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Enjoying the ride

The Baltimore Sun

Ryan Nyquist's day begins routinely enough. He feeds the dogs, Shorty and Jaxon, and takes them for a brisk walk. He eats breakfast - a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats. He does the dishes, pays the bills and putters around in the yard.

Then Nyquist, 28, hops on his bicycle, goes to work - and tries not to break his neck.

His bike is his work. Nyquist, a stunt champion, is competing in this weekend's AST Dew Tour Panasonic Open at the Camden Yards sports complex. The event, which began Thursday and runs through tomorrow, is expected to draw 50,000 fans.

Nyquist has won several dozen bicycle motocross (BMX) events in an 11-year career. He also has suffered a stack of setbacks, including:

A torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

A bruised kidney.

A broken foot.

Torn ligaments in his thumb.

Bone chips in his ankle and elbow.

Nyquist pooh-poohs the injuries.

"That's all very minor stuff," the Greenville, N.C., resident said. "I know guys who've been paralyzed doing what we do. The truth is, this is a dangerous sport where you take risks and hope you can control them.

"You have to learn how to crash, to tuck and roll, to lean back on the bike so you don't get all twisted up in it when you fall.

"Me? I've been very lucky."

Is it worth it? Last year, Nyquist said he earned $100,000 in prize money and $500,000 in endorsements. He plugs Haro bikes, Bell helmets, Thor clothing and Ogio backpacks. Schick signed him recently to publicize its razors.

Nyquist is a sponsor's dream because he does remarkable things in midair - spins and somersaults and back flips reminiscent of diver Greg Louganis. Except that Nyquist does his bit on a bike. And the belly-flops hurt a lot worse.

Two years ago, egged on by younger riders, Nyquist got a pierced lip. Soon after, he crashed during a run.

"I landed on my face," he said, wincing in recall. He got rid of the spike.

In a sport dominated by youngsters - the average BMX pro is 21 years old - Nyquist is a geezer. His nearly bald head contrasts with the mop-haired look that's the norm on tour. His lone tattoo, covered by a T-shirt, pales beside the extensive artwork worn by rivals.

He and his fellow competitors can be on the road for one-third of the year, jetting from England to Germany to Malaysia. The locales may be exotic but, for Nyquist at least, life on tour is low-key at best.

For example, since arriving in Baltimore this week, he has pedaled around the Inner Harbor and Little Italy with two other bike pros.

"Nobody recognized us," Nyquist said.

While others may be out hitting nightspots, that's not his style.

"There are guys who party, but I prefer not to," he said. "I tend to keep it pretty mellow on days when I have responsibilities. We sit around in the hotel, talk shop and try not to stay up late.

"Exciting, it's not."

Until he hits the dirt ramps.

No end in sight

Three years ago, Nyquist's career peaked when he won an ESPY award from ESPN for "Best Action Sports Athlete of 2004." Promoters took note. There was a shoe contract with Adidas and a sweet deal with Butterfinger candy. There were Ryan Nyquist trading cards and action figures. He threw out the first pitch at a Texas Rangers game.

More recently, the victories have diminished. He won two events last year. His left knee is wrapped in a bulky black brace that the crowd cannot see.

But Nyquist can't yet fathom the end to a life of doing heart-rending stunts with carnival names like the "tailwhip flip" and the "no-footed can-can."

"The progress of this sport is getting wild, and it takes a lot to stay on top of it," he said. "Sure, other guys are younger, but I've got experience - and you can't buy that.

"I could ride until my mid-30s. Who knows? As long as my body can take it."

Down the line, he knows he will pay the price.

"When I'm older, I'm sure I'll have arthritis and stuff," he said. "I used to play soccer, and I wish I still could - but my body is so beat up from bike riding.

"I'm hoping the pain after [retirement] will be minimal, but ... you've got to live in the moment."

Consistency is Nyquist's forte, said Dennis McCoy, still competing at age 40.

"Ryan is a better rider today than ever. You just don't hear it because the sport has exploded with good people," McCoy said. "He had a stretch of dominance on dirt in 2003-04 that won't be duplicated anytime soon.

"Nowadays, he's not the clear-cut favorite at any event, but he's always up there because he's able to do the hardest tricks over and over."

His secret? Come midday, while the dogs snooze, Nyquist rattles down the road in his 2001 Dodge pickup to work out in a big beige warehouse bulging with bike ramps. He built the place himself. There he'll stay for hours, creating new twists and perfecting old ones on the hot pink, knee-high bicycle that has made him a wealthy man.

"This [career] is short-lived, so I try to live modestly," he said. "I wear jeans. I don't have much jewelry. My truck has dog scratches all over it."

Early start

It's not the life Nyquist envisioned, even though he started riding at age 2 1/2 and shattered those training wheels by barreling down the sidewalk. At 5, he had placed a two-foot plywood ramp on the front lawn.

By 11, Nyquist was perfecting simple tricks in a dusty creek bed near his home in Los Gatos, Calif. At 16, he did his first back flip into a lake. On purpose. His buddies taped Nyquist's feet to the pedals, so that when he hit the water the bike wouldn't sink. Two kids waited in the lake to fish him out so he didn't drown.

Nyquist's mother learned all this later by watching the videotape.

Jo Nyquist shook her head and waited for her son's mood to pass.

"I figured that once he got his driver's license, he'd do the car thing," she said. Instead, Nyquist used the car to haul his bike to better venues.

Meanwhile, he graduated from high school and entered college to study mechanical engineering. But the pull of the bike was too great. Within a year, he dropped out to pop wheelies for a living.

"I can't imagine life as an engineer," Nyquist said. "My sense of humor would have dwindled. I wouldn't have traveled to every continent but Africa.

"I'm happy. I have freedom."

Recently engaged, he shares his home with fiancee Ali Schoen, a special education teacher whom he met in a Greenville deli. She does not ride a bike. Someday, Nyquist said, he will grow up, too.

"There will be time to think about more adult things, like starting a family," he said. Then he will put his pink bike aside.

"I don't want to be the dad who's always on the road," he said.

He'd rather be the one to join his kids for a spin around the block.

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