Getting Rad

Youth—and fun—revived on a bike.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the BMX movie RAD had on me as a kid. If you missed this critically misunderstood gem when it was released in 1986, let me recap it for you: Underdog BMX wunderkind Cru Jones defies all odds and takes on the corporate stooge pro BMXers in an insanely difficult race called Helltrack, winning a $100,000 purse and proving to his mother that being good at BMX is more important than taking the SATs. There’s also a bike dance scene in a school gym with a young Lori Loughlin. That’s not a typo. She was dancing. On a bike. So, yeah, RAD was kind of a big deal to a 10-year-old kid trying to figure out his place in the world. 

Not that I was some sort of enthusiastic BMXer as a kid. I wasn’t really into biking. I had a bike. I rode it occasionally, but it wasn’t my thing. I was into baseball, digging holes in my backyard, and stockpiling arms in anticipation of Russia’s inevitable invasion (Red Dawn was also a seminal film in my development).  

Looking back on my childhood now, I realize there was so much I missed out on. I played a lot of sports. I ran constantly. But as far as adventure goes, my early childhood education subsisted of going camping once a year with my church group and playing war in the backyard. I’m not blaming my parents. I’m sure they tried. My brothers were in the Scouts. They went to summer camp. They were all sorts of adventurous. I just wasn’t interested. I wore gloves when I played outside because I didn’t want to get my hands dirty.  

It’s OK to laugh. I knew I was a little off. I remember once, when I was maybe 10, I decided I should climb a tree because it seemed like something kids ought to do. I set my mind on a big pine tree in our backyard, hugged it, and tried to shimmy up to the first layer of branches, maybe six feet off the ground. It was the same tree that my dad once hung a hammock from, and I ended up impaling the underside of my arm on a rusty hammock hook. When I tried to drop down from the tree I just hung there. Dangling. I can still feel the hook tugging at my underarm.  

At the time, the incident seemed to solidify my notion that the outdoors wasn’t for me. I hoped I wouldn’t have to climb any trees when the Russians invaded.  

I’ve spent the last three decades doing my best to make up for my mis-spent childhood, dabbling in every kind of adventure sport possible. But I’ve managed to stick to the endurance side of things, mostly riding my bike for a really long time. But riding with style? Like, tricks where the tires leave the ground? I wish. 

Which brings me back to RAD, a childhood obsession that has only deepened as I’ve grown into an “adult.” When I was a kid, I watched the stuntmen do 360s and backflips on their tiny bikes and knew I would never be able to do the things that I saw in that movie. I couldn’t even bunny hop. Fast forward 30 some odd years and into a global pandemic when the majority of my favorite mountain biking trails were shut down, and I found myself at the neighborhood skatepark with my kids, confronting my bike skill inadequacies all over again. 

With the trails shut down, this concrete jungle full of deep bowls, half pipes, and rails, was the most interesting place we could ride our bikes. So, we started riding it, tepidly at first, pedaling our mountain bikes around the edges of the park, picking lines that wouldn’t get in the way of the more avid BMXers out there, all of whom seemed to have developed serious vaping habits and tattoos at an early age. Even though the park was less than a mile from our house, and most of its inhabitants were on bikes, the skatepark was a foreign landscape, with unorthodox terrain and customs. My age alone made me a fish out of water. The fact that I was riding a full suspension mountain bike with 27.5” wheels only solidified the notion that I didn’t belong. Why weren’t these other bikers wearing Camelbaks? Weren’t they concerned with hydration? And where was all the Lycra?  

But I was drawn to the skatepark. The style of riding is fluid and the opportunity for creativity is limitless. My son loved the skatepark too. So, he got a BMX bike for Christmas, which just happened to have a geometry that would fit a 6’3” adult.

A coincidence, I assure you. And when he goes to school, I steal his bike and take lunch breaks at the skatepark, riding sinuous loops through the pool and doing my best to not look like an idiot on the half pipe. And make no mistake: I do look like an idiot. The bike is tiny—miniature 20-inch wheels and a compact frame—they’re built for throwing around dirt tracks and concrete parks. It’s definitely a “fat guy in a little coat” situation.  

And I’m not good at it. I’m stiff and awkward. I can barely air out of the pool and my bunny hop isn’t much better than when I was 10 and dreaming about doing backflips like Cru Jones in RAD. But I’m getting better. Every ride inside the pool feels a little more natural and I feel less and less out of place in that foreign landscape. I’m already trying to figure out what flavor vape I’m going to get addicted to. 

And that’s the point of all this. Not only do I get to correct some mistakes of my youth, but I’m convinced I’m forging a brighter future as well. Getting better at BMX will help me get better on the mountain bike. The more I ride the concrete jungle, the more comfortable I am riding dirt. I’m better at table tops now. I no longer look at drops or kickers as obstacles—they’re features that I can tinker with. Biking isn’t just about doing cardio anymore. It’s about having fun. 

I’m not going to be riding Helltrack anytime soon and I’m probably not good enough to put any corporate stooge pro bikers in their place, but it feels good to learn something new as an adult. I think the 10-year-old version of myself hanging on that hook would be proud. 

Cover photo: When his favorite mountain bike trails were closed, the author and his son took to riding BMX at the local skatepark.

Places to Go, Things to See: