Pump It Up
Cabrillo Grad Makes Olympic Race Tracks
Extreme Adventures: October 2019
By G.P. Scheppler
From humble beginnings all the way to the Olympics, Alex Fowler has made the most of growing up in Santa Cruz, building a small bike track business into an industry innovator.
For those brave individuals who blaze a trail all their own, the road to success isn’t smooth, flat, straight or paved. Its hard packed dirt filled with jumps, twists and turns.
Count Fowler, founder of Action Sports Construction and builder of the 2016 Rio Olympics BMX pump track, amongst the latter.
The 31-year-old Aptos transplant is changing the way people design and build these courses around the world by applying a critical eye to the science of pump tracks, making for a more consistent and accessible experience.
“In the beginning (the industry) just eye balled everything,” Fowler said. “Now Action Sports Construction is going back and measuring, figuring out spacing and the radiuses so that we can package it.”
Spending his late high school and college years in Aptos, it was hard to imagine Fowler going to the Olympics as anything other than a spectator. Never the less, in 2016 Fowler found himself down in Rio helping to build a pump track at the highest possible level, and in doing so recognized a market opportunity.
“I was honestly shocked at the lack of professionalism I saw down there,” Fowler said. “I was like, ‘I know I can start my own business and do it better.’ So once I got back, I did.”
A pump track is a snaking system of trails densely packed with obstacles designed in such a way that a rider can continuously move through it without pedaling. Built using a combination of dirt, stone, water, glues, shovels, rakes and earthmovers pump tracks offer a huge return for riders on a relatively small footprint.
BMX tracks, by contrast are designed in the traditional unidirectional style people associate with race tracks and feature loose dirt covering hard packed jumps and banked turns.
Pump tracks, when engineered correctly, create a heavenly sensation for riders as they glide effortlessly over and through variety of hips, banked turns, table tops and short gaps. Getting into the groove of a pump track allows riders to reach a flow state, blurring the line between equipment and operator in a synchronous ballet.
“Technically a pump track could just be three roller with banked turns at either end,” said rider Alex Kachlakev, 28. “(Pump tracks) are great for beginners who are getting into the sport because they teach body awareness and build muscle memory on the appropriate sized obstacle.
For Santiago Prieto, 32, of Gilroy and his two sons Santiago, 9, and Valentino, 5, the Aptos pump tack offers a free resource for his boys to explore the sport of BMX.
As his two sons fly around the track by historic Highway 1, Prieto watches from a shaded bench close at hand should one of them fall and require assistance.
“(Valentino) may have a future at this,” Prieto said. “He never used training wheels and seems to be very natural on his bike. If we had something like this closer to home we would use it.”
Prieto grew up skateboarding but so far his son’s have expressed more interest in two wheels that four, so the family packs up and endures the weekend traffic to various A.S.C. parks around Central California so that the boys can ride.
Fowler didn’t play on any sports teams growing up, was not a particularly enthusiastic student and the only real passion he seemed to have was riding his BMX bike, which wasn’t adopted as an Olympic sport until 2012.
A teenage Fowler would travel six hours round-trip from the East Bay just to get access to a pump or BMX track.
Soon he became a sponsored rider.
Every lap Fowler took mental notes about the flow and feel of each track, unconsciously building a data base he used to desig parks for private clients.
But it was moving with his mother to Aptos in 2000 that was the catalyst that ignited Fowler’s career.
With legendary BMX spots like the Postal Office jumps and the Polo Grounds right around the corner, the era of burning half a day just getting to a spot was over.
Fowler took the lead on developing a more beginner friendly course to inspire more young riders to start.
“The postal office jumps were awesome, but not everyone could ride them,” Fowler said. “I looked around and noticed that the Polo Grounds was kind of pushed off to the side so I started volunteering there. People from the community did what they could to support me, and one guy who’s son rode BMX lent me his earth mover. Which was great, but I didn’t know how to use it so I had to teach myself how to get it going. It was a lot of hard work and long days but I loved it. I knew I had found something.”
Fowler’s investment into the Polo Grounds eventually opened up the door for him to turn professional when he was hired to build the pump track for the 2010 Sea Otter Classic. It was an opportunity the 22-year-old had been preparing for all his life.
Today, Fowler’s pump tracks can be found all over the state customized for a wide variety of cities, private clients and for special events like the Sea Otter Classic.
He has constructed public bike parks and racetracks in Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Watsonville, Chico, Richmond, Incline Village, South Lake Tahoe, Morro Bay, Redding, Santa Maria and Santa Clara and that is just in California.
In many ways his career has played out like a well designed pump track, filled with soaring highs and brief passing lows that serve to unlock new levels of progression.