STIHL Timbersports | An Inside Look at the Explosive World of the "Original Extreme Sport" at the Champions Trophy
“I tore the tendon in my bicep ahead of the World Championships and broke five national records...”
See it like a point-of-view shot. You walk through a rapturous crowd in the hundreds and glide up an entry ramp to an open-air stage beneath the colossal cranes adorning the darkening skyline of Hamburg harbour.
Purple light illuminates the floor. Fire spouts out of the scaffolding rig rising from each corner. You move down centre stage, past two horizontal logs of timber – one on the left and one on the right – and past the two razor-sharp axes planted in the holding circles of wood beside each of them.
You pass by two more logs mounted vertically at standing height, with another axe sticking out of each of them, and arrive at the black and white of a referee with a starting gun in his raised right hand.
To his left is Australian two-time STIHL Timbersports Champions Trophy winner Brad De Losa. To his right is the two-time Canadian Champion Stirling Hart. Both are bent low with their hands on top of their respective pieces of timber. Both have a two-metre cross-cut saw balancing further down their block of wood and a chainsaw ready to go directly below them.
The referee fires a starting gun. The crowd roars. De Losa and Hart reach for their chainsaws and the final of the STIHL Timbersports Champions Trophy is under way.
If you haven’t come across it before, STIHL Timbersports is the sporting series that pits leading professional woodchoppers against one another, on the stage and on the clock. These are no floundering lumberjacks – they’re elite athletes, trained in muscle, endurance and the techniques required to execute the explosive disciplines of “the original extreme sport".
The disciplines are six-fold. They include:
- The Underhand Chop: using an axe to chop through a horizontal block of wood, while standing on top of it
- The Standing Block Chop: using an axe to chop through a vertical block of wood raised at chest height
- The Stock Saw: using a chainsaw to cut two circles (or “cookies") from a block of wood
- The Single Buck: using a two-metre cross-cut saw to cut a singular cookie from a block of wood
- The Springboard: using an axe to cut pockets into a block of wood, in which to insert two platforms, climb up and chop off a block at the top of the log
- The Hot Saw: using an extremely powerful custom-built chainsaw to cut three circles from a block of wood
We're out in Hamburg for The Champions Trophy; the Olympics of Timbersports. Qualification is only achievable through the World Championships, and as a result, only the best eight in the world get to compete.
The format of the sport is altered for the occasion too.
A normal Timbersports event involves all six disciplines above and is timed only against the clock. The Champions Trophy drops the Hot Saw and Springboard and sees competitors run through the other four events back-to-back in one relay-style sprint, all without a break.
“I tore the tendon in my bicep ahead of the World Championships and broke five national records and one world record..."
An average time for completing this circuit is around one minute and 10 to 30 seconds, and athletes compete against a rival starting at the same time on the other side of the stage. Whoever wins the heat progresses to the next round of the knockout tournament, and the last man standing wins.
“It’s an endurance competition in one respect, but it’s also a race," says Global Sports Director Spike Milton, himself a former professional and ten-time British Champion. “This is a true athlete’s competition.
“They have to be exceptionally strong in those four disciplines, have a game strategy and execute it fastest while saving enough energy for later rounds."
STIHL Timbersports is fast and furious, and thankfully it’s fast and furious without any of the questionable acting in the films of the same name. The entrance music and action-packed introductory videos may be reminiscent of the wrestling world, but these guys are as genuine as it gets – and the 28-year-old Stirling Hart is the perfect example.
Stirling ended up losing out to Brad De Losa in the aforementioned final of the Champions Trophy by less than half a second (with an impressive time of 1:02:71). But silver isn’t bad considering that when we met him for an interview a few hours before the starting gun… he was on crutches.
“I’ve got a pretty severely sprained ankle," he admitted. “It happened last week. I went into the hospital and showed one of the best doctors there videos of all the Timbersports events and basically asked ‘if I do any of these will my foot fall off?’ He said that it should stay attached if I tape it on though, so that’s good!
“I’ve been on crutches the whole week and literally the only time I get off the crutches will be to walk onto the stage."
He even managed to avoid doing that for a while.
While the rest of the Champions Trophy competitors strolled on to the stage in front of a montage of themselves in action, Stirling waited until they were all already up there before driving up the entrance ramp to join them in a STIHL pick-up truck. It was a nice touch for the audience and a stealthy way to minimise Stirling’s walking time from the production crew.
