Stu Diggens Interview – by Chris Carter
For those born in 1969, Kuwahara factory rider Stu Diggens was the acknowledged dominant force in that age group in the early 1980s. ‘Super Stu’ became national number one in 1983, having wrested the title from Mongoose’s Steve Greaves. He kept the number one spot for the ’83 and ’84 seasons, during which time he was virtually unstoppable in one of the toughest age classes of the era.
But in 1985 things began to unravel. Diggens quit the Kuwahara team to take up a lucrative place on the 1985 Raleigh squad alongside Andy Ruffell and Craig Schofield. What happened next has kept the old school chattering classes speculating for more than thirty years!
In 1986 Stu quietly retired from the sport, leaving his fans with a good many unanswered questions. Little was heard from him for the next three decades and he passed into old school UKBMX folklore.
Then, in 2013, he was briefly spotted riding his old Kuwahara, before disappearing again. Now, in 2017, the waiting is over… Diggens is back!
Chris Carter caught up with him on the eve of his comeback race at Gosport, armed with the fans’ unanswered questions from 32 years ago…
Give us a brief timeline of when you got started in BMX and what titles you won.
I started in 1981, then in 1982 I came third in the nationals, and then number one in ’83 and ’84. Then I think I was 5th in ’85 when Woody [Darren Wood] took the number one off me. But I also won the Europeans in ’84 in Birmingham. Before that I won a European title in Dijon in the 11-13 Open in ’83 in my first year with Kuwahara. I won the NBMXA British Championships too in 1983. Weirdly that last win was the only one I was really nervous about and I threw up before the final. Still won it though.
Who were your greatest rivals back in the day?
All of them really. Tom Lynch was good. But really everyone that was on the gate with you, ’cos they’ve got to be pretty good to make the final.
Were there any that used to worry you?
Nah! They were there to be beaten. Once you’ve made the final, you’re in with a shout of winning it.
What year did you retire and what prompted your exit from the sport?
’86 was when I retired. I just started mucking around with my mates, and because I’d won quite a few races and everything else it didn’t seem as important. Obviously quitting Kuwahara and riding for Raleigh… that didn’t go well. And it was sort of downhill from there really. I rode for Alan Sopp Racing (ASR) for a bit, but in ’86 I only did a handful races. I’d pick and choose the ones I wanted to do but that was it. It just sort of dwindled after that.
In 1983 and 1984 it’s fair to say you were almost unbeatable. Then in 1985 you switched from Kuwahara to Raleigh and almost overnight seemed to lose your edge, at least for the start of that season. Looking back now, what do you think happened? Was it the bike? Was it the fact that the competition was getting steadily tougher in an already stacked class that included guys like Darren Wood, Tom Lynch, Lee Alexander etc. (and even me, though I seldom gave you big guns much trouble!)?
I think partly the bike, but the competition too… everyone was getting better. And they’ve got more to gain, whereas… alright I can lose the title and whatever else but the rest of them were getting tougher. And yeh, I didn’t really get on with the Raleigh bike to be honest. And then, at Lowestoft that year I think it was, I still rode for Raleigh but took the Kuwahara and put Raleigh stickers on it, and I think that was my last race for Raleigh. [Laughs]. About a week later, Sam Wood [Raleigh’s team manager] came round and took the bike.
The deal you had with Raleigh was reputedly worth a four-figure sum – no small amount of money for a kid in his mid-teens in 1985. Thirty years on, are you willing to shed light on those rumours?
The rumours were only four figures? [Laughs]. Yeh, that’s true, I did get a four figure sum, plus bonuses! Y’know, if you won a national or won a race depending on what race you won, then that determined how much you got. If you had a photograph in a magazine then you got a certain amount.
And these were cash bonuses?
Yeh. If you won, say, a national you might get £1,000 or whatever it was. But say you got a picture in a magazine, but it was maybe just a quarter page or whatever, then the money wasn’t as good. But if you had the front page or the inside cover or whatever… it depended on where you were as to how much you got.
So did the team do deals with the magazines to get their riders shown?
No, I don’t think so. I mean we knew ’em, but they were pretty independent.
