Original Nutters | How a Trick Revolution Has Transformed Mountain Biking in Just 10 Years
We catch up with Semenuk, Rogatkin, Pilgrim and Rheeder at Crankworx Rotorua, New Zealand...
The year was 2007. Ben Boyko stood on top of the podium at Crankworx Whistler having stuck a massive 360 off the 22ft Jumbotron drop. Something never heard of before.
But as he cracked opened the champagne and hit the headlines, it would be the 16-year-old Brandon Semenuk standing next to him, having just stolen third place, who would be the real story. With the benefit of hindsight at least.
It’s safe to say that both the event and what it takes to win it have undergone quite the rebirth in the past few years, and Semenuk has been at the forefront of that transformation.
“Crankworx is slopestyle right now," he tells us at the bottom of the track in Rotorua, New Zealand. He's got a record eighth Crankworx gold slung round his neck and there's an open bottle of champagne and a cheque for $20,000 laid casually next to his bike.
“It’s where it started. I watched my first Crankworx in 2003 and that’s what got me into it. That’s where the appeal came from for me."
Semenuk broke onto the podium in 2007 with a run boasting a huge Indian air, a no foot can, a tail whip and a whole load of style. Nine years later and the Whistler native had just had to risk immensely more to win in Rotorua.
Gone are the 360s that shook the world, in are the cork 720s, the triple tailwhips, the opposite madness and step-down backflips. It’s amazing how much the runs on the FMB Tour have changed even in the past few years, as 2013 champion Sam Pilgrim, who finished fifth in Rotorua on the day, is more than happy to attest.
“It’s been crazy since I won the World Tour" he tells us, with that signature smile on his face. “The progression has just been so fast. It’s almost hard to watch sometimes.
“I used to be winning contests all the time. Now it’s so far away. I know what I can do though and what I need to do, and now I’m just thinking go out there and have fun - and it works!"
Even Semenuk’s signature cork 720 is being seen throughout the field now. Had it not been for him, this would not be the case, and the scene would look immeasurably different; years behind where it is today in terms of tricks and originality.
“I really just play my own contest," Semenuk, now 25, continues. “I always know what I want to do and there’s always a little bit of tweaking here and there on how I want to play it, but it’s pretty much just all about doing what I’m keen on doing.
“I know I can pull my runs off but sometimes I’m not sure how hard everyone else is going to push it. There’s definitely stress. It’s probably 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. As long as your body works fine, it’s just in your head. So you’ve got to be prepared.
“I put a lot of thought into my tricks and I like to think that they’re really my personality on a bike. I’m just trying to be smooth and consistent and make it all look fun."
Brandon’s effortless style, technical talents and calculating nature see him still at the head of the field of course, but the competition is now fiercer than ever.
The rider has progressed slopestyle more than any other in the past ten years, and in doing so, he’s inspired a new generation to take up his lead and let loose with the twists.
The 23-year-old Brett Rheeder bested Brandon at two of the three Crankworx showdowns last year, winning in Rotorua and at Les Deux Alpes in France before Semenuk reclaimed his crown in Whistler.
Brett could only bag third in Rotorua this year despite a remarkable run including an opposite cork 720 he’d never attempted before, but he’s more than capable of winning every time he steps on the pedals.
Attempting an opposite trick is much like trying to sign your name with the wrong hand. You can probably just about get the job done, but it’s not going to look pretty. So to stomp the trick to dirt at the first time of asking was worthy of applause. And it’s a sign of the lengths you’ve got to go to these days to get on the judges' radar.
“Slopestyle is progressing every time we go out there and ride," Rheeder admits. “It’s very competitive, and it’s so mental. Trying to be the best and beat the rest of the field is insane. There’s a lot of stress there.
“It’s all the way you look at it though. We’re all here, we’re all healthy and we’re all having a great time. Crankworx is doing such an amazing thing for the sport. I can’t wait till they expand even more."
Some may say that the spins and technical nature of modern slopestyle, as well as the stresses touched upon by both Semenuk and Rheeder, have taken away from the style and fun-loving substance at the origins of the discipline.
