Re Print: DIG Legends - Ruben Alcantara
“He sees things very differently, and what makes sense to him, leaves most people scratching their head.” - Joe Rich
22 Jan 2015
Story and photography by Joe Rich / Additional photos by Ed Docherty / Vince Perraud / Chris Hallman
Originally published in DIG 90 - ‘The Legends Issue’ September 2012
As I start to write this, the first thing that pops into my mind is how proper my, “sit down and write” setting is. Cafe’ Medici, Ruben’s favorite coffee shop in Austin, Texas. I guess I find it easier to surround myself with this place when trying to dig deep into the depths of my thoughts and feelings surrounding Mr. Alcantara. Where do I even begin? Am I even up for this task? How do you put someone like Ruben into words? No time line would ever do him justice, so I’m just going to let this all flow out. This is me applying the same approach I would when trying to find a new line on my bike. Ruben is a master of such tasks, so once again, why not give the same method a try with this literary task. Roll in, and see where you end up...
My beginnings with Ruben stretch back to 1997. I’ve told this story a few times, but maybe not in the exact same words, and maybe they were missed by those that are reading this now. Oddly enough, I met Ruben in Austin, Texas during the Fall of 1997. Never could I have imagined how the following 15 years would pan out with both Ruben, and Austin. I had no prior knowledge of him before that first day. MTV was putting on an event that was a first for them. The MTV “Sports and Music Festival”. BMX and Skateboarding were still very new to the public’s eye during this part of the 1990’s. Although we have been here all along, TV never really took much notice before ESPN got involved at the start of 1996. MTV set sail in a direction of their own, combining all of these new found activities along with various musical artists at the time. It was a weekend of fun in the sun in Austin’s Zilker park. There were 10 riders invited for the street part of the event, and 10 for dirt. The street course was amazing. They went all out to really make it look and feel like a collection of good “spots”, rather than a “course”. I was invited for dirt of all things, but I spent almost the entire weekend on the street course. BMX was much smaller at the time obviously, and all of those that were invited, were either friends, or at least acquaintances. Basically, we all knew each other ... or so I thought. Amongst the familiar faces was one that I did not recognize. I can’t remember any one thing that caught my eye, but it was his presence as a whole. Watching him speed around the set-up was incredible. His abilities seemed endless.
No matter what he hit, he seemed to do something that I was a fan of, or could relate to. This was such a treat for me to see. Essentially, I was in disbelief. Who was this guy? And how is it that nobody knows who he is? Oddly enough, it made me think back to a couple of years prior. It was a very similar feeling to me, when I saw another Spaniard, Eduardo Terreros ride vert for the first time at a Hoffman BS contest in Chicago back in the mid 90’s. There must be a crazy something going on in Spain! These guys just seemed to appear out of thin air. Anyhow, I watched and rode along side Ruben for quite some time that first day. Clapping, smiling, giving him a friendly nod as he rode past me. Later in the day, things were winding down, and we finally found ourselves sitting down and trying to talk to one another. When I think back on it now, it is pretty comical. I think we must have sat there for a few hours, and only maybe understood a handful of sentences between the 2 of us. I learned that he had made a mistake of what the MTV event really was. He had saved all his money for a long period of time with dreams of coming to the states to ride his bike in a contest. He thought that the MTV event was open to anyone, only to be crushed when he found out that it was not. Needless to say, Ruben absolutely murdered the street set-up that weekend, and anyone that was in attendance, would never forget the unknown Spaniard. I wasn’t sure how it was all going to go down, but I knew that there was something there with him, and I knew at that point that we’d see each other again.
That was 15 years ago! Which is almost impossible for me to comprehend. There has been so much that has happened in that time, I wish I could make a movie from all my memories of the times that Ruben and I have shared together. Knowing Ruben completely, and having had the opportunity to do so is something that I value very much. What makes Ruben tick is unlike anything I have ever encountered elsewhere. He has some of the most elaborate, yet simple thought processes. This applies to both time on his bike, and that which happens when he’s off it. Simplicity is how it’s all broken down in the end. But the wildfire that burns in his head while figuring it all out, is anything but basic at first. Ruben just seems to know stuff that the rest of us don’t. I’ve seen it time and time again at the various stages of his riding. And his riding really resembles a good book in many ways... There are so many different chapters that make up his story, but each of them on their own can stand alone. When you look at it all as a whole, you can’t deny that he is a very rare breed of human. But where does he get it from? Is it all just a part of who he is? Or do others play a roll in his creativeness...
