BMX Great Jamie Bestwick's Gravel Obsession

Jamie Bestwick might seem like an unlikely candidate for gravel racing. But his enthusiasm for bikes knows no bounds, and his X-Games-winning experience actually translates to the world of 200-mile epics. 

Jamie Bestwick on gravel

Written by
Spencer Powlison

Published on

Posted in
Features

Photo: Andy Chasteen

Jamie Bestwick has been a pro athlete for more than 20 years. He’s won 14 gold medals. Recently, he coached Great Britain’s team at the Olympics. Now he’s channeling his competitive energy into gravel bike racing. There’s just one twist — a big one — all those accolades come from the world of BMX. The medals (and there are many more in other colors) are from the X-Games. His pro career was built on staggering acrobatic tricks, performed 30 feet off the ground.

At a glance, Bestwick, 50, seems like an unlikely candidate to take on a 200-mile endurance test like Unbound gravel. His BMX experience seems alien to the world of wattage, hydration, and aerodynamics.

However, he’s long used road bikes and mountain bikes to hone his fitness for X-Games competition. Gravel was a logical next step. He loves all the technical nuances of bicycle technology, no matter if their wheels are 20” or 700c. And above all, Bestwick says the mindset that made him one of the most dominant riders in BMX vert history directly applies to the challenge of gravel races.

I spoke to him a couple weeks after Mid South Gravel in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to learn more about the unexpected similarities between vert ramps and wide-open gravel roads.

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This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Spencer Powlison: It sounds like you've actually been riding road bikes for quite a while in addition to BMX. Tell me about your experience there.

Jamie Bestwick: Yeah, I've always used road biking as a tool to find fitness for BMX. But it was always a way for me to get out of the stress and expectations of BMX by jumping on the road bike and just seeing a perspective of where I live from a different height. The road bikes were just a great way for me to get out to just clear my head. If there was upcoming competitions, it was an opportunity to refocus and to not be thinking about projecting myself forward so much, kind of letting the expectation build. Getting on the road, you've gotta focus, you've gotta watch the road, you know, anything can happen at any time. So it was just an opportunity to reconnect with the road and the surroundings and just not think too much about competition.

SP: Were other people in your world of BMX competition also riding road? Were you a bit unusual in that respect?

JB: There might have been one or two other people doing it, but I think a lot of guys were kind of textbook. It was going to the gym, it was walking on the treadmill. The only cardio may come from running or running on a treadmill. But running's never really been my thing. Although at school I always found that cross-country running was a good release, and it was a part of a school's curriculum of sports, that never really carried on through later in life, but the bikes always did. And I guess it's just an insane fascination for bikes that I have. When I reflect back on my time living in England, I had the opportunity to acquire a mountain bike. I rode to work in the morning, which was about three or four miles away. I soon figured out that, hey, fat mountain bike tires, don't go that fast on asphalt roads. So, swap the tires over the skinnies, and all of a sudden, you got a bike with suspension that goes insanely fast. It’s just this fascination I've got with bikes in general, and as time has gone on, and as bikes have evolved and different sides of the sport evolved with that, it's just led me to buy more and more bikes, unfortunately!

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SP: I saw somewhere that you've got quite a collection. What's your bike count at these days?

JB: Um, hold on. I think BMX is up for about, it has to be like at least 20 complete bikes. I've got three on the wall. … I've gotta be on 18 to 20 complete bikes at the house. And then I've got two road bikes, one built gravel bike, one unbuilt gravel bike, one mountain bike, XC bike. Then I've got an Enduro mountain bike. Yeah, I got a bit of a problem! [Laughs]

SP: Do you remember the first gravel race you did?

JB: Yeah, I do. It's called the Sugar Cane 200. I bought a bike from a local bike shop, and my buddy and I flew down to Florida and did this Everglades gravel race. It was amazing, it was really good fun. I was like, this reminds me so much of the things that got me excited about BMX. Just the people, the atmosphere, the vibe out on the course, the situations you'd come across, the things that would happen on the course. And I was just like, this is so flipping cool. I love it like this. This is so reminiscent of my early years of BMX in the UK. It kind of took me from the road and the mountain bikes and put me on the gravel.

