Interview: Rob Dolecki

Chewing the virtual cud with concrete schralper, photo taker and proud hat wearer Rob Dolecki. Ecuador carve capture courtesy of my main man Mike Escamilla. 

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I may as well get to the heart of the matter here… was that you who had that mad crash on that old Props New Jersey scene report? What were you going for there? Were injuries sustained?

The swan dive to the floor at an indoor park? That was me. It’s incredible anyone actually remembers that. I thought it was a good idea to try and peg stall this metal beam out of a quarter and land into a wedge to the right. I guess I juiced it a little too much, accidentally landed double-tire, froze up in a state of confusion, and went down with the ship.

I was rewarded with a laceration above one eye and a fractured wrist. I’m lurking with a cast in the background of a few Grimaldo clips.

When did you start riding? I think with a lot of people there’s a ‘decisive moment’ that sets them off — was there one of these moments with you?

I got my first BMX bike, a GT Mach One, in 1984. The decisive moment for me was a few years earlier, when I saw my brother pedal towards this tiny drop-off in our backyard on some random non-BMX Ross bike, and both wheels left the ground. I couldn’t believe that it was possible to defy gravity on a bike, even if it was for a split second. That was it for me.

Who were the best riders round your area growing up? What was the best spot to ride?

The first skilled dude I can think of was Steve Rulli. He ended up riding for this company called General in the mid 80s. I still remember the moment I saw an ad he was in. It was the typical corny shit that most ads consisted of during that time, but I was just hyped to see someone who lived in the same town as me actually in a magazine.

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Another perceived bad-ass older rider was nicknamed ‘One Nut Willie’. He killed it at the first dirt jumps I ever went to, Eighth Ave in River Edge. The urban legend was that he lost a testicle while hopping a fence one night (sliced his nutsack open on a sharp protrusion) — it might’ve been that he was running from the cops and was drunk or something. I’m sure the whole thing was bullshit, but no friends my age nor I ever dared to ask him about it.

Once I got fully into riding trails and racing, most of the best riders I rode with either lived in NYC, Long Island or Pennsylvania (during The Dark Ages in the early 90s).

Until I got a car, there wasn’t really much of anything near me that I’d call a legit spot, outside of poor excuses for trails that my friends and I built out of crumbling sandy dirt, a parking lot behind a convenience store called Midland Market, and a couple of overpass banks down the road that were more fun to tag up than ride. But that’s also taking into account the fact that what most people consider a riding spot today is a lot different compared to when I was around 14, when riding street hadn’t really become a legit thing yet beyond curb cuts and maybe manuals. The best ‘trails’ in the world at the time were a few unmaintained mounds of dirt, and there weren’t any skateparks in my area.

There are actually some really good spots in that area today; I just didn’t know it then. When it comes to a spot for loitering and eating convenience store food, making jokes, and fucking with random people, there were plenty of good ones in my town. That hasn’t really changed.

After I expanded my immediate horizons a little bit via a vehicle, I discovered my one of my favorite pools. I still ride there whenever I’m in the area almost 25 years later, and it’s still one of the best spots ever. Hackensack bank to wall is a close second.

There’s a standout clip of you jumping loads of spine ramps in a row in Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Does that park still exist? Are all the spines still there? How many spines do you think you could realistically jump in a row before losing your cadence?

Mullaly in The Bronx is still going strong. It’s amazing that some of the O.G. crew like Rob Ramos and Lou Perez are still running shit there over two decades later, building new ramps with renewed energy and donated materials. Those spines have been gone for over a decade, but I heard there’s a new section of them under construction.

It’s like trails — with a consistent pump, theoretically you could hit as many as you wanted to until you got too tired.

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Mullaly Park in 1999. Photographer unknown. 

Have you got any good Will Taubin stories? 

Will is the best. I miss chillin’ with him. There was a period of a few years where Will could be found in the back of Union Square any and every night, even in the middle of February. It was basically his home. This was when Union was the prime Manhattan meet-up spot and vortex, before the Banks took over.

One late snowy, very frigid single-digit-temp winter night, I was walking quickly through Union on my way to the Path train, and Will and James Kennedy were sitting there, coffee in hand, visibly freezing, but enjoying their second home. I couldn’t believe anyone was posted up out in that weather by choice. Those were the glory days of Union Square, in part thanks to Will and the regular crew always holding it down daily.

