Tennessee Titan

Andrew White

If you want to know just how freakishly gifted Nathan Williams is when it comes to street riding, the last person you'll want to consult is Nathan Williams. Chances are, the soft-spoken Tennessee native will chuckle and mutter, "Oh, I don't know ... " in his trademark drawl, then rattle off the dozen or so riders he believes to be superior.

It's a disarming brand of humility, especially when you take into account his swift and decisive rise to the forefront of mainstream BMX. It's not that Williams is coy or oblivious to his current situation—the kid certainly appreciates the fact that all his pavement pounding in Nashville has finally started to pay dividends. It's just that frankly, the aw-shucks 20-year-old isn't quite used to all the attention. "It's a little strange, but at the same time it's cool, if that makes any sense," he explains. "I'm definitely grateful."

Williams, you see, went from nobody to somebody in a hurry. People on the outside of his regular riding circles began to take notice after his standout section in [sic] media's Nobody Special video, which came out in November of last year. Suddenly his segments were racking up views all over the web, and before long he was touring the UK with his bike sponsor, United. Then it was off to Barcelona, where Williams banged out footage for the highly anticipated Levis Team BMX Movie, set to premier at the Las Vegas Interbike Trade Show in late September with all kinds of fanfare—not bad for a kid who was serving up Orange Mocha Frappacinos full-time at his local Starbucks until barely a year ago (OK, he's still technically employed there) and only started traveling on sponsors' dimes at the end of last summer. "It was something I always dreamed about, sure, but I never thought it was actually going to happen," he admits. "It's been pretty surreal, but somehow it's just worked out. I feel very blessed."

At the moment, Williams is hanging out at his home in Nashville, spending his summer days on his bike, in the pool, and playing volleyball with friends. This is where he got his start in BMX just 6 years ago, brought into the fold by a close family friend, and heavily influenced—once the street-riding seed had been planted—by BMX legends Mike Aitken and Van Homan. While other ambitious Nashville kids were learning how to strum guitar and sing with a twang in their voices, Williams was learning how to bunny-hop and bar spin.

Once he started riding seriously, Williams could generally be found at local skate parks like Wave Pool and Sixth Avenue. It was in these environments that he met Hoffman-sponsored rider Shane Weston and [sic] media's Chris Mahaffey. "Back then, Nathan didn't have pegs and he rode with brakes," says Mahaffey when asked about his first impressions. "But the stuff he was doing then was just as stylish stuff as the stuff he's doing today."

Williams may have had a solid foundation to begin with, but his riding technique has evolved a lot since the early days and now incorporates various elements of park and street into a unique fluid blend. At Weston's insistence, he ditched the brakes along the way. "I had to get him off that," says Weston. "We're not in the '90s anymore."

Williams credits Weston for a lot of his successes, but his blistering work ethic and natural riding abilities deserve a decent share of the credit, too. "All the things he makes look effortless—he's worked really hard on those tricks," says Brian Osborne of Beloe Footwear, another company Williams now counts as a sponsor.

Mahaffey agrees. "A lot of tricks most people wouldn't do once, Nathan does multiple times until it looks good." As evidence, he points to a section from Nobody Special where Williams lands a massive 360 at the Nashville Courthouse. "That trick is sufficient on its own, but Nathan wanted to do it at the end of a line," says Mahaffey. "On the first try, he broke his cranks. So we went back a few weeks later, and on his first run on his second day at the spot, his front wheel washed out and he tore up his hands real bad. I thought we were done, but Nathan said, 'There's no way I'm going to wreck like that and not get this clip.' He pulled that 360 on the very next run."

Williams' riding has gotten exponentially burlier since the courthouse showdown with highlights including an incredible Luc-e grind at the Staples Center and a massive gap to manual in Spain. "He just keeps amassing these things where I'm like 'Whoa, this is real good,'" says Sunday Bikes owner and BMX pro Jim Cielencki. "The gap to manual he did over this double set cement bench in Barcelona was just insane. I saw that place in person, and if you get screwed up a little bit, I don't even want to know what happens."

Despite all the praise, Williams' humble nature kicks in whenever somebody refers to him as an elite rider. "He'd have to be nuts to not be aware of how good he is, but you'll never hear him say that," notes Osborne. "When I talked to him about giving him a signature shoe, he said somebody else on the team deserved it more." Mahaffey believes it's a blessing. "Nathan doesn't realize how good the stuff he does is and how much it's appreciated," he insists. Case in point: the fans. If you ask Williams, you'll get a matter-of-fact response. "Fans? I haven't really met any, if there are any." But according to Mahaffey, Williams has tons of admirers—it's just that he views them as buddies. "Some kid will be trying to learn a bunny-hop and Nathan will encourage him as if it's one of his friends working on something big," he says.

Earlier this summer Williams had a chance to meet a few more "friends" on a much bigger scale: X Games 14 in Los Angeles. The invite came unexpectedly, arriving via email from Mat Hoffman himself shortly before the event. Williams was one of the last three riders selected, a surprise he downplays in his usual low-key manner as "pretty cool." Before he left, Williams seemed pretty green to the whole experience. "The X Games will actually be my first real contest," he told EXPN. "I've done some local ones, so I don't really know what to expect. I'll probably just get really nervous and shy."

Osborne, however, was confident. "When it comes down to it at X, it will just be him and his bike, and we all know he can handle that."

As it turned out, they were both right. Off the bike, Williams kept a fairly low profile at X. When it was time to ride, he found that the "jam format" took some of the pressure off. "Before I got there, I was excited just to be invited," he says. "Once I was there and had a chance to ride, I was just really stoked on the level of competition. Everybody just killed it." To be fair, so did Williams: He was stomping tuck no-handers off the subway platform feature like it was his job, capping off his first X Games with a very respectable fifth-place finish. Soon after, he received an invite to X Games Mexico, which is set to kick off next Month in Mexico City. "It should be fun," he says, like it's no big deal that he's competing at a major international BMX event.

Of course, his fellow athletes know differently. And while there are a lot of big talkers in BMX, it's really just like any other pastime that requires a mix of innate talent and relentless drive: You always gotta watch out for the quiet ones.