The number 343 bus turned onto Albany Road and from the top deck the track came into view. Set against the darkness of it’s Burgess Park home, it was like stumbling on a glowing circus tent pitched on the edge of a town.
‘We wanted to be here so people could see us from the road, we wanted to be seen. There are problems on that side of the park and the other side but not here. They know us. They know what we are about’ CK would tell me later.
The towering heights of the now condemned Aylesbury Estate overlook the track. There are only a handfull of homes still occupied. The landing lights are on. ‘They like to hear the kid’s voices, the laughter from the track‘ CK continued.
Nearly every night of the week kids young and old on bikes can be seen cutting through the side streets of this part of South London. They are heading to Peckham BMX.
The club has achieved remarkable sporting success in it’s rapid ascent from a dirt track in Brixton in 2002. But this isn’t all, it has what those involved in the club see as it’s dual purpose, providing a safe and positive place in the community. The human stories here are perhaps it’s greatest achievement.
Early on in visiting the club I met Isaac. He’s 17, lean, quiet and dressed in black. He tells me ‘For me this club is like a family. My brothers have all moved away. The little kids look upto the older riders. They look out for them, like a big brother, kind of’.
The remarkable thing about Isaac is that he lives miles away in Dagenham, riding a three hour round trip to the track. As a result his bike gets more of a beating than most and he’s often trying to save for parts he tells me. For riders like Issac, isolated and looking to belong, the club is a welcoming home.
Isaac loves racing around the track. He tells me
‘Being in the air on your bike is hard to explain. It’s scary and there is a thrill but there is also a suspense, it’s mysterious’.
In 2003 the club started it’s move from Brixton to Peckham. Home then was at a really rough and ready dirt track known as the Bird in the Bush. The club was started by local hero Michael Pussey, aka CK Flash, a pioneering DJ and community leader who later would receive an MBE for his work. After 8 years of meetings with Southwark Council the current track was born, just up the road from the original track. CK tells me it’s always been about mentalities not equipment. This approach bore fruit as the simple dirt track went on to produce riders like Kye Whyte, his brother Tre Whyte and Quillan Isadore rising to the very top of the sport.
‘I want to create a platform for young people’ says CK ‘To give them the mechanics to make things work. They are smart kids but somebody has to show them how. Some of the kids we work with are at risk of being thrown out of the borough, out of London. It’s their last chance, there is the threat of this. We work towards turning things around. Thats what we are doing, it’s serious. Everyone has given up on them’.
Everyone is welcome says coach Nigel Whyte ‘I don’t care what you’ve done or who you are, you are welcome here’.
Open most nights of the week and Saturday mornings, people of all ages are welcome to come along and join in. They can hire a bike and helmet at a small fee, it’s affordable and this has meant the club really involves local people. They have about 350 riders at present. The model is working.
Quillan Isadore, 22, is tall and athletic. He towers over his bike. He wears a trim goatee beard and sky blue cycling shoes. He’s a local boy on holiday from his current home with British Cycling in Manchester. At 16 he was a BMX world champion. He was a product of the original dirt track ‘it was like Rocky ‘ he says ‘..and now I’m chasing it again‘.
‘The club is a success because of Nigel and CK. Yes they work hard, they never give up. This is what they say to the kids, never give up. Here if you join up, they don’t let you go. It’s about making you better all round. When I was growing up, if there were problems my mum would say ‘I’ll tell CK” and I’d say no don’t! because I’d be scared of what CK would think. Here we used to get looked down on, Peckham, but now they can see our results. They push the younger riders and they are riding against their peers. It’s a chain’.
I like the idea of a chain. I was told some weeks before by local club legend and professional bike mechanic Big Mike that a chain reaches it’s optimum point once it has been worn in. For the chain to run smoothly, it needs to sit comfortable on the teeth of the chain wheel. For a moment I think of the club as a well loved bike. The chain, the chain of riders at the club, move smoothly along the teeth of the chain ring. Gentle pressure can be applied on the crank and this propels the whole bike forwards.
