In The Beginning – An Old-School Story

True Story By Todd Banks
Photos courtesy of Todd Banks

In nineteen-seventy when I was five years old my father would drive my brother Devin and myself on Friday nights to begin competing on a new kind of race course at a neighborhood city park. Ron Mackler was putting on the twenty inch BMX bicycle races at Palms Park on Overland Avenue in West Los Angeles. The course was a combination dirt and cement race track that had six burm turns that were built around tall Douglas fir trees and a small jump at the bottom of a hill. At the start of the race, you had to be the first racer into the turn if you wanted to win. And if you were going into that burm turn too fast or with two people fighting for that turn the person on the inside of the turn would hit their head on a vertical trunk of one of the Douglas firs and it would hurt, a lot! The finish line was another place you could win the race by sprinting by the slower less physically fit racers like myself and back up to the same start-line cement pathway that now became the finish line

For many years my brother and I would hang out at Palms Park after school to pass the time and build up the downhill dirt jump so we could get bigger air on our new Schwinn Scrambler BMX bikes. Jumping them was the new thing that we both loved to do but every week before the Friday night races Ron would always return the only jump on the race course back to its original height to keep us racers on the ground. Devin and I would always go back the next day and make the jump higher again. The fastest and flattest way to Palms Park from our house on Castle Heights Street was to ride our bikes through a totally dark half-mile train tunnel past "Suicide Hill" which was a 20′ high dirt hill built alongside a stone wall about one mile down the railroad tracks from Palms Park. If you were daring would hike your bike to the top of Suicide Hill and fly down to the bottom avoiding the huge deep water crevasses that might cause your front tire to get caught inside and throw you over the bars.

My brother and I had gotten allot of ideas of how to ride bikes from watching motocross racing on television in the early nineteen-seventies. We began building ramp jumps in front of our house pretending we were Evil Knevil and jumping our bikes over trashcans and each other. This was not a usual thing for kids to do. Most American kids were playing football or baseball or starting to play soccer. We felt strange riding bikes for our sport but we kept ignoring what every one else was doing because it was so much fun. In nineteen seventy-one a movie came out in the theatres called “On Any Sunday”. There were kids on dirt bicycles racing and jumping them a dirt lot in Long Beach California in the opening scenes of the movie and that made Devin and me feel like we were up there on the screen. That became our confirmation that what we were doing on our new twenty inch BMX bicycles was cool and it was not only us but some other kids too around Southern California.

In the summer of nineteen seventy-four our family began remodeling the kitchen of our home. The old timber and two by four beams that we took out of the forty year old house were stacked up in our driveway for months. My brother, myself and our friends were just beginning to skateboard on the sidewalks of Castle Heights street, and then, one day my first friend on Castle Heights Street Dan May had told me what a skate ramp was.
I soon decided to build one with the old wood from our kitchen remodeling that was rotting at the bottom of our two hundred foot driveway. I had never seen a ramp before and there were no magazines that told you how to build one. I had already been working with hand and power tools since I was five years old so I found it fairly easy to design and build. The ramp started as a four foot wide by eight foot high skateboard ramp, but riding a four foot wide ramp is dangerous on a skateboard, not allot of turning around room at the top. So, I added another four feet across and it was now the talk of the neighborhood and west L.A. and all the skaters were in our driveway making our neighbors, the Kaminski's, crazy. We skated after school until it got dark and all day on the weekends. Soon, a time limit was put on the skating to give our parents and our neighbors some peace.

Bicycle Moto-Cross! My brother Devin Bank was the one who started all the wild acrobatic behavior on a BMX bike. For years Devin, myself and Dan had been thrashing our bikes attempting stunts around the neighborhood and the local High school turning lunch benches into six foot ramps and jumping off them. Then one day when we were all hanging around the ramp and Devin started to ride his Schwinn Scrambler up the ramp like us skaters and trying to turn around by pivoting on his rear wheel. We all said; “what the hell are you doing”? He kept on riding his BMX bike up the ramp and back down copying us skaters. It took him a day or two but he was now going up to the top and pivoting around and going down the ramp. He also was trying to do one footer aerials by lifting the bike off the ramp near the top with one foot planted below him as his pivot point. I thought that it was weird but I also loved to try new things and began to copy him. Within the year Devin began doing 360 degree spins off the ground. He could go off a curb jump and spin 360 degrees around on his bike. I began to develop a style too. I liked to jump off things but Devin was always more skilled at spinning his bike.

