Friday, May 9, 2008

The Flat of the Land

Ah, flatland.

Remember when flatland bikes used to be kind of normal? Probably not, unless you're over 25. All the way through the early '90s, "freestyle" bikes were multipurpose. All-around guys like Dennis McCoy, Kevin Jones and Rick Moliterno rode flatland, vert and street on the same bike. Watch any of the Dorkin' In York videos, and you'll see. Some guys even rode flat with (gasp) a freewheel.

I'm not entirely sure when it all changed. Haro made the Master (an update of their original Freestyler) and the Sport starting way back in 1984 (the Master being the flat frame, and the Sport being the vert/all-around model), but plenty of guys (including McCoy and Moliterno) rode everything on their Masters. Heck, I had a Master and I still can't even do a whiplash. Guys who rode for GT just rode the Pro Performer, and later the Pro Freestyle Tour, for everything.

Maybe it started to really change with the introduction of the Standard Shorty back in the mid '90s. That was a seriously small frame compared to, say, an S&M Holmes, but no smaller than an old Master. Then there was the Morales flatland frame, which was even more specialized. Combine it with Kore (Bob Morales's other company) zero-offset forks and a pair of zero-sweep bars, and you had a bike that was terrific for flatland, but not so great for much of anything else, including just riding around.

This ushered in even more specialization. Straight up-and-down front ends that felt exactly the same forwards or backwards. Steeper headtube angles. Shorter and shorter rear ends. There were flat/street hybrid frames available (like Bobby Fisher's Standard Shaman and Andrew Faris's Volume Mid), but most flatland frames were built strictly for spinning and scuffing. You'd have had an easier time trying to ride trails on a beach cruiser or street on a recumbent.

Things just got weirder from there. Flatland virtually disappeared from mainstream BMX magazines and videos. It became its own subculture, with its own videos and mailorders and companies. Frames got even weirder as toptubes got lower and downtubes and chainstays got higher. Sometimes the bottom bracket just hung off the bottom of the frame like an afterthought. Short and low frames were built up with super-high seatposts and bars so they were virtual squares. Gearing got lower, cranks got shorter. The only way to get your bike to a spot was to put it in the back of your car. Riding with the crew was more or less out of the question.

Now, we find ourselves in interesting times. Street bikes have gotten lighter and lighter, freecoasters have found their way onto more and more bikes. Guys like Joel Moody have re-introduced flatland moves to the streets. (Nate Hanson was just a few years ahead of his time—and it's funny how people forget that guys like Jay Miron and Dave Osato could pull off entire flatland routines on their 45-pound ramp bikes, but I digress.) Yet flatland continues on as its own entity, and frames and parts keep getting weirder and weirder. Like this one, from KGB, which looks almost exactly like a mini race frame:

Or this latest incarnation of the Fly Suelo (which used to be such a normal-looking bike):

Both of those frames remind me an awful lot of this:

Then there are the parts, the zero-sweep bars with super-low crossbars, the plastic pedals (they beat the street companies to it by roughly 20 years), the massive aluminum pegs, and tiny little sprockets which enable one to ride out of anything (and, combined with super-short chainstays means you can get two chains for the price of one). These KGB sprockets are by far my favorites:

Have a nice day.


Anonymous said...

I remember.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you ever made a point?

Russ said...

Yeah, I don't think I did either. Damn Fridays.

If I was to make a point, it would be about increased specialization, and how it's unfortunate that flatland has more or less seceded from BMX as a whole. The all-around rider is something of an anachronism these days (Chad DeGroot!), as is the all-purpose bike.

I miss Nate Hanson. Somewhat.

lotekrich said...

Brian Tunney still keeps it pretty real I think with a normal bike and all around riding. Basically tricks are just getting to hard in all types of riding so much that bikes are getting weird and people are getting hurt. Nate Handsome was rad and so was Bobby Fisher. Street bikes look more normal then flatland bikes now for sure but they have really came full circle and look just like most peoples bikes i knew around '94 with a bit lower seat and no brakes.

Anonymous said...

word, shits gunna come full circle. sorta.

flatland is going to become more normal in "bmx" (I guess we don't call it freestyle anymore?)
sorta like when Rodney Mullen took is "gay" freestyle to the streets...

when is someone going to do a hitch hiker to handrail?


Anonymous said...

I ride flatland pretty much exclusively and even I have to say this "innovation" is getting ridiculous.

