I’m not sure exactly when BMX first started here in KZN but I remember it didn’t take long to boom. The first off-road bicycle racing I witnessed was at the old Roy Hesketh track sometime in 1981 and it wasn’t yet BMX. Most of the riders were on sturdy old single-speed bikes that had been adapted for what was then known as cycle cross.
PHOTOGRAPHY: JOE SPENCER
WORDS: JASON CRAMER
Soon though, every kid either had a BMX or dreamed of owning one. Most started off with department store bikes and the more fortunate graduated to race ready brands like Redline, Kuwahara or GT.
BMX Action and BMX Plus were both popular American magazines filled with reviews of new bikes and products as well as features on the first generation of BMX racing heroes like Stu Thomsen, Harry Leary and Andy Ruffel, who inspired countless local kids to do
Although the first events had only a handful of kids competing, new tracks were popping up all over and in no time at all hundreds of competitors were racing at meets all across the country. BMX manufacturers saw a sizeable market emerging here and many set up lucrative distribution deals for their bikes. Most established bicycle shops completely shifted their focus to cater to the demand, while new specialist stores opened, offering some of the most lusted after high-end products from the States. For the first time our riders were able to set up their bikes with the lightest, toughest components. Many of the expert class riders could be seen riding bikes like Patterson, Hutch and JMC just like their American peers, who they soon got to line up against. From time to time the top riders from the States were flown here to promote the fledgling sport and compete at our race meetings where a handful of local kids proved to be competitive against the likes of the American factory riders, Brett Allen, Greg Hill and Jon Anderson.
‘BMX The Video’ was released by Thorn EMI in 1983 and starred Andy Ruffell, the video sold over 1m copies around the world and was shot mainly in Johannesburg South Africa. The video was shot on 35mm and features some great old school racing and freestyle footage with some great music. When Andy Ruffell toured South Africa to promote the video launch over 100,000 people turned out over 25 shows in JoBurg, Durban and Cape Town.
Even though the strength of the early eighties Rand was comparable to the U.S dollar, these parts and bikes were out of reach for most. The kids that were not able to have these bikes rode the more affordable options like the Mongoose expert, Raleigh burner or popular local brand le Turbo but BMX bikes were everywhere. Every major town had a racetrack and in almost every suburb the locals had found a patch of vacant land that served as a makeshift BMX track, where kids would spend their weekends from sun up to sun down.
Bob Haro became the rider that introduced many to freestyle BMX, which soon saw the sport split into two different divisions, freestyle and racing. At the same time the South African political situation sent the Rand on a downward path, which had a massive impact on the cost of these imported items in the mid-eighties.
Inevitably the cost of these products increased dramatically in a fairly short space of time, which affected the retailers most. The inflated costs played a part in the decline of BMX in South Africa. The sport no longer seemed able to attract the same number of kids while others had outgrown BMX and moved on to motocross and other pursuits. While interest in BMX was in a rapid decline, mountain bikes saw a surge in popularity and by the end of the eighties most of the specialist BMX stores had closed their doors for good.
Many desirable race bikes from the early part of the eighties sat gathering dust in garages, completely neglected. Others were just given away and by the mid-nineties the odds of seeing a Mongoose or Redline BMX cruising down the street were very slim. The golden age of BMX was over.
** Ride The Lightning – We apologise for the mistake with the picture and author credits for this article in the printed magazine. These incredible 80’s BMX shots were taken by Joe Spencer and the author of the article is Jason Cramer. Special thanks to both for their amazing insight to BMX racing in South Africa in the early 1980’s. Read it in issue 21 online (link in bio) or pick one up at one of our stockists #bmxracing #oldschoolbmx #rad #80sbmx #durban #southafrica #vintagebmx #bicyclemotocross #1980s