SP: I see you still ride some BMX. How do you balance your time to ride all of those bikes?

JB: I ride a lot of BMX. So I'm not retired in that sense, but I really don't foresee myself going back to competitions anymore. Just the time it takes to be the best in the world is something I don't have anymore. It’s not that I don't want it. It's just that I found so much enjoyment in other aspects of cycling that I'm starting to dedicate a lot more of my time to training for that too. It’s fair to say I'll always ride a BMX bike, but I won't be competing anymore. I've left it all out on the ramp, so to speak.

Jamie Bestwick riding vertBestwick riding in Las Vegas at the Monster Energy 20th Anniversary event. Photo: Monster Energy

SP: Does the competitive mindset that carried you through an awesome career in BMX translate into what you're doing with gravel riding and gravel racing these days?

JB: You know, it does. And it definitely helps too. I have to be honest here, I'm not going to be pushing Ted King for the win or anybody like that. I don't go there for that reason, but in order to go from the start to the finish, there has to be a competitive element in everybody, you know, and, and even for the person that is like, “Oh, this is just a goal. I want to do it.” There’s still a competitive element because they have to get to the end. So they're fighting against something, whether it's themselves, whether it's conditions. There's always a competition out on course. I just love that challenge.

"When you look at BMX and gravel side by side, they seem so polar opposite, but yet when you dig deep below the surface, there's so much that binds the two together."

I love seeing how far I can push myself and how the day dictates what kind of day I’m going to have. Let's say for instance, at Mid South this year, I rode with a great group. We were fast, we had it going on in our group, and I stayed there the whole time, and it was awesome. I had a great day and put in a good result for myself, personally. And then I can go to go to another event — let's just say Unbound — that day was basically an exploration in self-destruction caused by a very ruthless environment. And you willingly paid, in fact, you fought tooth and nail to get into the position! I just find that the whole thing is really, really intriguing.

That goes back to the competition element. Yeah, absolutely it helps me because there are times where I have to rely on that mental fortitude. Not because I am fighting against the competitor to beat his score or beat him to the line, but I have to rely on it in order to get the next mile clicked off in the ride. You never know what's gonna happen —  a random act that happens out on the course, your body starts to fail, like who knows? So you need the mentality to keep pushing through and find solutions very fast in order to make it to the end. 

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SP: That's really interesting. It seems like there's an interesting contrast between the approach to a BMX run, which is maybe more choreographed, and a gravel race.

JB: I guess the BMX world that I ride in is very artistic. It's very creative, and you get judged on that, and it's almost like you do have to find very quick solutions, and you do have to be willing to adapt if somebody puts in a better score than you. Why did they put in a better score than you? He put three different tricks in there. Okay, the run I had planned is definitely gonna get beat by that. So now I've got to adapt and beat that run again. Adaptation in competition is always going to be key and vital to success. It’s all about being adaptable. You have ever-changing conditions, bodily and bike malfunctions along the way. You have mental malfunctions too. If you're not someone who's willing to adapt, then it's gonna be an incredibly hard and tough day on the bike.

SP: That's, that's really interesting, I didn't realize how of the moment you are in the context of a vert competition or something like that. 

JB: Yeah, if somebody puts in a run that has a couple more elements that were better than the run that you had in place, they call your name out, and it's like, okay, well plan, A's out the window. Now we've gotta go to plan B. You have to think very quick on your feet. 

When you look at BMX and gravel side by side, they seem so polar opposite, but yet when you dig deep below the surface, there's so much that binds the two together. It always comes back to being adaptable.

Jamie Bestwick Mid South Start
Bestwick at the start of Mid South Gravel 2022. Photo: 241 Photography

SP: How does standing at the start of a big gravel event like Unbound compare to the feeling of standing at the top of a vert ramp ready to drop in for a really important competition or to throw a hard trick that's new to you?

