Janne Tjärnström squints, combatting radiant, evening sunshine. It's mid-June, and our picturesque backdrop couldn't be more northern Sweden: A small farmhouse sits adjacent to its accompanying barn, both vibrantly painted in the traditional, deep red Falu paint emblematic of the Swedish countryside. Chickens meander across the yard as two horses contentedly munch lush grass behind the house. Lova, the family's fuzzy-looking cat claws hectically across the table as Janne's golden retriever, Nahla, wags, her entire body swaying with each swish, wide-eyed and ready. A rounded, fire-engine-red pickup stands patiently waiting, Dakine pad slung over its tailgate.
Barely beyond, Ristafallet waterfall roars as it crashes almost 50 feet below, snarling in an otherwise peaceful world. The surrounding fields often see deer and moose ambling about, seemingly unaffected. In the distance, some 12 miles away, Mount Areskutan's white peak towers 3,000 feet above the valley floor.
Nothing in this scene gives away the fact that this lanky, mild-mannered 54-year-old with wild, blonde locks peeping beneath a trucker cap, is, in fact, one of the world's most published riders over the past 20 years. Together with friend and fellow Swede, photographer Mattias Fredriksson, he has garnered more than 40 covers and thousands of published images in the world's most-coveted mountain bike publications, not to mention countless titles from shooting skiing together. And yet, most people who ride have no idea who the guy with immaculate style and trademark pointy elbows is. He's undoubtedly the Mr. X of the mountain-bike world.
Born in the mining town of Kiruna in the very north of Sweden, skiing was Janne's natural pastime during the long and dark winters of his youth. Like most local kids, Janne started skiing on Mount Loussavaara—an old, abandoned mining site. It wasn't long before he turned to skiing moguls and became good at it. Really good. He made the Swedish national B-team and traveled all over Scandinavia and the Alps for competitions. But a bad landing tore his PCL, the big brother to a knee's ACL, abruptly ending his competitive career at the young age of 24.
Janne however, didn't want to leave his friends in the mogul scene, so instead, he became a coach. During the same time, he lost his job at Televerket, the federal telephone company back when Sweden only had one telephone company. But fate struck, he met a girl from Are and decided to move there. Fortuitously, he was offered a coaching position at the National Mogul Ski Academy in nearby Järpen—a job he still holds to this day—with a short spell as a coach for the Swedish mogul team leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
When Janne moved to Are in 1993, mountain biking in Sweden was still in its infancy. He picked up a bike to get in shape for skiing, but his connection with the budding sport soon became deeper than a means to winter fitness.
"I have to admit that I started mountain biking because there wasn't much else to do in the summer months," he says. "I'm essentially a winter person, it's pretty natural when you come from Kiruna. But there was a certain vibe surrounding the riding in Are, and I met some great friends that showed me the trails. I became hooked pretty much right away."
Bike culture in the village quickly escalated, and when the same group of friends were chosen to organize a downhill leg of the UCI World Cup in 1995, Janne signed up to volunteer. And in the two years leading up to the 1999 World Championships in Are, Janne worked full-time during summers building courses and readying them for the big show.
But Janne's own future as a rider would take a completely different path from racing. A mutual friend suggested Fredriksson—who had just started to cut his teeth as a professional photographer—and Janne should work together. They headed up the mountain in Are a few nights later and started shooting. Even from the beginning, they knew they wanted to capture the overwhelming beauty quickly accessible from Are, not necessarily the race fascination overtaking Sweden in the late 90s.
"We were heavily influenced by Bike magazine and what was happening within the freeride movement in the US and Canada and created our own version of what was going on over there. I really like the BC style of riding," Janne explains.
Janne and Fredriksson entered a near-constant cycle of scoping new areas to shoot, analyzing their collective efforts and heading out again to improve from last time. Over and over again.
"Janne has helped me to become a better photographer," says Fredriksson. "He sees nuances and the smallest details in the shots that I might not be aware of." The two have been near-inseparable since first pairing together on that fateful day in 1999.
Janne elaborates when pressed that it's grown out of respect for each other while recognizing work ethic. "We're both pretty stubborn and want to perform our best when we're out shooting. Mattias as a photographer and me as a rider," Janne says. "I know when he has an idea that it's going to be a great image. I fully trust him to get it right, so I just have to focus on my own riding. A bad riding posture from my part in an epic location doesn't work out at all. I've progressed as a rider through photography, there's a direct feedback that is hard to find elsewhere."
The bottomless dedication and constant attention to detail have made Janne one of the most published mountain bike riders on the planet, despite the fact that he's not a professional rider. For Janne, riding is a hobby, albeit one that takes up a massive chunk of his life.
"Not all big-name pros are interested in the visual part of shooting, they're more focused on their own performance," Fredriksson clarifies when I ask him if the industry could use more mature, seasoned riders like Janne. "Janne, on the other hand, is always stoked to go shoot and burn the midnight oil if we have to."
Janne's influence on the mountain-bike scene in Sweden can't be overlooked. Back when most Swedish riders were focused on racing, Janne was freeriding in baggy clothing, gracing Scandinavian publications with a different image. He dug trails before trailbuilding became popular, was one of the primary forces behind the Are Bike Festival and he's been instrumental in the Are Bergscyklister bike club for almost a decade. Janne has helped Sweden.