You rode for several big name teams back in the day, including Redline, Kuwahara, Raleigh and ASR. How different was it from one team to another? Were they run very differently by their respective bosses?
Redline and Kuwahara were pretty much the same ’cos they came out of the same company, Gecko Leisure products. The chap in charge there, Steve Constable, was a real nice chap. And then Danny Stubbs was the first team manager and then Dave Wallace. They were all brilliant people.
And Raleigh was obviously Sam Wood running the team. Being a big company did it feel more corporate?
No, from my point of view it stopped with Sam. If I needed anything I’d go and see him – I wouldn’t go anywhere else. If you had problems you’d give them to him and he’d sort them out for you.
And looking back was there a team that you felt most at home on?
Kuwahara. That was the best team I raced for. They had incentives and stuff, depending on how you did throughout the year, you’d get trips to California and get little bonuses and that.
So was the Kuwahara the best bike you ever rode or was there another stand out machine that takes the title of Diggen’s best ever bike?
Kuwahara. Definitely. I’ve still got the three of ’em that I won different things on. Two of ’em are built up and hanging on the wall, and the other one’s in bits but it’s all there ready to be built.
The fact they were owned and raced by you and still complete… I imagine they’re worth a fair bit. I reckon that’s your pension right there!
[Laughs]. Part of it at least!
In the 1980s, with the sport being so young, many people thought it was little more than a kids’ fad. When you were winning national and European titles, was there any kind of recognition from your school or your peers about what you were doing and how well you were doing at it?
Yeh, the schools were brilliant. If you were traveling and stuff you wouldn’t go to school on the Friday and if you got back late you wouldn’t go to school on the Monday. So, in theory there were times I was doing like a three day week. But the school were fine with it. If you got into the local newspapers, Evening Post or whatever, they’d always mention the school so it was a bonus for them.
What about the other kids at school? What did they think?
They were interested as well. They wanted to know how you’d done and what you’d won sort of thing.
For us mortals it was just sniggers: ‘Why are you a teenager riding that bike with little wheels?’ Was it the same for a champion?
[Laughs]. If you’re winning stuff it’s a bit different I think. You’ve got something to shout about ’aven’t you. [Laughs again]. No it was good – really enjoyed that time.
In, I think, late 1983, having taken the number one plate, Kuwahara honoured its promise to send you to the USA on a racing holiday, at which you reportedly won 15 trophies. How did you find the trip and the racing and what did you learn about the americans’ approach to BMX at that time?
When I was out there I went around with Mike Miranda for a little while and I stayed with another family, Richard and Kathy Reens whose son Ray used to race. Richard was good friends with Craig Kundig who ended up being the Kuwahara team manager out there. So I got on really well with them. We’d go round and see Tommy Brackens and whatever, and they’d take you to different places to practise, and we’d go and have pizza with them and whatever.
Living the dream!
Yeh. It was good.
What about the racing out there? More intense?
Yeh, it was more intense racing. But you could race every evening. I think you could race seven or eight times a week if you wanted. You could race virtually every night, and then I think it was either Saturday or Sunday you could race twice: you could go to one track and race in the morning and then you could go to another one and race in the evening.
Wow! Sounds like a fast-track to burnout to me!
Yeh, but I did learn an awful lot from ’em – pedaling, jumping, start techniques. Obviously that’s all changed now when you look at what everyone’s doing today. The bar’s been raised. I’m behind now. I’ve gotta get to that new bar! [Laughs].
After a strong start in the 1984 Kelloggs TV series at Hounslow, you seemed to struggle in the latter races. Any idea why?
Coxmoor at Birmingham I struggled because someone pinched my bike! I think it was Wayne Llewellyn’s bike I rode, and I just couldn’t get on with it. And by the time I got a replacement bike… I think it was two races that I didn’t do any good, and then after that I just sort of lost interest sort of thing.
So that was the start of it – it wasn’t the cameras throwing you off your game?
No, I don’t think so. I just sort of… with the bike being nicked I just sort of got a bit despondent and whatever.
I know you always took quite a pride in your bike so losing it must’ve been a bit of a blow.