JB: They both give you the same feelings, but in different ways, and when you are on top of the vert, and you're riding for a gold medal, it's about not getting too far ahead of the expectation to win. It's about just bringing yourself back to the moment, understanding what's gonna get you to the top spot, all the practice, all the fitness, everything is there. And it's about harnessing that and managing those nerves and then just going out there and putting the performance together. You are alone, but you're not alone. You always have the people in your corner with you. A lot of it is just managing the moment and that expectation, because you have everything within yourself to go and win and get the gold or to hold the trick. You just have to be hyper-focused on not letting the fear creep in. Because when you take your eye off it for a second, something bad's gonna happen. 

I feel that in the gravel races, you experience that in a very different way. If you are at mile 103 in a 200-mile race and you've prepped for it. You've done all the right work throughout the year. You've eaten right. You've done this, you've done that. And then all of a sudden on the day your body is experiencing things that it never had before. It’s rejecting food. Your bike’s broke. And all of a sudden you're out in the middle of who knows where with no cell phone service and nobody else around you. That is fear in a different way. And it's just about managing that and going, “Okay, I've got calm down, I've gotta regroup. I've gotta focus on what's important. And I've gotta focus on getting myself together and getting back on the road and riding again.” 

At the end of the day, when everybody's on that start line, they have an expectation. Everybody expects they're going to finish the race or a top competitor is going to pull the trick. They're going to win the gold. And it's just about managing that expectation, suppressing those fears, having the confidence to make the right decisions at the right time. And to fully understand that you've done the work in order to get to this position to execute. 

Bestwick finishing Mid South
Bestwick finished third in his age group at Mid South Gravel and 53rd overall. Photo: 241 Photography

SP: What's your favorite gravel race that you've done?

JB: There’s a couple. I'll go with Mid South. I just came back from Bobby Wintle’s event in Stillwater. Holy smokes. Great race. What a great time. Freezing cold. Absolutely bloody freezing cold. I can't believe how cold it was on that start line. But it was a great day on the bike. I love that kind of course, just a little bit for everything, no insane climbs, more like rollers, which I'm more used to where I live in Pennsylvania. It was nice because I got to ride with a lot of people I've got massive amounts of respect for. Amanda Nauman and Amity Rockwell were riding in my group, and it was really fun and interesting to see how two really professional ladies manage their business when they're out on course.

"I didn't think as a BMX rider that Pinarello would ask me to ride one of their bikes, but when the opportunity came, I was like, wow, like this is insane. This is like somebody being asked to ride drive for Ferrari!"

Also, we have one in Pennsylvania called Keystone Gravel. You could ride it on a gravel bike. You'd probably have equally as much success on a mountain bike. It’s a wild event. It’s a segment-timed thing. But the thing about this course is it’s absolutely mental. I thought it was funny — other people probably were close to having an anxiety attack — but we were going down some stuff, and I would just say to people as I was going down, I wish I'd brought my full-suspension bike.

[product-block handle="2019-pinarello-grevil-s"/]

SP: And this season you’re on Pinarello’s Scuderia Gravel Team. Tell me about how that came together.

JB: I think it was an idea of Kim Rogers over at Pinarello. They have a really varied team setup, they have everything from a guy like Anthony Carter who is out there building community through bike riding, to someone like Brennan Wertz who's winning every race he goes to, to guys like myself and Mari Holden, who's an Olympic coach. They just wanted something with a bit more diversity, just to show that bike riding really isn't just about racing. It's about inclusion. It's about equality and at the end of the day, putting one foot in front of the other one and making sure the wheels keep turning and getting out there and enjoying every mile. 

I didn't think as a BMX rider that Pinarello would ask me to ride one of their bikes, but when the opportunity came, I was like, wow, like this is insane. This is like somebody being asked to ride drive for Ferrari!

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