In 1976, six years after we began racing at Palms Park and one year after we had been riding bikes on our BMX ramp a new skateboard park was opening in Carson California called the Runway. The first skatepark anywhere! Like at Palms Park our father would drive my brother and me to the Runway where we would race on the BMX track in the front of the park and soon because of our bicycle ramp riding we thought to ask the owner of the Runway if we could begin riding our bikes inside the skatepark on the cement snakes and inside the bowls. He disagreed at first but I guess my dad had convinced him that we knew what we were doing. He was a great sport and I cannot understand what he was thinking as a father to give us permission to do our stunts. Right away bikes became more fun and natural to us then skating in the skateparks. I loved every second! It was a whole new thing for us to have this cement wave trick park and it was all ours. BMX trick riding wasn't a sport back then, and we were the only ones at the park on bikes. You felt kind of like an outcast and that is why we did it. We wanted to blow peoples minds with the things you might be able to do on a twenty inch wheel bicycle. But one of the problems was that the bikes were not being designed to be ridden in skateparks or on ramps or for jumping off things.

The Schwinn Scramblers were the only bike our parents could afford at the time. The frames were indestructible heavy duty steel and their parts were usually easy to get at local bike stores. The problems with the Scramblers were not the frame but the other parts that bent or broke all the time. The one piece cranks would bend at the spindle, the single clamp Schwinn stems would always slip at the impact of a jump landing and then the handle bars would lock in the forward "Low-rider" position and many times you did not have tools with you to fix the bars so you would have to ride home looking goofy. The other problems were the steel rims that would bend like crazy no matter how much picture frame wire you tied the spokes together with. And most of all the Ashtabula forks would bend out like a chopper motorcycle and you could not bend them back for safety reasons even though sometimes you would try by smashing your front wheel into a wall to push them back to straight. Time to buy a new pair of forks again!

The Runway skatepark closed in nineteen seventy-eight and luckily another skatepark opened in Marina Del Rey much closer to our home in West Los Angeles. Bicycle technology was changing too with lighter and stronger frames, crome-moly tubular forks and four bolt heavy duty aluminum clamp stems that would not let the handlebars slip at the landing of a jump or trick. But still every night we were riding our bikes at the skateparks we would break random parts and it would stop us from our riding fun so my brother Devin and I had to think of a solution! We started to bring an extra bike to the park just to strip parts off of. It became a game to us now to break the new Zytel Tuff Wheel mags. We would usually crack them at the rim beed. You would never ride the new light-weight aluminum racing wheels in the skateparks because they would not last one night. And one time on Friday morning Devin had just bought a new Redline racing frame to ride that night at MDR skatepark. He wanted to fly higher and farther and the scramblers were pretty heavy. I was watching him as he was jumping from one bowl to another and he was going way too fast. He was used to hurling that heavy duty steel frame up the cement bowl ramps and he was not quite used to the super light Redline bike yet. He cleared the landing ramp and the whole bowl and plowed his front wheel into the other upward side of the skating bowl. The brand new cro-mo frame crushed like paper and when he picked up the bike the only thing holding it together was the rear brake cable. That was the end of that night for him! But it was worth it for laughs.

For me I would live for big air and dropping into the rear keyhole bowl at MDR. This seventeen foot deep bowl had ten feet of vertical and was made for alien skaters or to ride. It was not that popular because it was just too big with too much vertical and no coping though I saw this bowl as more of a rocket bike launching ramp. There was an opening on one side where you would enter the bowl and that opening sloped all the way to the bottom and straight up into the back side of the pool into the vertical wall. I wasn't trying to do an ariel to come back into the bowl because that was too crazy. For month's I was thinking of a new trick and would try to get as much height as possible out of the bowl to do it. I maybe got seven or eight feet of air and that's all. I just couldn't get enough speed up the ten foot "wall of vert" at the end of the Keyhole to get as high as I thought I needed. So I came up with a solution for this jump that I needed to do. I removed my standard 41 tooth Addix Zytel BMX sprocket that I was testing for a sponsor and replaced it with a 52 tooth road bike chain ring to get the speed I needed. I also changed the rear bendix hub sprocket to a smaller one and replaced the thin strip metal coaster brake arm band with an Addix dual piece seat clamp for safety. Those clamps never held the seat-post tight anyway! That was the solution to my big air jumping trick. Bigger gears with more speed! It worked! Now, what to do when I got up there I had completely forgotten what I had planned. I noticed that the people in their cars getting off the new MDR freeway off ramp next to the Skatepark could see me higher than the Opaque fencing and that was fun to see the looks on their faces. I was simply too high to think about doing a trick. Mostly I just remember coming back down and landing so hard my body would collapse around the bike and my feet would slip off the pedals sometimes.

