Hell on Wheels

Breanna Brand rides out the legacy of Frog Town and family splits in her feisty race toward the BMX finish line

Standing on her pedals, Breanna Brand drills a hole into the starting light with her eyes. Her bike, the light, the track -- these are the only things in the 17-year-old's world right now. Her dark brown hair pulled into a tight bun, her fingers locked around her handlebars, she doesn't look at the seven other racers. She doesn't want to think about who she's up against.

About 4,500 BMX racers from around the world are packed into Tulsa's Expo Square. Every race this year has led up to the American Bicycle Association's 2002 Grand Nationals. Breanna is ready to make up for her past Grands. In 2000, another rider slammed into her on the first jump, sending her home with a cast on her wrist rather than a trophy. Last year, she took second.

She's stronger now, though. She's been training hard. Squats and sprints that strengthen and tone her five-foot-five-inch, 125-pound frame.

Breanna prepares to blast out of the starting gate.
Troy Fields
Breanna prepares to blast out of the starting gate.
Mandy, Misty and Cindy Nixon take a break between practice races.
Troy Fields
Mandy, Misty and Cindy Nixon take a break between practice races.

In the vast arena, racers hear the encouraging roar from throngs of proud parents and other relatives lining the bleachers. But her mind tries to distance itself from thoughts of her family. For the first time ever, her stepfather isn't here. And who knows where her real dad is. She hasn't seen her brother, a former bike racer himself, since he left home years ago.

The starter's amplified voice bellows through the arena: Set 'em up

She's going to burst out of the gate. She's going to take the first jump and soar.

On the gate

Breanna is concentrating on the starting light. And, unknown to the teen, the bleached-blond woman in the first row of the stands is staring at her. The spectator's black-polished fingernails dig nervously into her palms. She slides to the edge of her seat and leans in, ready to yell for her daughter, for this racer who fled a trailer-house existence in secluded Frog Town near Angleton.

Riders readywatch the light

At this instant, Breanna can't afford to think about family or even first place. She'll just focus on the light.

Those in the bike racing world who know about Breanna also know about Cindy Nixon. Mention Breanna's name, and everyone from track owners to fellow athletes gives unsolicited descriptions of how good a kid she is: student council, Key Club, cross-country and track teams, part-time telemarketing job. Then, following in hushed tones is the inevitable epilogue:

You know about her mother, right?

By all accounts, Cindy had always been somewhat erratic. She had isolated her children in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and didn't particularly give a damn for outsiders or their notions of child-rearing.

Breanna had her mother's athletic blood. Cindy attended Texas A&M on basketball and academic scholarships and taught high school math in the Lake Jackson area south of Houston. When Breanna was four months old, her mother divorced her father, a construction worker. She was with her then-boyfriend, welder Eddie Nixon, when she says the ex-husband kidnapped Breanna.

Cindy immediately quit her teaching job and, with Eddie's help, worked with authorities to track down her daughter. Too upset to wait by the phone at home, Cindy and Eddie acted on their one sure clue: The ex was involved in building communications towers, so the couple called construction companies who did those kinds of projects. Putting their lives on hold for 21 months, they wound up driving from job site to job site searching for information. Cindy says they finally closed in on him near Jackson, Tennessee. They tracked Breanna down to the home of one of her father's girlfriends. At the end of their search, Cindy and Eddie found Jesus as well as Breanna. Her father terminated his parental rights in exchange for leniency, they say.

Breanna rode home to Texas with her mom and the man who would become her stepfather. Ecstatic, Cindy sang hymns the whole way back to their hot-pink trailer.

Years later, Breanna would begin to think more about her biological father. She was even tempted to try to track him down; she believes he's living near Dallas.

"I'm not dead set on it right now," she says, with a hint of country accent. "I wouldn't mind seeing him one day, to see what he looks like."

She was too young then to remember much about him. She just knows him as a man who risked a lot to steal her and gave her up to save himself.

But for now, there is a more pressing matter for the teen: trying to win the elusive Grands. As a young kid, she watched older brother Brandon begin his BMX competition, ranking well at the state level. Ever since he was ten, Brandon had built tracks in the backyard for solo runs. And he eventually drew a crowd to his practices: Breanna and her younger sisters, Misty and Mandy.

The Nixons knew their girls were hooked. Cindy served as chief trainer, overseeing demanding regimens but insisting that the kids pursue the sport only as long as they were interested. Before long the couple was devoting their time and money to taking the kids to meets as far away as California.

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