Luscious green trees surround the outdoor skatepark and grandstands at the UCI Urban Cycling World Championships in Chengdu, China. Freestyle BMX star Hannah Roberts — atop her pink bike, rocking a black full-face helmet — drops in and pedals hard toward a spine ramp. As she launches off the ramp, Roberts begins a 360-degree spin. In the middle of her rotation, she uses the handlebars to whip the bike around separate from her body, becoming the first woman to land a 360 tailwhip in competition.
The historic trick, thrown down on her sport’s biggest stage, epitomized Roberts’ young career. She has never stopped building to bigger and better things.
Rather than give the crowd a fist pump, or take a breather to soak in the momentous occasion, Roberts immediately hits a vert ramp and busts a flair — a backflip with a simultaneous 180-degree turn.
The year before, she took a disappointing third in the event, behind fellow Americans Perris Benegas and Angie Marino. On Nov. 10, 2019, Roberts avenged the loss, winning her second world championship at just 18 years old with a score of 90.0 out of 100.
After wiping away tears, she stood above the rest on the podium, smiling as she accepted a gold medal and a stuffed panda with a leaf in its mouth. She wore UCI’s iconic rainbow jersey, bestowed upon world champions of every cycling discipline since the 1920s.
Just one week earlier, she had won her fourth straight FISE World Cups Series, which also held its final event in Chengdu. Roberts left no question whether she was the best women’s freestyle BMXer in the world.
“I wanted to have the rainbow jersey going into the Olympic year,” Roberts says. “It was more for myself. I put so much work in, and I was so focused on showing that I wasn’t going to take second or third again. I wanted that year to be all about me, so I threw down some of my bigger tricks.”
Her mother Betty made the trip to Chengdu to watch, after she and Roberts had spent half a year apart. In order to train for the world championships, Roberts effectively emancipated herself from her mother and father in June 2019 while she was still 17.
She moved in with long-time medical trainer Trish Bare Grounds and Trish’s 18-year-old daughter, Olivia, 750 miles away in Holly Springs, North Carolina. As she moved, she changed her diet. More importantly, she strictly budgeted her modest income. Being a teenage action sports prodigy with international acclaim isn’t as lucrative as one might think.
There was no giant check waiting at the podium in Chengdu to signify the €10,000 in prize money she earned, but the win was huge for Roberts. Just four months prior, she wasn’t sure she could sustain her freestyle BMX career into her mid-twenties unless the sport became more financially stable.
The World Championships are one of the few annual competitions to award equal prizes to men and women. By comparison, when she won the final contest of the world series, the Men’s Elite winner took home €8,000 while Roberts received €1,500.
And though Roberts’ accomplishments show how far women’s freestyle BMX has come in recent years in terms of talent and viability, they are also a reminder of the wage and sponsorship gap that persists between male and female athletes. As impressive as Roberts and her peers have been, the most famous annual extreme sports event, the X Games, still won’t let them compete.
The now-postponed summer Olympics were supposed to be a launch pad for the sport and for Roberts. The games drew an estimated 3.6 billion viewers for the Rio Games in 2016. Freestyle BMX will be an event for the first time ever in Tokyo, and Roberts is the clear favorite to take home gold.
“Women are the future of our sport,” says Nina Buitrago, a pioneer of women’s BMX who continues to be one of the sports biggest advocates. “They’re very marketable, and it’s a big thing that BMX has needed for a long time. It’s just incredible that with something like the Olympics, it’s catapulted all of us in to try to progress more and just own our journey.”
Roberts is ready to lead the charge; unfortunately, there’s only so much she can control. She did everything right heading into the 2020 games — kept herself afloat financially, trained relentlessly, won everything she needed to and then some.
But she couldn’t predict the coronavirus pandemic that has put her Olympic dreams, and those of countless others, on hold until 2021 at the earliest. Roberts is used to addressing her problems through sheer willpower. Being forced to wait, a budding star without a showcase, has been an entirely different challenge.
In South Bend, Indiana, around the back of an old brick chocolate factory, past a chain-link gate and barbed-wire fence, and at the other end of a parking lot with cracked concrete, sits an old mattress factory-turned-world-class skatepark. The indoor park known as “The Kitchen” is closed most weekdays, but on an unusually warm Monday afternoon in February, the front door is unlocked. Roberts is home for the first time in more than six months to enjoy her formative skatepark.
That evening, she will ride with three boys between the ages of 11 and 14 who she has mentored for years. Roberts was invited to the park for a private session for them and their parents. She practically had no choice — she happened to be in town, and they were blowing up her phone all day begging to celebrate.
