It seems like such a core part of BMX, but there was a time when going down a handrail was unthinkable. The July 2013 issue of Ride has an article that's not-so-subtly titled "25 Years Of Handrails." Our own Jeff Zielinski went through the painstaking task of writing the history book of what's been done, when, and by the person who pushed the limit to get it done. History may not be on the forefront of concerns, but these are BMX's teen years and it's important to chronicle those epic moments for decades to come. In the course of the article, Jeff interviewed several legendary riders to stay accurate: names like Mike Escamilla, Keith Treanor, Van Homan, Ian Morris, and more. There was so much information, good stories, and bits of knowledge that not everything could make the article. So, I present to you, two interviews with innovators on their own right: Mat Hoffman and Dave Parrick. —Ryan
Can you elaborate on when you did your first handrail down stairs?
I was at this contest in England called Holeshot. I think it was 1987. I saw Craig Campbell go up the quarter pipe and stall on his pegs at the top and drop back in. After I got home I learned it on my Ninja ramp. Then I started carving into them and grinding them. I learned icepicks and then toothpicks. I wrapped my pegs with duct tape to get them to stick. Then I started getting obsessed with all the different variations that were possible. My brother skated and a lot of our friends were skaters so I started adapting a lot of the skate lip tricks to my bike. I came up with Smith and feebles and Steve Swope learned how to alley-oop them. Then I started sliding flat rails street riding. Then the next progression was rails down stairs. The next thing I knew my world became a bigger playground and I started hunting out rails everywhere I'd go. It was like every city had a checklist I had to do.
My first rail attempt I found was when I was traveling to little towns in Oklahoma doing shows and I tried one. It was hard to get up on it because it was so tall and not very steep, so that's when I started looking for steeper rails so I didn't have to hop so high. I could jump down stairs and meet up with the rail. Pegs weren't made for grinding back then, so I had to rig my pegs. Pretty much all the pegs were aluminum and I found out quick they would stick and when I found steel pegs would stick to aluminum rails. So I found PVC I could cap them with and was able to slide without locking up.
The trailer for Head First. Mat slides one of the very first down rails at the 2:20 mark.
That monster rail you did in downtown Oklahoma City is a legit rail by today's standards, and you did it over 20 years ago. How many rails (down stairs) did you grind before doing that monster one?
Just a few. I didn¹t see that one as that difficult. To me, it was easier because the rail came to me. I didn¹t have to try to jump to the rail. I could almost just ride off right on to it. It was aluminum so that was a near disaster, but other than that, I loved that rail because it just flowed.
Full knowing that you were opening new doors when you did those rails, at that point in time, what did you think would¹ve been the craziest thing possible to do on a rail?
I didn't really think about opening doors. Everything was progressing in our sport and anything was possible. The sport was kind of in a down swing. In fact, no one else was catching on to it so I thought this was just a new game I found and maybe it was just for me because it wasn¹t that big of a deal to everyone else. It wasn¹t so much about the variations for me, it was about the rail. Once I got the normal rail style dialed I started looking for kinks and curves and things like that.
I'm sure you've heard this a million times already, but for my friends and I growing up, Homeless Trash was the first glimpse into modern street riding with a real emphasis on peg grinds, and of course, handrails. What was the time period that the video was filmed in? And what was the influence/motivation? Were there many other riders messing with rails at that point?
I think we started filming trash in early 1992 and finished in February of 1993. James Shepard and I where hugely influenced by skateboarding and would always watch skate videos before going out to ride. Blind's Video Days and Plan B's Questionable were a huge influence on all of us. We wanted BMX to be more like that. There were only a few riders that could even do rails at the time—maybe ten or so. I just happened to be surrounded by several of the ones that could. I remember seeing early footage of Chris Day trying to do a flat rail in 1989 or 90 and seeing Mat Hoffman messing around on a small loading dock rail inside the old Austin Coliseum (probably 1990-91). I remember thinking, "Oh damn, it's totally possible." Shortly after that, Mat stepped it up by doing huge/unthinkable rails in Head First. That was the biggest step. I think Chris Moeller was the first person that I actually saw do one in person at Huntington High. I also remember seeing footage of Keith Treanor doing a small rail at Santa Ana Civic Center possibly 1990 or early 91? That may have been the first one with stairs involved. Ruben Alcantara once showed me video footage of him doing a backwards rail from around 92 (same year as Trash)—crazy. I should also mention Lee Sultimier. He ice picked (and actually grinded) down a kinked rail in Trash with 2 inch pegs. Which seemed impossible back then.
