If it were up to him, Chad Kerley wouldn’t walk another step in his life. His feet are used to going in a dizzying circular pattern, lifted a few inches from the concrete, gripping a set of pedals. That’s where he’s most comfortable, not with his legs swinging back and forth, pounding his fresh pair of Nike kicks against the unforgiving pavement. He’s been riding a bike so long, he claims he barely even knows how to walk anymore.
“I just feel awkward now,” Chad says. “I don’t do it often, so I look weird walking. I could ride from [New York] to China and wouldn’t be as tired as I am walking around.”
Bicycles aren’t the only thing Chad uses to get around, though. He’s quick to hail a cab in big cities; he has no problem handling a halfpipe on a skateboard; and in high school, the girls are on a constant swivel, watching for one of his notorious piggyback attacks. Anything to avoid some steps. Regardless of his methods, Chad has been finding a way to push forward since he was 18 months old, when he first broke the shackles of training wheels and hit the open road on two wheels. The one thing he’s never had to ride is anybody else’s coattails.
At 18 years old, Chad has spent all his life in Serra Mesa, a neighborhood in San Diego of less than 30,000, smushed between Interstates 15 and 805 near Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers.
Football, or any other mainstream sport, was never of interest to Chad. He started racing with a 14-inch Kent from Toys “R” Us at age four, when he couldn’t even get over the jumps, and has only moved up in the biking community since.
I’d be at a race where there was a park nearby, and they’d have to come get me like, ‘Yo, your race is coming up soon, you have to get ready.’
Chad quickly rose to the top of the kids’ racing ranks, winning his district five times in a row, winning State two times, attaining National Age Group 1 at age 13, and placing second in Worlds later the same year. After nine years of speed, Chad decided racing had run its course. He was done, whether his parents liked it or not.
“I was over it. My dad flipped, because that was all I knew. But I wasn’t having fun,” Chad said. “I started purely because I wanted to make it over the jumps, and I was tired of working out and constantly having to get faster. I was the best, and to stay the best, it was work, not fun.”
More and more, he was drawn to skateparks.
“I’d be at a race where there was a park nearby, and they’d have to come get me like, ‘Yo, your race is coming up soon, you have to get ready,’ but I just wanted to kick it there,” he said.
Once he found a new, more natural-fitting, comfort zone with BMX street freestyling, he regained his strong passion for bicycling.
“Freestyling isn’t nearly as stressful as racing,” he said, reducing racing to a thing of the past. “I’m not competing against somebody. I’m just riding around with my friends, making videos, and doing whatever I want.”
Like his natural talent, sponsors came to the Cali kid early. After multiple small offers in racing, his first major opportunity came just 10 minutes from his home. Chad was riding at Clairemont skatepark in Mission Valley when the Haro BMX crew took over. Premium, a company owned by Haro, wasn’t watching its own riders, though. Chad’s particular skill set was what popped at the park that day, and Premium wanted him. That same day, he responded with an are-you-crazy-of-course-I-do “Hell yeah!” when asked if he wanted to join. Less than two years later, he turned pro for the company and has vaulted as their biggest BMXer.
Chad’s approach to riding isn’t what the casual sports fan normally sees in the 15-second highlights on SportsCenter’s Top 10. You won’t see him practicing one trick, sailing into a rainbow-colored foam pit, or doing a double flair on a big air jump. He doesn’t ride for flare, and doesn’t need a 30-foot quarterpipe to elevate his skill level. His runs are much more technically difficult, more skateboard-inspired than anything else.
“I’m trying to show people how cool BMX is,” Chad says. “It’s not a funny jock sport or some joke. People don’t see what it really is. They see stuntmen on TV. I’ll be riding down the street, and some kid goes, ‘Do a backflip!’ That’s all they know, but that’s not what BMX is.”
His mechanical street methods, which he attributes to his favorite rider Garrett Reynolds, take a more broad look at his landscape. Instead of pinpointing one spot and one trick, he views his plans as bar spin to nose manual, grind, manual to tailwhip. Imagine those 38-trick lines you used to blow through in “Tony Hawk’s Underground 2” on a smaller scale, and with a BMX bike. That’s Chad Kerley: video-game style, and Premium wasn’t the only one to notice him racking up the points.