Filmmaker Darcy Turenne certainly recognized this. The former freeride pro has a knack for finding influential riders within the convoluted, changing world of mountain biking. She's turned from riding to poignantly documenting importance lurking in the sport's eddies and in 2013, she turned her lens toward Janne and Fredricksson's working relationship in "The Moments Between."
"Janne, in the most gentle, unintentional way, commands the respect of everyone he meets and inspires those around him," Turenne says. "I think he's a cornerstone of the Swedish mountain-bike scene, but that's probably the furthest thing from his intention. Everyone knows Janne because, well, he's just so—for lack of a better word—cool."
A lot of what Are's riding is today can also be attributed to Janne. By taking bits and pieces from his international trips, he injected highlights back home—something not uncommon for Swedes, living in a small and remote country.
"It's been a pleasure to meet and ride with so many great riders from all over the world," he says. "People like Martin Söderström, Mike Kinrade, Trond Hansen, KC Deane, Darcy Turenne, Mitchell Scott and Kevin Landry to mention a few. All amazing riders and people who sometimes make the impossible possible, and make it look good."
Working with Fredriksson has taken Janne everywhere: Utah, Colorado, Italy's Dolomites, Switzerland, Norway's west coast—and, Janne's favorite, British Columbia.
"Nelson, B.C., was an eyeopener for me when it came to riding steep and technical terrain," says Janne. "I was pretty nervous before our trip because I knew I had to go beyond my comfort zone on more or less every ride. I did, and I progressed as a rider from it."
Janne didn't waste any time when he came back home. In no time, Nelson trail graced Are Bike Park, properly steep and a proud accomplishment of the local bike club.
Despite a life of riding gems, his most memorable trip is unequivocally one to the southern Chilcotins in British Columbia. Janne and Fredriksson boarded a float plane packed with hard-hitting locals giddy for an epic ride. Within the first few pedal strokes, Janne promptly broke his derailleur hanger, stuck in the highest gear for what turned into a 14-hour ride. When he recounts the tale, he downplays any sense of danger or discomfort. Fredriksson, however, shares a much more haunting vignette:
"It was pitch black for the last three hours of the ride, and only one guy in the crew had brought a headlamp. The other guys screamed to scare off bears, but we didn't get that," he laughs. "On the other hand, I sold shots from that trip almost 10 years after it, so apparently we did something right at least."
Janne doesn't discredit his fortune for a second, but his hard work, quiet modesty and unyielding devotion have more than earned the unsponsored school teacher his life of global adventure.
"I probably would never have had the chance to travel this much if I hadn't met Mattias. The fact that I get to be featured in bike media like this is all because of him and our friendship, and I'll always be grateful to him for it. Some people probably think I've been lucky and been given a silver spoon. But I've worked my ass off to make the outcome as good as possible. To me, all these travels have been a pure privilege, and in a way, a kind of vacation."
A few days after our sit-down my phone buzzes. It's 8.30 p.m., and I've just stepped out of the shower after a late afternoon ride. It's Janne: "Wanna go for a ride?" it reads. "For sure," I type back almost immediately, pushing all thoughts of my well-ignored inbox to the back of my head. Thirty minutes later, he stands in my kitchen, riding kit hanging loosely from his slim, athletic frame. We board our bikes and set our sights on Waffles, a trail directly above my house that we've both helped bring to life.
"I try to ride every day right now you know," Janne says, almost excusing himself for texting me at such a late hour.
He doesn't need to excuse himself. The sun hardly sets this time of the year in Are. It's magical– you barely have to sleep, invigorated by sunshine powering you to climb mountains at 9 p.m.
The low-hanging sun casts long shadows in front of us as we climb the gravel road toward the trailhead, past a seemingly endless array of empty holiday homes, abandoned for the summer season. We talk about riding and skiing, and the culture we live in that's been so heavily shaped by both those very things.
We stop for a quick breather before dropping in. That is, I try to breathe as Janne scoots about, shooting photos with his iPhone, filled with energy yet still calm at the same time. He encourages me to pose naturally, look down the trail. I pose awkwardly, eyes locked on my bike. Janne glides effortlessly off while I take a sip of water.
We pedal downtrail. An unusually dry, warm spring has made the singletrack a bone-dry ribbon of speed. We only make it a few corners before Janne calls for my attention.
"Hey, I gotta take a photo of you in that last turn. These branches here look so cool."
I hike back up and lean in for a sharp left hander between two pine trees. Janne sits crouched behind dry, jagged branches. An hour after we've finished our ride, he's uploaded photos to his Instagram, elegantly composed and properly edited.
I look at the photo of myself and realize I ride a little bit better every time I ride with Janne—even if I happen to be in front of him, without being able to see what he's doing—his inspiration runs so deep it's like an aura surrounding him. I can't even think of how many others he's inspired over the years. Unknowingly to him, he's taught me to be true to the rider I am, and to do what I like best. And not to shy away from a late-night ride for that matter.
Before we part ways, we sit down by his beat-up Citroën Berlingo cargo van. The sun is still up, though it's late.
"You know," Janne says, "this is what riding is really about: friendship."
I can't think of a better inspiration to ride my bike, but it had to come from a humble man from the north with pointy elbows to make me fully understand it.