In Search of Freestylin’

It all started at a bike shop in Matawan, N.J. called The Wheeler Dealer. As an impressionable 12-year-old still amped off of seeing “Back To The Future” a year before, I entered The Wheeler Dealer with no intentions of buying a bike — I was looking for Santa Cruz skateboard wheels. The shop didn’t have them, but they did have a magazine named Freestylin’ on the shelves, which prominently featured skateboarding.

I bought the magazine, read it from cover to cover, and by the end of the week, had dropped my plans to skate in favor of getting a freestyle BMX bike. The bike came a few months later, but in the meantime, I continued to purchase this magazine, Freestylin’, monthly, alongside its sister publication, BMX Action. The walls of my bedroom quickly turned into the pages of both magazines, and for lack of a better term, I think I became hooked on BMX.

I was 12.

Over the following two years, my addiction to BMX was fueled by both magazines, which were born out of a small office space in Torrance, Calif., by editors that rode bikes, skated and helped to cultivate a thriving BMX scene not only in their microcosm of a scene, but throughout the world. Any trend that unfolded on those pages became the exact thing I was doing, from wearing goofy Vision Street Wear outfits to following the flatland trick trend into the realm of rolling. I had become, by all accounts, not only addicted to riding BMX, but to the magazine that directly inspired me to do so.

In the summer of 1988, the Haro BMX team traveled to the nearby town of Middletown, N.J. to do a demo, and I did everything in my power to get there. The show featured Mat Hoffman, Joe Gruttola and Rick Moliterno, and it amazed me from start to finish. Not only the three pro team riders riding, but the enormous amount of local riders that had turned up to ride and meet the Haro team. I went home, beaming, and penned the following letter to Freestylin’ Magazine.

Today I saw a Haro show with Mat Hoffman, Joe Gruttola and Rick Moliterno. It was great. Rick just came back from an injury and was riding great. Same with Joe, who was pulling backwards decades. But the most insane ramp rider, Matt Hoffman, was raging. He told me he blacked out in the middle of an air and crashed. He said he thought he had heat stroke, but he still pulled all of his rad tricks except the lookdown that he blacked out on. Thanks Matt, Joe, Rick and The Rhino (announcer). It must be hard doing shows in 95 degree weather.
Brian Tunney, Aberdeen, New Jersey

I wrote the letter on the desk in our living room, asked my mom for stamp, and sent it to their address:

3162 Kashiwa St.
Torrance, CA 90505

A few months later, the December 1988 issue arrived in the mail, and somehow, my letter had been printed in the letters section. It was my first time reaching out to a strange entity across the country, and not only had they acknowledged my letter, they printed it in the magazine. There is no way to equate the meaning of this in current terms, but to a 14-year-old kid hooked on BMX in New Jersey, it meant the world. Freestylin’ was already my bible by then, and now it was a friend.

Less than a year later, things changed fast. BMX freestyle was beginning to enter into an age that transcended commercialism. It was becoming more movement, less marketing strategy, and BMX brands quickly tightened their reigns in opposition to the organic growth. Although this was necessary for everything to fall in place as it has, it was not without casualties. Freestylin’ and BMX Action were among those brands that fell, merging into the slimmed down Go: The Rider’s Manual.

For me, Go was inspirational, groundbreaking and fleeting. At the time, I was only 15, but I could see the changes in BMX — less brands, smaller magazines, fewer people riding in my neighborhood, the Wheeler Dealer selling mountain bikes. I knew things were heading in a more underground direction, but it wasn’t cemented until my senior year of high school. My Go subscription stopped showing up, and my letters to the editors of Go, asking what was up, went unanswered. Now you need to remember the time frame — I couldn’t email a circulation dept., and I couldn’t go onto a website to discover that the magazine had gone out of business. For weeks, maybe months, I wondered what had happened, until I finally found out from someone at the mail-order I ordered from at the time (Trend Bike Source), that the publisher had gone out of business.

I’ve written about this before, and there’s no two ways around it — I felt betrayed. This magazine had started me down a path I didn’t know, and I was still depending on the magazine to guide me. Then suddenly, it was gone. I wasn’t yet in the good sense of mind to realize that making a magazine meant paying a lot of bills, I was more pissed that I was suddenly alone, on a rigged Haro Master with no inclination of what to do next.

Fast forward twenty years.

I’ve been visiting Southern California for years, still pursuing the BMX thing in one form or another, and often thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool to go visit the Freestylin’ building, just to say I’ve been to the place that started me on this ridiculous journey in the first place?” This past December, still chasing the BMX dragon, we moved to Redondo Beach, Calif., a bike ride away from the physical location of the magazine that had touched me way back in 1986. I told myself that I would visit that place and finally get it out of my system.

A few weeks ago, in Torrance and still remembering the physical address from the days when I read each issue of Freestylin’ cover to cover and back again, I looked up the address and rode my bike to the original Wizard Publications office, home of Freestylin’ and BMX Action. In a set of industrial buildings located off the beaten path, on a Sunday afternoon, I pedaled to the home of Freestylin’, to the building that had set me on my life’s path some 26 years earlier.

And when I arrived, it was anti-climactic. The building was now the home of Barnes Systems, a made in the USA oil pump brand for cars, and it was quiet, with no superficial reminders of the revolution that it had helped create. So I did what I had to do — I stared at the empty building in the desolate industrial park, pondering its meaning to me twenty years after it had been vacated by the magazines that got me here in the first place.

I rode at the building, pulled up my front wheel and did a few flatground wallrides on the side of the building, my tire marks arcing up, then down. 24 years ago, I had reached out to the people within this building, and they had reached back, ushering me on a journey that I continue to discover daily. The wallrides were clumsy, but it was my way of saying thanks.