I rode a late 90's Hoffman ep up until several months ago. When I started looking for a new frame I had two choices, suelo v2 or wtp div, mainly because I wouldn't be caught dead on half of the kooky shit out these days.

Guav said...

As a 35 year old who rode flatland from '85 to '90 and then picked it up again a few years ago, I would like to respectfully disagree with you that flatland freestyle bikes have ever been "normal."

Exhibit A: 1984 CW
(please note the luggage rack)

Exhibit A: 1984 VDC
(please note the unusable fork "platform")

Exhibit B: 1985 Vector
(please note the downtube/headtube junction)

Exhibit C: 1986 MCS
(please note the double chainstays)

And are KGB frames really weirder than a Quadangle? I would, in fact, argue that modern flatland frames look far more "normal" and closer to a basic BMX frame than anything produced back in the day.

Aesthetics aside, of course you're right that it's pretty hard to be an all-around rider on most flatland bikes now (but who is even an all around rider anymore like we used to be except for like Brett Downs or Chad DeGroot?) and yeah, we used to live on our bikes, riding everywhere and doing everything on them—and some of these modern flatlanders don't even run cranks.

Kids these days!

Anonymous said...

I agree with guav and also would like to say that I have no qualms with things getting kookier and/or weirder. I mean, it's still "free"style is it not? It most definitely isn't anymore with the street, ramp, trails crowd. Have you trawled through the frames on Dan's lately? It's a matter of having or not having brake mounts and whether they are placed on the seat or chain stays. There is truly no aspect of cycling more conservative than "free"style BMX.

wade said...

It must be possible to make the argument that freestyle used to be tricks done on your race and / or transportation bike. With specialization, the bike becomes a tool (or, put another way, a toy) that you practice on. When kids ask me why my seatpost is so long, I say that it is because I have a seatpost and not a car. I ride to the place that I want to stunt at. Then I ride home. Today, I rode back home from the skatepark here in Toronto with three nice teenagers with no seatposts or brakes. I was comfortable and safe, they were not.
As the only 37 year old with 25 years of flatland (and ramp)experience, a tall seatpost, and two brakes at the park, they were honestly confused by the unconventional maneuvers I could do. Why? (here comes the full circle) Because I have never not been an all-around, non-specialized rider.
-and I wanted to add two quick thingees:
Pat Joubert? Seattle? 1993? Dude?
And, yes, BMX has never, in my experience, been so conservative. (That being said, the youngsters here in Toronto, if not confronted or challenged, are actually pretty open to be open to difference. Which is hopeful. They just aren't used to seeing anything outside the current tunnel-vision / one-dimensionality of the culture.)

wade said...

Click on the hyperlinks in the original post for Sport, Moliterno and Morales, and see plastic pedals! Another thing I never quit (MKS, baby). (And something I got grief from all the teenagers from about 1995 - 2007).

Anonymous said...

make your mind about sprockets.....there all the same or there wacky and differnt.which do you choose contradiction i say..

Anonymous said...

Wade man. Get over yourself.

how to have fun said...

great stuff man, keep it coming!

Stephen said...

Bobby has a few Shaman's in his garage. He rides a Stricker now and hasn't done a hang five in a long time. I started out riding flat and rode a Dyno Slammer for a long time. Flatland as it exists now is completely unrecognizable to me.

Sunday! said...

I can definitely agree with that last statement. I rode flatland up until 95 or 96, so I always thought I could relate to flat today. But at the Toronto contest, I definitely felt like a typical spectator who knows nothing. Just sitting there mesmerized like a baby.

g. edward jones, jr. said...

Street/Park bikes have turned into 80s race bikes.

Flat bikes are '90s race bikes. Seriously, monococque frames do not look out of place. I mean, TJ Lavin was goofed on for entering dirt contests with this:

You could show up to a flat contest today with one and people would ask you where you bought it.

Russ said...

This theory of mine will be addressed more fully in a later post, but I feel that bikes end up being designed in order to make specific tricks (and entire styles of riding) easier. Which probably leads to more people riding in that certain style, which means the bikes get more and more specialized. Flatland bikes are an extreme example of that.

It's interesting that Kevin Jones more or less invented modern flatland while riding GT Pro Freestyle Tours and a Skyway with mags (the same bikes he rode at skateparks and on vert ramps), while all his many disciples ride circus bikes. (Um, not that his signature Hoffman isn't a circus bike--but it's less of one, anyway.) Steep head angles, shorter and shorter wheelbases, everything being as out-of-the-way as possible.

