The Plywood Hoods ruined my life: the Brett Downs Interview

Since the early 80's, freestyle BMX have been an obsession for many of us here in Puerto Rico. Just like imageeverywhere else we idolized the most creative and progresive group of rider's to ever come together: the Plywood Hoods of York, Pennsylvania.
Over the last two years, I have traveled to Philadelphia to visit family and friends, and also to meet and ride with Mr. Brett Downs- one of the least known of the Plywood Hoods. Brett is an incredible rider and person. An individual who appreciates and is proud of his past experiences, but who's always ready for whatever and wherever riding takes him tomorrow.
On December 27, 2006 Brett and I met at his house and went riding afterwards. After a chilling winter flatland session, he took me to what he calls a flatlander´s skatepark (a kids oriented park with low rise ramps). As soon as we got there, Brett started blasting 5 foot high inverts on a 6 tall quaterpipe, tigh transfers from ramp to ramp and even Pinky-squeaks drop-ins. One of the kids walked up to us and asked Brett: "Wow man! How long have you been riding for?" His reply sums up his perspective on riding: "About five minutes".

Full name: Brett Downs-that’s all you really need to know
Age: 39 but my knees are around 65
Location: Rockledge, PA
Years riding: My mom said I put the board on the cinderblock in 1972.


FBM Equilibrium for flatland, Sunday for ramps/park/dirt, PK Ripper for racing, Gary Fisher for mountain biking and a 78 Schwinn Stingray for cruising the neighborhood.

Favorite tricks:

Backflips, 360's, G-Turns, John Doenut, High airs, no brake whiplashes.

imageFavorite spots:

FDR Skatepark is somewhere I want to ride for the rest of my life. Otherwise, I like tennis courts for flatland when I ride alone and parking lots to ride flat with friends.

Favorite riders:

I couldn’t even begin to list them all. I’m stoked on riders who try hard no matter what their skill level is. Let's just say all the Plywood Hoods and my riding buddies. Beyond that guys like Mirra, Voelker, Aaron Behnke and Brian Foster are all up there in my eyes. Leif Valin, Kevin Jones, Mike Laird and my friend Bob are probably my favorite people in the sport.

Question (Q): First off: What is going on with your life?

I am spending the summer teaching dirt jumping and flatland at a summer camp near me. I have three kids who I spend a lot of time with. I ride flatland and skatepark every week. I spent the last two years staying at home after my wife had twins. I don't know what I’ll do after my summer job is over. I just keep trying to progress and learn new stuff while avoiding injuries and boredom.

Q: You’ve been riding longer than the average BMXers have been breathing. At what point in your life did you realize 20" bikes weren’t just a passing interest for you?

God, I started before I even knew about BMX. It was just doing stunts like Evel Knievel on my bike. As I grew up, I watched generations of friends fade away from their bikes. I never thought much about my riding because imageeveryone around me was telling me about the college/job/real life thing. I just kept riding and I guess somewhere around 27 I reconciled any conflicts and decided that I was first and foremost a BMXer. Isn't that silly?

Q: I recall that most of your first appearances on the Dorkin in York videos were mostly riding street or dirt. What made you become serious about flatland at a moment when flatland wasn’t popular?

I always rode flatland but it was weird back in the day to ride with Kevin and Eaton. While everyone was biting their tricks, I was riding next to them and felt weird if I was trying one of their tricks too, so my flatland was pretty weak. Later they told me that they wouldn’t have cared. Damn!

In January of 92 Kevin asked me if I wanted to go to New York City with him to film a music video. We rode in a tiny sound stage and he could do so many tricks in an area the size of a bedroom that I just felt dumb. Then we rode out on the streets following a camera truck and Kevin did hang fives through mid-town traffic. I was stoked on his ability but also in that he got the chance to do cool things because he was a good flatland rider. Flatland opened a lot of doors for me but it also has been a total blast to learn. I’ll be riding flatland for as long as I can ride a bike.

Q: Does riding street, racing and dirt help or contribute anything to a flatlander?

imageI have three different bikes so they aren't really too similar. I doubt a double decade will help me get a better gate start or grind a ledge. I do think that it all contributes to a better overall riding ability. Plus, they are all different aspects of the same sport so they are all fun and challenging in unique ways. I can nose wheelie a ramp further than just on flat ground though. It all comes down to time spent on the bike.

Q: Just like McCoy and Moliterno, you are good at every kind of BMX form: street, vert, dirt, flat, racing what's your favorite?

Jumping my bike has always been my favorite. I love getting air in any way. If I had to give up all but one form of riding though, I'd stick with flatland. It's just so accessible and interesting. As my body gets more worn out, flatland will keep me going.

Q: How does freestyle fits in your family life? What does your wife & kids think about it?

My wife, Lisa, is supportive. She totally understands that I need to ride and have adventures. Everyone tells me I’m lucky to have a wife who will let me go on bike trips for a week or so but I’ve been with Lisa so long that I’ve always done it. I think if I was a regular guy who all of a sudden told his wife he was going away with friends for a few days she’d freak out. Since the bike has been a part of my life, the family understands. My kids think bikes are the coolest thing ever and I love riding with them. I have to fit in riding time where I can but I still get out most days.

Q: Who are your current riding partners?

