Last season, Heather Allred was America's top 25-year-old female BMX racer. This year, she's the top 26-year-old rider in the world.
The Murray rider won her title at the BMX World Championships held in Adelaide, Australia, at the end of July. She defeated riders from all over the world in the cruiser division — a bike with 24-inch wheels instead of the smaller 20-inch wheels — though Allred competes on both types of bikes. It was her first time at the Worlds, and she admits the huge Australian track scared her.
"The starting ramp was three stories tall. The majority of the riders in my age class had been at the Worlds before and were used to a starting hill like that, but it was the first time I'd ever been on one that big. All the jumps were really huge, very steep and deep. There were a lot of crashes and broken bones," she said.
The women had to race in three "motos," or groups of eight riders, just to qualify for the finals. Each preliminary moto was made up of the same riders. BMX racing uses an elimination format. The top racers from each moto group are chosen for the semifinals, and the fastest racers from the semifinal motos make the "main," or final round.
It's go fast or go home.
Allred said she was really nervous during the first few days. But by the third day of practice, she regained her confidence. She grins as she relives the biggest victory of her life.
"I knew if I got out of the gate good and got down the starting ramp good, that I could win. When I got over the first jump, I was already in the lead, so I just had to stay on my bike and not crash," she said.
As she rounded the final corner, despite the deafening screams of the packed crowd, she heard one of the U.S. team coaches yelling, "You got it! Just stay up!"
Allred, a tall and quiet woman, began riding BMX when she was only 7. In those days, there was no career in the sport for women. The first time there was a women's pro class in the sport wasn't until 1998, but Allred is still not one of the professional riders.
"I have never raced pro. I'm only an amateur," she said, describing the difference as: "The pros get to make money."
But her skills have been honed at her long and highly technical home track — South Jordan's Rad Canyon, considered one of the premier BMX tracks in the country. In fact, even the 2008 Olympic gold silver and bronze medallists came to Rad Canyon to warm up for the World Championships. Latvia's Maris Strombergs (gold), U.S. champions Mike Day (silver) and Donny Robertson (bronze) raced almost unnoticed in the ABA BMX Nationals held the week before the Worlds — and won.
The sport dominates Allred's life. Her time at the track is about more than just practicing and racing. She and husband Ian own a mobile bike shop called Performance Bike Parts that sells BMX gear, clothing, parts, plus new and used bikes. The shop trailer is at every practice and race at both Rad Canyon and the Desert Peaks track in Tooele.
Sometimes the shop is so busy, Allred doesn't even have time to change into her BMX clothing and take a practice lap. And as a sideline, she also gives low-cost clinics every few months, spending a weekend showing beginning and intermediate riders how to improve such basic skills as balancing on their pedals at the start gate, "pumping" through bumps and picking a good line around the turns.
She won't take a break even after winning at the Worlds.
BMX has undergone a radical change in just the past few years. Like early snowboarding, it was once considered a haven of hooligans. But, like snowboarding, once it gained Olympic status, the sport, and its athletes, became respectable.
"It's very family-oriented and the people are really nice. Everyone is out to help everyone else," Allred explains.
But still, it's one of the riskier adventure sports. The Murray athlete said she has been frequently injured.
"I've had a broken jaw, elbow and broken my wrist three times. I've broken way too many bones, but I don't let it stop me," she said.
So what is the fascination with this difficult and unladylike activity?
"BMX is just total fun," Allred says with a laugh. "If it wasn't, I wouldn't be doing it."