There's no easy way to put it - Jim Berkman is dead. Sudden and senseless. As in all deaths, his spirit will live in those who knew him. To many, many others, they have inherited his love of bicycles. Jim's untimely death came at a high point in his life. He had recently worked hard to fulfill one jewel of a dream and had seen it realized. For years he had dreamt of staging the most, pure, simple, raw form of bicycle competition - drag racing. How this most obvious of all contests have escaped the general bicycling community is a mystery. Maybe its simplicity confused us all. Jim saw it differently, as he did many things.
Jim is infamous, hell the guy's a legend, in the bicycling rich town of Ashland, Oregon where he has lived the past fifteen plus years. His notoriety comes from building the coolest, strangest bicycles around. Maybe the Pool Table Bike can typify all of them. Picture a wood-trimmed, green felt seat; chalk hanging from both grips; eight-ball on the junction of the chrome leading-link forks; cue stick Seatpost: all built around an older, black Schwinn Cruiser. Choppers, trikes, tandems - all were the recipients of Jim's bizarre imagination and talented mechanical skills.
Jim "Bikeman" Berkman quietly operated a bicycle repair business out of his home, which was characterized by its bicycle rim fence around the front yard. The soul of the enterprise was in the backyard - the Shed. The Shed houses decades of bicycle parts from every bike imaginable. Curiously organized in Jim's personal system, he could instantly pull any hub, crank, or wheel while extolling its virtues and applications. Operating under the Bik'x name, Jim has repaired thousands of bikes while appreciating and hoarding the cyclo treasures he would inadvertently discover from the strange mix of customers who sought him out to do the chiropractic magic necessary to get their bikes rolling again. Rather than hoarding these treasures, Jim loved to share them or apply them in classically appropriate ways to his creations.
Savvy bike junkies are not the only ones who appreciated Jim's handiwork. Each Fourth of July Jim would lovingly roll out his unique bikes, shine them up, and allow select friends to ride them in the eclectic community's big parade. The bikes ooze fun and wild imagination, and the crowd would point and acknowledge the genius behind the bikes with applause and smiles. Industry analysts take note. This is how you excite the public on the joys of cycling. You could almost see each face in the crowd when exposed to these meticulous, but whimsical bikes, cringe with the desire to jump up, swing a leg over the saddle, and join in the simple dance of slowly and effortlessly gliding on a bicycle with just a few simple strokes of the pedals.
Despite his underground success at inadvertently exposing the local populace to the joy of bicycling, Jim had a larger vision. For years he had envisioned the concept of bicycle drag racing. Maybe I'm naive, but having been involved in the sport of mountain bicycling since the early eighties, and reading all the mags, I've never heard of organized bicycle drag races, off-road or on. Why? Is it too simple, too primitive, too "duh" ? Jim didn't think so. For years he harbored the dream of seeing a sport be born. Then he did something unique - he did it.
Jim's dead. What defines life? It's so easy to have your personal ideas, inventions, dreams, plans, and concepts. If you're sitting on any of your own right now, I suggest you take that most difficult of steps and start. Luckily Jim did just that. As this summer started to unfold, the concept of Bike-It began to emerge. The core group responsible for bringing Bike-It to life were Jim; his wife Renee; East Coast transplant Frank Binelli of Frank's Bikes (another repair and re-sale operation - the world can never have enough bike mechanics!); and freestyling legend and former Haro team rider Dave Nourie.
Like the soon to be unveiled sport of bicycle drag racing, the theme of Bike-It was refreshingly simple - celebrate bicycling. That's all - just honor (worship for some of us) the fun of bicycling. No hidden agendas or commercial exploitation. The execution was, despite the obvious effort and leg work, again annoyingly simple. Pick a date, a location (the small industrial park's parking lot worked fine), charge minimal booth space, and invite anyone connected with cycling to participate. Events would include a judged show and shine; raffles for donated prizes; freestyle, ramp, and observed trials demos; and...drag racing.
Bike-It had a couple of aces up its sleeve. Ashland has an exceptionally strong bicycling base. Exhibitors included local bike shops, the police department's bike patrol, the Community Bike Program, the Southern Oregon Historical Society, Denali Electric bikes, local cycling commuter advocates, and the Greenway Bike Path people. Southern Oregon is home to some exceptionally talented cyclists who took the time to participate. Not every town has a freestyler like Dave Nourie living down the street. Former NORBA hotshot, cyclocross god, and Ashland resident Jed Fox was present. And newly crowned National Junior Trials Champion Jeremy VanSchoonhoven and his dad Jim drove down from rural Williams. Add music, a PA system, and food and you've got a happening.
Once again, industry pundits take note. It doesn't take big bucks, cycling think tanks, Got Milk ad agencies, or a national organization to promote cycling. This simple event drew just the type of demographics you dream of - casual riders, parents with their kids, the hardcore bikies, curious passers-by, roadies, recumbent kooks, weekend warriors, and even a few grandparents who rode down to check it out. This positive event was the result of a few people getting together once a week, making some phone calls, stretching an almost non-existent budget, and Jim riding around and stapling flyers all around town at vampiric hours. I encourage any bike shop to follow suit.
The calendar whirlpooled into event day, and Jim had his moment of glory. The drag races were a bona fide success. Riders of all types and ages on every type of bike imaginable competed, fifty-five riders in all. The drags were held in an elimination format, with the fastest elapsed time determining the final winner. Three rounds were held throughout the day giving everyone plenty of chances to participate. Up for grabs to the overall winner is a custom frame by local builder Brett Vegas. Overseeing the entire event, Jim is in his element. His dream has come to fruition, and by day's end, it seems very dream-like indeed. Anyone who has waited months to put on an event that culminates all too quickly in a few hours knows the feeling when the day is over and you're trying to recount what exactly transpired.
That day will remain a dream for all of us who were fortunate enough to be there. Jim won't be with us anymore. Drinking beers after the event we all recall how the most surprising outcome of the event was the enthusiasm of all the kids attending. Their fascination is almost tangible. They emulate the older riders pulling off miracles on the ramps, and get into the thick of the drag races themselves. It's now obvious that this simple, innocently conceived event has left an indelible impression on this next generation of "extreme" cyclists. This positive side effect was never anticipated, but in retrospect, the enthusiasm displayed by all the kids in attendance verifies what we often mistakenly take for granted - bicycles are cool!
The last time I saw Jim was at Daddy-O's, a local bar/punk club. In typical fashion, Jim had another pure but unique idea. He was planning a party for all the businesses and individuals who had helped and sponsored Bike It '99. Beer and food and fun as a way of saying thank you to the sponsors! I offered him my house as the party site and we planned to get together and set a date just as soon as he got back from his five year anniversary in Reno. Jim never returned from Reno. In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy, as Jim's friends gathered to celebrate his life, we all pondered what to do with the one-of-a-kind bikes, his bizarre collection of parts, and how to continue the enthusiasm for the new bike event he helped create.