Story by Lisa Norman (Julian’s Mom)
Julian’s BMX Journey
In 2020, Julian Norman-Guarachi was eleven years old when the opportunity of a lifetime was within reach—to race in a prestigious international sporting event known as “Worlds,” the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) BMX (Bicycle Moto Cross) World Championships. (UCI is the world governing body of cycling recognised by the International Olympic Committee.)
Julian made the main event in the qualifier round held March 6 at Houston’s Rockstar Energy Bike Park. His was one of four scheduled qualifiers (three ran, one canceled) that year. The Rockstar track, U.S.A. was the scheduled host of the 2020 UCI BMX World Championships, May 26–31, but because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Worlds event was canceled–a heartbreaking, mind-numbing feeling for an accomplished rider who’d come so far from his remote home in Fort Bragg, only to realize the opportunity of a lifetime was slipping out of reach because of a virus that could not be controlled.
The following year, 2021, saw the world still grappling with the pandemic, though BMX racing, a mostly outdoor (and relatively minimal-contact) sport was happening in many US states, and saw a resurgence in attendance and competitions. Reportedly, there was also a crossover to BMX from athletes of other sports who were seeking a less-contact, more-outdoor experience for sport. Presuming a Worlds event might take place, USA BMX hosted one qualifier in South Carolina for the World Championships scheduled for Papendal, Netherlands. To qualify for the 2021 Worlds, riders needed only to make the semifinals to attend. Disappointingly, the Challenge races were ultimately canceled, and only Elite/Pro events took place, again due to international Covid-19 restrictions.
The year 2022 started to see recovery worldwide and there was promise and hope for the many young athletes who’d had their ambitions and dreams stifled by the virus and its variants. This is the year, for many, when dreams were reborn.
Reflecting on BMX, the odds looked good that a Worlds event would actually take place in 2022 as global strategies to combat the virus seemed to be working. Two qualifiers were held. Local now-thirteen-year-old Julian Norman-Guarachi earned his place on Team USA after making the main event at the qualifying race, March 25, 2022, at the USA BMX Golden State Nationals, in Santa Clara. Rock Hill, South Carolina hosted the first qualifier the weekend before. Only the top eight riders in each age-class qualify to attend this Worlds event.
After earning the Team USA distinction in Santa Clara, Julian continued the work of preparing for the international event. Top riders of the planet compete for the world title at this prestigious event. The 2022 UCI BMX World Championships did indeed take place July 26–31 in Nantes, France, and Julian was slated to participate.
In the final announcement of registered teams for the BMX World Championships, in the Amateur 13 Challenge race alone, there were 125 registered riders from around the world. Team USA comprised almost two hundred racers across several age groups, from age eight to over sixty-five.
Community Comes Together
Achieving success in BMX (or any sport) comes with a lot of hard work, training, focus, and determination. Equal to that is the support from home that helps transport the athlete to the starting line of that proverbial “big race.” This support helps offset the challenges of living in Fort Bragg, an ever-so-isolated community on the coast, far from the infrastructure/training facilities that fuel the advancement of elite athletes.
Getting talent to the next level often requires a combination of dedicated parents willing to drive long distances and community financial support, and Julian was lucky to have both.
Julian earned his place to attend the world class event in France, obviously much further away than a drive to Texas. His attendance hinged on a digital reach-out to friends near and far that helped offset some of the expense for attending the event. The warm wishes posted on the GoFundMe page for “Julian’s BMX world championship” testify to the care that small towns offer their people: it’s unequivocal.
The “SOBs” (Seniors on Bikes) went far and beyond to support him in his endeavor, providing a generous jersey sponsorship and meeting up to send him off, as well as Don Bainbridge from Epic Graphics who (besides his jersey sponsorship) was instrumental in getting Julian’s sponsor logos formatted and sent off to meet the Worlds deadline. Many friends and local businesses contributed and followed the journey through social media and watched the event that was broadcast online. Every ounce of support was deeply felt and as this year draws to a close, the gratitude for being able to see a youth reclaim an opportunity that fell out of his hands two years ago is immense.
Circling back to the UCI BMX World Championships, there were over three thousand world-class riders (amateur and professional)—from over forty countries—competing in different categories on a first-of-its-kind 450-meter-long track, specially built for the event, at the Nantes Parc des Expositions.
