HIGH LIFE : A WEEKLY FORUM FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS : Airborne Bikers : Soaring, twisting, a gravity-defying terpsichorean cadre of BMXers compete for prizes.

Jeff Santelli, 18, is a senior at Loara High School, where he is sports editor of The Saxon Shield, the school newspaper. He hopes to major in journalism at Cal Poly Pomona.

“Catch air.”

That’s what they came to see Saturday night, when people of all ages met on common ground, packing the floor of the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine.

What brought a crowd of about 1,600 fans together was the Vision Street Wear 2-Hip King of Vert Finals--a freestyle bicycle competition that favored those who could soar the highest and pull off incredible airborne tricks aboard their BMX bikes.

The 2-Hip series, one of several competitions throughout the United States, combines the finesse of bicycle freestyle with the thrills of half-pipe skateboard riding.


During the competition, the riders--six professionals and eight amateurs--took turns on a specially constructed, 50-foot-by-10-foot, wooden half-pipe ramp. Their objective was to reach the top of each side and continue on into the air to heights of up to 15 feet, where twists and turns were performed. The contestants were judged on skill, difficulty of maneuvers and imagination.

Matt Hoffman, a 17-year-old amateur rider from Oklahoma City, not only won Saturday’s amateur competition, but also was allowed to compete in the professional event--and took first place, worth $2,200 in prize money.

“Hoffman is the best as far as I am concerned,” said Gary Laurent, 22, of Las Vegas, who finished second in the amateur division.

Hoffman also received the Amateur of the Year award, while Brian Blyther, 20, of Ontario, was named Pro of the Year.

One of the thrills of the 2-hour competition came when Hoffman performed a “fakie”--going up into the air facing forward, then coming back down and riding down the vertical ramp backwards .

As the announcer encouraged the crowd with endless “let’s make some noise” requests, Blyther pulled off a pair of 540-degree turns in a row on both sides of the ramp. However, when he attempted a 900-degree turn--his last maneuver of the night--he fell and re-injured an ankle that he had previously broken attempting the same trick last November at a show in Paris.

Nevertheless, Blyther finished second in the professional division and took home $2,000.

Orange County was represented Saturday by rider Josh White, 21, of Huntington Beach. White, who graduated from high school in Oregon before moving to the Southland, finished last in the pro division.

“I had an injured foot and wasn’t even going to enter, but my managers wanted me to compete,” he explained. “I wasn’t in near the kind of shape I should have been.”

White began freestyle bicycle competition 2 years ago.

“It was something different, kind of new and exciting,” said White of the sport that has become his full-time job. He said he competed in 15 to 16 contests last year.

“The best thing I could ask for in my sport is getting to travel everywhere,” he said. “I’ve been to about 40 of the 50 states, Japan, France and England. . . . But California is where I want to live for sure.”