“Riding for me is some kind of way of self expression, maybe similar to a dance, and yeah, some riders have something extra special that I really enjoy to see and those I think are the ones that end up being influential. But, I think all riders have something special even if they are not considered influential. They still have the guts to get on a bike and try to ride new things and do their best.”
Fifteen years ago, I was unaware that Malaga even existed, so to speak. The Internet was in its infant stages, and it certainly didn’t serve as a stage to the world as it does now. Little ol’ Malaga tucked away on the South Coast of Spain. I’ve seen plenty of old videos at Ruben’s house of him and his friends up to all kinds of nonsense, and his bike being the vehicle that brings him to each and every scenario time after time. Malaga seemed so far away when I first heard of it, but the more I think about it, Malaga was no different than anywhere else at the time. Just a small number of people, riding bikes for only one reason. Fun. I often wonder what Ruben’s view of his hometown must be. To be riding on the very same streets now, that he did growing up. Where all is familiar, yet he continues to discover new all the time. Not to mention that Malaga is a destination, similar to Austin, just in Europe. Trips are planned, all the usual spots are mapped out. But now, this town that once seemed so far and disconnected for Ruben, ends up being a must visit location. 15 years really does make a difference. I wonder where Ruben would be right now had he never come to the MTV event.
People who are really good at what they do, can often be mistaken. The common consensus is that either they are born gifted, or they have worked really hard to get where they are. Pondering this simple topic reminds me of something that I think of often when I’m around Ruben. Vocabulary. I know that sounds strange, but hear me out. Ruben has spent many years learning, and bettering his use and understanding of the English language. Between his own knowledge of it, and the large number of people he knows that have learned English on their own and may very well have less or more of an understanding of it. In summary, I feel like he knows what he’s talking about when communicating with English. There have been many occasions where we’ll be talking about something and he gets stuck. Not because he doesn’t know what to say, but rather, there is no word in English, that is exactly what something in Spanish means to him. We’ve all felt some form of this before on our own. Something very different, but we are forced to pick the closest word that lay in one direction or another, only so that we can get others to try and understand, or relate to it. But maybe they too have felt the exact same thing, but there is no word for it. Naturally talented, or hard worker? Or a little of both. Perfect example. I feel that Ruben often falls out of the guidelines of words known to exist in the English language. I too get stuck trying to understand, or explain something about him, and there are no words that really convey what I’m feeling. And I’ve grown up speaking English my whole life! Ruben is a visionary for sure. He sees things very differently, and what makes sense to him, leaves most people scratching their head. Maybe if we all knew Spanish, it would make sense when he tried to explain. Riding BMX showcases perfectly the way Ruben’s extraordinary mind works. His idea of a spot, sometimes couldn’t be further from anything I’d ever seen before.
“I just see places or spots and I have a vision of what things will feel good to do on it. The curiosity of if it can be done, pushing myself to do it and maybe after all this people can think that I created my own path, but I just do what I feel is good for me. Normally I look for new things or different setups that I have never seen. It gets exciting to try as well… sometimes it can be some kind of line in the street or some kind of hand-built big hip in the mountains, an adventure to a new spot. My big motivation are these kind of things, anything I know that can give me a great new feeling... ”
There are always so many ways to look at things that you just hear about, and don’t have a personal experience to go along with it. Sometimes it seems near impossible to stay neutral and non judgmental. As riders, one of the biggest influences we have is where we call home and the scene that is there. People come to Austin with a certain idea in mind of what it will be like. The same goes for places like Woodward. I guess I used those two because they seem the opposites of one another. But, there is nothing set in stone that you have to mimic or follow what is commonly around you. We look both within ourselves, and to others for inspiration. The two together are like building blocks. It’s all give and take, and you can be anything you set out to be.