Each day, boosted by the roar of five thousand spectators, riders endeavored, stage after stage, to reach the final, and take away the coveted rainbow jersey, the holy grail of world cycling. This was a spectacular event for any athlete. “It was an honor to attend, to be able to go to the world championship in France after having missed it in 2020,” says Julian, who attended with his family (sister Kiana, mom Lisa Norman, and dad Marcel Guarachi), along with the greater Team USA. “It was very exciting,” says Julian in his understated way. “I was very grateful to get a second chance to compete at that world level.”
Bicycle Moto Cross originated in the late sixties/early seventies in Southern California as part of a popular culture “providing millions of people around the world an opportunity to drive their bicycles in a brand new way.” (“BMX—History, Facts and Tunes of BMX Bikes,” bicyclehistory.net). Early designs provided “a cheap and easy alternative of motocross” and the “BMX bikes were able to be driven fast across motocross terrain and purpose-built tracks, perform tricks, and were a focus of attention of the California young adult audience…”.
“In addition to racing, BMX drivers also popularized the sport of freestyle BMX driving, performing tricks, and creating elaborate stylized routines that are today enjoyed as the televised sport that headlines many Extreme Sporting events. The person who first popularized the sport of BMX freestyle is Bob Haro, founder of the Mountain and BMX bicycle manufacturer company Haro Bikes.”
BMX bicycles are today made to fit in five types of use case scenarios: Park, Dirt, Flatland, Race, and Street. BMX entered the Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing with individual men’s and women’s events.
The ‘Rub’ of Racing
Everyone who participates in BMX knows, “Rubbin’ is racin’.” An athlete may train for six of the seven days a week and still there can be no prediction on the outcome of a race. Rubbin’ means Stuff Happens:
Riders slip pedals, hit the gate, flip the gate, get knocked by loose riders—stuff happens.
Genetics happen, too, especially for those riders moving into adolescence. It’s a different race at the age of eleven versus thirteen. There are thirteen-year-olds who look like adults, and the surprise of who grew an inch since the last race adds to the excitement in these age classes on race day. For the older riders (classes go up to the 61-and-over age category for Cruiser class), growth, as far as size and shape go, has more to do with general health and fitness, so being on top of your game with diet and training is important if you want to finish strong or finish at all.
And then there’s the “moto maker,” an automated program/computerized maker of groups of riders. It takes the names of all the riders racing and randomly divides them among motos (groups of riders), designating the lineup and lane choices for each moto. You can’t predict who the competition will be next to you at the gate, nor can you know which lane you will end up in during the qualifying rounds (though at Worlds, you get to choose your lane when you get past qualifying rounds, the order of choosing is determined by points earned in those earlier rounds). There’s lane one through eight, inside or outside lane. These details can affect outcomes of races because every track is built differently, and the differences in design can matter, along with lane selection.
That said, “Racers race!” Erick Grindle, one of our favorite USA BMX announcers, champions this often. That’s a time-honored saying in the sport. It’s the passion for racing that brings riders back each time despite the odds or outcomes, injuries included. Why else would anyone drive sixteen hours to get what accumulates to maybe two to three minutes total on a track? What is the reason? Because racers race! Black Mountain BMX, for one example, is located in Arizona, about a fifteen-hour drive from here without stops, and often racers drive instead of fly to avoid the fees, labor of breaking down the bike, and risk of potential damage that can occur in air travel. At that particular national, with a big turnout, race classes typically have at least semis, which translates to five laps to advance if you don’t get through in the first round and still make it to the main event. Each lap may take about half a minute to complete, and on average riders may get anywhere from three laps at a smaller local race to seven laps at the bigger national race, all depending on how many riders show up to race in any age/class bracket that day. (At world level, with advanced track designs, take the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021 as example, the gate sat atop an 8 meter-high, 35-degree start hill, for a 400-meter-long course. At that level of riding, riders can reach 60 km/hour or 37 miles/hour!) It’s exciting to watch, let alone participate, and to reach that level of excellence is a peak experience only top echelon athletes get to share.
World Championship Races
The Worlds race was phenomenal. Julian raced solidly. He was in a podium position until the first turn in all three qualifying laps, which is usually a good indicator of the finishing position. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, stuff happens, and in his first lap, his back wheel was hit from behind and he was taken out into the pro-set. On the second lap, he was third into the turn, but again he was pushed into the pro-set by another rider. (BMX is technically considered a contact sport.) On the third lap he kept his podium position [drivers in the top three positions during the race, and at the finish respectively] from start to finish. He shined. Unfortunately, at Worlds, to advance further you need podium finishes in all three qualifying laps.
