Nigel Sylvester Is a Different Kind of Superstar

At first, the children zipping around on bikes, roller skates and skateboards took little notice of the world famous athlete riding among them. Lot 11, tucked underneath a bustling Interstate I-95, is a haven for all things wheels. That’s where Nigel Sylvester perched on a ramp and surveyed the concrete slabs covering the skatepark’s landscape.

His opening cleared. Sylvester churned his black and blue Air Jordans, gaining speed on his Specialized bike. He jumped and the bike did too, causing it to dance across a rail. Sylvester rotated the handlebars in a circle before hitting the ground. He turned left sharply, twisting the bike’s frame in a complete rotation before using his left hand to rotate the handlebars again.

To most, the quick moves would have looked flawless. But Sylvester had felt a hitch. Like an actor trying to nail a scene, he attempted the same moves several times. With each try, another child or two stopped skating or biking to bask in Sylvester’s array of explosive tricks.

They received a preview of what Sylvester’s legion of fans would soon see. During each trick, Sylvester’s friend and longtime collaborator, Ralphy Ramos, pedalled in his shadow, leaning low, camera extended to record every move. The best series of successive tricks would be plucked and broadcast to Sylvester’s significant social media following, which includes nearly a million Instagram and YouTube followers.

“Riding is one thing,” Sylvester said. “Riding in front of the camera is a whole other thing. It’s like when you go to the gym and you’re by yourself and then you’re at an actual basketball game in front of 30,000 people.”

Sylvester, 36, may be the world’s best known motocross athlete today as he vaults the sport into new territory. Jay-Z touted him in a song (“Nigel Sylvester with these bike flips”). Michael Jordan’s brand awarded him his own signature shoe. High-end businesses like Mercedes-Benz, Oakley and Hermes clamor for Sylvester to associate himself with their brands.

“When I think about it now,” Sylvester said recently. “I really want to be one of the greatest to ever touch a bicycle.”

How Sylvester goes about achieving that greatness is what sets him apart from traditional athletes. Jordan and Serena Williams achieved GOAT status by winning championship after championship. LeBron James and Wayne Gretzky accumulated unthinkable statistics. Muhammad Ali went head-to-head with Joe Frazier. But for Sylvester there are no titles, no records, no on-field rivalries.

You won’t find Sylvester among the cohort of BMX athletes preparing for the July start of the Olympics in Paris and hoping to win a gold medal. He does not compete. He cultivated his fame through social media, inventing and landing tricks and inviting others on his journey as he navigated urban landscapes.

“He just keeps on progressing and making everything cool and you can’t compete with that,” said T.J. Lavin, a retired BMX pro and host of MTV’s “The Challenge.” “All the competitors and all the people in the contests and all that stuff, good for them. He’s just a little bit too cool to compete.”

SYLVESTER PLAYED BACKYARD BASKETBALL and street football while growing up in the Laurelton neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. His mother forbid him from playing organized tackle football. He got cut from his middle school basketball team.

Around that time, Sylvester first watched the X Games on ESPN, a new broadcasting venture that highlighted extreme sports competitions like skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross. The games may have seemed misplaced given ESPN’s traditional coverage of sports like basketball, football and baseball. But it had an impact on Sylvester’s generation and granted even more legitimacy to sports that he grew up with.

A bike became Sylvester’s passport. Sometimes, on garbage days, Sylvester and his friends rummaged through trash in search of parts to assemble a bicycle one crooked frame and one flat wheel at a time. He received his first real bike, a 1998 Mongoose Sniper, from his parents. He immediately removed the brakes, something he still does with his bikes today.

On two wheels, he canvassed different neighborhoods and boroughs, from a skate park in the Bronx to biking ramps in Manhattan. He began buying BMX magazines, plastering the photos to his bedroom wall.

After the X Games, Sylvester asked his parents to take him to Camp Woodward, a destination Pennsylvania summer spot for extreme sports. The price, he was told, was too expensive.

He turned fully to street riding, where the world of concrete, marble and jutting angles proved inspiring.

“You can’t control the environment,” Sylvester said. “You can’t control the weather. You can’t control people walking by. You can’t control the traffic. You can’t control the natural elements, which is also why I love it so much. Because it’s about figuring out how to manipulate the environment to execute the trick you want to execute, and express your art.”

