Aug 29, 2023
The Sheffield BMX track built on 40 years of community spirit
Forty years ago, as BMX mania spread from the US to Great Britain, councillors decided to build biking tracks in parks across Sheffield. Most have since disappeared, but one of them is still thriving
Forty years ago, as BMX mania spread from the US to Great Britain, councillors decided to build biking tracks in parks across Sheffield. Most have since disappeared, but one of them is still thriving - thanks, riders say, to generations of community spirit, fish and chips, and the city's best views.
Ben White was eight when he first visited Bolehills BMX track, nestled into a hillside between the areas of Crookes and Walkley, in the summer of 1983. But four decades on he still remembers the day clearly.
"BMX was in its infancy, the boom was just in its very early days," Ben, now 48, tells the BBC. "We just went down there as a gang of kids from our street - probably between six and eight of us.
"There were all sorts of people there riding these similar-looking but different coloured bikes, very exciting-looking things - 20-inch wheels, stickers on them. They looked like the bike to have.
"Everything else stopped for me. I was hooked. It was such an exciting place to go."
By his ninth birthday, Ben had swapped his Raleigh Tomahawk chopper for a catalogue-bought BMX. He has been a regular at Bolehills ever since.
The track in Bolehill Recreation Ground - known locally as Bolehills - was one of about a dozen installed in parks by Sheffield City Council as BMX exploded in popularity in the early 1980s.
While other tracks were neglected or removed over the years, Bolehills flourished to become the centre of Sheffield's BMX community. What began as a basic racing track today draws bikers from as far as Leeds and Manchester to tackle its jumps, turns and undulating waves of limestone.
Its popularity is partly down to its location, according to Dave Camus, 32, who leads a dedicated group of bikers - known as the Sheffield Dirt Society - who run the track today. The park draws families and student from nearby homes and boasts panoramic views of the city.
"The best sunset in Sheffield, isn't it?" says Dave. "It's a nice park, it's not just just a football field or a BMX track, it's got everything up there. It's got the views, you can have a fish and chips."
But the real secret to the track's success has been its people, agree Dave and Ben. Over the past 40 years, successive generations of bikers - with little to no funding - have effectively taken ownership of the site and kept breathing fresh life into it.
This precedent was set early on by Roger Bartimote, a local dad of two BMX-mad boys and founder of the track's first club - the Bolehills Bandits - in 1983.
Roger put "immense amounts of time and effort into starting the club and keeping the club going," says Ben, who remembers him driving children to races in a mini-bus with a trailer of bikes and even assembling trophies in his garage.
Other parents also helped out, with the mum and dad of Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders - who rode at the track with brother Gary - running the tuck shop.
"Most of the people from my particular area were involved in it in some way," recalls Roger in 40 Years of Bolehills, a new documentary about the track's history by filmmaker Ben Dransfield.
"Bolehills was quite a large part of my life for a long time," he adds.
By the 1990s the track had fallen on harder times as bike racing fell out of fashion, but it found a new lease of life with the growing popularity of freestyle BMX.
Ben says he and other riders became "hooked" on this high-adrenaline new style, which involves flying off jumps and performing stunts, and began modifying the track to suit it.
"It became a playground in a different sense and style," he says. "That's the beauty of Bolehills, you can change things. It's not built out of concrete, it's not built out of tarmac. If we make something and it's not right, we change it."
That spirit has endured and, in the years since, Bolehills has undergone several redesigns - all planned and executed by the riders themselves, who have invested hundreds of hours of spare time to fine-tune the track.
"The times change and that's why Bolehills has been so great, it just moves with the times and it has done for 40 years," says Dave.
In the latest makeover, completed between November 2022 and April this year, a core group of six older riders - assisted at times by as many as 20 teenagers - spent three evenings a week working by torchlight to dig up up and relay the track.
"We all just do a bit of grafting and everyone gets stuck in and makes stuff happen. If we want something doing, we just go and do it," says Dave. "People have got involved and put their stamp on it."
According to Dave, the track is now a "national-level" facility that is among the best in the country.
But it also resembles an "old school youth club," giving kids a place to hang out and letting students mingle with locals outside the university "bubble", says Dave, who was a student himself when he first started riding at the track 14 years ago.
Another rider, Richard Baybutt, likens Bolehills to a "living art project".
"There's nowhere like it. It's just a pile of dirt, but it's more than a pile of dirt to a load of people," he says in Ben's documentary.
The film combines new interviews with riders, young and old, with archive footage.
The story it tells of the track's origins "resonates so much with how it is still 40 years on", says Dave.
"Roger just wanted a facility for kids to come and do something and keep out of trouble and that's still the case."
He adds: "That community spirit is not just now, it's been like that for 40 years.
"It's never had cash injections, it's never had big grants. It's just all on a shoestring for the love of it."
40 Years of Bolehills premiered at The Showroom cinema on Friday. The track will host a 40th birthday jam on Saturday.
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