By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Do not expect three-time world champion Hannah Roberts to play it safe in her pursuit of a gold medal when BMX freestyle makes its Olympic debut this summer.
The American trailblazer, 19, has been pushing the envelope since she first climbed on a BMX as an eight-year-old.
She was the first woman to land a 360 tailwhip — a complex airborne stunt in which only the rider’s hands stay in contact with the bike as it rotates beneath them.
After winning her third world title recently in Montpellier to confirm her favourite tag for Tokyo, she says she is cooking up something new for her tilt at Olympic gold.
“I have a few big flip whips and a front flip I want to do at the Olympics if I can figure out where to do them,” Roberts said in a recent interview with Forbes.
Michigan-based Roberts will be the overwhelming favourite to take the title in an event that has been added to the cycling programme to join BMX racing, which debuted in Beijing in 2008.
BMX racing, in which Colombia’s Mariana Pajon wil be seeking a third successive Olympic gold, is an adrenaline-fuelled blast down a ramp and then around a course full of jumps, with the winner the first rider to cross the line.
Freestyle is limited only by a rider’s imagination, with competitors given 60 seconds to create gravity-defying flips and spins over a range of obstacles including spines, walls and ramps.
Marks are awarded on criteria such as difficulty, originality, execution, height and creativity.
“You’re going to need that ‘wow’ factor,” Britain’s Charlotte Worthington, who took the bronze medal in Montpellier, said of what it will take to make the podium in Tokyo.
Nine male and nine female riders will compete at the Ariake Urban Sports Park, which is also hosting the skateboarding events.
“It’s definitely a risk-reward game but someone is going to pull off a big trick,” addded Worthington, who only took up BMX riding as a 20-year-old having learned the tricks on a scooter.
While Roberts will be looking for her first Olympic gold, Colombia’s BMX queen Pajon is out to maintain her domination, having raced to gold in London and Rio.
Like Roberts, the fearless Pajon has paved the way for female riders to compete in a domain once regarded as strictly for the boys.
“Initially, they shut the door on me and told my parents that girls shouldn’t do this,” Pajon told the Olympic Channel.
American Connor Fields will also be trying to defend his BMX racing title in Tokyo, while in the men’s freestyle competition two-time X Games champion Logan Martin will be one to watch after taking gold in the world championships.
Martin left no stone unturned in his bid for an Olympic medal, building his own BMX park in his backyard.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman;Editing by Peter Rutherford)