Nikita Abate Ducarroz is Finally Flying High.
She explodes off the ledge into a vertical drop gaining velocity as she approaches the launch point. The ramp is bisected into two equal bowls, each 30 feet long. She is standing, not sitting in the saddle of her custom-framed Mongoose BMX bike with the gold-painted pedals, and her long hair flies behind her like a dark flag.
Though her head is encased in a full-face helmet that squishes her cheeks like a chipmunk, her intense brown eyes are visible. Two photographers, one writer and a changeable gaggle of family and fans watch as she rockets into the blue, looking tranquil as Tuesday. Rising up toward the encircling branches of a nearby oak, she begins a slow backward rotation, the choreography of her flight both graceful and violent. Down here, on the ground, hard and solid things wait. It’s impossible not to hold your breath as you watch. She lands it, of course, a 360-degree backflip, and hits the tiny target on the ramp’s second ledge, right side up, two wheels down, earth and sky back in alignment. Nikita Ducarroz is the number-three female BMX bike rider worldwide, because Nikita Ducarroz can ride a damn bike.
You might find it surprising that she wasn’t born fearless, that her fortitude is hard won, was a long time in coming. Born in France but raised in Glen Ellen, she has traveled a great distance and battled the dark, and the bike has served as both chariot and armor.
Gripped by a nameless anxiety for the first time in kindergarten, Ducarroz felt a heart-racing panic she couldn’t define or explain. While the other children diligently colored and played tag, Nikita Ducarroz could think only of home. Home, with its familiar people and smells, home, where her things were in all the right places. Home was where Ducarroz was supposed to be, not school, with its chaos and strangeness and changeability.
But most kindergarteners endure a short period of adjustment, and Nikita’s resistance was countered with cheery parental fortitude. “It must have seemed like I was just a whining baby,” she says now, defending her parents’ decision to push. School was where they insisted she be.
By third grade, the anxiety had started to limit mobility. No more birthday parties, no more play dates. The drop-off at Woodland Star Charter looked like a Three Stooges routine: Nikita, her mother and a long-suffering Toyota. Pulling into the line of cars every morning with fresh hope, Nicole Ducarroz—four-term member of the Sonoma Valley Unified School Board of Trustees, and a woman who knows a thing or two about children—would slide out and trot around the back of the car. Her other children disembarked happily and disappeared through the gate, but Nikita stayed buckled into the backseat. First there was the reasonable request that she exit the vehicle, then the firmer insistence that she do. Nikita, for her part, was predictable and steadfast: she just couldn’t, was all, she could not go to school. Sometimes her mother was reduced to brute force; she’d unbuckle Nikita, wedge a foot in the back door, and physically pry her child from the car. If it weren’t sad it might have seemed funny, a harried woman wrestling a crying 10-year-old from a 12-year-old SUV, day after day after day.
By the time she turned 13, Ducarroz could not leave the house. The driveway’s edge became an impenetrable border. The anxiety, always present, even now at age 20, had shrunk Ducarrroz’s world to a Habitrail of a few rooms. Her social circle was limited to family. “Surprises,” Ducarroz says, “were an absolute no.” She was no longer able to accompany the family on their vacations, terrified of airports and—especially—planes. “I was,” she explains in reverse-order English paired with a restraint uncommon to most young people, “very not confident.”
She filled some of the holes in her life with music, teaching herself to play the guitar, losing herself in song. But there was still a major vacuum.
With traditional school off the table, Ducarroz took classes through California Virtual Academies, an accredited K-12 curriculum delivered entirely online. And to satisfy her parents’ rule that she engage in at least one sport, she began riding her bike in the driveway.
A note about the driveway, in case you are visualizing: What it’s not is a long ribbon of well-tended tarmac. It’s a normal rectangle of cement fronting the entrance of a normal family house. Just deep enough for a car, sloping gently toward the street. It is, by no stretch, an asphalt field of dreams. But it was here that Nikita Ducarroz discovered something surprising: a rabbit hole that would lead to an entirely new life.
She wears her long, dark hair in a high bun that reveals an elegant, swan-like neck, and she moves with the certainty and grace of a dancer. In her right earlobe are two glittering studs. On the inside of her right ankle there’s a small tattoo of a BMX bike. Her features are delicate, the full mouth brushed with gloss, her eyes deep, brown and direct, with no trace of that historic anxiety. She looks utterly open to the world from which she once cringed and, all told, Nikita Ducarroz is every inch a healthy and lovely young woman in full.
