Nigel Sylvester's unorthodox path to BMX superstardom

At first, the children riding bicycles, roller skates and skateboards paid little attention to the world-famous athlete riding beneath them. Lot 11, hidden beneath busy Interstate I-95, is a haven for all things wheeled. There, Nigel Sylvester sat on a ramp, examining the concrete slabs that covered the skate park's landscape.

His opening has been clarified. Sylvester twirled his black and blue Air Jordans and picked up speed on his Specialized bike. He jumped and the bike jumped too, so that it danced over a railing. Sylvester spun the handlebars in circles before he hit the ground. He turned sharply to the left, rotating the bike's frame completely before turning the handlebars again with his left hand.

To most, the quick movements would have looked flawless. But Sylvester had sensed a problem. Like an actor trying to get a scene perfect, he tried the same moves multiple times. With each attempt, one or two more kids stopped skating or biking to enjoy Sylvester's explosive tricks.

They got a preview of what Sylvester's legion of fans would soon see. During each trick, Sylvester's friend and longtime collaborator Ralphy Ramos pedaled in his shadow, bending low and keeping the camera extended to record every move. The best series of consecutive tricks would be selected and broadcast to Sylvester's significant social media following, which includes nearly a million Instagram and YouTube followers.

“Horseback riding is one thing,” Sylvester said. “Driving in front of the camera is something completely different. It’s like going to the gym alone and then being at a real basketball game in front of 30,000 people.”

The 36-year-old Sylvester is perhaps the best-known motocross athlete in the world today as he catapults the sport into new territory. Jay-Z promoted him in a song (“Nigel Sylvester with those bike flips”). Michael Jordan's brand gave him his own signature shoe. High-end companies like Mercedes-Benz, Oakley and Hermes are desperate for Sylvester to connect with their brands.

“Now that I think about it,” Sylvester said recently. “I really want to be one of the greatest to ever touch a bicycle.”

The way Sylvester achieves this greatness sets him apart from traditional athletes. Jordan and Serena Williams achieved GOAT status by winning one championship after another. LeBron James and Wayne Gretzky have racked up unimaginable stats. Muhammad Ali went head-to-head with Joe Frazier. But for Sylvester there are no titles, no records, no on-field rivalries.

You won't find Sylvester among the BMX athletes preparing for the start of the July Olympics in Paris hoping to win a gold medal. He does not take part in competitions. He gained fame through social media by inventing and using tricks and inviting others onto his journey as he navigated urban landscapes.

“He's just evolving and doing everything cool, and you can't keep up with that,” said TJ Lavin, a retired BMX pro and host of MTV's “The Challenge.” “All the competitors and all the people in the competitions and all that stuff are good for them. He’s just a little too cool to compete.”

Sylvester was playing basketball in the backyard and street soccer while growing up in the Laurelton neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. His mother forbade him to play organized tackle football. He was expelled from his middle school's basketball team.

It was around this time that Sylvester first watched the X Games on ESPN, a new broadcast company that focused on extreme sports competitions such as skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross. Given ESPN's traditional coverage of sports like basketball, football and baseball, the games seemed out of place. But it had an impact on Sylvester's generation and gave even more legitimacy to the sports he grew up with.

A bicycle became Sylvester's passport. Sometimes, on trash days, Sylvester and his friends would dig through the trash looking for parts to assemble a bike from one crooked frame and one flat wheel after another. His parents gave him his first real bike, a 1998 Mongoose Sniper. He immediately removed the brakes, something he still does on his bikes today.

He explored different neighborhoods and districts on two wheels, from a skate park in the Bronx to bike ramps in Manhattan. He started buying BMX magazines and taped the photos to his bedroom wall.

After the X Games, Sylvester asked his parents to take him to Camp Woodward, an extreme sports summer destination in Pennsylvania. The price was too high, he was told.

He turned full-time to road driving, where the world of concrete, marble and jutting angles proved inspiring.

“You can’t control the environment,” Sylvester said. “You can’t control the weather. You can't control the people who walk by. You can't control the traffic. You can't control the natural elements, which is why I love it so much. Because it’s about figuring out how to manipulate the environment to pull off the trick you want to pull off and express your art.”