A few weeks later Quillan sends me this email,
‘So I was at a stage where I was really acting up. Hanging out with the wrong people, doing things I shouldn’t be doing and basically my attitude was up the wall. With this CK & Nigel very quickly put me in my place with discipline. CK always outlined why I needed to act like a professional athlete to set myself up for the future. This enabled myself (and )all the others to have a great mindset going forward with our careers’.
Nigel – the coach
‘I was always a footballer. I made it to semi pro. One season I was playing for three different teams at once. I was always the guy up first thing in the morning waking everyone else up. For my boys though it turned out not to be football but BMX’.
Nigel Whyte is 48. He has three sons, two are in the British BMX Olympic Team. He is keen to deflect attention from himself and onto the achievements of the other riders. He’s humble, fit and full of energy. The club members young and old love him. Two nights earlier I’m stood at the track side with two dads. It’s a damp autumn night and training should have ended half an hour ago. Some mums point at their watches, but Nigel is miles away watching from the centre of the track high up like the captain at the helm. The dads tell me he’s brilliant.
Nigel explains to me in his own humble way that there he has a passion for helping the kids. ‘Even if its for two hours then its two hours well spent, a distraction. Even and perhaps especially for the naughty kids’ he smiles ‘those kids who might be going back to nothing. For me its the whole thing I say to them ‘Have you kept your bike clean? When they do then I know they are keeping their rooms clean at home. Have you prepared your kit for tonight’s session? I ask them and if they have then I know they are preparing their homework’.
The club runs like clockwork. CK asks a rider if he arrived on time when he’s leaving. He didn’t and CK asks him in a firm but friendly way to work towards that goal, to get serious. Value is important at the club. This sense of where you have come from is important says Nigel. ‘Even when they had the new track built CK took the team back to the old one for two months. He wanted to show them the value of what they had. On the old track we used to brush up the stones before riding or someone would have dumped a washing machine on the track or something like that’. Whilst we are chatting a procession of small kids on their tiny bikes, wearing their crash helmets, line up to shake Nigel’s hand, to say hello and to show they are ready to ride. He greats every one of them in turn by name’.
Later, Esreal, a mum at the club, tell’s me that Nigel built a bike for her youngest son Chystian, a two year old little brother of a club rider Chrystiano. ‘He did this out of his own money’ she tells me. She shows me a video on her phone of the tiny BMX turned upside down in her living room with her youngest son spinning the wheels with his hand. It makes me think of how kids obsessed with bikes from every generation have taken their bikes apart in living rooms and kitchens. She shows me another of him riding the bike for the first time at the club. ‘He’s a natural said Nigel’ she says.
Peckham by night
CK has the group doing floor exercises followed by circuits on the bikes. Bus headlights creep into the park now and then like torches in a forest.
Parents come and go, chatting in their anoraks. One brings a camping chair and her laptop, typing away under the tracks floodlights. Two Polish dads chat and laugh after work.
A rider returns to the startline . CK calls him over. He tells him he could make it to the Olympic team if he put his mind to it. The boy leans on his handle bars, head bowed low, he is stressed. CK tells him all the mothers here watching their kids love him and that he has to stick to things if he wants to see progress. They are rooting for him.
Down below is the team hut where Mary Harris makes people cups of tea. There are bikes for hire hanging quietly in a line. The session is coming to a close. Bikes sit upturned, floodlights cast elongated shadows of slowly turning wheels, shadows of spokes slowly passing over faces like the hands of a clock.
Nigel reminds the kids still hanging around that they need lights on their bikes. Many of the riders at the club head off together in a group through the streets of Peckham and Camberwell, if ET would’ve been filmed in South London this is probably what it would have looked like.
It’s late at night but Peckham is still alive. Men are exercising in the public gym in the dark, I hear their voices. A nail shop files away behind closed shutters. Two teenagers still in school uniform chat under the bus shelter at 9:30pm. The bagel shop is full of young couples.
Eboni is 12, she is strong, smiley and confident. She could be a few years older. Her mum Zena helps a lot at the track, I often see her wearing her red Peckham BMX hoody and helping out at the clubhouse.