Once again, at the Clairemont skatepark, 17-year-old Chad was faced with the biggest decision of his life. Only three people were at the park, chilling on the deck: one of his best friends and Nike 6.0 rider Dennis Enarson, Chad, and Vans rider Gary Young. Without a hint of the life-altering question ahead, Dennis nonchalantly looked at Chad and asked, “Yo, you want to ride for Nike?” Before Chad could respond, Gary offered a spot with Vans. Sandwiched between two offers, Chad let out a grunt of temporary indecisiveness. He said, “I want Nike.”
I’ll be riding down the street, and some kid goes, ‘Do a backflip!’ That’s all they know, but that’s not what BMX is.
“That’s all I wore was Nike stuff, and I grew up always watching Dennis,” he said. “I looked up to Nigel [Sylvester] and Garrett, who were on the team already … The first thing Nike told me was that I was strictly on the flow team, and had no chance of ever breaking onto the four-person BMX team.”
Had Mike Spinner not quit, that might’ve stayed true, but when the 6.0 crew dropped to three in June of last year, Nike needed somebody to step up.
“They called me on the phone, and my mom was on the line listening when they made the offer to go pro,” he said. “She was like, ‘[whispering] Yes, yes, say yes, do it.’ After I accepted, I hung up, fell back on my bed and was just like, ‘YESSS.’ It was a dream come true.”
With Nike behind him, and, most recently, Vitamin Water, the path has never been clearer for the youngin. Still, one thing stands in his way: High Tech International Charter School, where he’s sitting on three A’s and a B. He is only 18 years old, remember, and even though he might be an adult by law, he’s still just a kid in high school going through the same awkward phases as any other guy. As one of the stars of his sport in a school with only 350 people, word gets out and the ladies come calling.
“I’ve talked with a few high school girls,” he said. “They’ll see what I’m doing on Facebook, recognize me from the show, or be like, ‘I know you. You have all those likes on Tumblr.’ But now that I’m traveling all the time, I’m always around older girls, so I figure I’ll go for them. I’ve been talking to a 21-year-old.”
This older woman was a manager at a local eatery called Da Kines that Chad ate at frequently during his open high school lunches. He and his friends discussed about how hot “Da Kines Girl” was, but never talked to her once. Lucky for him, Twitter saved the day.
“I was scrolling through my phone one day, saw that she was following me, and was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s her!’ I hit her up and we’ve been talking ever since.”
When he completes his senior year, he’ll be leaving the school scene behind, foregoing college to focus on riding. After wrestling with his parents a bit, and following a serious chat with his teachers, all parties agreed that is what’s best for him. They want him to fully develop his talent in an uninterrupted manner.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, knowing that I have full backing from both my parents, and even my teachers,” Chad said. “That’s pretty rare.”
Even while still in school, he’s traveling all over the world, making headlines and displaying his immense talent. He floored the judges at the Dew Tour with his intricate lines, and most recently grabbed his first gold medal at X Games Asia, automatically qualifying him for this summer’s 2012 X Games.
Working with Nike, Chad’s building his brand and furthering the growth of BMX. This weekend, on May 12, he will be hosting the Chad Kerley Vitaminwater Invitational in Chicago at the Bakery, an exclusive indoor space well-known in the action sports community. The groundbreaking event, modeled after similar skateboarding events, will be the first major street-style BMX competition of its kind.
It’s an unbelievable feeling, knowing that I have full backing from both my parents, and even my teachers. That’s pretty rare.
“Aside from the X Games, which is invite only, there isn’t really another big street competition,” Chad explained. “I’m not the only one doing this kind of riding. There are hundreds of riders around the world that are so good, but have never had the chance to compete. So, I invited people from all over to come to this.”
The format is a five-round, four-obstacle, best-trick, rider-judged set up.
“It’s not going to be runs,” he explained. “You just ride around on the course and see what you can do. If you crash, it doesn’t matter, because we know when you do something insane. I’ll ride, but I won’t be competing. Everybody will decide on the winners, and each round, people will get money.”
The contest comes in response to the growing popularity of natural street riding, and as an effort to grow the little exposure that BMX gets. If all goes as planned for the contest, Chad hopes to bring the invite back yearly and eventually build it into a series.
After 16 years of being on a two wheels, he’s asking that everyone give their feet a rest, and come along for a ride with him and the best street BMXers in the world.
Written by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)