"The division is unreal" Catching Up With Greg Illingworth
SA's high-speed golden child gets political...
Interview and photos by Rob Dolecki, with additional questions by Leigh Ramsdell.
Greg Illingworth has been all over the globe in recent months, from a bizarre Saudi Arabia contest experience, to re-visiting his home country with his Mongoose teammates for a two-comp adventure, to spectating at the Vans Pro Cup in HB while on the injured reserve list. In between his travels, we sat down with Greg and went over a host of random topics that vary from present day views of SA politics to growing up in a region and time period where obtaining VHS bootlegs were the only way to watch any BMX videos.
What have you been up to?
It’s been so busy. Went to Saudi Arabia a few months ago to ride FISE…
How was that?
It was interesting; it was not anything like I expected. We were treated really well, fed three nice meals a day, the people I encountered were friendly, weather was warm, and the park was amazing to ride. When you go to a place like that, you always expect something to be strange. You expect to be so far out of your comfort zone at some point, but I didn’t at any point.
Leigh: So that made it uncomfortable? (Laughter)
I was uncomfortable knowing I was in a place where the rules are so different, and so much stuff I'm not used to. The treatment of women is strange; it doesn’t sit well with me. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go at first. But there seems to be some kind of drive to change these things there. I figured us being there might help in some way. People had never seen anything like BMX before. The second anyone gets into BMX nowadays, and if people from Saudi follow any accounts of riders, they are going to see stuff different to what they are used to. In Saudi there are a few people with a shit-ton of money. It was crazy, there would be random kids walking up and watching, and asking if their dad could buy the skatepark. Hopefully there will be some skateparks now. There’s a scene, more on the east side of the country nut there’s a definitely something to work with.
"There would be random kids walking up and watching, and asking if their dad could buy the skatepark."
You saw some of the elements of the development of a riding scene by growing up in South Africa; did you see any parallels there?
I didn’t really get to have a proper understanding of the scene there. But I know what it’s like. Pretty much anywhere that isn’t mainstream Europe, U.S.A., or Australia maybe, is sheltered from the BMX world. You can watch videos on the internet, but it’s like watching a Hollywood film. It makes such a massive difference meeting people & seeing it in real life.
Who were the group of people that you first met?
The first time the T-1 guys came to South Africa. It was mind-blowing. It was unreal to see those guys ride at that level. The impact it had on me personally was so significant. I understand how much of a difference it makes to people in those communities. If you don’t have that or see it on a regular basis, it just seems completely unreal. You don’t think things are possible, and you think pros are super-human. It makes a huge difference. That’s why I keep trying to get people to South Africa. Nothing will give anyone inspiration like just seeing that happen in front of you.
What was the catalyst for you to start traveling outside of South Africa?
Tyrone Bradley used to travel a little bit, and he was one of the first dudes to make a little bit of money off riding; it was never enough to live off of. He rode for Mr. Price, which was a clothing company. That was my first paying sponsor. He was the first rider to get on the team, and helping them understand that they need to get a team and do stuff. It’s weird to think what made me want to go overseas. I went to the Brighton Backyard Jam around 2004 with my brother and Fraser Byrne. Fraser came over to South Africa in ’99 with his friend’s punk band, and he was wearing a Lord shirt or something at a bar, and Tyrone saw him, and asked him if he rode. Fraser ended up staying after the band left for about three months. For about three or four years he would come back every year and film the whole South African scene. The South African riders I grew up looking up to, some of the stuff they were doing was just as gnarly as anywhere in the world. Seeing those dudes doing that stuff was insane. I just wanted to ride more. I would work sometimes and just ride as much as I could. I was 18, finished school, and worked for six months and saved every cent. Jon Sherwood helped the T-1 guys organize their trip, and asked if I wanted to go on it. I drove to Durban from Johannesburg, went on a long trip with them to Cape Town, and that opened my eyes to everything. Just hearing Joe and Ruben’s outlook on life. It made a huge impact on me. After they left, I just kept traveling around South Africa for six months. I rode every single day. I literally drove back home and made it with almost zero petrol in my car; I had no money. I think the reason I wanted to travel was I wanted to ride more- the skateparks, trails, street, and the people to ride with- that was what it was all about. Even still now, those are the reasons.
"I feel like I’ve learned how little race has to do with anything, and how much more class, greed, and power is the real issue."-Greg Illingworth
Leigh: Why go from South Africa to England?
I hear that so often. The truth is, I got a sponsorship offer from Mongoose. I had one offer if I stayed I South Africa, and another offer if I moved to Europe or the U.S. April 12, 2012 was the day I moved to England. The reason I moved to England was I was able to get an ancestral visa easily. It also meant I would be able to get an indefinite visa. The U.S. would have been a lot more expensive and super-difficult. In six or seven months I can apply to become a British citizen.
