Sam Pilgrim vs. The World

We talk to a champion aiming to reclaim his crown in a new era of mountain biking

Photos: Swatch

Words by Stuart Kenny

It takes a lot more to win a top level mountain bike slopestyle event than it used to these days. You’ve got to have something really quite special in your locker.

To go to a Diamond Series event then – the elite level of the FMB Tour – and claim a top spot takes not only a perfect run packed with flawless style, but more than a little bit of luck and a whole lot of balls to boot.

One man who knows exactly how to win, though, is English rider Sam Pilgrim. The 24-year-old won the overall FMB Tour just two years ago in 2013 before taking a year out to refine his focus and get on top of the pressure that comes with being number one.

The thing is though, two years is a long time in the world of mountain biking. Sam left a scene where his playful dirt steeze and go-big-or-go-home attitude put him on top of the podium more often than not. He returned to a field where the likes of Brandon Semenuk and Brett Rheeder had made cork 720s commonplace and triple whips, double backflips and cash rolls were regularly being stomped on the big stage.

Sam’s no slouch though, and there’s a reason he claimed that career-defining résumé booster back in 2013. His return to the regular schedule this season has already seen him win once on tour, at Dirt Masters in Winterberg in May, and he’s put in several top ten finishes as well.

When we meet up with him at Swatch Prime Line in Munich, the second Diamond Series event of the season, the 24-year-old is in high spirits, and it’s clear to see how much he’s enjoying his riding again.

Looking down on the massive opening flat drop from the starting roll-in, he states: “I want to backflip this later, but I’m not sure yet. I’ve never backflipped that far before!”

He went on to attempt the backflip in his event run the next day and stomped it in style, several times. It’s this kind of risk and reward, ballsy outlook that is keeping him in the mix at the top of the leaderboard even without throwing down some of the big-name tricks.

Chatting to Mpora after comfortably qualifying for finals, he says: “I kind of had a little break in 2014. I felt like I was pressurising myself way too much. It seemed to be a mind problem, which I never thought was possible, but that’s gone now.

“I’m back at it again now, doing some good runs and keeping up with all the kids. They’re really impressive now. The level is absolutely insane, so it’s nice to be in there with all of them.”

It’s no news to Sam of course that it takes a lot more to stay in contention than it did in 2013.

“These days I’m doing the best tricks I can possibly do just to keep up,” he continues. “Back in the day I could just play around and I’d win the contest, but everyone seems to have caught up and beyond now. I’ve got to nail my hardest tricks just to stay up there in the top six.

“That makes it a different kind of fun though, because if I do get a win like I did at Dirt Masters, it’s amazing. And if I get a good top six or top five finish, it still feels just as good, because I’ll have done the best that I can and still had fun with it.”

In the end it was a strong day for Sam at Prime Line. He nailed a spot-on run in finals which included that formidable opening backflip, a whole lot more time spent upside down, and an abundance of that famously sizeable style which has always made him a pleasure to watch.

Sam couldn’t better that score of 85.0 on his second run unfortunately, wiping out in a nasty crash, but the fact that he got straight back up, covered in dirt, and raised his hands in the air with a grin on his face tells you a lot about the man behind the handlebars. His efforts earned him a fifth place finish to the delight of the cheering crowd.

On top was Canadian Brett Rheeder, who threw down a run that would’ve made the Gods happy – backflipping from the flatdrop and then adding a whole host more flips, whips and opposite tricks before finishing off with a gargantuan cork 720 on the final kicker to seal a 94.5.

So, where does it all go from here for Sam? Well, there’s a whole host more riding still to come this season, not least Crankworx Les2Alpes coming up in a matter of weeks. The rider is looking forward to continuing on with the tour, keeping up with the best and continuing to try and up his game.

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he concludes with a smile. “Until it gets to the point where I can’t qualify – but that’s nowhere near at the moment. It’s still fairly simple to qualify right now, which is good, but I will have to learn a few more tricks.

“That’s all part of the fun as well though now. I’ve had so many years where I didn’t have to learn anything, but now it’s a different game.”

Different it may be, but the endless style of Mr. Pilgrim means he’s always going to be a fans’ favourite, and no matter where progression takes the sport, he’s always going to be someone you’d be stupid to bet against.

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