In reference to Trash, I remember reading somewhere—probably in an ad—that the video was, "A film based loosely on the handrail." Was that the goal, or did it just work out that way?
[Laughs] I think Sheps put that in the first ad for the video. No, I think it sorta just worked out that way. None of us really new what was possible. I remember seeing kinked rails and thinking, "Oh, that one's no good because of the kink. You're going to lock up and eat shit when you hit it." Or, "Aluminum rails won't slide." Then, one night Sheps and I roll up on Steve Ornelas and Gute riding on UT campus and Gute was sessioning a steep eight-stair aluminum rail with a harsh kink. I don't think he even really thought about it or cared. It definitely changed our minds of what we thought was possible. I should mention Ed Koenig, too. He was definitely among the first and an innovator.
Between Homeless Trash, Dirty Deeds, Nowhere Fast, and more, you've documented an entire generation of progressive handrail riding. To me, the Trash and Dirty Deeds era were more pioneering, where as NowhereFast was taking the established rail riding to the next level. What do you think?
With each one I was always trying to step it up a little more. Trying not to disappoint. I just happened to be surrounded by people that were talented enough and were willing to make it happen. With Nowhere Fast it was pretty much obsessive. Josh Heino was on a mission to find the biggest rail shit possible. God, I'd have to name off the entire lineup. Everyone killed it in there own way. Ralph Sinisi was pretty much willing to die—somewhat kidding [laughs]. I feel really lucky to have witnessed all of that. Some of the best times ever.
Nowhere Fast in all it’s glory. If you haven’t seen this, well, you’re messing up.
Prior to the Internet, videos were the biggest source for the latest and most progressive riding. In your opinion, what were some other videos that set new benchmarks for handrails, and why?
Ian Morris and Stuart Dawkins were doing really huge rails in the early Backyard videos (early 90's in England) and later on it was Road Fools 1. That one definitely raised the bar. Some of the rails Joe Rich did are gnarly even for nowadays! And, of course, Van Homan in Seek and Destroy and Criminal Mischief. Jay Miron would fire out some huge rails as well.
I know this is a won't be easy, but in your opinion, since the beginning, who are five riders that have laid the biggest hand in helping progress handrail riding to where it is today?
Yeah, that's tough one. It's hard to even start naming names. I've been lucky enough to witness so much by so many amazing riders. But for now I'm going with Mat Hoffman, Mike Escamilla, Kevin Gutierrez, Ian Morris, Josh Heino, Joe Rich, Dave Young, Brian Castillo, and Van Homan. I'd put Taj in there, as well, but there's no way I can pick just five. I'm sure there are a few others that could be mentioned as well, but these are the ones that in the early days took the biggest first steps.
Gute always had my favorite section in Homeless Trash. The rail-to-turndown he does, although unclicked by today’s standards, is still pretty unreal and forward-thinking.
Thinking more currently, the Internet, and more specifically, the web video generation have pushed the progression of BMX so far into overdrive that when it comes to rails, the sky is the limit today. It seems like no runway it too short, no rail too tall, long, or kinky for some rider to make it work for them. If you let your imagination run wild for a second, what do you think is next?
Pretty much anything continues to be possible. It's been over 20 years and dudes are still coming up with shit that at one time was unthinkable. Every generation has a new batch of dudes that progress the sport. Just look at Edwin Delarosa, Vic Ayala, Bob Scerbo, and the whole Animal crew. Or Garret Reynolds, Brian Kachinsky, Aaron Ross, Nathan Williams, Cory Martinez and Dakota Roche. There's lots of dudes that could be mentioned here and I apologize for the ones I've missed. Someone will always come up with something amazing. Something we all never imagined possible. I haven't been paying attention lately…has anyone done a whip to rail yet? Come on Aaron! You got that shit.