The Rise of 1980’s BMX Teams

The Rise of 1980’s UK BMX Teams – by Chris Carter

Stand at the back of the start hill at any BMX race, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the people queuing for their races in their brightly coloured gear are all equals. But any kid that followed the BMX magazines in the pre and boom years of the eighties will tell you that there was always a hierarchy. Moto winners come and go, even mains can sometimes be won on a fluke – but no-one gets sponsored unless they really have the right stuff! Let’s talk teams! Or more specifically, let’s talk eighties teams!

For most racers, the team with which they spend their racing careers is Factory Mum and Dad. The cost of bikes, travel and gear, the pre and post-race pep talks, the pit crew (Dad) changing gear ratios between motos – all are met by the funds raised from the old man trudging to the office in the rain each day. The kit might bear the name of little Johnny’s favourite manufacturer, but there are a couple of very special words missing from the race jersey.

But for the lucky few, for the greatest talents in our sport, their jerseys bear the word “team” somewhere in their design. National Team, Factory Team, Support Team – to have these simple phrases emblazoned on the back of your shoulders or across your chest is a badge of honour, a mark of respect, a statement that this man is not as other men – a declaration that this man has arrived!

For the new racer, lining up on the gate next to a team rider can be an intimidating experience. There stands the novice, maintaining a wobbly balance while trying to effect a two pedal start. Next to him is the “team” rider – balancing motionless, his gait loose yet powerful, his gaze fixed on the track ahead, his eyes betraying nothing except a calm assuredness that his vast experience will secure a solid victory. Behind the start hill there was no hint of nervousness. He seemed to know almost everyone. And absolutely everyone knew him!

To arrive at the track wearing full race team livery has historically been the goal of many an aspiring racer. In 1985, if you’d asked 100 riders to choose between a number one plate and a factory team ride, I suspect more than half would have gone for the latter.

But how can a sport that is essentially a solo one have ended up with such a team orientated culture? To find the answer, we have to go back in time to the very dawn of BMX in the UK.

With the rise of BMX in the eighties, and the promise for manufacturers, distributors and retailers of increasing returns so long as the sport kept growing, BMX race teams proliferated at an unparalleled rate. By the mid-eighties, at least three prominent UK colour magazines had appeared, and companies were vying with each other to get as much publicity for their brands as possible. One of the best ways to do it was by having a well known rider splashed across the cover or centre-spread wearing the company’s brand logo.

But it wasn’t just the companies that benefited from this incentive. In many ways the magazines, both then and now, are ultimately democratic. Magazine photographers have the sole aim of putting talent on the page. Some riders can provide the talent but can’t afford decent bikes or gear or to get to the events, whereas some riders can afford to get to the events but can’t ride well enough when they get there.

Enter the BMX race team!

With a little corporate backing, kids that otherwise could only afford to shine at local races were given the chance to shoot for a top national ranking. In exchange, the company footing the bill would want their pilot to turn in respectable results and hopefully generate some publicity.

The first BMX team in the UK was set up by ex-motorcycle trials rider Don Smith and fellow BMX enthusiast Richard Barrington. That team was called Team Ace.

Around 1980, Barrington had set up a shop in Walthamstow and sponsored some local riders to get the whole thing going. For Barrington and Smith, this was about more than just pushing a team – they were attempting to push the sport itself into some kind of stable existence in the UK. Those early team riders included Nikki Matthews, Pete Middleton, Steve Gilley, Andy Ruffell and Cav Strutts. Ace even went as far as producing a frame and fork set, though production was limited. Today only one of those early Ace frames is believed to have survived.

Soon after, Ammaco Mongoose burst onto the scene – a team run by husband and wife duo Malcolm and Sue Jarvis to promote both BMX itself and Mongoose bikes. With their own kids Sam/Julian and Russ in the team, along with Steven and John Greaves and Brian Jones, Ammaco Mongoose snapped up Ruffell and Middleton from Team Ace. The age of rider headhunting had arrived!

Ruffell of course would grow to become a sponsor’s dream and stayed with Ammaco Mongoose until the end of 1984. In that time, an enormous amount of money was spent on him travelling all over the world promoting both BMX as a sport and Mongoose as a brand. Yet there can be little doubt that the publicity he generated translated directly into sales for Mongoose that far exceeded the company’s investment in him.

