Standing at the gate at the start of the BMX track in Burgess Park, south-east London, under a looming grey sky, Caleb Tewolde peers out from behind his matt black, full-face helmet at the course ahead. He has the pure unbroken focus that only a four-year-old can muster.
And he needs it, as he has a lot to live up to: his older brother, seven-year-old Lucas, is already a national No 1 and that morning their clubmate, Kye Whyte, 21, took silver at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Peckham BMX Club is an anomaly. British Olympians tend to be overwhelmingly suburbanites, with just 35% of the current team from the UK’s largest cities. BMX, a sport that requires costly equipment and space, is more associated with quiet and leafy middle-class districts than deprived urban areas such as Peckham.
And yet Peckham BMX has already contributed seven British Olympic team members: at one point four out of seven in the BMX team came from the club.
“Basically [the club is] like a mini Olympic programme,” says its founder, CK Flash. Just like British Cycling, which develops riders for the road and velodrome, Peckham BMX has its own nutritionist, its own weightlifting coach, alongside about 10 riding coaches. “We talk about diet, we talk about water, we talk about how much sleep you get, how should you stretch,” Flash says.
It has taken nearly two decades to build up to this. Flash started training riders in 2003, breaking off a successful career as a DJ. He started in Brixton, where he first met Tre Whyte, Kye’s older brother, who rose to British national champion and took bronze in the world championships in 2014. After building a stable of riders there, Flash moved to Peckham.
“Eventually the guys from Brixton came to Peckham and then, within three years of training them, they won every title in England, which was regional champions, youth games champions, national champions, European champions, and we got a world champion from it as well in 2012.”
On a rainy Friday afternoon, Caleb is the youngest of a dozen or so club members racing around the course, showcasing their talents for a mob of journalists who have come to find out the club’s magic formula. The zigzag course has three steep berms, with straights in between, the second of which is divided into a beginners’ course and a pro straight with huge jumps for experienced riders. Older members flick the back wheels of their small-framed BMX bikes as they soar through the air; Caleb rolls gently over each bump, enjoying the momentum.
Raising a BMX rider is itself hard work, says Keighley Anderson, 32, Caleb’s mother. She spends her weekends taking her boys to races up and down the country – Caleb will compete in his first British championships next month in Leicester. It can also get expensive: both her boys are kitted out in armour, helmet, padded gloves – and that is before you get to the cost of the bike.
Despite that, Peckham BMX is open to all, whether kids can afford the gear or not. A clubhouse built from old shipping containers has dozens of loan bicycles and helmets for riders who want to try out the sport. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 90 to 110 riders turn up to train, with some places funded by Southwark council.
What also sets Peckham apart from rival clubs is the quality of its track, one of the longest dedicated BMX tracks in the UK. Handed £1.1m of funding from the council – as part of the 2012 Olympics legacy fund – and the national lottery, Flash went to Clark & Kent, a dedicated BMX track-building contractor from Shropshire.
“I just told them: there’s the budget, just build me the best track you want, and make it difficult, because if you make things difficult you get results,” says Flash.
What sets Kye White apart? Brutal determination, says Flash. “If we have to do 10 or 50 laps he’s going to make sure he’s winning all 50 laps, he’s one of them ones … He ain’t letting you beat him, even if it kills him he’s going to beat you 50 times, right?”
Mikey Martin, a slim 48-year-old who is one of the club’s older members, says: “Kye’s been a beast since he was a kid. When he steps on the gate he doesn’t think about losing. When he was seven he was already beating me.”
Caleb has a long way to go. After a few hours on the track, he has decided to focus on the final straight, repeating it over and over. Then he rolls over to his mum. “Enough riding,” he says.