But as Brett and Sam highlight, and as it’s clear to see from the fact that without fail, the riders in the comp all stick around to cheer on the guy coming down after them, the fun has gone nowhere. And as for the style, it’s done what any good element of a progressive sport should do ; it’s evolved over time to keep things interesting.
The 19-year-old BMX-convert hasn’t been on the scene long, but he’s already brought a barrage of interest through his no-holds-barred, risk-it-all riding style.
Nicholi goes big, spins big, takes on tricks even Brendon and Brett aren’t stomping, and though he often crashes big along the way, he draws the biggest cheers of the day when he manages to stay on the bike.
You couldn’t take your eyes off Rogatkin for a second in Rotorua. We were trackside when he stomped a cork 720 off the step-down to start his first run, then popped a tyre on landing in probably the most dramatic course entrance of all time.
“Ever since I started riding BMX when I was five I've always wanted to fly"
On run two he did the same opener, rolled out of the landing fine then carried on to stomp an insane run which concluded with the first 1080 ever landed in competitive mountain biking. He popped another tyre when he landed but rode out and took second place.
Semenuk may have set the bar for modern slopestyle, but he’s not the only one pushing it higher. Rheeder and Rogatkin are making sure of that. The latter goes so hard he bursts tyres at nearly every event.
Speaking after the contest, and bearing the image of the late mountain bike freeriding hero, Crankworx Rotorua course-designer and friend to many Kelly “McGazza" McGarry on his bright yellow riding jersey, Nicholi was clearly stoked on his run. So were we.
“Ever since I started riding BMX when I was five I've always wanted to fly and as I progressed I just wanted to learn new tricks all the time," said Nicholi.
“It’s the same now. I want to go high and I want to learn new tricks. As opposed to being patient and learning style or the technical stuff I’m just hungry for those big tricks and I think it shows in the contest runs I do. It’s now or nothing. I can’t help it.
“To get a good score these days is insanely difficult. You really have to push it to your farthest limit, and it’s freestyle so everyone is pushing it in their different ways – whether that is adding extra style to it, going higher, adding bar spins or me with the new rotational tricks.
“Everyone is at such a high level that to get a high score and to win is just such a difficult thing to do; the pressure, the field of riders, the crashes, the danger, the mental strength - it all factors in. But everyone has their own motivations."
That motivation for Rogatkin? Innovation, progression, personal dreams and the further development of a discipline which ten years ago was being dominated and established by legends like Darren Berrecloth stomping 360s in Whistler, Canada.
Nicholi continued: “The best thing about [nailing the 1080] is innovating the sport and pushing slopestyle further and further because everyone is pushing it on in their different ways. That’s freestyle.
“Brandon and Brett are in that battle with each other; Brandon has been the best for so long and Brett is now clawing at his heels to be the best. And then there’s those guys that are coming on the scene and could become the best, so everyone is motivated to learn new tricks and go hard.
“For me, I’m always going to go out there and try to do the biggest trick I can on every jump, and sometimes I’m going to crash and sometimes I’m going to blow out my tyre, but that’s where the motivation comes from. 15 years of wanting to fly high."
His high-flying antics aren’t going unheralded either. Nicholi’s signature ‘Cash Roll’, his pioneering cork 720 on a downhill bike and now his 1080 have all been massive crowd-pleasers.
Cam Zink even instagrammed a picture of the American after Rotorua with the caption: “This guy... Judges must not like him very much." And whether you think he was stronger than Semenuk on the day or not, it certainly seems like he’ll picking up gold on tour sooner rather than later.
No matter who you talk to though; Rogatkin, Rheeder, Semenuk, Pilgrim, or any of the others in the field, it’s clear to see that the love of riding is still at the core of the sport.
A lot else has changed in the world of slopestyle mountain biking since a 16-year-old shredder looked down at his bronze medal in Whistler back in 2007, though. And personally, we wouldn’t have it any other way.