In 1985, UK manufacturer Raleigh decided it wanted a more prominent share of the team pie. Raleigh had previously sponsored a number of well known riders, such as Andy Oldham, Jamie Staff and Kev Riviere, but now they were planning a huge publicity push. And being such a large firm, their strategy was simple – buy the cream of the crop and put them on a Raleigh bike.

Most of the exciting BMX action was being performed by teenagers. Though younger kids might be nagging their parents to buy them a bike, it was invariably off the back of looking at photos of older kids in the magazines. And so, with a suitably corporate no-nonsense approach, Raleigh simply made sure that the most prominent rider in each age group over fourteen would ride for Raleigh. And such was the ubiquity of the Raleigh Burner as a first bike for thousands of kids, that it was almost a money-no-object corporate takeover.

In the fourteens, Kuwahara’s Stu Diggens had been unstoppable for two seasons, so an offer, reputedly into four figures, was made to entice him onto the team (not bad for a school kid back in the mid-eighties!). In the fifteens and sixteens, Raleigh already had the number one guys in the form of Craig Schofield and Martin Jose but added Jason Maloney for good measure. Now they set their sights on the big boys.

Though Ruffell was actually beaten to the number one plate by Tim March in the first year of superclass racing in ’84, Tim couldn’t quite topple him from the top of the publicity charts. Despite being number two, it was Ruffell and not March whose fame extended beyond the boundaries of BMX, and it was Ruffell who got to see the colour of Raleigh’s money!

When Andy was eventually headhunted, Raleigh knew he wasn’t going to come cheap. In his last year at Mongoose, he had appeared in the Sunday Times Colour Supplement in an article which estimated his earnings at around £20,000. Bear in mind this was 1985 and twenty grand was an awful lot of money in those days, especially for a kid still in his teens! Though the details of his deal with the UK cycle giant were never disclosed, it’s not unreasonable to suppose, based on the figure in the Times article, that Raleigh had an even greater figure in mind when they approached him.

Plainly Raleigh felt that those thousands spent on Ruffell would equate to even more thousands in terms of sales. And I would hazard a guess that they were right. Andy Ruffell, BMX publicity machine, was the ultimate team rider.

Although Ruffell’s fame may have extended further outside BMX than March’s, in a curious irony, it was March who managed to pull sponsors from outside the sport into BMX. In 1983 his primary sponsor was Lee Cooper, a jeans manufacturer. In 1984 he started his now legendary MRD outfit, but it was in 1985 that Tim really raised the bar. Somehow he managed to persuade grocery chain VG to enter into a joint team venture with his own March Racing Developments. The result included a fully liveried VG/March double decker bus for transporting the new MRD team to races. During MRD’s time on the race scene, the fortunate beneficiaries of Tim’s vision included riders like Steve Bigland, Mark “Whoppa” Watkins, Anthony Howells and Ashley Davies.

But not all teams have been based on the multinational model of hard cash for hard promotion. Many teams were smaller affairs in which bike shops or importers would either set up their own team or else strike a deal with manufacturers to help out riders in their locality. Names like Edwardes, Youngs, Hotshot-Redline, Shenpar-JMC/Powerlite and then Cyclecraft, Alans-Robinson/Torker and Bunneys-GT all came to be recognized as heavyweight team entities in their own right. And more than a few big names got the extra push they needed by riding for them: Geth Shooter, Sarah Jane Nicholls, Tony Holland, Charlie Reynolds, Dale Holmes, Karen Murphy, Dylan Clayton, Dean Iddiols and Gary Llewellyn to name but a few.

Other teams operated with tiered grades of team membership with riders aspiring to be, as it were, promoted internally. Kuwahara ran a successful national team as a first rung on its factory team ladder, though this sometimes made for complications if the factory star stayed on the team for too long. In 1983, for instance, rising star Darren Wood was on the Kuwahara National squad, but with Diggens taking the factory place in the same age group, and showing no signs of slowing down, Wood eventually had to jump ship to Skyway to secure a full factory ride, in turn leaving the way open for Lee Alexander to join the Kuwahara National Team for ’84.

