Friday Interview: Rail Progression With Jim Cielencki
The new 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 Mat Hoffman, Mike Escamilla, Keith Treanor, Van Homan, Ian Morris, and more. But Jim Cielencki's interview rose above the rest. Jim's analytical ways made him one of the most progressive rail riders of the early 2000's and from reading this interview, it's easy to see the wheels haven't stopped turning. His insights into his own processes, opinions on the state of progression, and many other quips make this one hell of a read. Give it a look and then check out the full article in the new issue. —Ryan
Do you remember the first time you saw someone do a rail down steps?
The first time I saw someone do a rail was in a Freestylin' or Go Magazine and it was, of course, Mat Hoffman. It was late 80's or early 90's, I can't really remember. Looking back, I would say we knew someone was going to do a handrail because skating had opened the door, but there was still this feeling of how. Yes, peg grinds on ramps had been done, so you knew it was sort of coming. But the pegs were so small which meant you had to be very accurate. The first one that I saw in video probably went to Mark Eaton in one of the Dorkin' videos. The first person I ever saw do one in person would probably be my friend Jason Tober. At the time, there was no one to ride with in my area, so I would drive an hour and a half to this small town of Olean, New York, to ride with a bunch of guys. Jason was always pushing it and I'm pretty certain I saw him do one at St. Bonaventure College. It's been so long and it's sort of difficult to think of the first moment.
When you first started messing with rails, who were some of the top rail dudes in your opinion?
I was late to the rail game. I did my first rail down stairs around '91 or '92, but it wasn't until around 1996 or 1997 that I really did anything else besides a double peg grind. Oh, sure, we messed around on the foot tall parking lot rails, but you never counted it because it wasn't down stairs. The guys that were killing rails back then were Rooftop, Dave Young, Brian Castillo, Joe Rich, Taj, Jimmy Levan, and Mike Tag. Again, there's guys I'm missing, but these guys instantly stand out—Rooftop especially. You'd pick up a BMX Plus! back then and he would have giant rail photos as well as crooked grinds, grinds-to-hop over, rail manuals, and he did the first kinker double peg-to-ice.
"It seems every year people discover a trick and than just do every variation of it. Luc-e grinds and crank slides are good examples of that now. The backwards ice grind is coming in now."
Are there any riders who blow you away with their rail game today?
Today's riders are amazing! They look so comfortable on rails, I'm definitely a bit jealous of their skills. It's tough to filter out guys today because there's literally so many, but the guys that stand out to me are Nathan Williams, Dan Lacey, and Ben Lewis. Nathan just makes Icepick grinds and opposite stuff look too easy. Dan is really burly and was the first to venture into the 360 over ice area. Ben is just dialed and doing more than just four peg combo tricks. Josh Harrington has always been awesome. He did all the wild, groundbreaking moves way back before doing rails became commonplace.
Are there any tricks/combos getting done today that you might have thought of at some point, but it was just to wild for you at the time?
I would say all the barspin-to-rail stuff. There was a point where I was super close to doing it, but it never happened. I did it at parks, but was never able to transition it out of the park and onto a real rail. The over-crankslide trick was another one. Did one on the flat rail at the La Rev contest at Skate Street in 2000, but never was able to find a comfortable enough setup to do it on street. My only issue was clipping the rail on the way up. Landing in the trick was no problem; I just had this fear of disaster if I clipped my wheel. Plus, I never wanted to do it where I got so much air over the rail and then dropped on to it. It would been the best if the front wheel was the same height as the rail and the backwheel popped over the rail almost like hangover nosewheelie. I really hate when you have to get a lot of hangtime to do a trick. Barspin-to -smith is a good example. Dudes hop so high then land in the grind; it would be awesome if it gets perfected to where it's not hopped high at all.
"At the time, guys were doing big rails, but I never had those options, so I had come up with something else."
In an interview in the November 2001 issue of Ride, you said, "I made a list of possible handrail tricks, and it was well over 70." Would you mind elaborating on that list a little? And have they all been done yet?
Honestly, I would say yes the tricks have all been done. My list comprised of combos like barspin-to-ice, etc. You can do a double peg grind to barspin, kickflip, turndown, 180, 360 or tailwhip out. There's six tricks right there. Now switch out double peg for icepick, toothpick, luc-e, crankslide, smith, feeble, over or backwards grind and you get a whole lot more tricks. I was probably being cautious by saying only 70 tricks, but I bet there's a lot more. It's really cool to see tricks that were done a long time ago get the attention of riders now. It seems every year people discover a trick and than just do every variation of it. Luc-e grinds and crank slides are good examples of that now. The backwards ice grind is coming in now. Can't wait to see held backwards ices and variations out of it.