In that era, say around 2000-2004, you could roll through pretty much any time of the day or night, and there was some BMXer posted up to hang out with. Hypothetically, if you stayed at Union the whole day, odds are you could have seen every rider who was out in the city; it was a given to cruise through at some point to see who was at Union, since it was the staple meet-up spot.

What was riding New York like in the early 90s? Was it the Taxi Driver-esque cesspit that I’d like to believe it was?

Outside of the wealthier sections in Manhattan, it was definitely wild-west style. Even though there was an increased danger factor compared to today, I actually liked it, since no one would care about kicking you out basically anywhere you rode.  Some of my most distinct memories from the first few years of exploring the city and also working as a bike messenger were…

  • Times Square being a bizarre mix of tourists, porn shops, and hustlers slinging 3-card-monte and/or any controlled substance. Especially the 42ndStreet area west of 7th Ave, where most non-locals chose not to venture down. It was nothing in any way like the homogenized Disney-fied commercial outlet it is today. I witnessed my first shoot-out there.
  • Tompkins Square Park being fully populated by a squatter tent-city.
  • A few blocks north of Macy’s, 36th street’s end-to-end sidewalk being entirely covered with refrigerator boxes, which were being used as shelter by the homeless — cardboard condos, as they were nicknamed. In Living Color’s “This Ol’ Box” skit had to have been inspired by the go-to DIY homeless housing found all over NYC at that time.
  • A high percentage of central and East Harlem being a post-apocalyptic urban jungle of burnt-out, abandoned apartment buildings and crack dens.
  • Many abandoned, stripped or firebombed cars littering the streets in various parts of the boroughs at any given time.

The Warriors is a somewhat accurate representation of the late 80s and early 90s NYC as a whole. Today, NYC seems like an entirely different place; it’s crazy how much it has changed. I always say The Bronx is the last borough still holding it down as glimpse into that time period. Though, if I want to teleport back to 80’s NYC, I can just take a pedal from my house a couple miles to some neighborhoods in North Philly. The resemblance is pretty amazing.

How did you meet Ralph Sinisi? 

Ralph said he met me once at these local trails back in the day. I don’t remember meeting him until a few years after, when we went to that pool I mentioned previously with a few friends of ours; he was driving a Chevy Nova with a Gorilla Biscuits sticker on a window.

In Don’t Quit Your Day Job 2 you ride to the smooth, soulful sounds of The Eurythmics. Was this Bob’s idea or yours? 

I choose that song, partly since I was surprised it hadn’t been used in a bike video before (to the best of my knowledge). I chose it more for the trails section than for my riding. Adding the random footage of myself was more an afterthought.

On the subject of that video, can you divulge any information about the four-pegged enigma Jesse Susicki?  

Enigma is an excellent word to describe Jesse. I never rode with Jesse much, so I don’t really have any info. While his choice of wardrobe and hairstyles may have had a tendency to fit one’s stereotypical view of a Jersey Shore regular, he was always a really cool dude, and had quite the skill set on ledges and rails.

When did you start taking photos? What was the first riding photo you took? Do you still have it?

I used to borrow a camera here and there when I was a kid, but when I bought my first camera about 19 years ago, that was when I legitimately started taking photos. I honestly don’t remember the first riding photo I took with it, but it was probably so bad, I threw it out when I got the film back. I was not a natural, by any means.

It may be said that you’re a better rider than some of the people you take photos of. Do you find it irritating that you can’t take photographs of yourself?

Thanks, but I think most riders I shoot photos of have way more skills on a bike at their age than I’ve ever had.

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Philly pool snap by Nicole Perry.

As a professional photographer, do you sometimes have to take photographs of tricks that you think are rubbish? What do you say when someone suggests something useless that they want you to take a picture of?

It’s happened, but the people I choose to be around usually have a standard of what makes a photo good that surpasses mine, or a reason why the photo might look good beyond bike tricks. The times it has happened, I had no problem making up some excuse why I couldn’t shoot it.

What about if a rider is wearing red jeans or something? Do you make sure you’ve got black and white film for these situations? 

The more colorful the costume, the more colorful the photo. I’m indifferent to photographing any fashion faux pas.

What are your thoughts on people who come out riding without a bag and expect you to take their photo and hand out inner tubes?

Well, I can’t really comment on anything related to carrying supplies or other people’s personal items. Since I’ve pawned a heavy-ass second camera bag onto other people to pedal around with so many times on trips, some dudes would throw on an empty backpack for the sole reason of getting out of carrying mine. I don’t look at that in a negative way; I’d probably do the same thing!

