Why I became a mid-life BMX bandit

Cathy Wallace
Cathy Wallace discovers that hitting the track is not just for kids - it's a bonding experience for the family - Rii Schroer

Pamela Simpson is 53, "not sporty" and has suffered from asthma all her life. Two years ago her son Jay-Teale, now 10, took up BMX. "I ­enjoyed watching him and thought I would like to try it," Simpson says. "But I didn't want to embarrass myself."

Then she noticed a session for women and girls run at Burgess Park BMX Track in Peckham, south-east London, where Jay-Teale trained.

This season Simpson raced at the London BMX series and finished third in her category. "It was the most nerve-racking experience of my life," she says. "But it was also exhilarating - and a real challenge as I hadn't ridden for over 40 years."

Jay-Teale finished 12th in the South in his age category, and 37th nationwide. "He is ­proud of me," Simpson says. "We now share a real love for the sport. It's brought us closer together."

Since becoming part of the Olympic Games in 2008, the popularity of BMX has soared. A legacy programme ­introduced in London in 2011 by sports development charity Access Sport has seen tracks built in several London boroughs, backed up with investment in coaching, and the programme is now being rolled out to Bristol.

 Cathy Wallace doing a circuit Credit:  Rii Schroer

One of the less predictable effects of this investment is the opportunity it has opened up for connection, a shared passion and a unique bond between mothers and children.

Alexandra Mavolwane Wright's children Skye, 11 and Xander, 10 are sponsored riders who have represented Great Britain in every world championship since 2014. Mavolwane Wright says she was motivated to start BMX herself "out of an interest sparked by watching so much of it over the past few years." She says her first experience was "sobering - it's frustrating being slow and unskilled," but her ambition is to improve enough to race. BMX racing is open to all and riders are grouped by age and experience.

"It's an eye-opener to share your children's interests," she says. "You comprehend what they go through in a much more direct way. It adds another dimension to your relationship."

"I see lots of laughter, lots of tears and loads of encouragement, not just from parents to kids, but from kids to parents, too," says Paulus Graham, 24, a youth worker and BMX coach, who runs family sessions and BMX parties at Peckham and Merton BMX clubs.

Tabitha Rendall, 47, was working as a club cycling coach when her son Zach, then eight, decided to try BMX. Her daughter Elsa, then four, followed and finally Rendall herself. Mother, son and daughter hit the racing scene in 2014 and haven't looked back.

Elsa, now 10, was number one at the BMX World Championships in 2015 and has had world plates ever since. Zach, 14, rides freestyle and Rendall herself has finished in the top eight ­nationally on cruiser bikes (BMX bikes with 24in wheels) for the past two years. Like Simpson, Rendall says she was "not particularly sporty" as a child.

I began BMX this season with the expectation of being as bad at it as I had been at all sports when I was at school. I didn't expect to find myself lining up to race at the finale of the London Series at the Olympic Park last month. Nor did I think I would be taking my daughters to training sessions at Croydon BMX track on Saturday mornings.

But since getting on one of the tiny, aerodynamic bikes feeling foolish and excited in equal measure, I haven't looked back. While you don't need to be an expert cyclist to learn BMX, many of the skills are transferable. It's also a next-level fitness activity, building core and leg strength.

It is also a high-impact sport and the risks are fairly obvious. "I totally get the fear," says Emma Budgens, 51, a BMXercise coach and cycling instructor. "It's the fear of doing something new, of getting hurt, the 'how am I ­going to change a nappy with a broken arm' scenario? I say, come and give it a try. The chance of having an ­accident is low, and you can spend time on the flat to improve your ­confidence and skills."

Once you do transfer to the track, the addictive nature of BMX kicks in. "You become a big kid again," says Graham. "The fear of falling, the excitement and the thrill when you get some air."

These experiences can bond parents and children like no other. "The kids have this unfailing faith in my ability to do things," says Rendall. "I'm showing them that if you keep at something you will improve. And I swear it's keeping me young."