From around 1986, the BMX magazines began to evaporate as the sport reached its peak and then began to decline in popularity. Without a ready media in which to get promoted, the corporations that had financed so many teams began to walk away from the sport.

In their place emerged a new kind of team run along altogether different lines. Team management moved from being a commercial concern to a more altruistic one. Managers were now helping talented riders meet the high cost of competition simply for the love of the sport and its riders rather than the pursuit of a tangible increase in sales or publicity.

Never was this more apparent than in teams such as Rainbow Racing or Alan Sopp’s ASR outfit. Both became enormously credible teams, yet they had nothing to promote – no frames and forks, no number plates, no clothing line – not so much as a baseball cap. And yet they helped support the race careers of such talents as David Barnsby, Mark Sopp, Mike Riviere, Tom Lynch, Warren Godfrey, Brad Smith and of course the late great Winnie Wright.

Today the heady era of the eighties boom is behind us, but the allure of the place on a team is as real as ever for many riders. Moreover, the digital revolution and the advent of new social media has enabled the creation of entirely new team opportunities and operating models for those sufficiently imaginative to find them. Outfits like Kai Riviere’s RaceDayVideo, for instance, continue to run race teams in order to promote their enterprises. In so doing, these teams help to support a wide range of riders – from gifted hopefuls at the grass roots of the sport, up to national racers in the elite categories. Whilst at the extreme end of corporate sponsorship, Sky’s multi-million pound commitment to British Cycling has enabled the riders at the very top of today’s sport, such as Liam Phillips and Shanaze Reade, to become truly professional athletes on the global stage.

Though the team ride will remain an elusive dream for the majority of racers, there can be little doubt that the BMX Race Team itself is here to stay.

Poole UKBMX National 1984

poole84

One of the most iconic pictures from the 80’s in UKBMX is Charlie Reynolds and Geth Shooter over the first Dolly Parton’s during a 16 expert battle at the Poole UKBMX National. We have got a few quotes from the riders who were around at the time and their views on the shot.

Ian Gunner
Geth – “Ere Charlie, why ain’t anyone else jumpin’ these?” Charlie – “Dunno bro, but if I can get over em’ without losing my back end, I’m gonna beat ya”. The rest – “I think we’re in the wrong moto”

Nathan Lunn
That was a real spectacle for Poole National!!! Although, other people jumped the Dolly’s during that weekend, I think this is the picture and memory that comes to mind most. It was a case of those who DARED won. I’m sitting on my mum’s lap in my Torker gear above the head of the rider in Lane 8. Who can name all those that cleared the Dolly’s that weekend?

Gary Fenwick
This is probably one of the most iconic pictures of 80’s BMX. The powerhouse vs the showman. Both riders had a huge impact on the sport, Charlie with his sense of theater and Geth for providing the drama. For me, it was Geth that was the ultimate racer, fast and full of skill on the track but also humble and a great ambassador for the sport off the track. I had the pleasure of Geth riding for me at East Coast BMX when he was between sponsors (that didn’t last very long !!) and we still remain friends today. p.s I’m glad to be on this picture but wish I was a bit further ahead!!! LOL

Jon Beckett
Geth and Charlie at the top of their game, Shooter had the style and the speed, Charlie had a leather fanny pack with mobile phone…if he couldn’t clear doubles in a straight line them he’d 360 them instead.

Julian Allen
This pic captures everything about UKBMX in the 80’s for me. Geth and Charlie had some epic battles but were poles apart as people. One southern, loud and flash and the other Northern, enigmatic and workmanlike. Yet on the track, they both were all business and went all out for the win. Most of the guys in the class were rolling the Dolly’s at Poole but these two bossed it. Geth laying down all the style and Charlie just pinning it. Classic!

Mike Baggs
Timeless classic photo, this was UKBMX racing I think at its best & it was when bmx, in my view, was proper & pure Bicycle Moto X. I’m all for evolving in any sport & it should happen, but looking at this fantastic pic of Geth, Charlie, Martin Jose etc it’s just got this jaw dropping factor about it, it’s hardcore, raw bmx racing at its best, the track was great for it’s time, the atmosphere was electric & the crowd are on edge in anticipation of will they won’t they jump the magnificent Dolly’s every single person is watching this race, in short a stunning picture that will always stand the test of time, people in years to come will still marvel at this pic.

