Exclusive: Crankworx Ultimate Pumptrack Challenge

The birth, life and death of the Ultimate Pumptrack.

By Seb Kemp

A blank canvas is swept clean one week before the big day. Between then and now a beauty arose.

A blank canvas is swept clean one week before the big day.

Adam Billinghurst stands on an empty lot where thousands of spandex-clad yogis had just rolled up their mats and packed away their yerba mate cups. Due to the bendy shenanigans of the Wanderlust Festival, a weekend-long celebration of everything yoga, this is the first day Adam and his crew take ‘possession’ of this small plot of land in Whistler’s Olympic Plaza. This year they have been tasked with building the Crankworx Ultimate Pumptrack Challenge course in just seven days. In one week’s time they have to build, from scratch, a dirty, working work of art that will be ridden by the world’s best tranny pumpers.

This is the fourth year Earth Odyssey (Adam’s trail construction business) has been contracted to build the pumptrack for this event. In the past they have had anywhere between a fortnight and a month to create the course, but this year they have considerably less time. Will it be a problem? Kenny Smith drives into the lot in a bright white Bobcat frontloader, pulls to a stop, surveys the scene and then lets out a wild chuckle followed by,

“I’m a bit rusty driving this thing. No worries, 93 hours of practice this week should help.”

Kenny Smith rages inside the machine.

Kenny Smith rages inside the machine.

Adam and his crew are well trusted to pull off this job because they have made some truly great pumptracks for the three preceding Crankworx UPC events. They don’t just lay some dirt down, rake it into a ‘pretty good’ shape and then send out the invoice. These boys sweat the details and really try to make something that is even more memorable than the results of the event itself. They truly invest more than time and sweat equity into their creations. They even name the tracks. This one will be called The Crystal Viper 4: The Search For Curly’s Gold.

The pumptrack, when completed, will resemble a butterfly, with one large roll-in ramp, a central straight which peels open to two separate outside loops and then rejoins on the start straight again. Last year they played with a less-traditional point-to-point, over-under course, but have returned to a closed loop so that two riders can race head-to-head with nearly perfect equivalent circuits. While Adam confesses that, “It is goddamn impossible to make both lanes perfectly uniform and identical”, riders will go head-to-head on both laps, switching lanes in order to score a total time.

“It's really tight. Really tight off the start. It’s a new design, never done before so the riders are close off the start and then on the finish when they come around. It's gonna make it tight racing. There could be, errr…action.” – Adam Billinghurst

Truck number one. It took 40 truckloads to build The Crystal Viper 4.

Truck number one. It took 40 truckloads to build The Crystal Viper 4.

When I visited them on Day One of the construction phase the dirt had just started to be delivered. Truck after truck began to pull-in and dump its load. The first one being the most anticipated. The quality of the dirt affects the speed and efficiency of the construction process hugely. In previous years a lot of time has been spent sifting through the dirt in order to get just the best material possible. This year the dirt looks premium and the relief on the crew’s faces is plain to see. Adam sinks his hand into the first pile, pulls out a palmful and begins rolling it into a ball. Like pastry dough it holds its shape and Adam, almost triumphantly, holds aloft a near-perfect ball of dirt. A snowball of soil. This should makes things easier.

No sooner has the first few truckloads been offloaded than Kenny is moving it around the lot using the skid steer. Adam picks up a shovel, points out a few areas he wants to see dirt moved to and slowly the raw shape of the fourth Crystal Viper is manipulated. The idea of Day One is to be as efficient as possible, building the track, not in a linear sequence, but rather from the back of the lot to the front. This means the last corner and first straight are initial shapes to be formed. To build a pumptrack like this requires an elevated ability for visualization and spacial awareness. Adam Billinghurst, Kenny Smith and Andrew Gunn seem to have the ability to envision these wilds shapes in three-dimensional, yet empty space. Something that not everyone is capable of, hence why they get this gig each year.

Dirt balls. Adam Billinghurst's wishes this was what snow was made of.

Dirt balls. Adam Billinghurst’s wishes this was what snow was made of.

When I return six days later the piles of dirt have become a finely sculpted form for riding upon. But more than that, it’s actually rather beautiful. The rollers looks like the oscillation of waves and the berms like twisting sinew. From ground level the butterfly is hard to perceive, but the scaffolding that now surrounds it provides a perch to get an overview of the dirt art.

Even the sides and backs of the pumptrack - the parts that will never get ridden - are perfectly smooth, slapped flat and hard by the beat of shovel heads. Adam, Kenny and Andrew had some help throughout the construction, people willing to come and move, shape and water the dirt. Guest spade hands included Chester Bush, Evan Intern, Ryan Howard, and Max (one of Adam’s students from Summer Gravity Camps).

When asked how the construction phrase went, Adam is pretty casual about the five 14-hour days they put in to make this one-off track, “This was the fastest we have built a pumptrack before. Having good dirt this time was helpful but I also like to think we get better at building them every year.”

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

Unfortunately, this is a temporary work of art and slice of riding heaven because the moment the event is over, the dirt masterpiece will be plowed flat, the soil will be shipped elsewhere and the lot returned to the next festival. “Yup, it will be torn down the very next morning. 8 A.M. Friday morning, in fact. As someone pointed out, "that’s not even enough time to let to let the blood dry."

fresh dirt and fresh leaning sticks. Kenny Smith and Adam Billinghurst imagine a line.

Fresh dirt and leaning sticks. Kenny Smith and Adam Billinghurst imagine a line.

And so, the beauty is born, raised, ridden and then destroyed. First by the contenders of the Ultimate Pumptrack Challenge race and then by the hands that brought it to life.

Thursday evening rolls around and the racing begins. Earlier in the day 90 entrants had been whittled down to just 16 finalists. The remaining pumpists included three-time champions Jill Kintner and Mitch Ropelato. If you had money on a winner it would have to be on these two.

Adam knows where the safe bet is, “I’m picking Mitch for the win. He has already done a wild berm-to-berm transfer and the big triple on the straight. I feel like he can do whatever he wants on a bike. We point it out crazy lines to him and he can just do them.”

However, upsets happen.

Sure enough, Mitch Ropelato finds lines on the course that leave even his nearest rivals scratching their heads. Then in the first round of the semi-finals he slips and lets Martin Soderstrom advance, but not before he unleashes some more perviously unseen transfers.

In the finals Adrien Loron and Soderstrom line up and take one round apiece, but Loron nudges out Soderstrom on overall time. Adrien Loron might not be a familiar name in North America but this is his second Crankworx pumptrack win this year (He won the Les Deux Alpes Crankworx event earlier this summer).

In the ladies event Jill Kintner makes it four wins in a row. Olympic BMX gold medalist Caroline Buchanan pushes Kintner hard, but the four-peat is achieved.

As the crowds floated off to parties and prior engagements, Adam and his crew roll out the bikes for one last session on the track before it gets put back into the ground. If you are lucky or within sight of Whistler you should get down there now. It really is now or never if you want to enjoy the fine work that makes the Ultimate Pumptrack Challenge more than just a race.