Those elements fused for the 22-year-old last May, when he packed his car with video equipment and camping gear and left his northern New Jersey home for a three-month, cross-country journey to capture the essence of BMX street riding in America.
After driving through 22 states and dozens of cities, Meeuwissen (pronounced May-wissen) is now sorting through many hours of footage, with a plan to produce a DVD documenting the trip and the BMX crews he met along the way. Whether the result will be to BMX biking what Bruce Brown’s 1966 classic documentary, The Endless Summer, is to surfing remains to be seen. For now, the project’s working title, mirrored on a blog Meeuwissen kept, is People. Places. Bikes.
“That was pretty much what it was all about,” said Meeuwissen from his home in River Edge, N.J., a quiet suburb about a 25-minute drive from Manhattan.
Fate and good timing provided company for the trip. At a skatepark in New York, Meeuwissen met a BMXer from Germany, Max Neuber, also in his early 20s. He’d been working as an au pair in Oradell, N.J., the next town over from Meeuwissen. With his assignment finished, three months on the road to ride bikes and meet new people seemed to him like a good way to spend the time.
Prior to the trip, Meeuwissen worked in a new car dealership parts department to earn money to buy his equipment. He shoots with a Canon 5D II, a DSLR that records HD video and is widely used for movie and television productions. He uses 16-35mm and 24-135mm lenses. Other equipment includes a Glidecam stabilizer, a slider, a jib and a skateboard. He edits using Final Cut Pro 7.
BMX biking started four decades ago in Southern California, when kids began modifying Schwinn Sting Ray bikes for riding on dirt tracks used for motorcycle racing called motocross. That trend gave birth to the first purpose-designed BMX (bicycle motocross) bikes in the mid-1970s. Dirt racing is still a part of the BMX scene, but as Meeuwissen explained, kids in urban areas where there were no dirt tracks started a trend in freestyle riding, emphasizing acrobatic tricks.
“Park BMX” emerged in areas that had room for skate parks, some of which allow bikes. Some competitive BMX forms use half-pipe style ramps that can launch riders 8-10 feet into the air for backflips and other stunts.
“Street BMX is more about adventure,” said Meeuwissen. “It’s a scene, a group of friends hanging out, just showing off tricks.”
The equipment evolved with the trend, and today’s BMX street bikes, which Meeuwissen said range from $300 at the low end to nearly triple that, use high-strength frames and components made to take a pounding. The bikes are built for easy maneuverability, not speed, and with their 20-inch wheels could at first glance be mistaken for kids’ bikes. Sprockets allow reverse pedaling, and handlebars can spin 360 degrees. There are usually no brakes, since the cables would tangle during stunts.
Each region has a style, usually based on its particular urban topography, according to Meeuwissen. He explained that inner cities often produce the most interesting and accomplished riders.
“The East Coast scene is known for its gritty locations and style," he said. "On the West Coast, skateboarding has long been part of the culture, so it is more of a clean and smooth park scene."
Gritty is what Meeuwissen and Neuber went looking for on their first stop, New York City, when they began their trip on May 9. From there they headed to meet up with more BMX crews in Trenton, N.J., and across the Delaware River in Philadelphia, then down to Baltimore. Meeuwissen’s plan was to head south and then hook westward in time to reach Texas for X Games Austin in early June.
“One of the best parts of the trip was the hospitality,” Meeuwissen said. “I’ve been in the BMX community a long time, so people know me from selling DVDs and stickers. I’d text them or find them on Instagram, and ask if they knew a place we could stay or camp. Almost every time, we’d have a place to stay within an hour. I only knew about five of the people we stayed with. Others were new friends we met. We only had to camp four times.”
Meeuwissen said BMXers range in age from as young as 10 to mid-20s, though he said there are a few riders in their mid-30s. He affirmed that social media has given a big boost to BMX in recent years, with Instagram a favorite.
“It’s almost reminiscent of what Brooklyn feels like, with lots of young artistic people, and it’s very bike-friendly,” he said. “Cumming, Georgia had the best skate park I’ve ever seen in my life.”
One of the most intriguing people Meeuwissen and Neuber met was New Orleans artist Stu-Art Wright, Jr. “This guy is three full steps ahead of everything,” Meeuwissen wrote on his blog. “When he’s not working 12-hour shifts at the tattoo parlor, he’s helping anyone and everyone that comes knocking on his door. Not only does he take care of himself, his girlfriend and his dog, he also manages to find time to teach the neighborhood kids to fix up and paint their bikes, along with other life lessons such as patience and persistence.”
Wright started the Pay Attention Awareness Movement to encourage youth to pursue their dreams.
The trip concluded in San Francisco, where Neuber flew back home to Germany. Another friend from New Jersey, pin-striping artist Anthony Diliberto, flew out to accompany Meeuwissen on the drive back home.
Meeuwissen said documenting the trip affirmed a long-held belief of his.
“Something I’ve learned from biking and carry over to my life is, if you can see and feel in your head when you close your eyes what something is going to feel like, when you go to do it, it’ll happen that way," he concludes. "The second you hesitate on a bike and lose confidence, things start to go wrong.”