At 18, Sylvester turned pro, signing with Dave Mirra’s MirraCo. He could count the number of Black professional BMX athletes on one hand. Some members of his family did not understand his pursuit.

Before the internet became a part of everyday life, BMX athletes could only make their names by being featured in a magazine or on a VHS or DVD compilation. The best competed in the televised contests. But Sylvester was part of a new age who grew up online and he started uploading videos early on. “I started to understand the power of storytelling, understand the power of content,” Sylvester said. “Once I had the control of my content, it’s like I want to channel the things that influenced me throughout my life: music, fashion, style, travel.”

His breakthrough came a little more than a decade ago with a daredevil jump in one of New York’s most instantly recognizable settings: the subway.

The idea was to jump the tracks and for weeks Sylvester scouted different stations with friends throughout the boroughs.

He finally chose the 145th Street station in Harlem. Sylvester measured the distance, platform to platform, determining he could not gain enough speed by approaching it straight. Instead, he would have to ride parallel to the tracks before turning sharply.

Sylvester took his bike to the station at around 2 a.m. on the morning of the attempt. He knew he had one shot before someone would notice him. He built up speed before veering as his momentum carried him over the platform’s edge, propelling him onto the next set of subway tracks.

He has landed bigger jumps. But this one was different. Viewers knew subways. They could relate to just how far he had traveled and the risk he was taking.

“Once I saw the reaction from it, I knew we unlocked a new level,” Sylvester said. “People looked at us differently. People looked at myself as an athlete differently from that moment.”

SEVERAL YEARS AGO SYLVESTER LAUNCHED GO, an immersive film project that allows the audience to ride with him in cities like Dubai, Paris and London.

Its popularity is similar to how the YouTuber PewDiePie cultivated his fan base, said Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California.

Internet personalities do not necessarily become successful by accomplishing the extraordinary feats most cannot do, North said.

“It’s them doing the thing that we can do, but doing it better so that it feels like we’re along for the ride,” North said.

One recent journey Sylvester took followers on was a global hunt to land a switch crooked grind to a tail whip — grinding his bike crookedly on a rail, kicking the bike in the air and landing back on it.

He tried but failed to stick it on a visit to Australia. Later, in Los Angeles, he thought he had found the ideal rail, but a series of failed attempts told him different. Finally, home in New York, he came across a rail in Brooklyn that he thought would give him the angle needed to land the trick. After a close try, he finally successfully nailed it.

“That’s part of what we do as BMX athletes,” Sylvester said. “We’ll travel the world to land just one trick because there’s so much that comes along with it. Of course, it’s bragging rights. It’s the clout. You’re the first one to do it. It’s for respect of it all. A brand sees you land a trick like that and it’s like, ‘Oh, nah, he’s the one.’”

Competing, North said, could only puncture the mystique of Sylvester’s brand. It is one that Sylvester has worked meticulously to build.

In 2021, Sylvester became the first BMX athlete to sign with the Jordan Brand. His Air Jordan collaboration three years earlier, featuring a distressed Jordan 1 that represented the wear-and-tear from biking, quickly sold out.

“If you think about how creative M.J. was, and how impactful he was to the game of basketball, we really look at Nigel in that same vein, where he’s doing something that we hadn’t seen before,” said Anthony DiCosmo, the head of global sports marketing for Jordan Brand.

Sylvester has faced criticism about his endorsements and incorporating music and fashion into his brand, especially early on.

The criticism disappointed him. He thought that he was only pushing forward a sport he loved.

“I was going about it in a different way, and that way it was new, and people feared it,” Sylvester said. “People within the world of BMX feared that new.”

What was once new is now the new standard. Sylvester’s path to success mirrors the rise of influencers who have used the internet to propel themselves to stardom. As his audience keeps expanding, he is looking to use his stature in new ways. In 2021, for example, he created a foundation that aims to distribute 10,000 bikes to children. He rode his out of Queens. Others, he said, can do the same.

“I believe in the power of the bicycle,” Sylvester said. “I think it’s one of the most incredible vehicles in the world. It’s boundless. It goes beyond race and beyond religion, beyond social class, even beyond geography.”

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