Published: 11:24, May 22, 2024
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Ramping up for Paris together
By Sun Xiaochen
Chinese rider Sun Sibei executes a stunt on her way to leading a Chinese 1-2-3 finish in the women's BMX freestyle park preliminaries at the Olympic Qualifier Series in Shanghai on May 17, 2024. (GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY)

A false landing ruined his first run, before the early-summer heat threw him off the pace in his second attempt. 

Daniel Dhers, however, was all smiles at the conclusion of BMX freestyle park finals on Saturday at Shanghai's Huangpu Riverside. 

Not for a sub-par 10th-place finish at the critical Olympic qualifier, which may prove costly for his own Paris 2024 prospects, but more for seeing three home riders sweep the women's podium as a coach of the Chinese BMX team.

"It's been a rollercoaster of emotions today," the legendary Venezuelan rider, known as the "Godfather of BMX", said after watching China's Sun Sibei, Sun Jiaqi and Deng Yawen finish one, two and three, respectively, in the women's final to a rousing reaction from the Shanghai crowd.

"It started with the girls and they absolutely destroyed the competition. Top three, it's crazy. I will use their results as my motivation to do better myself in Budapest. Hopefully, I can still make it to Paris," said Dhers, who started coaching Team China about a year ago.

Coaching full-time while also riding himself, Dhers is embracing the balancing act — the latest challenge of a celebrated career for the 39-year-old BMX freestyler, who has seen it and done it all in an action sport defined by many popular tricks that he invented and perfected, all while collecting a hatful of awards, including a silver medal at Tokyo 2020 and five X-Games titles.

As well as coaching Team China's riders, Venezuelan BMX freestyle legend Daniel Dhers also hopes of competing in Paris after placing 10th in Shanghai on May 18, 2024. (GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY)

Securing a second Olympic trip to the French capital with the remaining ranking points up for grabs at the second qualifier in Budapest next month would be the icing on the cake, but Dhers' legacy as a rider has been secured.

Riding against, and along with, many of the world's elites at different events, Dhers enjoys the camaraderie within the sport's community that has been evolving around his base camp — the Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex — built at Holly Springs in North Carolina exactly 10 years ago.

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To many of the younger generation, such as five-time women's world champion Hannah Roberts of the United States, and men's reigning Olympic champion Logan Martin, Dhers is more of an idol or mentor, rather than a threat.

He now seems more devoted to helping the "Kingdom of Bicycles" land the ultimate prize, even though he initially turned down the Team China offer last year.

"I said 'no' for, like, a month, and the main reason was because I just didn't really have the time. I'm busy traveling and have other endeavors with sponsors," explained Dhers, who was approached by Team China before last August's world championships in Glasgow.

"They gave me a tremendous amount of flexibility, and here we are.

"I'm here to help them try to win the gold and silver at the Olympic Games," said the ambitious Dhers.

China's Deng Yawen competes during the Cycling BMX Freestyle Women's Park Qualification at the Olympic Qualifier Series Shanghai in East China's Shanghai, May 17, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Ride together

To his surprise, the level of Team China's BMX program, which was built in 2018 with most riders drafted from other sports, was already high enough.

It didn't take long before Dhers' guidance began to pay dividends in the international arena.

In their first event working together at the UCI World Cup in Montpellier, France, Zhou Huimin landed a women's gold ahead of Tokyo 2020 silver medalist Roberts, while Sun Jiaqi, Sun Sibei and Deng all finished in the top seven.

Deng later went on to win her first Cup series title on home turf in Bazhong, Sichuan province, in October, following Sun Sibei's runner-up finish at the worlds behind the victorious Roberts.

The Chinese riders' meteoric rise, which might have looked sudden to an outsider, did not surprise Dhers at all.

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"The team already had a lot of good stuff, they already had a good progression," he said, adding that the work ethic of the Chinese athletes is second to none.

"They just didn't have direction. There's a million tricks and different things, so, where do you focus your energy?"

Riding, living and traveling together with his Chinese students, Dhers has naturally seen his input on technique, trick selection and BMX culture trickle through.

"We are basically on the same program. They do go over a lot of smaller details than I do, but we ride together every day, we go to the gym every day. What I ask them to do, I do, and vice-versa," Dhers explained.

"What happens a lot, is that they try tricks (in training) that they're scared of. Then I'm like, 'I now need to try a trick that I'm scared of'. I need to be on par with them, even though I know we are at different levels. The fear is the same. They motivate me that way."

Sun Sibei of China competes during the Cycling BMX Freestyle Women's Park Qualification at the Olympic Qualifier Series Shanghai in East China's Shanghai, May 17, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

With riding, communication is easy, despite the language barrier, Dhers reckons. To try to blend the culture with management is a bigger ask, though.

The different dynamics within the Chinese system, compared to the Western way, was felt at the first team lunch.

"I sat with the riders, and the team leader told me to come to another table (with the other officials)," Dhers recalled with a grin. "I was like 'I'm a rider, too'. I like hanging out with the riders."

"I am flexible. I don't care what you say and what you do, as long as you are not disrespecting anyone. If you like someone and you also have to work with someone, you find a way to communicate."

Not quite there

Despite Chinese riders' dominant performance in Shanghai, Wu Dan, head coach of the Chinese BMX freestyle team has played down expectations of euphoric home fans, calling for focus, patience and consistent efforts en route to Paris.

"While our riders performed exceptionally well here, it's important to remember that cyclists from Europe and America still dominate BMX freestyle," Wu told Xinhua.

Sun Jiaqi of China competes during the Cycling BMX Freestyle Women's Park Qualification at the Olympic Qualifier Series Shanghai in East China's Shanghai, May 17, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

"The support from other countries' associations and our foreign coach has been invaluable," Wu said.

China's teen sensation Deng, who finished third in Shanghai, attributed the breakthrough to Team China's collective strength.

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"Every member of our team contributed to this result," said the 18-year-old former track and field athlete. "We encouraged each other and complemented each other's strengths and weaknesses. We stood united in the face of international competition."

With one more qualifier to go in Budapest next month, Team China is determined to secure the maximum quota of two places for each gender for each NOC, and go for China's first Olympic gold medal in the discipline.

"No matter who among us makes it to the Olympics, we represent China. It is an honor for all the Chinese BMX freestyle riders, and we are aiming for the highest step on the podium," said Deng.