My friend Bob lives around the corner and is an incredible rider. We ride parks and dirt together and he is a part of the family. The only flatlander I ride with on a regular basis is Darren Hough. I get to York to ride with Kevin and Digger whenever I can but time is at a premium when you have kids and a day riding in York equals 4 hours driving for me. Otherwise, I ride with my son, Henry, a lot. He races and hits the parks with me. I started him on flatland this year.

imageQ: Which personal accomplishment has given you the most satisfaction?

Without a doubt it’s my longevity. I have never gone through a period of not riding or a period or dormancy. I’ve been fortunate enough to do some amazing things and meet great people but the feeling of putting in another good session is still the best even after more than 30 years. Just staying on the bike all this time and seeing no end in sight is what I’m proudest of doing. The fire is still there.

Q: What made York such a special place for BMX Freestyle to grow so much there?

It was a mixture of talent and attitude. Kevin is a riding genious. Mike Daily was the idea guy and got us exposure. Mark Eaton was creativity came through in riding and video. I like to think that my biggest contribution was enthusiasm to ride or do whatever needed to be done. We just wanted to reach an ideal we called "great". The Plywood Hoods didn’t want fame or obviously fortune. We just wanted to be "great" in whatever we did.

Q: Why is Kevin Jones so good on a BMX bike?

Kevin has an incredible focus. He can concentrate deeper than anyone I have ever met. He is also a great athlete and has a limitless imagination. Kevin would be good at whatever he wanted to do. Believe me, I’ve seen him do amazing things off the bike too.

Q: Of all the Plywood Hoods that quit riding- Who do you think made a long lasting contribution to freestyle?

imageWell, finding one who doesn’t really ride at all anymore is difficult. I don't know about contributing to Freestyle because they were my riding buddies so my perspective is skewed. Geoff Martin’s style is still seen today but I can’t say if it was him directly or if people have just gotten around to riding the way he did. Geoff was an incredible rider and everyone needs to see the old videos to check him out.

Q: Do you miss having Chase around?

We are all like brothers. I miss Chase and hope that he is having the best life he can. I would love to have him around, not just to ride with but as a friend. Whenever I get to see him it brings a smile to both our faces. Again, like Kevin he is an incredible person off the bike as well. One hundred and sixty pounds of sheer determination.

Q: You have an incredible collection of old school bikes, parts, magazines.. can you mention some of your most valuable items?

I have all the mags since about 1983. I have a few old bike parts that would sell for a lot on eBay but mostly it’s sentimental value. There is a big vintage BMX following which is cool but for many of those guys BMX stopped in 1989. I could get a lot for my custom 1982 Supergoose but I’d never sell it because it was the bike I wanted when I was fifteen. My favorite parts are things like Kevins pink gyro, Eaton’s CW pedal, John Huddleston’s peg imagehe learned locomotive on or Chase’s old picnic box full of spare parts. I do have one Graphite Tuff Wheel with a coaster hub left over from the 88 tour and a Level Fork combo that are the rarest items I guess.

Q: You played a big role on the design of what many people consider to be one of the best flatland frames ever made- Hoffman's Big Daddy. Would it be ever produced again by you??? How many Big Daddy frames do you have at home?

Kevin and I drew up the Big Daddy on his parent’s pool table. The design was pretty much 50/50. I wanted to make a few updated versions and though Kevin said he didn't mind, some other issues come up which prevented it. I have one built up and about 3 more. For those of you that would love an updated Big Daddy all I can say is it could happen�

Q: The best BMX magazine ever is:

Mike Daily’s Aggro Rag? If you expect to hear Freestylin I’ll admit it was great but a big part of that was due to the developmental stage we were at in our lives and with Freestyle in general. I read BMXPlus!, Ride, Ride UK and Dig. I would like to see Sophisticated Rider do well because it offers something to the more seasoned rider. I judge magazines by they way they try to reach their demographic markets. They all do a good job in that respect.

imageQ: What are your biggest concerns outside BMX? Environment, terrorism, politics?

Social issues concern me. I have experienced too many unfounded judgments that it discourages me. I wish people would treat each other better and not be so condescending toward each other. I would also like to see people apply a little more introspection and think about the reasons why they do the things they do. Maybe that would help the other issues.

Q: Would BMX be around in 20 years?

Shit yeah! Kids are always gonna jump curbs and ride with no hands. Some are just going to keep going from there like everyone reading this did. I respect you all.

Q: What are your goals in life?

I want to raise good and healthy kids. I want to keep my wife as happy as she keeps me. I would like to do something tangeable to help BMX progress. I want to do a loop in a pipe or on a ramp. I want to do a double backflip on the Resi at Woodward. (I have been doing them perfectly in the foam for two years.) As dumb as it sounds, I can't do a hang 5 for more than 4 parking lot spaces. After years, I just can't get better at it. My goal is to learn that before I'm forty. I want to ride flatland forever.

Q: Any last words?

Thanks to everyone who rides. Thanks to Odyssey, FBM, Sunday, Kink, Staff, Cyclesonic bike shop, Woodward, Hoffman bikes and Flatlandfuel. All these companies are great at what they do and support BMX in a positive way.

Mark Lewman said „Look man, good attitudes are free.”

Dorkin in York said “Just Ride-that’s the bottom line.”

I am constantly reminding people There’s no excuse for being a Dickhead.

2007-01-13 - Ramon Ropezcolon, Brett Downs