Ultimate Renegades | Meet the Man who Makes Mountain Biking's Biggest Jumps
An exclusive interview with Nico Vink, a man who doesn't do things by halves
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports - past, present and future. Nico Vink is one such maverick, a supremely talented mountain biker who took the bold decision to quit the official downhill racing circuit in favour of pursuing his own path. In this exclusive interview he talks about why that was the right choice, and how the freedom has helped him forge a career that's led to bigger things. Far, far bigger things...
If you ask Nico Vink how people react to his monster-sized jumps he’ll just give you a wry smile and say, “mostly they just go quiet." Belgium isn’t a country known for its mountains – its highest point is barely half as tall as Ben Nevis – but tucked away near the German border is Vink’s playground that is pushing the sport of mountain biking to its limits and beyond.
There are only six jumps in the Loosefest line but when you consider they’re up to 75 foot in length, it’s no surprise that only 5 people have successfully hit them all (Vink himself, Andreu Lacondeguy, Sam Reynolds, Vinny T and Brendan Fairclough). Loosefest is set to return later this year though, so it will be another opportunity for world’s best to challenge themselves against Vink’s frankly bonkers jumps.
Vink is the unlikely architect of one of freeride mountain biking’s most intimidating lines. His mother banned him from riding motocross at a young age due to it being too dangerous so instead he was a downhill racer for most of his career, picking up a string of top 20s at World Cup level. However, the racer’s life wasn’t for Nico, he says: “I wasn’t having fun anymore, everything was so serious - it’s all about training and being fit and trying to take a couple of seconds here and there. I love bikes and I love riding but it didn’t give me the return I wanted."
Vink would finish the race season and ride nothing but BMX for three months, only touching his downhill bike when it was time to start training again. He had dreams of doing things differently but he came up against a rigid industry that refused to see his point of view. He says: “I tried explaining to my team and sponsors that I wanted to create lines and build jumps and they all looked at me like ‘whatever’." So he took the plunge and retired from racing at the end of 2012.
You would think at the age of 32, with a racing career over, Nico Vink’s future in action sports was behind him, but he had other ideas. He started riding motocross more but it wasn’t long before push bikes started to pull him back. Vink wanted to hit jumps that would traditionally have been suitable for a motocross bike on his downhill bike so, along with Andreu Lacondeguy, Makken, Nick Pescetto, Kurt Sorge and Graham Agassiz, he formed the FEST Series.
The idea was simple, extract the purest essence of <class="noskimwords">freeride mountain biking<class="noskimwords"> by always building new lines and riding massive jumps in optimal conditions. The events are the antithesis to the highly stressful world of competitions, Vink says: “At Rampage when you’re at the top and it’s windy they say, ‘you don’t have to go but the cameras are running and if you don’t go now you probably won’t have your second run’ and that’s a lot of pressure for riding in the scariest conditions you’ve ever done in your life." Instead the riders at the FEST Series are given a five day window to ride whenever the conditions are at their best. If it’s windy or wet then they will simply wait until they can put together the best performance possible.
Despite the skepticism of the industry, the FEST Series was a huge success. The first event, Aggy’s Reunion was dropped on an unsuspecting public in 2014 and the internet lit up. It has expanded year on year and in 2016 is still going strong with sponsors clamoring to get on board.
Nico’s Loosefest has the biggest jumps of the series with the biggest kicker topping out at 25 metres (the length of two double decker busses) and riders hit them with terrifying speed. Although there is a loose competitive element to the events, it’s more about producing the best media content possible to appease the sponsors, get the public stoked and have a good time in the process.
The end goal of the week is to have a train of every rider hitting the jumps one after the other to create that “banger" drone shot. Vink likens it to the riding you do as a kid where you and your friends are just pushing each other while having a laugh, he says: “it’s best just follow your friends rather than one person showing how good he is."
And it’s the kids that have latched on to the FEST Series with the greatest fervor. Even when he walks round the mountain biking mecca of Whistler, Vink hears them talking about what happened at the latest stop and encouraging him to keep going. Vink may modestly claim he’s not trying to push the sport but by redefining what is possible on a mountain bike you can’t help but feel he’s nurturing the next generation of huckers.
The future is unclear for Vink, after all he’s got this far on just doing as he pleases, but his dreams are to build something bigger and better – he now describes the Loosefest line as “basic" and has started to overshoot the first set by five metres. The only thing holding him back from building something bigger is money and time, but he needn’t worry, as Vink himself says: “We’re doing what we want to and people like it, so we manage to keep on doing it and the industry follows." It may not be long before he’s leaving people speechless with something even scarier than the Loosefest line.
The Jeep Ultimate Renegades
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. The series kicks off with mountain biking, as seen through the eyes of one of the scene’s best-respected riders and trail-builders, Dan Atherton. Next month we’ll shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.