“No matter where you are from, you can choose what you would rather do. In my case I grew up in the South of Spain, in a city where there weren’t many riders to look up to, so watching videos is probably what did push me to choose what kind of riding I’d like to do. From there I probably made the moves to be where I thought was the best for me to be, so I ended up moving to Austin where some of my favorite riders were and yes for sure, riding with them helped shape me into the rider I am today... ”
The other thing that sticks out in my mind is how fresh riding still is to Ruben. How can that even be? It’s true though. Back in April, we headed to the Northwest together along with Hanson Little. Each day brought something new and a concrete configuration that brought out the little kid in him time and time again. Riding still does it for him, maybe even more so now, than ever. Going places just for the sake of enjoying them. No agenda, no expectations, just pure enjoyment and loving every minute of it. That could be, in its purest sense, all that we could ever ask for after so many years of riding - to still feel those feelings… and he does. He makes a point to keep that a part of his life. Always traveling, always seeing things a bit differently.
That’s what keeps Ruben where he needs to be. I’m not exactly sure why this happens, but it’s commonplace in our society that as you get older, people tend to naturally assume that you will slow down with things that you enjoyed when you were younger. Or people that have been doing the same thing for so long just don’t appreciate things the same anymore. Motivation seems to have gone out the window. I’m not exactly sure how this came to be, because if you truly love what you do, how is it that some feel dull and without motivation, while others never seem to slow down. We are all different, and things have their time span in life, but there are ways that help preserve that feeling that we grew up needing. Ruben has proved that time and time again. Maybe it comes from people not seeking change in themselves, as life is changing around them each day. Is change necessary to keep that spark lit? Ruben sums it up,
“I feel that as long as you are having fun, riding with friends, willing to try new things, and travel to find new places to ride, it will keep you motivated to keep going... just find the things that keep your motivation rolling but also I think it is very important to always appreciate what you learn in all of those years.”
“… people can think that I created my own path, but I just do what I feel is good for me.”- ruben
To look back on Ruben’s riding time line would be the perfect example of that statement. Without change Ruben would never have evolved to that next chapter on his bike, and he’s done that very same thing over and over again.
“I just remember how I felt and thought about BMX as a teenager, how excited I was to learn new tricks like a 360, how excited I was when I landed it for the first time, and how cool it was learning manuals, airs, etc, etc… also how excited I could be back then if I knew what I’m doing now… I think all of that is awesome and motivates me to keep going…”
If you’ve been following Ruben’s history of riding at all, you may have surmised by now that he’s done his fair share of high flying maneuvers. He’s helped pave the road of progression with the unthinkable, and which has helped structure how we all look at what’s possible on a bike today. Trial and error. Defeat and victory. Looking at it all in hindsight, he sees things very clearly. In the end it’s all about what each of us personally wants to see or do. We only have a say in what we do ourselves. Quality or quantity, which matters to you?
“I think a lot of times things look too hectic. I understand that for contests harder tricks score more but for me, for an example, in a 360 double whip I would rather see someone add a good table than another whip. Also, I think a single 360 whip with a good table looks way better and is harder than a 360 triple whip. This is something that I wish more riders would see these days to keep BMX good looking and enjoyable to watch.”
Times have changed a lot, and sponsors are much more plentiful now than the late 90’s. Ruben faced some hardships that he never would have been up against had he grown up in the states; which I think is both a plus and a minus. His life, however it happened, made him who he is. He may not have had as much opportunity as a rider of today has, but he made what he did have work. He didn’t come to the states until he was 23 years old. Had he lived here the entire time, he might never have looked at things the way he does. Maybe without all of those extra Spanish words and feelings that go with them, he wouldn’t have been able to tap into what he did. But with all things considered, if he had any bit of the drive and talent that he grew up with he certainly would have gotten noticed much sooner. All it took was one trip to the states, when no one knew him, for people to notice. He had a lot of sponsors early on that made it possible for him to come back over the years, and live a life riding his bike. Huffy, Jnco, and Mongoose were some of his firsts.
“I started with them and am very grateful to them for taking the first interest in me and making my dream come true. I don’t think there is a secret to my success as a rider, I think like in any other job you try to keep doing better and moving to where you think is the best for you… ”
The first shirt we did as a Ruben signature shirt with Terrible One had the Spanish words “Nunca Lo Sabras”. I used to get numerous requests asking what that meant. “You never know” or “You’ll never know” are English words that are closest. Living a life based on those words is something that I truly believe Ruben has done. You do never know until you try.
“I don’t really have any regrets, I feel very happy and lucky how my career has turned out, even the bad things are kind of funny now… I have a great memory of everything and I love it… also “you’ll never know” even if you think you wanted to do something else to be better, it can turn into a disaster so… I’m happy...”
