Five Moves Ahead: BMX Icon Nigel Sylvester Is Breaking Boundaries
Nigel Sylvester was celebrating the end of a chapter. Late last fall, the BMX innovator turned multihyphenate culture driver gathered a handful of friends, peers, and loved ones at the popular Hollywood French restaurant Mr. T to celebrate the publication of Go, a coffee table book of photography shot by his longtime friend and collaborator Harrison Boyce.
It was published by Rizzoli, one of the biggest names in the artbook industry, which came as no surprise — Sylvester had spent the better part of a decade working only with the best, from Nike to Hermès to Mercedes-Benz.
Go was the culmination of a project that started back in 2015, when Sylvester first gave fans a peek into his world by strapping on a GoPro while riding his bike. Over the following years, it evolved into a sprawling travelog — a kind of Anthony Bourdain series by way of the DVDs they used to play at your neighborhood skate shop. The success of the series saw Sylvester’s stardom skyrocket, instantly making him the rare rider to transcend the sport. This was all the more remarkable considering he’d never actually competed in pro BMX.
Sylvester’s absence from competition is typical of his unique approach to BMX, which he sees less as a sport and more as an artistic medium — though even that may be reductive. Speaking on the phone recently, he goes a mile a minute when talking about BMX and his place in it, bouncing from the sport’s history to Paris Fashion Week to the inherent accessibility of bike riding (something he feels particularly strongly about) without ever losing the plot. His ideas are as big as his ambition, and it often feels like watching a grandmaster play chess. Deeply engaged, he seems to be thinking five moves past what he’s already put in front of you.
One of Sylvester’s most game-changing early partnerships was with Nike, when he became one of the faces of the brand’s 6.0 series, a line of sneakers aimed at extreme sports like snowboarding, BMX, and motocross. That endorsement deal landed him in the brand’s offices, and he seized the opportunity to absorb the sort of knowledge he worried he might never have the chance to be exposed to again.
The first lesson he learned was that he needed to rethink the way he thought of himself in the world of sport. Extreme sports like skating and biking — even taking competition into account — often come with a countercultural slant. Participants are often reluctant to consider themselves athletes in the traditional sense. After working with Nike’s ample resources and learning more about his body’s relationship to riding his bike, Sylvester understood that his success in the long run would be amplified if he started thinking of himself as an athlete like LeBron James or Derek Jeter.
This change in mindset pertained to fitness and sports medicine, but more crucially, it affected how he spent his time and resources when he wasn’t riding. It is a testament to his drive that his work with Nike 6.0, a project spearheaded by one of the biggest brands in the world, seems quaint compared to what came next. Sylvester began leaning into branded partnerships, learning more about art, business, and fashion along the way. Collaborations with Moncler, Jordan Brand (where he became the first BMX rider to design his own Air Jordan 1), and EA followed. In 2018, he attended Paris Fashion Week for the first time, and even walked the runway. This year, more is on the way.
Of course, your star doesn’t always rise without attracting detractors, and Sylvester’s ascent was no different. BMX’s antiestablishment ethic seemed, to some, at odds with Sylvester’s numerous corporate partnerships. For years, the comments beneath anything he posted to social media were rife with would-be purists accusing him of selling out or compromising the integrity of the sport.
Sylvester speaks diplomatically about the hate, claiming that it never bothered him — and anybody who follows extreme sports can attest to the fact that hardly anyone makes a living on a bike or skateboard without the aid of sponsorship dollars.
In any event, Sylvester has long recognized his unique position in the sport and the eyes he draws to it, both as its modern figurehead and as a highly visible Black athlete. The risks he’s taken, the paths he’s paved, and the conventions he’s broken have all been considered with the future of the sport in mind. Among those present at his celebratory dinner for Go were Jarren Barboza and Markell Jones, two young Black BMX riders who Sylvester thinks of as the next generation. Neither would be here if not for the path he’s been paving over the last decade-plus. The thing about barriers is that, as hard as they may be to break down, once the work is done, they can’t easily be put back up.
Nigel Sylvester closed out 2022 celebrating a career charted on his own terms. His accumulated work over the last 15 years has rewritten the script on BMX in the 21st century, and forever changed perceptions of what an athlete in the sport can be. He grew up idolizing Dave Mirra, but today the work he’s done bears more resemblance to that of Tony Hawk, or even Michael Jordan — athletes for whom there is a clear Before and After in their respective fields.
One has to wonder what more there is for Sylvester to accomplish: it’s admittedly hard to think of anything left for him to do outside of competing, which at this point in his career would almost feel like a regression. But it’s a wasted effort for anybody to try to predict his next step. He is likely, after all, thinking five moves ahead.
Photography: Brent Goldsmith
Grooming: Mirna Jose (See Management)
Barber: Camilo Guerra
Stylist Assistant: Kerrick Simmons, Victor Suarez
Photo Assistant: Dylan Pierce, Jimi Franklin