Cloverdale math teacher Laurie Harding, the number one BMX rider for her 41 – 46 age group in Canada, competed last month at the American Bicycle Association’s Race of Champions and Grand Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Race of Champions took place on Friday and she took first in her category.
“I didn’t go down expecting to win,” said Harding. She had hoped she would, she said, but that wasn’t why she was racing—she was in it for the community of the sport.
On the last day, at the last race—this one for the overall age group title—Harding lined up with seven other racers from all over the world and every walk of life.
They included Shannon Brown, American country music singer; a civil engineer from Missouri who had only been racing for a year and a half; Erin Tierney, from Pemberton, who Harding coaches in her downtime; and Great Britain’s Abby Hill, a BMX veteran with 26 years of experience who recognized Harding from when they competed at the World Championships in Victoria in 2007.
Also lined up is Letitia Weatherhead, the Australian national champion, and she has the inside track—a starting advantage. Harding hadn’t met her yet, as the qualifying rounds had kept them apart.
She made the effort to introduce herself, because she makes it a point to talk to everyone before a race. Harding joked that her attitude is “overly, in-your-face friendly,” but she also likes connecting with her competitors. She’s always enjoyed that aspect of BMX.
“You talk to somebody for five minutes in the staging area waiting for your race and you learn so much about people,” she said. “The people make the sport great.”
In fact, she now considers Weatherhead a friend, and the Australian champion later extended an invitation to come to Australia to train with her for a month.
But in that moment, Harding was at gate six of eight, on the outside, and she was staying focused.
“I’m trying to stay in my head,” she said. “I’m so nervous. You’re clipped into your pedals, you’re feet are attached and there’s no going back. You’re trying to stay calm.”
“When you’re racing, you’re just you,” Harding said. “Other people don’t exist.” Instead, the racer focuses on the track ahead of them.
Unlike in other sports such as football or basketball, not every field of play is identical in BMX—every course has a starting gate and a finish line, but that’s where the similarities end. Lengths of tracks vary as much as the obstacles that they contain.
On average, a track will be between 275 and 400 metres long and will take 30 to 40 seconds for a racer to complete. To keep terminology simple, a track is made up of turns and “straights.” The straights aren’t as simple to travel as they sound; they include obstacles such as jumps, hills, rollers or rhythm sections, all of which call for a different approach.
Before Harding knew it, the gate was down and she had passed the starting hill. By the time the announcers finished saying that they were off, she was into the first turn. She couldn’t see Weatherhead—Harding was in the lead—so she kept going.
Seconds later, Laurie Harding, of Surrey, BC, had taken first place.
The factory team that she races for, YESS BMX, a father and son, homegrown business out of Newton, also took home Bike of the Year and Rookie Pro of the Year, two titles which had never left the United States.
Afterwards, children came up and asked for autographs. She asked, “You know I’m just a mom and a schoolteacher, right?” But she’d won both of her races and they wanted an autograph.
Harding got into BMX racing because of her own children. When her son was four-years-old, he rode passed their local BMX park on his training wheels and told her he wanted to try the sport.
“We took off his training wheels and never looked back,” she said. “My daughter started when she was three.”
After the initial, hands-on learning period, when she’d run behind her children to guide them if they needed it, she found herself on the side of the track, watching.
“I’m not someone to sit and watch,” said Harding. At first, she tried announcing and volunteering at the competitions. “But then I thought, why not give it a try?”
Harding at the local Action BMX track in Newton.
How hard could it be? She grew up riding a banana bike, also known as a muscle bike, designed to look like a chopper motorcycle. She rode around her Fraser Heights neighbourhood and test-piloted the jumps her and the local kids put together.
About a decade before she started riding, the sport of BMX racing came together in a similar fashion in the early 70’s in Southern California. Youth, trying to imitate their motorcycle-racing idols, modified their muscle bike and raced and performed tricks in empty dirt lots. Eventually, it became a new sport all on its own. At first known as Pedal-cross, the sport became known widely as Bicycle Motocross, or BMX for short.
Harding said she was “pretty wobbly” when she started out ten years ago at the Action BMX track in Surrey, where she was one of the only women riding locally. “There was a teenage girl riding when I first started,” she said. “At the end of the first year, there was one other mom.”
Harding encouraged other women to join, loaning out a spare bike to any one who wanted to try. As she became more experienced, she started coaching girls and women, and became an advocate for women in BMX. “I want more women to get into the sport,” she said. “And I want more girls to stay in it.”
She said BMX is a family sport. “Mom, dad, kids can all ride together at the same track,” she said, adding that her family would spend summers camping at different tracks in BC and racing.
Nearly a decade later, and she’s not the only female face at the track. “On a good night, we’ll get a dozen women,” she said.
It’s difficult, she said, to train when you don’t have women to practice with. “The men that are our speed are often a little newer and a little scary,” Harding said.
“They bounce around a lot.”
If you don’t have someone there to chase or to push you, she said, it’s hard to train to do the best you can do.
She’s often asked why she agrees to coach potential competition, such as Erin Tierney. “Why would I help her get faster? Well, if she’s able to beat me that means I’m a great coach,” she said. “If she gets faster, then I have to get faster. If she beats me, I’ll have to do better.”
Harding donates her time at the local BMX tracks coaching women to do better, beat their own records and, most importantly, have fun.
If you or your kids are interested in trying the sport out, you’re welcome to come out during the spring or summer. Most tracks have loaner equipment, so all you have to do is wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants. Monday nights, Harding said, are the best to come down to the track, because you can join Monday night practice.
If you have a question, ask anybody, she said. “Or just ask for Laurie.”