Yeh, but what made me laugh… my bike was with, I think Jason Maloney’s and Simon Hayes’ and whatever, but they moved their bikes out of the way to nick mine and then put theirs back!
I wonder if it’s still out there somewhere?
No, they got it back in the end, but I don’t think I got it so it must’ve gone back to Kuwahara. But like I was saying, that’s why it was such a great company to race for. I remember once I crashed and bent the rear dropout, so I’d just go along after school, pick whatever bike I wanted off the rack, pick whatever parts I wanted, and just put it together and ride it home.
Definitely living the dream! [Laughs].
When you were racing and winning in the early 1980s, did you think that in another 30 years, not only would the sport still be thriving, but that your own name would still be remembered and revered as an icon of old school British BMX?
No! Not at all. [Laughs]. You wait ’til tomorrow and you see me race and you’ll know! [Laughs again].
In your era, there were several mainstream magazines such as BMX Bi-Weekly, BMX Action Bike, BMX Racer and Freestyle – and you had your share of appearances in all of them. In some ways, even though the sport is kind of more official now, today’s young stars don’t get that kind of mainstream exposure in which they see themselves on the shelf in their local newsagent. As a 14 year old kid, did you feel any pressure from being, as it were, a celebrity beyond the confines of the BMX world?
No not really. I just enjoyed what I did and the rest came with it.
It must’ve been a buzz going into the corner shop and seeing yourself on the magazine covers?
No I never made the front cover. I made the inside cover, and the inside back cover obviously with ‘Me and My Bike’, but I never made the front cover on any of ’em.
There’s still time!
[Laughs]. I’ve gotta make it round a full lap first!
If you had your time again, is there anything you would want to do differently second time around? Would you still make the switch to Raleigh?
No. I’d have stayed with Kuwahara. Or the other team I would’ve liked to race for was Hutch. But I’d already signed for Raleigh.
Did Hutch approach you?
No, not officially. I remember speaking to someone there, I can’t remember who it was, and they said if I ever wanted to ride for ’em… but you know, it wasn’t like a serious offer or anything. But yeh, I should never have rode for Raleigh.
Nothing else you’d do different?
I would have gone to the World Championships in Japan. They said I could go, but at the time I didn’t want to. That’s one of the regrets I’ve got. I should’ve done it really ’cos I always thought maybe I could’ve won it. The guy that won it I think was from Europe anyway, and I’d beaten him a few weeks before at the European Championships, so I think I should’ve made the final if I went. It’s all ifs and buts now though isn’t it!
I think we’ve all got a few of those!
What are your thoughts on where the sport is today compared to your era? Do you think today’s glassy-smooth groomed tracks and tarmac turns have improved the sport or pulled it away from its motocross roots?
A bit of both really. Back then everything was dirt but now everything is tarmac and it is a totally different way of riding. Whereas I prefer back in the 80s to be honest. Rather than now, I suppose it’s just that difference, but I prefer the 80s.
A good example of old versus new is your ride in the final at the 1984 national at Poole. From gate eight, you pulled a massive move by carving hard across the entire pack at the last second before turn one with your leg out to literally block your opponents. And that was against a stacked field of Tom Lynch, Darren Wood, Lee Alexander, Tim Print, Karl Fuller and Clive Gosling. (Stu’s final can be seen at 1’10” of this clip):
Motocross-style moves like that are now impossible in the age of clips. Do you think BMX racing is the poorer for that?
I don’t know. I personally wouldn’t wear clips. These days I’ve got a job to get round the track. [Laughs]. But I think that whole foot out thing… that was part of it back then. And a lot of the stuff you’d jump and whatever, but now it seems that everyone’s manualing, y’know, riding everything – and there’s not as much jumping now. And the tracks also seem, like… all a ‘U’ in a ‘U’ shape, whereas back then every track was different: Coxmoor, Chesterfield… all sorts of layouts.
So tomorrow is your first race in 31 years. Can we expect to see more of Stu Diggens on the track?
Yeh, I’ll do a few races and see how we go. But y’know, work comes first now – gotta pay my bills. So I won’t be doin’ it serious, but just for a bit of fun and we’ll see how we go.
Thanks Stu. And best of luck for your comeback.