It was impossible to tell Stirling was injured from his performance either. The Canadian clocked the best times of both the quarter and semi-finals before missing out on the gold medal by just 0.48 seconds. He was, however, notably limping off stage between rounds.
“Normally I would just say that it’s one competition and come back next year but I’ve been training for this for six months," he said.
“Right after World Championships I went to the gym for three months, five or six days a week. I changed my diet. I went to Australia for six weeks and trained with Brad De Losa and Jason Wynyard [a New Zealand Timbersports legend whom Hart knocked out in the semi-finals].
“I came over here to Europe a month early to acclimatise, spent another $3000 on new gear, and then to sprain your ankle a week before? Even though I probably shouldn’t compete, like… I’m going to." He laughs.
“I have always actually competed better with a bit of an injury. I tore the tendon in my bicep ahead of the World Championships and broke five national records and one world record. It was one of the best days of my career. For whatever reason I think it gives you a little bit more focus."
If you’ve correctly diagnosed that the man is somewhat unrelenting, the story behind the signature scar running down his face will confirm the fact further.
"It was an axe. About six years ago I was doing the Springboard event and I stuck the axe in the tree. The axe fell out and sliced my face. There was lots of blood. It hit an artery and I needed about 88 stitches. But they stitched it back up and I competed three days later. I now hold the world record in that event. That was my little way of getting back at it. Don’t let it beat you!"
Stirling is third generation in Timbersports. His father and grandfather were both involved he says, “so I’ve had an axe in my hand since I was only three or four. It’d be same as a kid in Europe growing up with a pair of soccer cleats. It’s just another toy for me!"
“When I train I do push ups until I can’t do any more then I stand back up, grab the axe and chop the standing block, because that's what it's going to be like..."
He also broke every record there is to break in the world of pole climbing - "as well as most of my bones" - and was World Champion for five years before dedicating himself to STIHL Timbersports.
Now Stirling is part of the elite sculpting the future of the sport, and he whole-heartedly embraces the increasing athleticism demanded by the likes of the Champions Trophy, the most recent addition to the calendar.
“An event like this means you have to have that power and athleticism and also be able to do all four events back to back. These are the eight top guys in the world and they still sometimes struggle to do it in under two minutes.
“I now need to be able to swing an axe aggressively for a minute to a minute twenty. So that’s what you train for. When I train for the Standing Block in a Champions Trophy I do as many push ups as I can possibly do – until I can’t do any more – then I stand back up and grab the axe and chop the standing block, because that’s what it’s going to be like on stage. You’re not going to have the blood in your head to process a chop like you would in normal competition.
“This is going to expand in coming years. It’ll draw out a new breed of athlete to the sport, because it takes more than an athlete – it takes an athlete who is willing to train."
This level of professionalism can be seen throughout the sport. The behind-the-scenes organisation is incredible.
Judges use a hawk-eye system to enforce strict discipline and safety rules. Competitors wear chainmail for extra protection. Four-time American Champion Matt Cogar tells me “your foot might break if you hit it but at least your foot will still be there".
Saw technician Jörg Bläsi “tests chainsaw performance in the same way other sports test for drugs" before each event using diagnostic software.
The wood is responsibly sourced and put to good use post-tournament. Only particular parts of the log are used and each piece used is near enough identical. Wood expert Bart Jansen tells me “some parts of these trees are like diamonds. They would break a saw dead."
For Stirling, this proficiency and organisational detail is the foundation on which the progression of the sport has been built, and he doesn’t see that progression slowing down anytime soon.
“Timbersports is getting bigger," he says. “It’s on primetime TV now [on ESPN], and people love to watch it. You won’t see anyone changing the channel.
“Overseas as well it’s growing fast. We’re helping European countries come along quicker now." He tells me how one of his proudest moments in Timbersports came in the World Championships when he was pitted against a Belgian woodchopper he had been training for several years previous, though jokingly admits: “Oh I crushed him!" when I ask how it went.
“There are so many aspects that I love about Timbersports," he concludes. “The organisation is top level, there’s big crowds here, it’s fun, and it’s exciting. What’s not to love?"
Having watched the fervour of the fans, the fire above the stands and a man on crutches deliver one of the most ferocious performances we’ve seen across the sporting spectrum, we're struggling to disagree with his point.