Good looks to everyone who has ever helped with my second bag.

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Assorted gems taken by the man you’re reading about.

You’re a bit of a darkroom wizard. Have you got any tips for success under the red light?

Thanks for the compliment, though I’d have to attribute the majority of any darkroom expertise I have to Keith Terra’s guidance. He showed me many tricks during the time I spent living part-time on a couch in his ex-girlfriend’s Greenpoint apartment back in the day.

As far as tips, as with anything, the more time spent in there the more you can learn, which is very good for creating prints, but the constant chemical inhalation might not be very good for your health.

You’ve been all over the world riding stuff. Can you give us a run-down of your top three concrete skateparks?

I’ll give five. Right now, in descending order, I’d say FDR in Philly, San Bartolo in Peru, New Lynn in New Zealand, West Lynn in Oregon, and Abington, PA. For the most part, I like weird, awkwardly-transitioned parks.

That Peru one looks mint. How did you find that?

 Yeah, it was funny going to that Peru park. Before we went, the local dudes I was with told me it was pretty old, badly made, and no fun at all. We were originally going to the beach and just stopping at the park for a minute. After seeing the park, we never made it to the beach.

That solidified my view that if someone says a concrete park is old, has bad transitions, and is no fun, I’m going to really like it. It’s happened every single time.

Do you ever kick it at Brigantine?

On occasion, but nowhere near as much as Big $cerbs did when he was living in Philly. He’s a much bigger fan of the place than I am.

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Pipe 2 Pipe transfer. High action photo by Matt Coplon.

I liked that Maintain zine you did. Have you got anything more in the pipeline? 

Glad you enjoyed it; hearing that makes the effort worthwhile. Two more are in progress to finish up the ‘zine series. Chapter II should (hopefully) be done early spring. Chapter II.V video promo sometime later. After the ‘zine series, I have more chapters in other forms planned under the same name.

I read somewhere that you used to make a zine in the 90s? What was this called? 

It was called Rheum, and I did three issues during ‘96-‘97. Nothing that was remotely groundbreaking or of any real quality, but they’re each good memories for myself from a transitional time period. I may actually finish and release the perpetually incomplete 4th issue at some point. I’ll probably wait two more years so it’s a solid 20 years late.

It seems there’s been a slight-but-noticeable increase in the amount of non-industrial printed-matter being released lately… have you any theories of why this might be?

That’s a good question. I have a number of reasons why I think there is a need for it. Apparently there are others that feel the same way, and I think that’s a good thing. I hope to see more and more independently-produced ‘zines and the like coming out.

On an unrelated note, what’s Brian Tunney up to these days?

I’m sure a lot more than what I’m listing, but working at ESPN, living in Austin, riding, and making awesome Instagram posts comparing old spots in magazine photos from the 80s with what the spot looks like today. Can’t wait to see the book compilation he’s putting together.

Have you seen any good films lately?

The Big Short is one I saw the other week. Most of my film-viewing ends up being mediocore nonsense on Netflix, though. Searching for something good to watch on there can sometimes put you in just as much of a black hole as Instagram.

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Rear peg coping balance. Photo possibly taken by T8 Roskelly.

Ignoring clothes, bike set-up and tricks done, how has the actual act of going out riding changed since the 80s? Has it changed?

To me, it hasn’t changed at all.  There has always been people who have, and who continue to go out and cruise with the primary objective of having a good time, regardless of the terrain being ridden, whether it’s the neighborhood block, trails deep in the woods, or a plaza-style skatepark.

Alright, I think that’s pretty much all I’ve got. Thanks for answering my daft questions. Have you any wise words you’d like to pass on?

I see more and more (older) people get disillusioned in recent times by the ‘state of BMX’, industry bullshit, and how some companies, media and ‘famous riders’ portray bike riding. It’s cliché at this point, but BMX is what you make it, regardless of internet drama, trends, and others’ opinions on it. No matter how well self-serving individuals succeed at making BMX look corny, shitty, and straight up wack, it doesn’t ever have to be a reflection of your own experience and the community you’re in.

If you don’t like how you’re seeing things portrayed, write a blog, get a camera, or team up with someone who does have one and showcase what you do like on your own; it’s easier now than it’s ever been.

And some of the greatest words of wisdom come in fortune cookies. To be seen in MAINTAIN II

See some of Rob’s photos here. Both issues of Maintain can be acquired here

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