Dropping back into the keyhole bowl was one of my other tricks and it took me about five minutes to do. While standing one foot on the right pedal with the coaster brake locked shut I had to get the courage to lean forward and pick up my left foot and put it on the other pedal to drop down the "Wall of Vert". I never bailed out, ever. I knew that if I changed my mind after I had both feet on the pedals that the result of falling into the bowl backwards could be a lot worse than if the bike just landed wrong in the bottom. You don't commit to something like that and not do it because you are scared because you just know that you are in the moment and will never have the stupid teenage courage to ever try something like that again in your life.

Soon, other local bicycle moto-cross riders started to come to MDR like Tinker Juarez and an insanely good rider named Rat who was riding a lot better than us. We started to go to other parks like Skatercross in Reseda and The Pipeline in Upland California but we would live for our time at the Marina Del Rey Skatepark because it was never crowded in the beginning of the sport and it felt like our own theatre to perform in. We even brought a side hack and a two-person tandem bike into the park one time and attempted to ride the bowls and pools but it is just not possible. We rode bikes there until the park closed in nineteen eighty-one. I never went back to skating.

Now Devin was getting old enough to drive the family car and this meant we would be able to get to places that our father could not drive us because he was working or too tired after work to take us. All the skateparks around Los Angeles had now closed probably for several reasons like liability insurance being too expensive and not making enough profit. There were just not enough skateboarders back then and few BMX riders who new how to ride the skateparks. Skatercross in Reseda, California remained abandoned for a year or two so we just hopped the fence to ride but usually got kicked out. Devin and I would go over to the Van Nuys BMX race track a mile or two away to ride the jumps. BMX racing was pretty big now and growing bigger but would never be a sport for us to go back too. Palms Park was not doing any racing any more and we both rarely went there to ride the jump. We had inherited our parents Ford Mustang that had been crashed on the right side and would pile four or five bikes on the roof to begin trying new stunts and new ways to ride in places outside of the cement city. We needed to replace the lost skatepark times. We were adrenalin junkie kids and Los Angeles was a giant bike playground and the Santa Monica Mountains was our new fix.

Devin would drive and some of our other extreme BMX friends like Jerry Ignozitto and Dave Metcalf would come along to the dirt trails in the Santa Monica Mountains where the Getty Museum is built now. Back then, we would hike to the top of one of the steepest and fastest trails that we could find that sometimes was not wider than your bike and race down to the trail entrance off Sunset Drive near the 405 freeway. It was a long drop into the canyon below and there were no rules, the first person down to the bottom of the trail was the winner. And passing at those speeds was hilarious. No one ever got hurt which is truly unbelievable. Our other next big bike adventure would be building downhill gravity road race bikes for Sunset Plaza Drive in the Hollywood hills. We built these new bikes with our old Schwinn Scrambler twenty inch frames and fork. The wheels were also twenty inch with non-knobby tires, a road bike handlebars and stem, banana seat, pegs for your feet screwed onto the rear axle, and without cranks or pedals. One person would drive the Mustang and the other would race down the extremely winding and steep mountain road. We only did this for several years though. Dealing with the Hollywood Hills traffic was not fun and also the beauty and quiet of the Santa Monica Mountains was something that the both of us could not experience living on Castle Heights Street in West Los Angeles.

By nineteen eighty-one the ramp in our driveway had faded away since we now realized that we had a much bigger and more free place away from our home. I eventually disassembled it and my brother Devin replaced the ramp with our engineless Mustang that had taken us to our riding gigs in the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, The Pacific Palisades and all around Southern California. We now had other more important things to do like jumping our bikes off our neighbor's garage roof into our swimming pool. He was Larry Crystal, a lawyer, and he was not too happy about that! Our father had died that year leaving the family to find our own ways to survive. Devin became an engineer and began custom building his own crome-moly mountain bike frames, forks and even his own tubular cranks and he was the first to put disc brakes on a twenty-four inch Redline bike he would race at the Victor Vincente of America Puerco Canyon races in Malibu. The first mountain bike races anywhere. Now, Devin is Vice President of engineering for a small electric vehicle company in Santa Monica. You will see him all the time in the Santa Monica Mountains riding the single track and fire road trails blowing minds with his riding skills. I am an inventor and still biker. I ride three times a week on my road bike in the Santa Monica Mountains. I also ride on my three-wheel downhill Mountain Ski at Mammoth Mountain in northern California. Bike riding is a religion for me and I'm sure for my brother too. There is something magical about balancing on two wheels and headed for a ramp or into a pool or along a road or even off road that causes your spirit to laugh inside you. It's more than just impressing your friends or being the wildest one out there that day. It's more for living life.

"Don't hide your scars; life is a souvenir full of them."