Would you mind listing some "firsts" that you did down rails with steps—year, video, etc…
It's definitely weird writing about firsts…
Luc-e grind. I had been chasing this trick for a long time and could never find the perfect setup. I would always clip my front peg and die. The trick can be seen in the Kink video Cheap Thrills about midway through. We shot it at MIT in Boston and it was on the same rail that I had my Ride cover in 2003. We did an east coast trip after a Ghetto Street contest and shot it then.
Pedal ice. This is a tough one because a lot of people had down pedal grinds in the past, but I don't believe there was any documented down a rail. My first photo in Ride was a pedal ice at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Jared Souney shot the photo and Brian Tunney wrote the story about it. The rail was pretty small, probably five to seven stairs, but it couldn't have been more perfect for it. Round rails work best in my opinion. Square rails turn your bike back to parallel with the rail, so you clip your axle nut and flip over the bars.
Pedal crooked grinds. This was an offshoot of the pedal icepick grind. Prior to this point, sprockets were only on the right side, so crooked grinds were limited to guys who ran two front pegs and a left rear peg. I hadn't run four pegs since 1996 and never wanted to go back to that. I realized that my left pedal was back and it could be used like a peg, so I skipped the four peg thing and just used my pedals instead. It can be seen in Roadfools 7 from late 2000, although I had been doing them well before that. There's probably some Chenga footage in Props from 1999 that has some pedal crooked grind clips.
Kickflip-to-double peg. So many people were chasing this one, my first one was shot in Buffalo at UB for my interview in Ride and the ender of the Kink video Wasted Days. I think I was the first documented to get the trick, but there was a bunch of people right there, too.
Frontside crankslide. This one comes with an asterisk, because I never did it on street, but I have a photo of doing one in one of the last issues of Transworld BMX doing it at a Toronto Metro Jam in 2004 or 2005. I practically stabbed myself with my bars because I kept looping out on it, but I did get it.
Switch hangover-to-crankslide. Throw the asterisks on this one too. Did it at the 2005 or 2006 Vancouver Metro Jam on the end of the double kinker. It's in a Props, as well. I learned it at X Wheels in Buffalo and was surprised how simple it worked out.
Over Pedal Ice. This is just a logical next step of the pedal ice. It was featured in the Kink video Cheap Thrills, which came out in 2004. Filmed in Buffalo on the same rail as the kickflip-to-double peg.
When I think of your contributions to the evolution of rail tricks, it was as if you looked at your bike differently, like "What else can I grind on?" It seemed like you weren't too caught up with pushing the limits of the already established tricks like double pegs, icepicks, tooths, etc…
I would say that my environment contributed to this. In Buffalo, there are very few good rails and my hometown of Cheektowaga has zero handrails. And I'm not joking. I don't think I've ever done a rail in Cheektowaga, and only because there isn't any. What I was left with was really short rails which were easy to double peg. At the time, guys were doing big rails, but I never had those options, so I had come up with something else. There's also the element of skateboarding that helped me to think differently about rail trick ideas. They had so many trick options that it made me rethink what tricks were available to us in BMX. I remember thinking how amazing BMX was back then and I wanted to contribute some how.
You were also very determined to find the right rail for a trick you wanted to do. What are some of the extremes you went through to get to, or find, a specific rail?
Yeah, I was definitely looking for the right rail…mostly because I was a pussy and didn't want to get hurt. I was already in my late 20's and my body was not made of the childish rubber anymore, so I wanted to make it easy for myself. However, I definitely got caught up in the BMX explorer mode. There was nothing better than driving around looking for completely new spots. Coming from a place that didn't have good spots to ride, I was really interested in finding new and easier stuff. The search was almost as exhilarating as the riding, in fact there were times that I did that more than ride. Especially during the first part of 2003 when I was living in Georgia. I traveled and searched so many miles of the eastern suburbs of Atlanta. It was a blast. There were only a few guys that saw it this way and it was great being a part of a group like this. To this day, my favorite thing to do is go look for spots and discover new places.
"I definitely competed to be the first to do moves, but I was more than stoked when they did stuff first. It's like having a brother. You compete with them, but you're also happy for them when they succeed."
During your heyday of pushing it on rails, who were some riders you thought were pushing it in rails during that time?
Vic Ayala, Edwin, Bob Scerbo, Mike Tag and Josh Heino. I'm sort of thinking this narrow window of time from say 2000-2003. These guys were my peers in the sense that we thought the same about rails and spots. I definitely competed to be the first to do moves, but I was more than stoked when they did stuff first. It's like having a brother. You compete with them, but you're also happy for them when they succeed.