Mike Wong
Not the best BMX photo ever taken, but sums up the original spirit of BMX racing and why so many of us 30 or 40 somethings got into the sport when it first came to the UK. Yes, everyone wanted to win, but everyone also wanted to get rad. That’s the difference between original BMX and Olympic era BMX. Thank God for riders like Billy Luckhurst, Paddy Sharrock, James Horwood, Callum Dalby and Connor Swain who keep the spirit of “getting rad” alive in the UK race scene.

Phil Charnley
“That jump was way ahead of the times and pissed on the likes of Kong or the Chasm just cos of where it was. I swear this pic was on my wall straight outta the magazine.”

Question with top riders from the 80s!!

We asked a number of top riders from the 80’s: When you first got into BMX Racing, what British riders inspired you that you looked up to or even those that you would consider your heroes?

Sean Rose
David Wylie / Team Diamond Back (anyone remember him?) Was about best in the country my first year 1980. I first raced him at Bradford track in a National. I was on my Mongoose 2 with Tuff wheels. He just beat me and that was my inspiration to get my ass into gear! Then, Andy Oldham was a star in my age group and again the next guy to beat, but of course, the heroes were; Andy Ruffell & Tim March. Overseas, were both Greg Hill and Bob Haro just to name a couple.

Darren Reidy
My first race ever at Chorley 83, Damian Myles on Hutch with Red Echo full-face, his style and look was straight out of the USA .Tim March, his size style and status was everything to me, he was my hero lol.

Jeff Dovey
Geth Shooter, without a doubt after the second Kellogg’s and Bercy. But all the Americans at the first Kellogg’s. Learning to gate with Richie Anderson and Brian Patterson at Cocksmoor… That’s what got me my snap and changed my racing game totally…

Jonathan Higginson
Tony Slater, his style of riding combined with the Redline bike in perfect condition, and the new Redline strip was a perfect combination for me. Mark White with the shear determination to battle on regardless of injury. And, for the US riders, Harry Leary and the Patterson brothers.

Tom Lynch
This is not Quick… Ok, my early role models and heroes inspired my bmx career and evoked development of new skills and attitudes. I learned from all of them. In addition the continuous study of bmx racing by watching others and knowing the terrain assisted in the consolidation and improvement. Early eighties superstar pioneers (between 1982 to 86): 1. Tim March – essence of pure moto-cross and dirt jumping – lateral thinking. 2. Andy Ruffell – all round bmxer inc freestyle and great media personality – professionalism. 3. Geth Shooter – breaking racing boundaries and urban riding – non conforming. 4. John Stockwell – application of mental attitude through training, coaching and in competition – dedication and self discipline. 5. Dave Dawson (and his Dad Pete team manager) – leading teams to success and team support as they led the hotshot teams – team ethic. That is my first thoughts and Sarah-Jane Nicholls – steely determination and domination in the girls. Euro – Phil Hoogendoorn, Xavier Redois, Claude Vuillemot.USA – Patterson bros Brent/ Brian, Ritchie ‘avalanche’ Anderson, Bob Haro, Mike King and Stompin Stu Thompson. Had the pleasure of meeting all of these heroes! The photos from the pages of BMX Action, BMX Plus lined my walls! Still got some mags as well as paper bmx weekly, obmx and action bike etc. I am on a roll, digging out the memorabilia as we speak. Most Factory inspiration: Clive Gosling and Darren Wood. I could go on but that’s enough for now.

Darren Nelson
Andy Ruffell. My Robinson team boss, Alan Woods and Tony Holland.

Sarah-Jane Nichols
Crikey, it’s such a long time ago, I actually think Andy Ruffell was my British Hero, he was the God of Bmx in those really early years.
I didn’t really want to inspire to be like any of the girls racing in the very early days I was just very determined to beat them.