‘We first saw the track from the bus window. Every Friday night we used to visit family and we’d take the bus. Eboni would say ‘Oh please can we go? I surprised her on her 8th birthday and we came down here. I printed the ticket. It took off from there and now she’s got me into riding my bike. We ride together to the club and we go on little trips together, to visit friends locally. It’s good here because it’s focused but there are also a lot of friendships, they form like in a school playground. When it’s someone’s birthday people always bring a healthy snack and we all sing happy birthday. We also look out for children who aren’t doing ok outside of the club. There are a lot of mums here and we pick up on things. The club really is a bridge between school and home.
Ola Akerele and her children Lamin and Aaliyah
I have twins. When they where born they weighed as much as a pound of sugar. Look k at them now. People have different abilities. The thing I like about it here is that they recognise this and they treat my son Lamin differently from my daughter Aliyah. Liman, he is here nearly everyday. He looks upto the older boys and they look after him. We are handing our kids over in a way, so we have to trust the coaches. Nigel is a father figure really or a big brother to Lamin. At a BMX race meeting in the summer club members went camping, it was a first time for most of us. Nigel said to my son on that trip that he wasn’t going anywhere, that he’d be there when he was 18, 28 and an old man. They laughed about it but deep down it meant something to me and him.
It can be an expensive sport, but the club make it affordable. I go to a local bike shop now, they’re kind and help us out. Instead of buying new I managed to find a bike from a guy in Scotland. Nigel helped me with this, so I could afford to buy all the other bits. Sometimes Lamin will say he wants a new bike or this or that. I say to him ‘Did Nigel say you need a new bike?’ If not then your’e not having it. The club sends the message that its not the bike or the equipment. Of course all the young riders want the bikes like the pro riders but they learn that it is not about getting the next bike and so on. He is still riding the same bike now.
My daughter was very cautious in starting. It took her a year. There was another girl who looked after her and introduced her to the track, it took time but now she is riding all the time. The school said that the BMX riding will help her enormously, especially in making new friends.
It’s keeping them busy. Some kids they are looking for a gang because its like family. But here is a family’.
Quillan Isadore, pro rider is visting the Peckham track. He carry’s a team GB jersey with him and gifts it to Lamin. ‘Keep going Lamin.Keep working hard and you’ll get there. You are young and you must keep going’ He signs the jersey and Lamin holds it tightly. He’s shy and quietly talks about what he has been working on. When Quillan heads back to the track Lamin is smiling. He pulls on the jersey immediately. Oversized he’ll need to grow into it, he cycles off to the coaches. After this they’re going to a children’s party Ola says, it’s the birthday of a little boy who looks up to Lamin, he wants to get on his bike, just like him.
Leicester – last race of the season.
The track was in a field outside of Leicester. It’s a bright autumn day and the sunlight is bouncing off the chrome bikes lying flat in the long grass. From the top of the tracks highest point all you can see are fields. It’s a long way from Peckham.
The race meeting is quite a British experience. Two hungover lads serve bacon butties from a van. A big round ice cream man sits in his old fashioned ice cream van. Music is played from the PA at fairground levels. Dads’s are hunched over working on bikes, mums sit in folding camping chairs. Some bikes have small bikes stands. One dad carefully leans his sons bike upright as though its a cello on its side. The bikes are expensive, bright and tuned. There is something of the boy racer about them. I like the level of commitment, the obsession.
Kids wear team jerseys. One is called the Hornets. A photographer arrives carrying lots of equipment and wearing combat trousers and knee pads, a photographers waistcoat and a battery pack strapped to his waist like a gunbelt. This is Billy, he travels the country photographing BMX events. Every year he sends Peckham BMX a cd of photographs of all their riders. He tells me it’s a miracle what the club has done. ‘I’m from Notting Hill so I know about them’. Billy tells me about his lighting technique he’s mastered for BMX. I spot him later crouched at the track side, his flash powering off in the mid day sun.