It’s one of the first places I went to when I went to the U.K., and I thought, “Why the fuck would anyone want to live here? This place sucks.” It was rainy, cold, windy, and the riders were not stoked (due to the Seventies/ 4Down split). I specifically remember thinking to myself, “I’d never live here.” Now I live there; I’ve actually bought a flat there. When I first moved to the U.K. I lived in Newcastle. I lived there for three years, but I was traveling so much. Then I met a girl in London, and Newcastle wasn’t ideal for either of us. We lived together for a year in London. I had been saving for ages, and had enough for a down payment on a cheap place. Anywhere I wanted to live was super-expensive. Hastings has the hugest BMX scene, and such a good vibe in the whole town. It’s just rad living there. If I think now, there’s actually nowhere else I’d want to live in U.K. Being able to do stuff in the scene is really important to me. I was running the Riot BMX shop in South Africa; what I really enjoyed about running the shop was putting on the jams, a few big contests. Now I coach kids every Monday at Source Park. I knew that if I wanted to do that kind of stuff, that was the place to be.
Do you feel a responsibility for the scene in South Africa?
No, not anymore. I used to feel a responsibility. Things don’t just happen. Putting stuff on was a struggle, but we did it. You would see how motivated the scene was. I didn’t feel I had to do it, I felt that I wanted to do it, and it was making a difference. Between that and leaving family, those were the two things that were keeping me back. When I left there was a good three or four years where the Johannesburg scene just died. It was depressing. I know if I stayed here, the scene would be stronger. But there also wouldn’t be as many international riders coming to South Africa for events. No one wanted to come over. It’s expensive to come here, and all people hear about is sketchy stuff. People are afraid of the unknown. Once I moved to the U.K. and made a few solid friends, it was easier to get riders to South Africa. Each year a few more guys would come out; word of mouth spread. I’m hoping that will impact the scene as much or more than if I was still there, proactively organizing events etc.
How has South Africa changed in general, in your perspective?
It’s unique situation and temperamental. There are so many issues that cause a lot of tension and division for as long as I’ve known. When I was a child everything seemed really cool and chill. That’s because I was raised in a middle-class white family. We had income, and I had an education, I had food every day, when I needed a bike, I got a bike. My family wasn’t rich, but we had those things. I was oblivious as a child to the reality of South Africa as a whole. When I was about eight years old, that’s when South Africa gained complete democratic freedom, which has changed the country massively. Everyone is allowed to vote, but just as any other place in the world, there can be corruption and manipulation. The people who are in charge, are elected to be in charge. There are a lot of racial issues coming to the forefront of South African politics. It really sucks for me to see. After having lived around Europe and traveling, I feel like I’ve learned how little race has to do with anything, and how much more class, greed, and power is the real issue. The situation is South African people are getting more educated about what’s actually happened, they are realizing more and more about how they’ve been taken advantage of, and how much they need to change the situation. I have friends on all aspects of the spectrum, and I hear opinions from all of them, and the division is unreal. I find that a lot of people have an understanding of the situation. What they don’t really understand is it wasn’t any European land to begin with, and the way it was taken in the first place is the problem. The racial divisive spike that’s driven by the media is making people angry with each other. There’s poverty; that sucks for everyone.
"I literally drove back home and made it with almost zero petrol in my car; I had no money."
How did you get videos when you were a kid?
It’s so insane to think how different it is now. In South Africa, we would share everything around. We would have VHS bootlegs. There was a dude at BMX races who would sell bootlegged videos. I bought one that had “Nowhere Fast” and “Who Brought The Dicks?” We played it nonstop until it literally wouldn’t play anymore. I have those sections ingrained in my brain. I still listen to those bands; if I ever hear those songs, I picture the exact trick the dude’s doing at that exact moment, just because I watched it so much. I don’t know if I’d be as stoked on BMX if it weren’t for those two videos. Nowhere Fast was so raw, and the street riding was just so savage and it was so crazy. Who Bought The Dicks had such rad and stylish riding, like Derrick Girard and Brian Yeagle’s sections. I don’t know how many times I watched those sections. I don’t think I’ve ever watched any other video part more, other than maybe Aitken’s Dew Tour winning run or his Anthem II part.
Talk about changing price tags on magazines.
(Laughter) There were no BMX magazines in South Africa; you couldn’t get anything, ever. So when CNA started selling Ride UK and maybe BMX Plus! for one year, they were so expensive. A regular magazine would be like 15 Rand and the BMX ones would be like 150 Rand. As a kid there’s no way you can buy that; you can’t even ask your parents to buy that. That would be a Christmas or birthday present. We figured it out; we would swap the pricing on the magazines. Their system was so ghetto. The whole riding scene would look at that one copy.
What are your plans for the upcoming months?
I’m heading to the remaining Vans BMX Pro Cup, and then my main focus for the rest of the year will be filming a street video (more info to come).
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