of my Blue Max. They twisted around quite a bit, but if you were balanced just right, they'd hold you in place. This was before Skyway made axle pegs available in every corner of the Earth, before GT made bolt-on pegs and platforms, and well before flatland BMX became one half of our competitive sport during the AFA years, less and less a part of it during the X-Games era, and then slid from the face of major competitive coverage, into solitary obscurity, away from the rest of BMX.

What happened? Having seen it firsthand, I've wondered for years why originally the most technical aspect of our sport, which has only gotten more technical, has exiled itself in parking lots, parking garages and basements. Kevin Jones didn't kill flatland (in spite of what some on the Internet would have us believe). It's actually not dead at all; just obscured. And I'm not completely sure what happened to drive it into obscurity, but I have a few ideas.

When I was riding the Blue Max with the motorcycle pegs, there were only a handful of flatland tricks to learn, and it was easy to see where to start if you wanted to learn even the hardest of them. Curb endos, 180s, rollbacks, the core of the sport's repertoire didn't even require pegs. This changed quickly as the sport progressed. By the late '80s, there were hundreds of tricks, many of which involved rolling around in either direction on either wheel, and many of which I can't do to this day.

At the same time that flatland for the beginner was approaching impossible, dirt jumping and street riding were becoming viable aspects of competitive BMX. This is not to say that hucking yourself over gnarly doubles or down doublesets of stairs is easy. It is to say that one can see where to start if one wants to do one or the other. If I hadn't started riding flatland in 1984, I wouldn't have ever started. Have you seen what those guys do these days? It's insane. Once the barriers to entry for flatland were raised too high, new blood was scarce. A species that stops reproducing itself endangers its existence.

The highly technical aspect of flatland is another factor. Back when there weren't many tricks, not only could one see how one might do them, but one could also appreciate their difficulty. Once that level raises too high for new blood, it also raises too high for an audience to appreciate. Oh, it all looks difficult, but it also all looks the same. As flatland progressed in difficulty, it became too technical for a general audience to appreciate. In the '80s the only people in the AFA stands who didn't ride bikes were the parents of riders. Not so for the audiences of later contests. Once it became for everyone, as opposed to for us, things changed.

In contrast, in dirt jumping and street riding, where the risk of failure is obvious to everyone, one can appreciate the risk involved, if not the technical difficulty. Unlike flatland, one aspect doesn't preclude the enjoyment of the other.

There's no way for a newbie to get involved and no way for the untrained spectator to distinguish between what's difficult and what's nearly impossible.

--Roy Christopher

In an era when the top flatlanders may spend several years perfecting one move in a string of them, there's no way for a newbie to get involved and no way for the untrained spectator to distinguish between what's difficult and what's nearly impossible -- unless it's done in the air. That combination of factors is why flatland isn't on your television.

Oh, I still ride flatland, but the pegs on my bike these days were made for it.

[Roy Christopher is a writer, media theorist and BMXer. His books include the interview anthology Follow for Now (Well-Red Bear, 2007) and the essay collection Sound Unbound with DJ Spooky (The MIT Press, 2008). He is currently working on a book about technological mediation, while also pursuing a Ph.D. in Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, in between flatland sessions.]