Latvia’s BMX Secret? A DIY Replica

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Maris Strombergs of Latvia (center) won his second straight gold in men’s BMX. (Robert Beck/SI)

LONDON — Before repeating as Olympic champion in men’s BMX, Maris Strombergs left his home in California to spend two and a half months training near his birthplace of Valmiera, Latvia. The reason was that for the better part of two years, his coach, former BMX Olympian Ivo Lakucs, and an associate had been clandestinely working on their Valmiera Project: a DIY replica of the London Olympics BMX track. They paid for it out of pocket, without government assistance, and moved and shaped the dirt themselves. Lakucs would not reveal how much it cost. All he said was, “We spent all of [Maris'] money.”

He seemed to be kidding. But even if it did serious damage to Stromberg’s bank account, it was worth it. The rider known as “The Machine” deftly navigated the hellacious (and crash-happy) London course on Friday, pedaling strong out of the gate and having little trouble with the early S-turn that had once been his weakness. (“That’s why I built that track,” Lakucs said, “so he can feel better on the S-turn.”) Strombergs had no challengers in the final straightaway, winning by 0.353 seconds ahead of the pre-Olympic favorite, Australia’s Sam Willoughby.

When Strombergs visited Valmiera during the building process, he even helped pave some of the high-banking turns that were the site of the worst wreck-ups in London — all of which he avoided. “There is no way,” he said, that he could have won his second gold without working on a copycat course. He was ready for the S-Curve, the starting gate and the crucial first hill. But given that the London track was off-limits to riders aside from a few practices — not even Team GB had special access — how did the Latvians know what to build?

Their replica, it turns out, is a replica of a replica.

The eight-meter tall starting hill is a signature of London’s track. (Brett Hansbauer/SI)

Lakucs went on a recon mission to Papendal, in the Netherlands, to study the track that the Dutch national team had commissioned for its Olympic training. Papendal was considered the closest thing to the London track in Europe, and the next-best replica in the world after the one Team USA was training on in Chula Vista, Calif. Both the Americans and the Dutch had gone straight to the source for their tracks, hiring London track designer Tom Ritzenthaler, a former BMX rider from Columbus, Ohio, whose firm, Elite Trax, is essentially the HOK Sport of big-time BMX event design. Governing body Union Cycliste Internationale has no rules against copying courses.

Ritzenthaler was in the stands in London all week to witness his track’s gorgeous unveiling. (Because of all the grassy accoutrements, American rider Alise Post said “it’s almost too pretty to ride on.”) He doesn’t like to call any of his one-offs perfect replicas; he says re-creating the dirt, stone and weather combinations from track-to-track is impossible. And he seemed amused by the demand for copies, even if it has been good for business.

“It’s kind of weird to me,” Ritzenthaler said. “If I was a coach, I wouldn’t want a replica track, I’d want a track that would work on my athletes’ weaknesses. If a guy has a weak first straightaway, I’d want something that would make him stronger. But these countries want the replica tracks. They want to their athletes to have the ‘feel’ and the right mindset, so that when they show up here they’re chill. These younger guys are facing a lot of pressure, from the fans and the whole scene [of the Olympics], and so I guess a replica track makes it a little easier.”

The Ritzenthaler track in Chula Vista was made slightly tougher than London’s. Some jumps were 2-3 feet longer and taller, just so the Olympic track — which American Connor Fields, who finished a disappointing seventh, called a “pro’s only course” — wouldn’t seem as daunting for Team USA. Papendal’s replica was of the first phase of the London track, which went through multiple edits before the final version. Ritzenthaler was also contracted to build elements of the London track elsewhere, as the step-up in the second straightaway appeared in the South of France; the crossover appeared in South Africa and Argentina; and the first jump appeared on a test track in Australia.

But Ritzenthaler never had any idea that the Latvians were replicating his replicas. Lakucs would stay on top of the London course edits — he said there were at least two post-Papendal iterations that leaked — and get back on his bulldozer to keep Strombergs’ track up to date. After Ritzenthaler watched Strombergs win gold on Friday and was informed by text about the existence of Valmiera, his two-word reaction was, Very funny. Meanwhile, in the mixed zone near the finish line, Lakucs was proudly telling reporters about his handiwork. “We built two years for two months’ practice,” he said. “That was our secret.”