Darren Wood
I didn’t have any of the norm hero’s …. Stu …. Greg … Ect ….. The 1st person I was in awe of was Carl Alford … He had 2 bikes at Bournemouth .. But I would say … Jay Hardy …. Malcolm Stapleton … Cav Strutt and Andy … But Tim was the main man in my eye’s.

Paul Ray
Ummmm,bloody hell that’s so long ago ….. I always really liked Tom Lynch he was good all round Tim March was way ahead of everyone at my time. Sarah Jane Nichols was unbeatable, I just liked watching winners really, the ones who had that bit extra need to win at all cost. I suppose being from Cornwall and only reading about the big names in my age group like Danny Stabielli who was European Champion at the time and seeing him at Pontins in 83 in the pissing rain stood in a full length leather jacket with his dad holding an umbrella over his head was a moment I thought Jesus, that guy’s cool and he was fast and had style. I was doing 1 pedal starts on my cheap, unbranded bike in my plastic raincoat. Oh, I won my plastic coat … Never got a full length leather jacket though.

Gary Fenwick
Steve Gratton. He was a big inspiration for me and a really cool rider.

Tim March
None!

Craig Schofield
Had to think about this, as I started riding in the 80’s with my first race in January 81′. So, I was in at the start of the UK scene. I met Andy Ruffell in 81′ and we became good friends (And, still are some 32 years later). I looked up to Pete Middleton and Tim March always gave me good advice and had my back at Mongoose. I respected these guys a lot but the honest truth was I wanted to beat them and I think I had an inflated opinion of myself back then so I never thought anyone was better than me. I hope that’s a racer thing that pushed me on ? Or I was I just an ass? !

Rob Wallace
Andy Ruffell, Scott Barber, Clint Miller.

Ashley Davis
Jon Greaves, Matt Oakley, Anthony Howells, Louis Mears, David Maw, Tom Lynch, Tim March.

Dave Morris
I’ve had a think about this and came up with the usual; Andy and Tim but, actually, I was inspired by riders in my own age group. I started a bit later than most so people like Stu Diggens, Darren Wood and Tim Print were already sponsored riders and I just wanted to be as good as them so that I could get on a factory team. My hero was Richie, The Avalanche Anderson. I know he’s not a Brit but I saw him on TV win the worlds in 82′ I think and the way he rode the doubles with his front wheel in the air pedaling all the way was just brilliant back then. I watched it over and over again.. happy days !

Tony Holland
I would say I looked up to Alan Woods, Tim & Andy.

Scott Williams
Tim March … John Lee ..

Dean Iddiols
Shooter March Ruffell. Everybody really almost everyone I rode with at the track or skate park. Team mates,everyone always has something u can take try / and learn or just be impressed by : )

Tony Fleming
Tim March, always controversial, formidable, a giant of a man. One of my early BMX mag favourites, always had a crazy bling bike with the rarest and most unique components…
Andy Ruffell was my first inspiration as I bought that ‘BMX IT’ Don Smith book, which featured Ruffell throughout teaching us how to gate, jump, corner, eat!

I always like the David and Goliath theme between Tim and Andy Ruffell, the gossip, the team Tim or Team Ruffell banter all day between the parents and remember all the bustling crowds staying well into the night just to see the battle between them int he finals… I can’t recall ever a rider like Tim (Love him or hate him).
Two of my most favorite legends!

Chris Taylor
Riders I looked up to or inspired me, big Tim, Geth , Stu Diggins , Wayne Llewelyn ,most of the big factory guys back then.

Early Day Heroes

get-attachment

When we talk about the first UK heroes and superstars in BMX, the obvious names that come to mind are; Tim March and Andy Ruffell. Maybe it’s because they were at the top of their game at the same time BMX racing was getting its start and they were able to get some real outside the bicycle industry media. Andy was on TV regularly and Tim was winning Championships not just in the UK but all over Europe. Their ability to capture the interest and pocket books of major corporate sponsors outside the industry was impressive; Lee-Cooper/ VG and so on. But who were the names and respected riders before them that maybe missed out or were a little in the background during the earlier years? We’re going to post quotes/pics from former top riders and the guys they looked up to when discovering BMX in the UK in the very early days. Stay-tunned.