Brandon Semenuk, the world’s best mountain biker, had been here before: Upside down, 10 metres above the hard dirt below, on the cusp of winning the signature slopestyle contest at the Crankworx festival in his hometown of Whistler.
Last summer, Semenuk’s concluding backflip ended with his face in the dirt and a broken collar bone.
On Saturday, after hitting the dirt again on his first run, Semenuk finally delivered at home. The 20-year-old finished an aggressive run of big air and flips with a bike-spinning, twisting backflip off the final jump -- to a roar of cheers from the crowd of 20,000.
“I was just so amped to stomp it,” said Semenuk after his win.
“I grew up on a bike. I’ve always been a big fan of gravity. Jumping: It’s the best feeling.”
Semenuk’s rise comes as the sport clamours towards the mainstream. The first-place $25,000 cheque Semenuk claimed on Saturday at the Red Bull Joyride is the richest in the history of mountain biking. Attendance at this year’s Kokanee Crankworx, a 10-day party that concluded Sunday, crested 140,000, double that of five years ago.
The venue, Whistler Mountain and its 14-year-old bike park, is the global epicentre of the sport, whose current incarnation began to gestate in the 1990s on Vancouver’s North Shore mountains and around Kamloops in the British Columbia interior.
Mountain biking’s ascent is now decidedly Red Bull fuelled, an injection that previously propelled other once-fringe extreme sports such as snowboarding to a much wider audience. The energy drink maker is a key backer of the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour, behind the two centrepiece events, Whistler’s Joyride and season-finale in Germany in September. The tour is a new circuit in just its second season and Red Bull-sponsored Semenuk, No 2 last year, solidified his hold on No 1 with his win on Saturday.
Red Bull poured upwards of $1-million into inaugural Joyride event, taking the existing slopestyle contest and delivering a major marketing oomph alongside a rethink of the whole idea.
It’s all part of globe-spanning extreme sports empire that helps Red Bull sell more than 4-billion cans of its sticky sweet go-go beverage each year.
The Joyride cash helped blanket Vancouver and the internet in advertising, luring crowds that jammed Highway 99 throughout Saturday as people made their way to Whistler. About $250,000 went to building the course itself, a series of jumps, ramps and speedy banked turns that blend the freestyle trickery of BMX with the wild danger of downhill mountain biking. Over eight weeks, a crew of 10 people, two large excavators, a bulldozer and a loader worked to craft the showcase billed as the “evolution” of the sport.
“This is a unique course and there’s nothing like it in the world,” said Paddy Kaye of Joyride Bike Parks Inc., a long-time course builder who conceived the design in concert with top riders including Semenuk.
As money pours in, the sport rapidly evolves, underpinned by the technology in the heavy-duty bikes and their trampoline-like suspension to cushion the blows of landing massive jumps and banging down seemingly impossible downhill mountain trails. The machines cost as much as $8,000 and enable fantastic feats. Video from a slopestyle competition at Whistler staged a decade now resembles what would almost be considered beginner-quality riding.
“Technology has allowed people to take bikes to places no one ever considered,” said Michael Browne, a veteran of the sport and marketer for Wisconsin’s Trek Bicycle Corp. “It’s allowed people to do ridiculous things.”
At Joyride, the front flip emerged as a new frontier. Few of the top-tier competitors even attempted the move, which goes completely against the flow of the bike’s momentum and leaves the rider staring at the sky for much of the rotation until the earth comes back into view.
Anthony Messere, born and raised in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, landed the move at the start of his final run. The 15-year-old was the breakout star of the weekend. Already a rising BMX star, Messere took to mountain biking last year and notched a series of solid results this year, squeezing into the Joyride as an alternate. A spectacular first run on Saturday put the 5-foot-5 rider- starting Grade 10 in September - in first place, before he was eclipsed by American veteran Cam Zink, 25, and then by Semenuk.
Messere was asked of the sport’s exponential advances. The rookie spoke like a veteran.
“Dude, how much it’s progressed is crazy,” said Messere. “I can’t imagine how big it’s going to be in five years.”
But with great heights come brutal injuries. Helmeted riders are generally outfitted in little more than T-shirts and jeans, as there is little that would cushion the worst blows. Earlier at Crankworx before Joyride, one rider blew a femur through the top of his quadricep. Joyride featured numerous crashes and several top riders hobbled off, with shoulder injuries and broken collar bones being the most common ailments in the sport. It’s so ingrained that it’s mostly shrugged off. When Semenuk broke his collar bone last year, he was nonchalant to a camera in his assessment: “Six weeks, I’ll be back.”
Chasing his first world title, Semenuk knows well the ever-looming danger.
“Injuries, they’re a huge part of the game,” he said Saturday. “You take your pills and you learn to live with it.”