One other example of function dictating form: The current tailwhip obsession has led to an overabundance of light frames with low toptubes and short rear ends. If the majority of riders rode like Sean Burns, we'd have more "traditional" double-diamond six-plus pound frames with longer rear ends. Instead, we have the Fly Tierra.

Si said...

I've been riding for only a year now and do mainly flatland but on my way to my spot I do some street, plus there are a set of dirt jumps near my spot too so I ride them occasionally as well.
It's never appealed to me to turn my bike into some sort of modified scooter, I thought that the beauty of bmx came from overcoming the design of the bike to make a move rather than thinking, "well if I can't lift my leg over the bars I'll saw the damn thing down so I can", that to me is quitting and looking for an easy way out.
Maybe I'm making things hard on myself but I want a strong fast bike I can whiplash on one minute and tear up streets the next. Sure it's difficult but BMX wasn't meant to be easy. Flat on a 30pound 30/10gearing GT frame, with a low seat:

Anonymous said...

Evel Kenevel Jumped Street Bikes and you wouldnt ride a modern motocrosser long distances.

Rally cars used to be essentially the same as the street versions with minor modifications, these days they are entirely different machines with meerly a similar looking shell on top.

Modern downhill, cross country and freestyle skis are very different.

In ANY competetive sport, the hardware is inevitably going to diverge for each discipline. The only way to stop this is to set ridiculous rules and regulations which cripple innovation and ruin the sport, like we have in road cycling with rules on everything from wheel size to seat position... A situation that has crippled the development of bicycles.

As more street riders incorporate every more technical moves into their riding we may seem the re-emergence of "all-round" bikes, but it isnt something you can force... (though I appreciate you arent suggesting we should)


Si said...

Hey G,

I know what you're saying and I agree with you that innovation shouldn't be stifled. But when does a BMX stop being a BMX and turn into something else?
You can't really ride a flatland bike to your spot because of the short gearing and many street bikes have seats so low it's impossible to cruise on them comfortably for a long time.
Progress will be accepted or have scorn poured on it depending on the type of riders you ask as well as what constitutes a "proper" BMX. Problem with that is:
Q: How do you find out what a proper BMX is?
A: Ask any rider what s/he rides at the moment.

g. edward jones, jr. said...


I think the thing is that BMX isn't A sport, it's a couple of different sports that use similar hardware. Vert and racing have about as much in common as Drag racing and Rally racing.

I think that making a bicycle that you can't use as transportation is about as dumb as you can get (it should be pointed out that the little flatland nibblage that I've done lately has been done on a bike with a 20.75" top tube, uncut Lumberjack bars, two brakes, Dumbchucks and, until recently, a big ol' knobby front tire). That being said, I don't really have a deep rooted attachment to the double diamond frame.

si said...

Ha Ha yeah! I was doing flat with a primo dirt monster on the front til I figured it would be easier with something smoother (Snafu sterly) But then I'm quite new to all this!

g. edward jones, jr. said...

When I get some spare $$$ I'm going to convert my old bike to a flat bike. Which is to say, I'm going to throw some knurled pegs and a freecoaster onto a bike with 20.5" top tube and wide, 2 piece bars and call it a day. Oh yeah, it'll weigh about 35lbs. It's a perfectly good bike, just a little short. Perfect for flatland I figure.

nick said...


The thing is, what are we moving towards with "specialization?" With something like rally racing, it's simple, you make the car faster. In a sport like BMX though, there are so many different styles that it's hard to customize bikes towards a certain set of tricks (which is what seems to be happening now). That's the whole idea of freestyle isn't it? With the majority of frames being designed to make certain tricks easier, other tricks are getting lost in the balance and BMX is turning into everything it should never be. (this is just repeating Russ' point but it's quite valid)

I can see BMX contests in 8 years being a list of tricks you have to incorporate into your run and penalties if you don't.

Russ said...

Man, this totally should have been a quiz. I'm a moron.

Si said...

Go on russ, do a quiz a how to tell what type of rider you are but make it better than my effort, admittedly not much of a quiz as there's only one option per style but I'm meant to be at work.
flat (do you own an SUV?)
dirt (do you smell of BBQ sauce?)
vert (do you exist?)
street (can you measure your hairstyle to handlebar ratio?)

Anonymous said...