Flying high: Austin High student is honing his BMX skills, avoiding broken bones

Published 10:59am Monday, February 25, 2013

This special feature originally appeared in the Herald’s Progress 2013. Pick up a copy at the Herald’s office, 310 Second St. NE, today.

Scar tissue ran down Jacob Burkhart’s right leg like a red, gnarly zipper.

He dropped the denim back over his sock and got back on the bike.

“The pedal comes around and just gets you,” Jacob said. “My leg is just scar tissue now.”

Pedals were invented for efficiency, but they can be nasty, too.

Jacob — a 15-year-old Austin High School student who is as comfortable riding bike as he is walking — is one of many who use Austin’s skate park. He’s just there more often than most. After all, who goes to an outdoor skate park in Minnesota in January?

A riding session

It was cold and windy, and the Austin skate park was slick, dotted with puddles and covered with leaves on a gloomy October day. Sure, it wasn’t winter. But this was different than the time he and his buddies rode in January.

BMX rider Jacob Burkhart works on his moves on a rainy day at the Austin skate park.
BMX rider Jacob Burkhart works on his moves on a rainy day at the Austin skate park.

Yet Jacob emerged from the distance that fall day with a backpack and a broom — on a bike, of course — about 20 minutes after school. Plenty of youngsters frequent the skate park, but Jacob was the only one there for quite some time that day.

“I think I rode every day,” he said about that cool, unpredictable week. After sweeping leaves and pushing puddles around, he was ready to shred. By all means, the conditions looked sketchy: greasy, wet concrete and decayed leaves. Regardless, pain would be a small price for Jacob. He won’t complain because he knows pain is inevitable.

“There’s no way you can do this and not get hurt,” Jacob said.

Jacob has been luckier than many others who do what he does: ride wheelies, tail-tap, spin 360s, grind on rails, jump boxes and push their limits. Besides bloody shins, Jacob’s worst injury has been a badly bruised heel, which kept him from riding for about a week.

He has avoided the dreaded broken bones that would prevent him from riding for weeks at a time.

“I’ve gotten lucky,” Jacob said. “I haven’t done that yet.”

Jacob is safe and knows his limits. That’s one of the reasons why his dad, Jon Burkhart, is supportive of BMX as a hobby. After all, he used to do it himself.

“The best part for me is he’s really safe when he rides,” Jon said, whose views would be different if his son were breaking bones and riding beyond his capabilities. “He has to be responsible while he’s riding. He has to wear a helmet; that’s always a requirement. He has to be respectful to everyone.”

Jacob’s bikes take more abuse than he does, though. Just after Christmas, he bought a new bicycle frame, as the past one was cracked, worn out from serious use.

As always, he got his new equipment from Rydjor Bike shop in Austin where he is often seen with his friends. Jacob, as others will say, is not the typical skate-park dude, but he is part of the culture. And the bike shop isn’t such a bad hangout.

“It’s not like some mass, chain bike shop where you go to, and they’re all just worried about their paycheck,” Jacob said. “They are actually into what you do — take the time to talk to you about what you’re doing.”

Because Jacob’s dad used to work at the store, the family has built quite a rapport with those at Rydjor. They’ll say it, too; they can respect a kid with a good head on his shoulders.

“He’s a great kid,” said Jens Raffelson, “comes from a really nice family.”

Raffelson and manager Chad Burma see Jacob about once a week, and much more often in the summer, of course. While they don’t get opportunities to watch one of their best customers ride, they’ve seen videos of him on YouTube and know that he works hard. Jacob isn’t just wasting time at the skate park. He’s exercising, building muscle, improving his social skills and pushing for more.

“He seems pretty hard-working at what he’s doing,” Raffelson said, who like others hope Jacob will keep riding, improving and heading the right direction in life.

Yet with life skills and responsibility aside, Jacob clearly knows his way around a skate park and a bike.

“I definitely think he’s one of the best in town,” Burma added.

While many youngsters about to turn 16 worry about cars and parties, Jacob may keep focusing on the craft he’s been honing for years. Like his dad, Jacob is passionate about cycling.

Pushing the limits

So how does one learn a new trick, anyway?

Jacob Burkhart is an aspiring BMX rider working rain or shine to get better at his craft. During the spring, summer and fall months Burkhart is at Austin's skatepark most every day after school working on jumps and spins.
Jacob Burkhart is an aspiring BMX rider working rain or shine to get better at his craft. During the spring, summer and fall months Burkhart is at Austin’s skatepark most every day after school working on jumps and spins.

Like anyone else, Jacob started by hopping curbs and popping wheelies and progressed from there. But learning newer, tougher tricks not only takes guts, it takes sacrifice and a different mindset.

“Learning a new trick, it’s all a mental game,” Jacob said. “It’s just getting over the fear of crashing.”

But Jacob isn’t blindly throwing new tricks he’s never attempted, he said. Once he learns the aspects to a new trick, he focuses on perfecting that one before moving on to the next. His dad can understand that from watching him.

“The way to describe him is ‘responsible,’” Jon said.

BMX may not look like the most responsible sport in the world, but at least it’s easy to tell who is comfortable and safe with their tricks and who isn’t. Without hesitation, Jacob hit the ramp and stomped a 360 at the Austin skate park for his first trick on another late-fall afternoon. Then he started warming up.

“I just got those down this year,” he said about 360s.

Though Jacob couldn’t land every trick that day, he never bit the concrete, either. It was somewhat apparent why that right leg takes so much abuse: So nothing else has to. The right leg is his power leg, and his safety valve when things go wrong.

After all the seasons at the Austin skate park, Jacob competed in his first competition last summer in Zumbro Falls, Minn. Then, in November, he competed in another in Lake Elmo, Minn. He’s not sure how he placed, but that didn’t matter. Soaking up the experience, watching pros, storing ideas for future tricks and simply meeting other riders was a good start.

“That’s probably one of my favorite parts of going to competitions is meeting new people and getting to chat to people who you wouldn’t get to know if you weren’t riding bikes,” Jacob said.

One thing is certain: Jacob will do more competitions, as he’s only getting better.

After the fun and games

To some, it may seem like Jacob is simply wasting his time. The pros of any era started competing when they were toddlers, but becoming a professional isn’t necessarily Jacob’s motive. That would be nice, but Jacob is realistic, too. He knows becoming a professional is a tall task.

“To go pro … that’s asking a lot,” he said.

That’s why Jacob is gaining valuable knowledge in another form just from being around the sport: audio and video production. Music and extreme sports videos go hand in hand, something Jacob is figuring out well now that he’s tooling around with compilations of his riding videos to catchy songs. Regardless of how far he pushes himself, Jacob may indeed have a way to hang around the sport he loves. Or, he can do anything else he wants, too.

“I see he’s got a pretty good future for himself,” Raffelson said about the multi-talented teen who plays baseball and the trumpet, too. Though Jacob wanted to push even further by competing in another indoor BMX competition this winter, he was preoccupied with a high school band function, so he did that instead.

That may not sound like a typical BMX’er; but then again, Jacob isn’t.


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