At the end of the race the bikes cross the finish line into a gravel area. Back tyres sink and applied brakes bring up clouds of yellow dust. It makes me think of a rodeo.
There are frequent crashes. These occur on a tricky bend where a steep camber seems to be throwing so many of the riders. Nigel the coach backs off at the bend whilst spectators watch form the trackside. He’s proved right when the very next race leads to a pile up with bikes flying towards the fans.
A St John’s ambulance man in wrap around shades and a whispy beard tells me he’s seen all sorts of injuries despite many riders wearing full body armour. Broken wrists, ankles, collar bones. I think he’s trying to shock me, the way front line workers can.
During the finals at a jump halfway around the track a Peckham rider takes off and lands awkwardly on his front wheel. He goes over the bars and cracks his hlemet on the tarmac bend. I can see the recoil. He’s slightly concused and his eyes are glazed over. They take him into a tent alongside the track, outside a young female rider from the club waits nervously. Ten minutes later I see him walking around the field, his right arm in a sling, a cut above his left eye, cuts to his hands. Some dads of the younger riders check on him. When the next race starts I can see him facing the other way, his iphone in his hand and his headphones in.
Mary Harris’s daughter Shani is a lead rider at the club and a professional prospect. Mary has a child welfare role at the club too, she tells me ‘The club is about checking the children are ok too. The children are confident talking to us but we also try to develop relationships with the parents. Sometimes the children don’t realise we have this close link with the parents and we can check they are ok in this way. The children come to Nigel for advice but the parents need to play a role and sometimes the parents are unable to do this. The sport is good for children with ADHD. We have seen this here. It might be something to do with the adrenaline of the sport’.
Another mum Sarah agrees, ‘I work in a school’ she says ‘and the skills are transferrable. Before BMX it was martial arts. They used to have difficulty concentrating but now it’s improved alot’.
Aaron is a young dad from Peckham. He coaches at the club, it brings him closer to his son he tells me. ‘When I was 16/17 I wasn’t interested in focusing on sport, so to see the lads here 17 years old coming back, working hard. There was concern here when they built this track that it’d just be for the middle class kids, coming in, gentrification, you know? But I think CK has done well with this, keeping the price down, making it accessible. The thing with gentrification is they need to get it right. The balance’.
The floodlights are attracting moths. They swarm around the warm lamps 30 feet above the riders heads. At one large curve or berm in the track a man sits watching with his son. He is still in his bus drivers short sleeved uniform and he sits with his arm around his son. The bikes go close, its good to watch. The man runs his hand across his son’s hair.
The club has visitors. Nike are hear to make an advert and there is a burst of excitement in the night air. Men with expensive looking equipment wander around the track looking important, at one point a parent has to shout at them to get out of the way of the riders. Everyone wants a piece of Peckham now. The club is famous. The lead actor is a local boy with braided hair and a military jacket. But then they’re gone. I thought maybe they could have brought the kids some trainers.
A row of women sit high up near the start gates. Sarah, young Dominic’s mothers wraps her arms around him. She tightens his hoodie around his face to make him laugh. He laughs. He’s tired. The riders put in a lot of effort in the after school training sessions. A young rider just 4 years old, Lucas, is sat on his grandmothers knee, he watches the older lads line up for the last race. The flood lights are caught in his watery eyes.
One after another the riders make their final run around the track, dropping in off a steep slope like seabirds from a cliff. It’s silent. Nobody talks, eveyone concentrates. The only sound is that of the bikes, which is composed of two parts. The first is of warm tyres biting into the gravel track. The second is the ratchet sound of the rear wheel when the bike is coasting. The corresponding sounds make me think of a wave and it’s backwash. The track itself has a wave like shape, peaks and troughs and curves and swells. There is the push forwards, the bite of the wheels, the break of the wave followed by the ratchet sound when pressure is released and the bike coasts, like pebbles being drawn back down a beach.
Dean Reed – coach, team rider and local boy
Dean Reed, 22, is drinking a protein shake as he talks to me. He’s a busy young man, holding down three jobs. He coaches at Peckham BMX, runs his own coaching sessions and works as a waiter at a pizza restaurant. All his efforts and energy goes into BMX.