The official Team USA Instagram account posted a photo of Roberts earlier that afternoon announcing she was the first American to ever qualify for the Olympics in freestyle BMX.
“They’re supposed to be in school,” Roberts says, “but they were on their phones during the day and took screenshots, sent it to me and asked, ‘Did you see this?’ The first three times I told them ‘no,’ but finally, I just responded, ‘Do you want to ride tonight?’”
For hours, Roberts and her young pupils film each other on their phones while they attempt high-flying tricks into a large yellow foam pit and eat slices of greasy pizza. She’s proud of how they have improved under her tutelage. Their parents comment on how much she has inspired them. Roberts also expects this will be one of her last carefree runs before she transitions to a training regimen suitable for an Olympic athlete. She sits and soaks in nostalgia from her surroundings instead of sending her own tricks into the foam pit.
“The last four years of me living here, I rode with every one of these kids almost every day,” Roberts says. “I’d pick them up from their house if they needed a ride or I’d take them to a skatepark. If I wanted to make a day trip to Ohio just to ride something different, they were always in my car going with me.”
According to her mother, Roberts is at her happiest when she’s working with kids, though she still fits within a broad definition of “adolescent” herself.
Roberts grew up in the 4,000-person town of Buchanan, Michigan, a few miles north of the Indiana state border and a 20-minute drive from South Bend. Decades ago, Buchanan’s rolling terrain gave birth to RedBud MX, one of America’s signature motocross tracks and now an annual stop for the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. In the fall of 2018, the track even hosted Motocross of Nations, which is billed as the “Olympics of motocross,” drawing riders from all over the world.
The fact Buchanan produced a world-renowned extreme sports athlete like Roberts isn’t a surprise. But Roberts is unique because her success never came on a dirt bike. If not for her father’s disapproval, Roberts might have given motocross a real shot, but the closest she ever came was working a taco stand at RedBud MX during her summers.
Her passion for BMX was passed on from her older cousin, Brett “Mad Dog” Banasiewicz, once an up-and-comer on the Dew Tour. In 2012, as a shaggy black-haired 17-year-old, he won his first Dew Tour park event in Ocean City, Maryland. The following week, his professional career came to a devastating end. During a practice session, he landed on his head while attempting a 720° and wearing an uncertified helmet. He temporarily lost the use of his left arm, and his motor and speech skills will never fully recover.
“It was horrible. To me, he was gonna be the next Dave Mirra,” says Daniel Dhers, one of the most decorated BMX riders of all-time. “He just learned how to compete. He had all these tricks that he’d worked on for years. He had the looks, and he could talk, and was funny. If he were riding today? He’d be the guy in the Olympics, for sure. That would be crazy because then it would be him and Hannah.”
Roberts herself has suffered numerous broken bones, but fear of suffering an injury like Banasiewicz doesn’t hold her back.
“You can take all the safety precautions in the world, but it still could happen,” Roberts says. “Brett fell on a trick that he’d mastered, that he’d been doing forever. It was five seconds and everything changed.”
Before the injury, a 16-year-old Banasiewicz self-funded and, with the help of his friend Glenn Salyers, designed The Kitchen. They equipped it with enormous ramps, foam pits, and “resi” ramps, which are covered in foam and a thick sheet of black rubber. By the time she was riding at nine years old, Roberts had access to one of the nation’s premier skateparks.
Swiss-American freestyle rider Nikita Ducarroz, five years Roberts’ senior and a likely qualifier for the 2020 Olympics for Switzerland, remembers trekking to The Kitchen from her Southern California home for a competition as a teenager. She almost froze at the magnitude of its jumps.
“The ramps at The Kitchen are huge,” Ducarroz says. “I remember going there, and I couldn’t even cruise the boxes and [Hannah’s] doing tricks over them.”
By middle school, Roberts was already performing tricks that seasoned veterans with sponsorships had never seen.
“She was the first girl I saw do a tailwhip,” Buitrago says. “Once she has a trick, she can just do it. It’s not like it’s luck.”
But as much as The Kitchen spurred Roberts’ BMX education, she eventually realized she had to leave it behind.
For years, Roberts believed members of her inner circle credited The Kitchen for too much of her success, disregarding her work ethic and determination. And she could only spend so much time mentoring other young BMXers without sacrificing her own progress.
“I love riding with the locals,” Roberts says. “I love helping them, but it comes to a point where, in every session, if you’re focusing on other people riding, which I love to do, your riding starts to fall.”
Roberts gave up her passion for mentoring, at least temporarily, to better her career. She had felt the pain of losing the 2018 World Championships and the rainbow jersey. She never wants to let that happen again.
