National Number 1 Am - Brandon Crain - The Birdman
Becoming the No.1 Amateur in USA BMX (ABA) doesn’t come easy. Never has. Never will. Like so many before him, and predictably all of those No.1 Champs in the future, it’s a long climb to the top of the BMX ladder, and it all starts off with a love for riding a bike.
Getting off the training wheels at an early age, a young Brandon Crain loved riding his bike around his neighborhood. Thus, a trip to the local bike shop was called for, to get the five-year-old future-Birdman a bike. “Like a park bike,” he vaguely remembers. And that’s when and where a life-changing moment occurred. “We saw a flyer for Apple Valley BMX, so we went out there and I was on a little Wal-Mart bike. I fell my first time but wanted to go out there again. The next time I tried one of the track’s rental bikes and I liked it.” Which is what led to another trip to their LBS to purchase his first race bike.
So it began.
The Crain's started hitting the thriving local scene in SoCal, and little Brandon was soon winning all over. “I just started getting better and better,” the Birdman tells us. “I think I was 5 Novice when I raced my first national in Lancaster.”
Since the little dude liked to catch air, and since his last name was Crain, his father began calling him Birdman.”We put it down on the moto sheets one time and it just stuck.” He’s been known as The Birdman ever since; despite not wanting to be called it a few years ago. “As I got older, I thought it sounded weird. But it was too late to change it. Everybody knows me as that now. They’ll call me Birdman whether or not it’s on the moto sheets.”
He was 7 1/2 years old before he really started making National mains consistently. “It didn’t happen right away,” says his dad, Ben. “Anybody out there who think it just happens, it doesn’t. It takes a lot of hard work.”
Seeing the Birdman’s talent, sponsors began coming around. Redline-Challenge made him an offer and he became a part of the same legendary team that had helped mold former No.1 Amateur Josh Oie.
Then, along came Answer~Rennen. “It was at the Disney Cup, where I won two out of three days. George Costa came up to my dad and offered us a deal,” Brandon explains. “At Grands, I got all of my stuff and I’ve been with them ever since.”
That was 2013. And for the next five years, The Birdman has been a vital part of
It makes him the second-longest-lasting Rennen racer on the squad. “Justin Knapper has us beat by a couple of years,” dad says.
Along the way, there was a lot to learn. “Getting his nose out of that first 30 or 40 feet was his hardest obstacle,” dad says. “Just that little bit where you get pinched off. Once you peek your nose out there, then he really began to win.”
“I just did a lot of gates and first straights, mostly.”
“Not really,” Birdman simply says.
“We did a few clinics here and there, but never really wanted to spend the extra 30 or 40 bucks,” says Ben.
The Crains have pretty much trained their own way - but now get programs and advice from fellow Answer~Rennen teammate Jeremy Knapper. “My trainer is mostly my dad, but Jeremy writes out programs for me to do at home,” he explains.
“We still do a lot of plyo, resistance, just kind of the basics for BMX. We kind of wound up doing our own thing.” Mr.Crain sums it up. A normal week for Brandon is sprint session two times a week, plyo workouts three times a week, practice sessions at Grand Prix BMX, followed up by a lot of rest.
For the most part, The Birdman has had good luck at The Grands. “The first time I won Grands I was 8x,” he tells us. “I crashed in the main when I was 9x. 10x I won. 11x I won, 12x I won, and 13x I won.”
To win the Grands is a feat in itself. It’s the most pressure any rider will ever feel. “When I was 8x, I had won all of my races so far. My dad told me on Saturday night that the only way I could be NAG No.1 was to win the main. I had been battling with Connor Defrain all weekend, and I had lane eight in the main. But I shot out. In the first turn, we were bumping bars and I just remember thinking, ‘I really need to get this win.’ We bumped and I came out ahead, and I won my first Grands.”
“I’ve just kept working hard. Kept pushing myself to get better.” The more you win, the more it becomes a routine. Your confidence is high and you start feeling unbeatable. “But then fast kids are always coming in. It seems to get harder every year,” the Birdman chirps.
When it comes to The Grands - especially these last two years, the Answer~Rennen team has just dominated the Amateur classes. As soon as one of George’s minions wins one, it causes a chain reaction of consecutive class wins. Crain nods his head in agreement. “Yeah - Karter, Marshall, me, Cody and Knapper. Basically, everybody wins. When it comes up to me, I feel like I’ve got to do my best to keep the win streak alive - to just keep it going.”
In 2016, Answer~Rennen finally defeated the Giant; the multi-time No.1 Factory team ran by Donavon Long. “George was stoked that we won it,” Brandon recalls. “He was really happy that we got it again last year, and we hope to win it again this year.”
“They always feel comfortable going into the Grands. They go in with a small gap in points, and we figure we’ve got this. We’ve won Grands several years in a row, we’ve got a small crew who wins, so they feel really comfortable going in.”
When asked if he feels unbeatable, The Birdman remains pretty humble. “Sometimes, when I’m feeling good. But there’s always tough competition at the Nationals. So I just try my best out there.”
Being up for the No.1 title is nothing new to The Birdman. His first opportunity was when he was eight, and in the hunt for the cruiser title. “I got second in the main. If I had won, I would’ve gotten it then. Then when I was nine, I was up for No.1 Cruiser again. But Shawn DiPrete had the rider count and I ended up National No.2. When I was 12, that’s when I was really close for No.1 Amateur. I was No.5 in points, and Jesse Welch won it. If he hadn’t won his main, I would’ve got it. Last year, I came into the Grands with a good points lead. All I needed to do was win.” Once moto sheets were posted, the Crain's began calculating the points, to see what needed to happen. Some people try not to think about it, but for the Crain's, they wanted to know.