DIG LEGENDS TRAILER 2012
Joe Rich, Ruben Alcantara, Van Homan, Brian Foster - More Info
A “successful” riding career can be interpreted in so many different ways. What does it mean to be successful though? Some would measure it with materialistic possessions. Others would be more interested in fame and recognition. There are also the legends whose stories will be talked about for generations to come. I feel that Ruben will always be the legend. Ruben has done well for himself, and deservedly so. He has been a top contest rider, and he’s also one that comes to your town and does the thing that no one ever even thought of. Though he’s never gone out of his way to draw attention to himself. He’s let his actions speak for him.
“I always did what I felt like doing. I just wanted to have fun trying my best and pushing myself, that also helped me to do good in contests sometimes. Then growing, I slowly felt like just doing things that felt good. That was my motivation to keep on going and doing tricks, unlike 360 double whips that slowly did not feel that good anymore…”
He’s carved his place in BMX, and no one can ever take that away. There were so many years of Ruben pushing riding in ways that were never thought possible. I feel like the time period that all this took place in created something that will always have its place. It’s because there is no end to it. The way Ruben goes about progressing, has no limits. It’s always being directed by feel, and only by what’s going on around him
Ruben has had a lot of good, and a lot of bad throughout his time riding. One of the more recent topics that came to light was his back injury. Ruben has told the story a number of ways, and doesn’t really like having to revisit that time period in his head. I feel that when he first started getting better he wanted to spread the word of how one simple decision changed his life. But I know as time has gone on, he has been asked to talk about it a number of times. Maybe each time brings him closer to how he felt when all that was going on, when he thought his life would never be the same. I can tell he has gotten good at summarizing it all. So if you have been sleeping under a rock, this should be an eye opener for you, but if you have heard about this in the past, then read again and remember that if it’s important enough to you, always keep pushing forward in search of what’s right. Ruben’s Cliff’s Notes about his back:
“Long story short, I had back problems for years to the point that it was so bad that I could not ride. No doctors could tell me what the problem was, so I was scheduled for surgery. Luckily, the week before my surgery, I went to see a chiropractor (Quirosun, Amaya), and found what she thought could be the problem, and recommended me to visit a specialist (UMA) in back injury cases who was in Milan, Italy. I followed her suggestions and all has been well since. If some of you have problems don’t let it go until you get the answers you are seeking. Don’t jump into surgery unless there are no other options.”
*Note: The doctor in Italy that Ruben is speaking of traced his problems to the way his jaw was aligned, which affected the way he bit and chewed. Due to a lifetime of his jaw being out of alignment, it affected muscles in his neck, which chain reacted with muscles in his upper back, then muscles in the middle of his back, and continuing on down to his lower back. With a simple check over, the doctor realized all of this, and recommended that Ruben get braces. The teenage years revisited! So the veteran 35 year old was fitted with braces, and almost overnight his lower back problems started to disappear. It would take another couple of years of having his braces on, and going to the chiropractor occasionally, but he is doing great. More importantly, he avoided surgery, and the mysteries of what would have become of him if he had gotten it. Just like that, a doctor who is someone you trust, could have cut him open and changed his life for the worse. Let that be a lesson to all!
Everyone has those that which we look up to. Whether it is for inspiration, guidance, or just a breath of fresh air. Ruben to most, is that breath of fresh air. But someone that is that for so many people is in need of it personally as well. So where does Ruben look? How does he keep finding new avenues to travel down, which seemingly have never been traveled. Or if they have, never to the extent that Ruben has pushed them. How does he feel about being that to so many people? Modesty is a virtue, and once again, Ruben shines brightly, taking minimal credit, and respecting others and what they have going on.
“I get inspired by others, for sure. I probably influence others but I never copy anyone in a bad way and take credit for something I did not create.”
With one trip across the ocean back in 1997, Ruben began a journey that would affect many, and carve his name into the very soul of BMX... which would be forever changed by his presence. An open mind with no boundaries, changing the way we would all see things from here on out. To those of whom are reading this, thank you for taking the time to read on. I can only hope that these words have sparked something inside you one way or another. I know I wouldn’t be the same person had Ruben and I never met. Much love to you my brother, thanks for all the good times, and I can’t wait to get back on the road with you again.
“With one trip across the ocean back in 1997, Ruben began a journey that would affect many, and carve his name into the very soul of BMX...” - joe rich
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