At 18, Sylvester turned professional and signed with Dave Mirra's MirraCo. He could count the number of black professional BMX athletes on one hand. Some members of his family did not understand his aspirations.

Before the Internet became part of everyday life, BMX athletes could only make a name for themselves by being featured in a magazine or on a VHS or DVD compilation. The best competed against each other in the televised competitions. But Sylvester was part of a new generation that grew up online and started uploading videos at an early age. “I began to understand the power of storytelling and the power of content,” Sylvester said. “Once I have control over my content, I want to channel the things that have influenced me throughout my life: music, fashion, style, travel.”

His breakthrough came a little over a decade ago with a daring jump into one of New York's most famous locations: the subway.

The idea was to jump over the tracks, and for weeks Sylvester and friends explored various train stations in the boroughs.

He ultimately chose the 145th Street station in Harlem. Sylvester measured the distance from platform to platform and concluded that he could not gain enough speed by approaching the platform directly. Instead, he had to drive parallel to the tracks before making a sharp turn.

On the morning of the attack, Sylvester brought his bicycle to the train station at around 2 a.m. He knew he had a shot before anyone would notice him. He sped up before turning as his momentum carried him over the edge of the platform and propelled him onto the nearest subway tracks.

He landed bigger jumps. But this one was different. The audience knew subways. They could understand how far he had traveled and the risks he was taking.

“When I saw the reaction to it, I knew we had unlocked a new level,” Sylvester said. “People saw us differently. From that moment on, people saw me differently as an athlete.”

SYLVESTER WAS LAUNCHED A FEW YEARS AGO GOan immersive film project that allows audiences to travel with him through cities such as Dubai, Paris and London.

His popularity is similar to the way YouTuber PewDiePie cultivated his fan base, said Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California.

Internet personalities don't necessarily become successful by accomplishing the extraordinary feats that most can't accomplish, North said.

“They do what we can do, but they do it better so it feels like we’re there,” North said.

A recent trip that Sylvester took his followers on was a worldwide hunt to turn a switch-crooked grind into a tail-whip – grinding his bike crookedly on a rail, launching the bike into the air and landing back on it.

On a visit to Australia he tried but failed. Later, in Los Angeles, he thought he had found the ideal track, but a series of failed attempts told him otherwise. Eventually, back home in New York, he came across a rail in Brooklyn that he believed would give him the angle he needed to land the trick. After a hard attempt, he finally succeeded.

“It’s part of what we do as BMX athletes,” Sylvester said. “We will travel the world just to land one trick because there is so much involved. Of course it's showing off. It's the clout. You are the first to do it. It's about respect above all. A brand sees you pull off a trick like that and says, 'Oh, no, he's the one.'”

Competition, North said, could only destroy the mystique of Sylvester's brand. It's one that Sylvester worked meticulously to build.

In 2021, Sylvester became the first BMX athlete to sign with the Jordan Brand. His collaboration with Air Jordan three years earlier, which was a well-worn Jordan 1 representing the wear and tear of cycling, quickly sold out.

“When you think about how creative MJ was and the impact he had on the game of basketball, we really see Nigel with that same mindset where he's doing something we hadn't seen before,” said Anthony DiCosmo, the head of the global sports marketing for Jordan Brand.

Especially in the beginning, Sylvester was criticized for his advertising and the integration of music and fashion into his brand.

The criticism disappointed him. He thought he was just promoting a sport he loved.

“I approached it in a different way, and in that way it was new and people were afraid of it,” Sylvester said. “People in the BMX world were afraid of it.”

What was once new is now the new standard. Sylvester's path to success mirrors the rise of influencers who have used the internet to become famous. As his audience continues to grow, he looks to use his stature in new ways. For example, in 2021 he founded a foundation whose goal is to distribute 10,000 bicycles to children. He drove it out of Queens. Others, he said, could do the same.

“I believe in the power of the bike,” Sylvester said. “I think it's one of the most incredible vehicles in the world. It's limitless. It transcends race and religion, social class and even geography.”

Anna Harden

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