“George (Costa) actually told me not to focus on winning the title, and not to talk about how many points you have. To just keep it low key and go out and do your thing. But, me being me, I couldn’t help it - ‘You’re this far ahead. There’s no way they can beat you! Once motos are posted on Friday night, we’ll know if the title is yours or not.’ I always bank on him to win it. I knew we had it in the bag, once we saw the rider count. Once motos were posted, I was like - ‘We got this. We GOT this!’”
Only one obstacle really stood in the way of The Birdman scoring the win and the silver Cup ...and it wasn’t any of his fellow 13x’s. “The Pro set,” Brandon admits. “In practice, I only got in clean one time. At the ROC on Friday, I started getting it cleaner and cleaner each lap. By Sunday, I had it dialed in pretty smooth. Whoever hit the Pro set the best, was going to win the main. That was the key.”
Like so many of the riders at last year’s Grands, the Pro set was a mix of excitement and anxiety at first sight. “When I watched practice - cruisers were doing it, and I thought ‘I have to do this. It’s waaaaay faster.’ By the time it was my turn to practice, I knew what I had to do.”
Jumping has never been a problem for Brandon, but as he gets older, he knows there is an adjustment. “As I get older, now I’m just having to jump low and quick.”
Even before USA BMX president B.A. Anderson announced the traditional, “With a win, and only a win...” speech, Brandon knew the title was his to win or lose. So, we asked how it felt crossing that finish line, knowing you were the new No.1 Amateur? “It was crazy. My legs were burnt. I was so tired. And I was nervous about going up on the stage afterward, but I made something up really quick to say, and I guess it turned out good.”
While The Birdman is obviously great at all aspects of BMX, we asked him what he see’s as his best asset. “I think my first straight. My gate to the first turn. And my track speed is pretty good.”
Competition-wise, Crain doesn’t take anybody lightly. “There’s always some hard competition. I just focus to win, and try to do my best out there,” he says. “I try to not back down and do my best.”
Backing down or backing off was one of the early problems in The Birdman's early racing career, his dad tells us. “Coming into expert, that was probably his biggest obstacle. Getting in those tight situations and backing down from when you almost had it. We overcame that - we’re coming over and coming in and we’re either going to clear that corner or go down trying. It’s shown time after time, that somebody is either going to clear out that corner or go down, or we’re coming out ahead. We’re not going to back down.”
Watching videos of his races, the Crain's figured out where races were won and lost and fixed the problem. “Watching videos helped,” says the newly crowned No.1 Amateur. “Practicing in turns. Throwing elbows and just getting tougher.”
“I study all of the practices,” says father, Ben. “At every national, we’ll know what he has to do. What area in the first straightaway we have to charge, or cut, or dive or work on. I mostly coach him on the first straight. The rest of the track, I know he’s got it. He catches good backside, has good track speed. The first thing to do is beat the rest of the riders to the first obstacle, and secondly - you’ve gotta charge the rest of that straight and come out of the corner in the lead. I feel pretty confident that it’s his once we come out of that corner.”
If The Birdman is super picky about one thing, it’s his Ssquared bike. “My bike has to be perfect,” Brandon tells us. “If his bars are off one millimeter, up or down, it’s an issue,” says dad. “He can sense if the bars are off one millimeter. Sometimes its a pain in the butt, but he knows what’s right for him.” When it comes to gearing, it really all depends on the track. “Throughout the years, we’ve stopped changing gears as much. When he was small, we changed gears a lot. But nowadays, we go up or down 0.1 or 0.2, and we’re good. It could be Vegas or Rock Hill, and we’re running the same gear. ...which is kinda cool.”
When it comes to tracks, Crain is loyal to his local - Mike Redman’s Grand Prix BMX, in Lake Perris, CA. “I also like Chula Vista BMX and Apple Valley BMX - that’s where I started out,” says Birdman. Against the advice of most BMX families - who kept telling them that they need to travel and ride all of the tracks in a 200-mile radius, the Crain's stuck strictly with Apple Valley BMX in their early days. “We don’t travel much,” dad says. But now, he’s got his eyes set on the future: “I’m really looking forward to riding Supercross tracks. I want to start riding those; they look fun.”
Despite his BMX superstardom, school still remains a priority. “Mom knows that when you get home from school, the first thing you do is get homework done. Before you grab a basketball or a bike, homework needs to get done. Then we grab a snack and usually train. He’ll do make-up school on Saturdays when we’re home, if necessary. When we’re away at a race, you’ve got to make up those missed days.” “Sometimes I’ll miss tests or assignments, so it’s tough,” the eighth graders admits. “It’s tough sometimes, but I get it done.”
So what are Brandon’s future or long-term goals? “I’m going to try to repeat it, but that 17-20 class is just too big. I don’t think there will be as much rider count this year in my class. And I’d really like to win a World No.1 title. Last year at Worlds, I slid out in one of the turns.”
Now that he is the numero uno Amateur in USA BMX, the World title is the only plate missing in his collection. “I’d really like to be World No.1. It’d be cool to have them all.”