Down an unpaved road jutting off Tuttle between 17th and 12th, Johan Lindstrom builds his bikers’ paradise at Sarasota BMX. By the entrance, on a compact and colorful track, a pack of riders as young as one year old find their balance on a set of pedal-less Strider bikes, and further down the lane a group of elementary and middle school riders, sticky and sweaty from a day training on the track, cool down in the sprinkler while their coach watches from the shade. 

Coasting out from behind the squat Sarasota BMX office, with the ramps and hills of the 
professional-grade BMX track rising behind, a high-schooler training for the 2017 UCI BMX World Championships in Rock Hill, SC, surveys it all. It’s the first year of the Sarasota BMX Academy Summer Camp, the next step in a growing training facility for young riders, but Lindstrom knows this is only the beginning.

It’s an Olympic sport now, Lindstrom explains, and since its introduction in 2008 the median range of the top BMX racers has already dropped from 28 years old to 24, as athletes begin training earlier and earlier. “But there’s still much more to learn,” says Lindstrom, specifically with regards to training the youngest of his charges and giving them the best from the beginning. “There’s a big opportunity in that—worldwide—to have something more than just Tuesday night practice,” he says. Instead, the BMX Academy offers coaches, classes and training for all level of rider, and the Sarasota climate allows the year-round training that aspiring athletes in any sport require. Aside from the strider bike track for the wee ones, beginner classes offer rental bikes for those new to the sport but familiar enough with a bike to jump in, and professional training with experienced coaches can begin as young as 14 and runs through the racer’s teens and into their 20s, which is a crucial time for up-and-comers. “If you aren’t part of a national team, to get the proper training is quite hard,” says Lindstrom, and the relatively small size of the sport means roughly three or four available slots on national teams for every hundred young prospects. “That’s the gap we want to fill.”

Professional training needs a professional track, and Lindstrom has that covered as well. Opening in 1974 as one of the first BMX tracks in the world, Sarasota BMX received a state-of-the-art rebuild in 2016 to host the World Championships right here in Sarasota on an Olympic-grade course with an eight-meter-high starting hill and top-shelf starting gate system. Measuring roughly 1,450 feet long, with steep banking turns, straightaways and a challenging rhythm section, top riders reach speeds up to 45mph and snake the track in just over 30 seconds. “If our local kids get used to this track,” says Lindstrom, “when they go to a different track, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is easy.’” And six-year-old BMX racer Benson Danielo is already well on his way. He’s been racing as long as he can remember, and he just wants to go faster. His “fat boy” bike—low-slung with notably wide tires—helps him go faster, Benson says, and get to his favorite part of the track—the last straight—hurtling at top speed toward the finish. “It’s fascinating,” says Lindstrom, “how quickly they figure it out and face their fears.” Benson eventually wants to race in the world championships. “So I have to train hard everyday,” he says.

Also training hard at the BMX Academy this summer, 16-year-old Dena Dawson prepares for this year’s UCI BMX World Championships, where she will be competing in the women’s 17-24 division (racers are placed given their age December 30 of the year). With only a few weeks until the contest, Dawson trains on the track and in the gym, on the bike and off, doing bike sprints and weight training with a weekly program from her coach, Domingos Lammoglia, former International Cycling Union World Championships winner. They devote special attention to the starting gate and nailing that first straight once it opens. “You have to explode and get out as fast as possible,” says Dawson. “A lot of the race is won by that gate start.” That means honing reaction times and perfecting her form to throw her weight forward for extra momentum down the opening hill. Dawson loves the competitive aspect of BMX racing and plans to go professional in one or two years, as she’s already raced in multiple international competitions and picked up a notable sponsor in Yess BMX, and, thanks to the new track, now that may not mean leaving Sarasota. “It’s easily one of the best facilities I’ve ever been to,” she says. “I might even just stay here for college to be able to ride here and on the other tracks around Florida.” And though she knows she would have pursued BMX even in the absence of Sarasota BMX, “it would have been a lot tougher,” she says.  “I would have had to travel a lot, like to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, California.”

Instead, racers like Dawson can find the facilities and expertise they need in Lindstrom’s little slice of BMX paradise—which he intends to grow even further. “There’s nothing to say there shouldn’t be a BMX jump next to us,” he says, especially seeing as BMX Freestyle (aerial tricks as opposed to racing) has now been accepted as an Olympic sport as well. “There’s room for expansion. My big mission here is to have an action sport complex that is known worldwide.”