By Seb Kemp
Who is the greatest mountain biker of all time? Tomac? Lopes? Peaty? Vouilloz? Overend? Chausson?
While all of these candidates have the qualifications and qualities to take the position, I believe considering only these nominees demonstrates a narrow assumption of what constitutes “great.”
My nomination for the greatest mountain biker ever is Hans Rey.
Let’s consider a few things.
He has won the UCI World Champion title three times, and won 15 national titles in three countries before retiring from competition in 1997. Yet, he still remains relevant long after this phase of his career. Tomac retired and became a ‘Moto Dad,’ Lopes would race unicycles if the UCI made a world championship for it, and Vouilloz, Chausson and Peaty, well, they just won’t back down.
Rey has made a name for himself far beyond mountain biking. With cameos on Pacific Blue, guest appearances on talk shows the world over, and stunts and expeditions that have received worldwide exposure, it probably makes him the most recognizable and famous mountain biker by far.
In “Monkey See, Monkey Do” Rey taught a chimpanzee to ride a bike (Ed. Note–Rey’s mullet at this stage in his career is both beautiful and terrifying). In “Level Vibes” he walked, well rode, on water. He was able to sustain his own videos. Not have parts in videos, but whole VHS releases that feature only him. I can’t think of another rider that could pull that off.
Even to this day Hans Rey appears in more magazines each year than you or I even realize exist. In 2012 alone he had 10 magazine cover shots.
His professional career is older than the girlfriends of some other legends. He has been with his main sponsor, GT, for 25 years. He was one of the only riders to come through the epic GT collapse of the late 90s/early 2000s with his paycheck intact. He was also sponsored by LUK, a clutch company for many years. A clutch company? Seriously? What other rider could even make that endorsement work for both parties?
You could also say Hans Rey invented the whole idea of being a professional freerider. In fact, he practically invented freeriding. He rode all over the mountains before all-mountain was coined. Streets, dirt, forests, rock, rivers, you name it, he has done a wheelie on it.
Hans Rey has probably been to more countries than Michael Palin and certainly endo’d his bike on more foreign soil than anyone ever. Botswana, Maui, the Philippines, Nepal, Tanzania, Ireland, Mexico, Kenya, Slovenia, Cuba, Egypt, Brazil, Borneo, Italy, France, Switzerland, Bolivia, China, New Zealand, South Africa, Peru, Jamaica are among the stamps in his passport.
He has his own charity, Wheels 4 Life, which he started in 2005 to bring bikes to people in need of transportation in the Third World. That’s right, he knows what the world needs and he provides.
He has ridden down the side of a building, jumped off a bridge attached to a bungee cord, and ridden UP a waterfall. He isn’t just the greatest rider; he has superpowers.
The only stage in his life where his facial hair was grimace-inducing was the short period in 2002 when he had a goatee (aka the Prison Pussy).
I know this last point to be true because I have immersed myself in Hans Rey’s photo book, A Life of Mountain Bike Adventures – 25 Years of Riding The World. This coffee table book contains iconic images from many of Hans’ great adventures on his bicycle and a collection of rarely seen photos from long before he showed the world how to do a Switzerland Squeaker.
More than 200 pages of glossy images from the life and times of Hans Rey was enough to derail a potentially productive afternoon. I grew up on Hans Rey. When I began mountain biking he was EVERYWHERE and I’m happy that it still continues to be relevant still to this day. I do, however, feel that he is perhaps overlooked.
Mountain biking is young, but we do need to start looking back at our roots to figure out where we are going to go next. While looking back at the technical innovations is important, looking back at the people and personalities that framed our idea of what mountain actually is, is just as important.
Hans Rey is the guy who has fun on his bike, and that’s what makes him great. Scrolling through the photos in the book, one thing is abundantly clear: Hans was smiling the whole time. And while it would be easy to discredit his cheery demeanor as maintaining a carefully choreographed public image or as simply part and parcel of being a professional on a photo shoot, his smile has a genuineness that reminds me that having fun is the most important part of mountain biking.