He gave it his all and it was an experience he’ll never forget. It was an amazing event wrought with pain and glory for the USA. Team USA watched with shock and sadness when certain expected World 1 hopefuls got taken out in quarters and semis, and erupted with resounding joy when USA took first. Team USA was represented in 21 of the 41 main events at the Worlds Challenge races; 27 athletes came home with a World plate, among them six were World No. 1 titles, three World No. 2s, and two World No. 3s. (www.jstiming.nl/uci-worlds-2022-all-categories)
Track Records, Seasons of Titles
In any sport, skills develop over time. With BMX, Julian honed his skills through many sports and began riding his own bike at about age three (he had a lot of practice with handlebar control and balance seated in the iBert in front of his mom’s bike from the age of eleven months onward), but didn’t start racing the BMX track until he was eight. He spent countless hours skateboarding at the local park as well as cycling around with his pedal bike on a single-track trail through the woods (Mendocino County is renowned for that) in addition to playing soccer, basketball, swimming/surfing.
The process of advancement can be swift or slow with BMX, and it all depends on how you “play the game.” Some don’t hit many races, some “sandbag” [a person who conceals abilities or assets at first in order to gain a tactical advantage later], waiting for the big race to stand out, and others just shoot for the stars each race and accept defeat and/or glory. It is a team sport (for bike shop and factory standings) but mostly individual, as far as “plate series” go and individual rankings. But the main message about BMX is: “This is BMX! This is what it looks like. From the moment the starting gate slams down and you and up to seven other racers blast at a full sprint toward the first obstacle, BMX racing will give you a rush of adrenaline to the finish line.”
In late summer of 2017 when Julian started track racing, he moved quickly through the Novice class and turned Intermediate.within a couple months. A multi-sport athlete, he ended his BMX season in the fall and earned his No. 28 district number at the end of the year. Racing for titles wasn’t understood until the following year.
In 2018, he finished the year-long season as a 9 Intermediate and earned his title as NorCal State Champion No. 1, besides a District 18. He also attended his first ever “Greatest Race on Earth,” the Grand National, taking home a second-place trophy that was taller than him.
In February 2019, he earned his last Intermediate win at the Arizona national then had to acclimate to his new 9 Expert class and soon after his 10 Expert class a couple months later on his birthday, two significant racing challenges.
The 10 Expert class was filled with fast riders, heavy hitters on the national circuit (remember BMX originated as a cultural movement in California) and Julian was able in his irst Expert season to earn No. 4 NorCal state, and No. 2 district titles. A year of Expert racing under his belt, 2020 was the first year Julian raced to qualify for Worlds. Despite the international event cancellation, BMX racing was uniquely hosted in US locations which did not agree with the global warnings regarding Covid-19. Julian ventured out of state taking extra precautions and passionately raced, earning No. 1 in northwest regional Gold Cup series, No. 1 in District (CA-15), and No. 3 in the NorCal state series. He also earned his status among the top twenty riders in his National Age Group, 11 Expert, earning his NAG 18 plate. Being at peak performance in sport and having the biggest challenge opportunity taken away was a tragedy felt by so many athletes in 2020. It certainly left many with a feeling of void, struggling to maintain the mindset, preparation, and commitment to accomplish bigger things in their sport.
The year 2021 was an interesting year in transition. Were we passed the health crisis? Who knew? As a 12 Expert, Julian steadfastly raced despite the pain he was feeling in his joints, presumably caused by acute on chronic ligament tears to his wrists from a couple minor spills on the track and mountain bike riding. He earned a No. 2 in the NorCal state series, a No. 2 in the Gold Cup northwest regional series, and a No. 2 in district; one win away from his second district title finish but the unfortunate winter weather rained out five races that would have put him over the top in the final chase for district points.
Sometimes it’s important to let go of what could have been, the outcomes, the chase for points. Perhaps an awkward thing to say to someone who races to win. But the world class racing opportunity this year outshined the chase for titles in national, regional, state, or district. The year’s experiences outweigh any number plate. Besides, points chasing is exhausting work when you chase more than one series because often events overlap, especially with Worlds (which is not a USA BMX event but instead a UCI event, so they don’t typically align calendars), and a rider (especially those coming from the coast, such as Julian, who lives hours from a track) can’t physically be at more than one race/location at the same time or day. Julian finished fifth in the 2022 NorCal state championship series and is currently among the top ten riders in his district, despite missing many local races and end-of-year nationals, including the Grand National (big points cash-out) because of health reasons. He was recently diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. He’s feeling much better now that he’s been working with an intelligent team from UCSF pediatric rheumatology and has medicine. Julian says he’s ready to conquer the 2023 season. “BMX has been my sport for most of my life. It is the best sport and I am so glad I found it.”
