The Ones: Nigel Sylvester
The BMX wunderkind explains how he’s rewriting the rulebook for riders.
Words: Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins
“The Ones” celebrates a new generation of defiant, talented individuals. Click here for more stories about the cast.
It’s safe to say that many people get their hands on a bicycle fairly early in life. Learning how to ride is a rite of passage, as well as an introduction to physical balance and mobility. With or without exposure to competitive cycling, the activity usually stops at being a mode of transportation. For Nigel Sylvester, who learned every street in his hometown of Jamaica, Queens on a bike, every day represented an opportunity to learn a new trick and avoid the limitations of working a 9 to 5.
Luckily for Nigel, his two older cousins let him tag along on their bike rides. From there, he learned how to channel both good and bad times into the bike. Countless odd jobs, paired with meeting his BMX idol and seeing his mom survive cancer, encouraged Nigel to take the path of going pro. Once he got there, at 17 years old, he made it his mission to do things differently than anyone who came before him.
Today, at 30 years old, you won’t see Nigel competing. You’re more likely to catch him on his YouTube channel, where he recently showed viewers the cities of London and Paris from the perspective of his overhead camera. As part of his “GO” adventure series, Nigel bikes, does tricks, interacts with creative friends and explores new places around the globe. Put simply, he’s writing the future of BMX while bringing us along for the ride.
When did you realize it was more than just riding a bike?
I saw it on TV. ESPN had the X Games. There were also BMX magazines at my local bodega. Once a month, I’d get those magazines and see what was going on around the world in BMX. I started to follow along with some pros and kept track of where they were from and what their styles were. I got into it more and more.
I had friends in my neighborhood who were also riding BMX. We had our little clique. It was so rare to see another kid in the ‘hood riding BMX in that capacity. We would each get information about BMX and put it together by exchanging videos and whatnot.
How did riding around NYC help you create something different than what you saw happening in other parts of the world?
Riding around NYC is such a “thing” in itself. You encounter so many different neighborhoods and so many different cultures. That’s one of the things I love about New York — so much is packed into this small area. You take that and put it into your riding. I’ve pulled from my experiences riding everywhere from Queens, to Brooklyn, to the Bronx and back down.
Nigel is not only a hometown hero, his lore has spread far beyond NYC’s five boroughs. He’s one of the most recognizable figures to ever grip a set of handlebars. This becomes evident pretty quickly on set, by a kid who’s 100 feet higher than us, on a bridge above Rucker Park. He calls out, “Is that Nigel?!”
How did you develop your own style?
At the time, I didn’t have the traditional upbringing of a BMX rider. Growing up in Queens, NY, my day-to-day consisted of being resourceful and sharp. I didn’t have the opportunity to enter many competitions, so competing wasn’t important to me. I focused more on filming compelling visuals and creating photos of my BMX experience, channeling energy and moments from my childhood.
Once I understood my style, and how I wanted to position myself as a bike rider, I dove into that direction. That was shortly before I became pro. Once I turned pro, I now had a platform to share what I encountered and gravitated towards in the streets from years prior.
The stuff you do is more lifestyle. It’s more eye level.
Yeah, well, I’ll put it like this: the experiences I lived through have helped define who I am today. It’s more than just simply riding my bike. Of course, I want to go out and perform dope tricks, but I also want to get fresh, travel, see the world and discover new cultures by connecting and collaborating with artists in different industries, to give my BMX riding a new and fresh narrative.
For me, it’s this incredible junction of sport and art; that’s the way I approach it — ride my bicycle and work to progress as an athlete, while continuing to find ways to elevate my artistic expression.
Nigel’s entrepreneurial acumen and creativity are visible when he rides. When you see him pedal his bike, it doesn’t appear to be an instrument for travel. It’s an extension of his body and his vision for the future. He’s able to maneuver the metal and rubber in a way that’s symbiotic and communicates something bigger than himself.
When watching videos on Nigel’s YouTube channel, it’s easy to understand why he refers to himself as a “modern day explorer.” He explores places that are familiar to us, zeroing in on a ledge or stair that make a park more than just a park. His tricks are tickets to new cities — his passport to new countries.
Do you think you’ve changed the industry?
That’s a good one. I’ve definitely seen a ripple effect from the things I’ve done throughout my career. I’ve been pro for over 12 years now. People have watched me grow up in this industry through the Internet. I’ve seen other kids follow my path, and it’s a beautiful thing to see that. Prior to me doing certain things, people questioned if it was ok or not.
Do you have a different energy now, especially when you look back on where you came from?
Of course. I’m more hungry now than I was then, because I understand the possibilities. When I was younger, I thought that becoming a pro was the best thing ever, and then I’d be done. I did that, and now there are so many more things to do. I want to own businesses, I want to continue creating progressive content and I want to create art, now that I know what’s truly possible.
What does bike riding look like around the world? What’s good outside of the U.S.?
Man, I just came back from a trip. I was in Paris and London. It was dope to connect with other bike riders and creatives from around the world.
No matter where you go, there’s always a kid who rides BMX. There’s an automatic connection, because we love the same thing. I can learn about his or her city and neighborhood or vice-versa.
With everything I do, I’m doing it because I love to do it. I was able to become a professional bike rider, because I love riding my bicycle. I’ve been able to do things outside of my sport, because I love those things, too.
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