‘I started riding in 2010 in Brixton and came over to Peckham in 2012. I had to take two years out as I needed knee surgery and this was a setback but it gave me perspective, so I now appreciate every session and this is something I try to offer to the younger riders. To really focus and get everything out of it. After my injury I realised I had more to give. I started coaching here in June 2017. I know the feelings that the young riders want to take home as that is me. The sport is not so traditional, it’s unorthodox but this is an advantage. We try to use what riders experience here as wider life lessons. The riders are pitched against one another, in body armour and crash helmets but they are also simultaneously together like a family. There is a sharing culture.
At first I was shy, I didn’t think I’d be a coach, but I realised that the young riders learn by doing and that if I put the effort in they will train against me. It has to be fun first, you have to enjoy riding your bike. From this young riders can set goals. What I’ve noticed is that each rider will push themselves a bit more in order to join the group. The desire to be included, whatever the level or natural ability, is a motivator.
Here at Peckham BMX there is a meshing together of the social aspects of the community and sport. This is the best thing about the club. The track is a bubble of invincibility in a difficult neighbourhood. I live 15 minutes away. It’s hard to describe but for me it’s like when you are out in the rain soaking wet and then you get home and you close the door and you are dry, warm and safe’.
Angelika and her children
‘My name is Angelika and I’ve two children here, Adrain who is 5 and Nicola who is 10. We started in the winter about a year ago. We always do a lot together and now I’ve started coming here with them on a Tuesday night when they have a women’s group. I came here ins 2004 from Poland and I’ve always been around this area. I’m by myself and no family, to be honest I’ve no one to look after my kids so if we want to do something we do it together, ice skating, football and now BMX. The children respond really well here. My son had a few issues with his behaviour but he always asks me ‘Don’t tell Nigel the coach’. It’s helped him. We’ve always been sporty as a family and this is something that goes back. Every year we go on a holiday to Poland to see my family and every year we take part in a competition which involves racing up the lighthouse’s that dot the coast of Poland along the Baltic. I’m from a town called Świnoujście and we’d race up the steps inside the lighthouse together. My daughter this year won the under 16 girls, she’s only ten. Also we used to ride horses together, me and my kids, in Poland. But here it’s too expensive, here its BMX’.
It’s Halloween and training is in full swing. Nigel is asking the riders to focus and to commit to their session, to work through their tiredness. He’s jokes with them too, pretending to square up to one rider, teasing them about being tired. The atmosphere is one of fun, hard work and commradarie. Sometime later I’m stood high up on the start gate when a teenager in head to toe in black with his hood up starts to run down the middle of the road adjacent to the track, he’s firing off fireworks at waist height form a basic weapon straight into the traffic. Smoke floods across the track and through the trees, red explosions light up the sky as fireworks bounce off windscreens and bus passengers move back from their windows. It’s a quite a a site but the bikes still run aroud the track. Coach Nigel spots this and immeduately beckons all the young riders to the other side of the track, he calls for support from parents to assist. The young man eventually runs off, sirens follow minutes later, the smoke clears but the smell remains. Eventaully we all make it back to the starting gate and training resumes. Nigel manages this incident seemlessly. There is a high level of awareness thats apparent. This kind of incident is a reminder of the great work the club is doing, the kids firing fireworks into the direction of on coming cars are the very kids Nigel and CK and their team are working with. It’s a shame that most articles or documentaries made about the club perhaps inevitably draw on where there club is, the weight of Peckham the neighbourhood is carried by the club. I try to avoid goinf down that route as I feel the club could do with a break, it’s done great things without having to justify this against the backdrop of the problems of modern urban Britain, still it’s hard not link the two. This is great work the club does, direct and full of joy, reaching out to young people in a way that is proven to work. Be there, always. Be in their community. Be around, be reliable, be seen. The reliability and sense of duty is something the club provides and in wants to create this sense of duty in the riders themselves.