But when she puts on her gear she becomes something else: a daredevil stuntwoman astride a comically small bike who happens to be among the best female BMX riders in the world.
Backflips. 540’s. Bar spins. Tail whips. Ducarroz has developed a deep bag of tricks. It took a whole year to muster the nerve to graduate from driveway to skate park, but once that border was breached others fell too. Soon she was riding regularly at Santa Rosa’s Ramp Rats Bike and Skate Park and hanging out with other BMX kids. When Ramp Rats shut down the owner bequeathed her his lumber, and together they built a 70-foot structure in her parents’ Glen Ellen back yard. It looks like an enormous cursive W, its deep bowls bracketed by tall platforms at each end. “Somehow, I got the OK from my parents to put that giant thing back there,” Ducarroz says, throwing a thumb over her shoulder toward the behemoth. Ringed by trees, the ramp sits next to a modest henhouse where envious silkies and Ameraucanas watch Ducarroz fly.
Practice sessions are marathons, lasting from two to six hours as she runs her tricks again and again. “BMX competitions are judged on a formula that includes the trick itself, a rider’s competence, the height, and the overall impression and flow,” Ducarroz explains after the seventh backflip. “I don’t like to do things unless I’m good at them,” she adds, pedaling off toward the eighth.
This year, she was one of only nine girls invited to participate in a demonstration “session” at the X Games, which still imposes a glass ceiling female BMX riders have yet to break through. But she was in select company with the “ladies” who made a compelling demonstration of why they should be allowed to compete. And compete she did at the Vans US Open, and then at the FISE World Series Tour, a showcase of extreme action sports put on for the first time in Denver by the Federation International des Sports Extrêmes. Both venues were too far to drive, forcing Ducarroz to fly, instead. “I went to Austin, expecting to freak out the whole time. But instead, I went into zombie mode,” Ducarroz says. “I’m in the airport, completely fine. I’m on the airplane, completely fine.” In Canada, too, she had the same luck. The anxiety was there, but it was under control. “BMX has helped me get over it.”
Last January Ducarroz moved from Glen Ellen to San Diego because San Diego is the BMX capital of the world. When she left home, it was for an agreed trial of three months, but three turned to six, then to nine, then a year. “I do normal people stuff down there,” Ducarroz says, “and I’m surprised at myself.” She works out at Crossfit, goes to movies, hangs with her friends. She’s traded in the big camper van that was for years her mobile security blanket, and is pushing herself into the world in ways large and small. Studying for a degree in sports management through Grand Canyon University, she still takes all her classes online.
Meanwhile, she’s mastering the essential millennial platforms, with 19,000 followers on Instagram alone, an ever-growing Facebook following and enough online videos to occupy her fans for hours. Explore the online BMX chat channels, and you quickly discover that Nikita Ducarroz has found a new home and a supportive family in the heart of a high-risk sport dominated almost entirely by males. And she is beginning to turn quite a few heads. Notably, the heads of marketing rainmakers for the sport’s major sponsors—G-Form pads, Mongoose bikes, Troylee Designs, Cliffbar, Vans, Joby (tripods and camera equipment) and CTI Kneebraces all underwrite Ducarroz, flowing product, funding travel and giving media incentives.
The pads and knee braces are especially welcome because, she says, “Those who know me know I fall. A lot.” She has incurred two broken feet, a torn PCL, uncountable bruises and ripped skin in her assault on gravity, and she continues to practice and compete in a full-face helmet. While some BMX riders like to tempt fate and gravity unprotected, Ducarroz wisely rides cocooned with lightweight armor.
She also rides with Metallica in her earbuds (lists “Through the Never” as her go-to riding song), plays the occasional game of soccer, and has received at least one online marriage proposal, which came from a fan in Coventry, England, who wrote, “I seen your video and realized your (sic) throwing out cleaner 360’s than I can and have realized you need to come to England and come marry me.”
Marriage is probably a long way off, and for now her foreign travel plans are focused on Japan. In 2020 the Tokyo Olympics may allow the first-ever competition in BMX cycling, according to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and BMXNews.com, which states, “There is no definitive information as to BMX Park’s inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Games, but we have to assume, based on the ‘Olympic’ language in the press release, that the plan is to get BMX Park in to the games at some point.”
If the sport does manage to gain Olympic legitimacy, there will certainly be real paydays down the chute for its athletes, including Nikita Ducarroz. Until then, she will keep her head down and keep pedaling, readying herself for launch, free from the restraints of gravity and the weight of a fear that has faded as she discovers her full power.