If there’s one thing the Olympics is hardwired to do, it’s to move with the times. The additions of table tennis, beach volleyball and rugby (in 2016) are sure-fire crowd pleasers – modern, visually exciting events even non-sporting fans will tune in to. Add BMX racing to that list. The newest of the Olympic disciplines was introduced to the Games for Beijing 2008, where it entranced crowds who quickly recognised exponents require the explosive legs of a sprinter, the strength and flexibility of a gymnast and the steel nerves of a daredevil.

This weekend, London gets an indication of what’s to come from the BMX riders in 2012, as this rare breed of athletes showcases its skills at an Olympic test event, which also doubles as the UCI Supercross World Cup.

For New Zealand’s Mark Willers, the BMX world number one and 2011’s form rider, the thrill of competing in the Games is a challenge he is ready to meet full on. The thrill-seeker is relishing hitting Stratford’s purpose-built track on Saturday to get an early taste of what he will have to do to finish first at the largest sporting event on Earth.

“Gold next year would obviously mean the world to me,” he says. “A lot can change in 12 months, but certainly having a win this weekend on the résumé helps with the mindset. No doubt the London track will have a long first straight, so, for sure, I’m going there with only one goal in mind.”

It’s on the first straight that Willers likes to gain his advantage, getting out of the blocks and into a dominant position early, so he has to rely only on himself – and not on the misfortunes of others – to win.

“I’ve always had a fear of getting cut off down that first hill,” he says. “So I do absolutely everything I can to make sure I’m in front by the time I get to the bottom of it.”

The Southern Californian-based athlete also credits his mental strength with helping him to reach the top of his sport and stay there. In 2009, a horrific shoulder injury threatened to curtail his career, but he was determined to rehabilitate. The reward was the number-one ranking
the following year.

But Willers realises his desire can lead him to overtrain. As such, he strives to balance his love for flying round the track with staying in optimum shape and building his energy reserves for the big days. “At the moment I’m training roughly roughly 20 hours a week,“ he says. “But being a sprint-focused sport, a lot of down-time and recovery is required. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the best athletes in the world when it comes to couch-time.”

Willers’s most recent chance to taste victory came at the end of last month in Copenhagen, when he led all the way in the World Championship race, only to over-jump on the second straight and throw away a certain victory. It speaks volumes about the 25-year-old that he’s not prepared to ‘chalk it up to experience’ or just shrug it off. Instead, he finds failure unpalatable.

“It was certainly a major disappointment,” he says. “I left Copenhagen with an extremely bad taste in my mouth. I went there with one goal in mind, and to make one mistake and throw it away was absolutely gut-wrenching.

“In the next 12 months, in the lead-up to the Games, I just want to keep growing as an athlete and making sure I’m in total control of the results I get. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. I want to win.”

Among Willers’s greatest rivals is Australian Sam Willoughby. The Antipodean pair, along with current Olympic champion Maris Stombergs (Latvia), and Joris Daudet (France), form a quartet who share around the podium finishes at almost every race on the world circuit.

San Diego-based Willoughby, though, is not prepared to share the top spot next July. “To wear that gold medal would mean more to me that winning the World Championships – absolutely. You only get one shot at it every four years,” the 19-year-old says. “To win gold would totally change my life and that’s what I am shooting for.”

He views the upcoming test event in London as a chance to bring the sport he loves to even more people, introducing a fresh audience to a pursuit that’s becoming more recognised each year. “This is the perfect chance to demonstrate what the world is going to see us doing at the Olympics,” he says. “And I believe I can win it – that’s what we all go there to do. It would be a confidence booster for next year to be successful on that track, but just riding on it will be a good experience.”

As BMX fits snugly into the extreme sports category, the pitfalls of the party lifestyle accompanying a travelling circus of adrenaline-charged young men who operate at high skill are always present for both Willoughby and Willers. The Australian, though, says that’s where focus and desire come to the fore.

“It always looks glorious from the outside but there can be a lot of stress that goes with travelling and having such a competitive lifestyle,” he says. “Unfortunately, you can’t be too much of a party animal or else you will be off the back on race day.”

Willers agrees: “You have to enjoy what you do in life and, for sure, I love every minute of it. But the sport is slowly changing as far as the rockstar aspect of it goes,” he says.

“Yeah, it’s still BMX, but it’s an Olympic sport just like all the other ones you’ll see in London next year. And that means it requires 100 per cent dedication to being an athlete if you want to be consistently on the podium – and get the gold next year.”