Inspired to Race?
Something to note, for those newly inspired racers, the 2022 national BMX season ended over Thanksgiving, and this is the dream national race, the grand-daddy race for BMX in America—the combined Grand National and Race of Champions event is held in Tulsa, Oklahoma each year. The Grand National, called “The Greatest Race on Earth,” coupled with the Race of Champions spans several days, with pros and amateurs attending from all over the world. It takes two days for the ROC and two days for the Grand National. Your accomplishments through the season determine your invite to the ROC, and anyone can race the Grand National even if you are not in the chase for national ranking.
You go to reconvene with your BMX family, the people/friends who you come to know as family, since you see each other (probably more than your “real” family) at races throughout the year-long season. You go to rub elbows with the pros and retired pros, Olympic and world champions, who will sign autographs, stand for pics, and talk shop to inspire the next generation of riders. This year’s Grand National topped the mark in attendance, proving growth in the sport. There were well over 900 starting motos in each race. The ROC reportedly had a total of 4,509 riders across divisions (Mixed Open, Open, Girl’s/Women’s Cruiser, Boy’s/Men’s Cruiser, Novice, Intermediate, Girl’s/Women Expert, Boy’s/Men’s Expert.) The Grand National across the same divisions had 5,450 riders. Incidentally new age groupings were added for the 2023 season, in Girls Cruisers and Expert Women, as well as the older Men. BMXers continue to race well into their fifties and sixties.
Where to Race
Locally, riders can race through the end of the year, depending on weather, as our nearest tracks are all outdoors, racing usually up until December 15. About an hour and a half away from the coast is Rusty Bowl BMX, Ukiah. Open practice is Wednesday, racing is Friday eve and Sunday morning. If the weather cooperates, January 1 will be Rusty Bowl’s first race of the 2023 season.
Their Facebook page has more details. There’s also Redwood Empire BMX in Eureka, North Bay BMX in Napa, and Oak Creek BMX in Roseville that are sort of within reach, three to four hours away from the coast. Exciting race days ahead!ulian at AZ clinic with VetPro Legend ‘Bubba’ Harris before attending his first Grands event.
There was once talk and promise of development of a USA BMX-sanctioned track here on the coast. This could be a boon for event tourism, especially as this sport continues to grow. Less than four years ago the city council approved a bike track at Noyo Headlands Park, one supported by the Police Activities League with preliminary design plans showcased by Epic Graphics. Several residents and athletes attended the February 25, 2019, city council meeting to speak to the cause. (Parks, K.; “Council approves bike track at Noyo…,” Fort Bragg Advocate-News, February 28, 2019.) The dirt that was earmarked for use near what is called the Crow’s Nest has since been moved, not clear where, and there hasn’t been movement on the track development since the approval, despite rider interest. MCPAL, a nonprofit, who was to be responsible for constructing the track, installing benches, repairing fencing, maintaining and operating the facilities, once it was up and running, received an undisclosed amount of money, left to them in a donor’s will, that was to cover the costs of the park.
McKinleyville moved smartly to acquire funding for a new park and BMX track. The state approved nearly $3 million in Prop. 68 funding (the Parks, Environment, and Water Bond of June 2018) to the McKinleyville and Blue Lake through California’s Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Grant Program. $2,331,375 was awarded to the McKinleyville Community Services District for a sanctioned BMX track and park expected to be completed before March of 2025. (Ferrara, J.R.; Lost Coast Outpost, Dec. 9, 2021.) A more recent update states the park has moved from planning into the design phase. “The new park will include a BMX track, both basketball and pickle ball courts, a playground, and bench. It is expected to be completed in the fall of 2024.” (“New park, Including a BMX track…,” Redwood News, September 15, 2022.)
My deepest gratitude to this community, our friends, and family, who helped make this miracle happen for Julian. Some dreams really can come true. Thank you and Happy New Year! —Lisa
Find more information on the organizations and issues addressed in this story online: usabmx.com; uci.org; arthritis.org: polyarticular jia; gofundme.com: Julian’s BMX world championship; epicgraphics.net; Facebook.com: Rusty Bowl Bmx, North Bay Bmx, Oak Creek Bmx, Redwood Empire Bmx, SOB’s “Seniors on Bikes.”