"My theory for letting creativity flow was to go to a spot and then say to myself "What's the obvious trick that can be done here?" Once I had the trick then I would ask, "What's the complete opposite of that?"
Where did you get your influence from?
Skateboarding and snowboarding really influenced the way I saw rails. In the mid to late 90's, I lived and rode with skateboarders, so that rubbed off on me. Snowboarders rode rails in a different way, so that helped me think differently about them. Around 1999, it would take me two hours to fall asleep because I would let my mind completely wander in hopes of coming up with new ideas. My signature frame from Kink was suppose to be called the Imagine because of this period of time, but it seemed too hippie at the time. My theory for letting creativity flow was to go to a spot and then say to myself "What's the obvious trick that can be done here?" Once I had the trick then I would ask, "What's the complete opposite of that?" To be honest, this worked a lot of the time. Also, you could imagine a ridiculous idea that the spot sort of created. You would just say it out loud to someone just to see the response. Most of the times it wasn't possible at this spot, but it might spawn off a new idea or a spot that it would be possible. I really could get into the philosophical side of riding and creative thinking, but you'd probably just think I'm weird.
Aside from following in the footsteps left by the generation before them, I also think that the advent of parks with perfect, low rails and lighter bikes has a lot to do with how the new generation of riders have been able to pick up every rail trick and have them on lock. What do you think?
Yeah, I would agree with that statement. I definitely used what park rails I had to learn stuff. I even used the resi-rails at Woodward East [laughs]! In my head, it feels like it's safer to do a trick on a park rail rather than a rail in the streets. Not only because the heights are low and the rail is perfect, but because I used parks for learning and, in my head, I didn't get hurt at parks. It was the real deal when you took it to streets, so it felt more dangerous. I'm really stoked that parks have all these perfect rails. Riders today have taken it so far already, so just imagine what they will do in the near future? Barspin tireslide?
"I always imagine BMX as a balloon and anytime someone does a new trick, finds a new spot or looks amazing on their bike then the balloon expands a little bit more."
Where do you think your inspiration came from to try new and unique grinds/combos?
I feel like it was to contribute. It was great feeling knowing that I had something legitimate to contribute to the sport. I always imagine BMX as a balloon and anytime someone does a new trick, finds a new spot or looks amazing on their bike then the balloon expands a little bit more. Expanding the balloon and contributing to it changes the status quo of BMX. At the time, people were just focused on doing big rails and I just didn't have any to do, so I had to focus on the tech side. It was definitely a great feeling knowing that I had an angle that I could add to BMX. Tricks on rails were largely unexplored by the masses. Back rail fufanus, wall taps, and tailwhips were the main focus during that period. Without the focus on rails, myself and others could focus on doing new tricks without too much spotlight blowing it out before it had a chance to fully develop. Nowadays, it would be super difficult for a rail guy to come in and change things. There's just so many people doing it.
Prior to the Internet, videos were the biggest source for the latest and most progressive riding. In your opinion, what were some videos that set new benchmarks for handrails? Videos that ushered in the next wave of progression, so to speak. From the early pioneer era of the mid '90s, the early 2000s, and up to today….
It would have to be Nowhere Fast, Trash, Dirty Deeds, the Road Fools videos especially with Van Homan, Criminal Mischief, Seek and Destroy, and Don't Quit Your Day Job. I'm probably really bad with this one because I've only owned Don't Quit Your Day Job and some of the Road Fools. I definitely watched the others, but I never owned them.
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?
Rooftop, Vic Ayala, Joe Rich, Butcher, and Garrett Reynolds.
Thinking more currently, 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 is 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?
X-up grinds coming back. Would love to see x-up hangover grinds. X-up backwards.
Toothpicks replacing hangover toothpicks.
Backwards toothpicks being held.
Backwards icepicks being held.
Front wheel tire slides.
Frontside crankslides being figured out.
More 360 to grinds.
The 270 to crankslide.
Toothpick to backwards x-up grind. Do it gimp whip style.
Crankslide to hop over switch crankslide.
Tailwhip over ice.
Hangover to switch crankslide. You'll have to half backpedal.
Jump over frontside crankslide – did it on the small section of a skatepark rail, but never went beyond that.
Pedal ice to switch crankslide.
Backwards smith down a rail – Definitely a precess move.
X-up toothpick without hangover.
Barspin to hangover.
Barspin tooth – should't be too hard.
Tire slide to fakie.
Better bottom bracket grinds without pegs.
Smith to crankslide.
Kickflip crankslide…people always give kickflips slack, but this one would be scary.
More x-up icepick grinds.
Manual 180 a round rail?
Toothpick 180 without swinging backend over…do it hard and easy.
Return to doing bigger rails.