Holly Springs — a pine tree- and strip mall-filled landscape similar to every other suburb in the Raleigh, N.C., metropolitan area — has quickly become the new mecca of freestyle BMX. That’s largely thanks to Dhers, who owns the massive indoor-outdoor skatepark known as the Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex. Dhers, 35, is a five-time X Games gold medalist originally from Venezuela.
From the front, the DDASC looks like an office building or outlet store, industrial gray brick and dark windows covering the outside. The inside doesn’t look like what a typical sports fan might expect from an Olympic training facility. Plywood and two-by-fours are the predominant decor. But the 37,000-square-foot complex is considered one of the largest and best family-oriented, year-round skating and biking facilities in the world.
After spending her entire life in the Midwest, Roberts moved to Holly Springs to train at the DDASC because, unlike most other Olympic athletes, the best BMX riders like to train side-by-side, pushing each other.
The park officially opens to the public every weekday from 3 to 8 p.m. Dhers and the other pros do most of their riding in the morning to avoid crowds of young kids on scooters, but they often make exceptions on Tuesday evenings.
Recently, Roberts was joined by two other women riders: Ducarroz and Benegas, the winner of the 2018 World Championships. Roberts and Benegas are teammates and rivals. Their tug-of-war relationship only intensified after both became near-locks to qualify for the Olympics.
“It’s very competitive now,” Roberts says. “We call it winning practice, which makes no sense because it’s practice, but everybody wants to win.”
The male riders include Dhers, Marin Ranteš of Croatia, American Justin Dowell and Australian Brand Loupos. All have finished on the podium at major UCI and FISE BMX events over the last two years.
During training sessions at the DDASC, each rider takes turns dropping in from the deck and riding for 30 to 40 seconds at a time, watching each other and offering criticism and encouragement. On one run, Roberts lands a tailwhip onto resi with relative ease. She then rides around the skatepark to pick up speed and hits the same ramp, performing a 360° tuck no-hander in which, while letting go of the bike, she leans her stomach against the handlebars before grabbing them again and landing.
Much of her competition would be thrilled with this short run, but Roberts is just getting started.
“Backflip bar spins over spines is her warm-up trick in sessions,” Ducarroz says.
Unfortunately, the sport of freestyle BMX hasn’t progressed as quickly as its athletes.
Freestyle BMX has been around since the mid-1970s, but didn’t achieve international prominence until the late 90s and early 2000s, after the X Games were started. Yet, to this day, women BMXers aren’t allowed to vie for a medal in the competition.
Instead, the most that X Games organizers have been willing to give them is an unpaid demonstration, the first of which occurred in 2014. For 10 years before that, X Games offered a girls BMX clinic. The riders hope that, one day, women’s freestyle BMX will have its own competition, similar to what women’s skateboarding and snowboarding have enjoyed for years.
“We’ve been working on this relationship with X Games for so long,” Buitrago says. “I feel like we’re so close, but they just were like, ‘Well, we’re just going to offer you another demo again.’ The deal that we made was [that] women are down to do the demo, so long as every year we’re working towards having an actual contest.”
But everyone has their limits. In 2018, when she was16, Roberts became the first prominent female rider to bail on the X Games, deciding her skills were worth more than a free hotel room and limited exposure. Some of the other professional riders protested her decision, saying it wasn’t best for the sport, but her mind was made up.
The following year, the entire women’s class agreed to boycott the event.
“It’s a big risk, especially the year before the Olympics, to ride at an event where you won’t make money,” Roberts says. “We barely get a crowd. They have it at like 9 or 10 a.m., so nobody’s really there. No events are going on. It’s just a big slap in the face.
“People should really open their eyes and realize that the class [of women] is growing. That people are getting better and it will take time for us to be on the same level as the men just because of the support. It’s hard to make [BMX] a career.”
Roberts learned from a young age that practice, more than exposure, would propel her career.
At the DDASC, Dhers is the unofficial coach of the group. He periodically pulls riders aside for extra one-on-one attention while they train. When Roberts first moved to Holly Springs, her day-to-day riding was inconsistent. One day, she might push herself beyond her limits, risking injury and wearing herself out. The next, she’d spend too much time on her phone or drinking an energy drink. Dhers and the other pros helped her change her mentality by pushing her to take a more mindful, calculated approach to practicing new tricks.
Now she’s deliberate about how much time she spends sending a trick to the foam pit, only moving to resi once she feels she’s ready, then moving to a wooden ramp when the trick is nearly perfect.
“I used to just send things [on a wooden ramp] and then go back on resi and then go back in the foam and work on them, which was a terrible idea,” Roberts says.
Her new mentality has paid real dividends. For instance, on a six-week training trip she took to Australia after her victory at the World Championships, Roberts learned more than two dozen new tricks, including what she called five or six “big tricks.” During that time, she traveled throughout the country, staying with Australian rider Natalya Diehm.
Roberts knew she had to evolve. She noticed other women catching up to her, and the number of competitors increasing exponentially. She’s stubborn according to those who know her well. She got to the top of her profession as a teenager, after all, even before she got to Holly Springs.
According to Dhers, Roberts’ persistent ‘send-it mentality’ came from her Kitchen days, riding massive ramps with no one to tell her she shouldn’t. On ramps that size, riders must possess a certain degree of fearlessness to commit to a trick. It was there she learned a fundamental lesson of the sport.
“If you baby it, you die,” Dhers says. “You don’t make it.”
The Covid-19 pandemic first hit the freestyle BMX world Feb. 22 when FISE and the UCI canceled the World Cup event scheduled for May in Pu Yang, China. A few weeks later, a second World Cup event in Hiroshima was postponed indefinitely. After a period of insisting the games would be held as scheduled, the International Olympic Committee finally announced on March 24 the postponement of the Tokyo Games until 2021.
In the days following the news, Roberts spent more time in her bedroom than at the DDASC, moving back and forth from her bed, to playing video games, to her desk to email Team USA and other sponsors.
Focusing on a few companies at a time, she figured out which of her sponsorships were most impacted. The Milk Processor Education Program, the group behind the “Got Milk?” campaign, adjusted their contract with Roberts, but her contracted sponsorships within the BMX industry — Tioga, Alienation, Hyper Bike and Snafu — were still intact.
“It’s still just a little frustrating going through all the emails and making sure that we’re all on the same page and we all know what’s happening, who’s getting paid when and what is expected of me,” Roberts says.
Perhaps the biggest frustration was the notion that all the hard work she’d been putting in towards the Olympics — the stringent riding schedule, changes to her diet, dedication to the gym — wouldn’t pay off like she had planned.
“I was happy that the committee put in the consideration for athletes’ health,” Roberts says, “but it’s also disappointing and nerve-wracking because you have to keep the Olympic mindset for the next year and deal with all the same stuff over again.”
Thankfully, Roberts will not have to requalify. She will represent Team USA at the Olympics in 2021. And she’s still training.
Because of the pandemic, skateparks all across the country are closed to the public, including the DDASC. But all the pros agreed that if they only saw each other, and had all groceries and food delivered, that they could continue to practice together. Dhers turned the upper deck of the skatepark into a mini gym, equipped with dumbbells, a pull-up bar and two plastic trash cans attached at opposite ends of a workout bar.
Roberts still rides for three to four hours a day with the group, but she works out at home in the afternoons using exercise bands. She also tries to get up at 6 a.m. every morning for cardio and stretching. The UCI rainbow jersey hanging in her bedroom closet helps keep her focused.
“When I don’t feel like riding in the morning or when I don’t feel like getting up and going to the session or the workout, I look at it and it gives me that extra motivation,” Roberts says. “It’s like, ‘I don’t want to lose this again.’”
This should have been the year when Roberts’ profile skyrocketed. Through no fault of her own, 2020 feels like a step back, a disheartening tumble after a redemptive 2019. Still, it’s difficult to know how much an Olympic gold medal would elevate her career.
“CNN could pick it up and then boom, she’s a famous superstar, or no one could pick it up and then nothing ever happens,” Dhers says. “How many Olympic gold medalists are there for the women in other sports and no one knows they exist?”
Roberts doesn’t seem to be banking on superstardom, at least. For now, she’s being frugal, saving almost every dime from her contest winnings.
Certainly, the more visible Roberts is, the more popular she and the sport can become. For years, Roberts has been considered a leader in freestyle BMX because of her strong example. That ‘send-it mentality,’ again.
“One thing I’ve learned is that when you see a woman do something, you’re like, ‘oh, my gosh, it’s possible,’” Buitrago says. “For whatever reason, you see guys do the same trick but when you see a woman do [a trick] that you haven’t ever seen them do before, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. Yes.’”
But Roberts doesn’t focus much on the stakes, only on how she’s pushing herself at any point in time. Others may see unlimited potential, and an opportunity for fame and possibly fortune, but her goals are intrinsic.
“I don’t necessarily want to be the best woman BMX rider,” Roberts says. “I would rather just be a good or great BMX rider, in general, rather than having the woman or the man label on it.
“I just do whatever I think is possible and if it works out, it works out. And if not, try it again.”