Inside his helmet was a kaleidoscope of dirt and sagebrush. The heavily armored zealot had just ridden his bicycle off a 55-foot cliff in the sweltering British Columbia desert, violently crashing back to earth. When his frame snapped, he catapulted headfirst into a tree that exploded with the perfume of pine tar and dust. The horizontal beige stripes of the sandy cliff above looked like the static from an old TV. So did the inside of his head. This was not Josh Bender's first concussion, but it was his worst. As the camera crew drove him to a Kamloops hospital, he couldn't remember anything. Maybe that's why he'd go on to try the 'Jah Drop' three more times before seemingly vanishing from the nascent freeride scene many say he birthed.
Eighteen years later, I'm in search of the most controversial man in mountain bike history in an impossibly quiet corner of Northern California. He was the sport's first big hucker, sacrificing himself to the idea of 1990s-extreme-skier-style vertical drops on two wheels. To some, he heralded the future. To others, he was a one-trick pony--a stunt man who could barely ride a trail. Even his name evoked a kind of blunt, invasive force. He had one of the highest-octane attitudes in action sports and starred in films called "New World Disorder" and "Crusty Demons of Dirt." Back then, being crazy was a virtue, and Bender was certainly that.
As I pass through the portal of Georgetown Hotel's saloon doors with my fellow time traveler, photographer Reuben Krabbe, we find the turn-of-the-century bar almost empty. A young woman plays with her 1-year-old in the corner, and a familiar face clutches an after-dinner coffee under warm tungsten lights next to them. At 44, Bender barely looks a day older than he did in my VHS tapes. He's even still wearing his signature clear riding glasses and a 1990s Marzocchi Bomber jacket. He greets us with an enthusiastic, gritty handshake with worn-back fingernails. His partner, Lindsay Beth Currier--10 years his junior--introduces their daughter, Saffron, who eats ice cubes from Bender's meaty palm. The floodgates of conversation open, and nothing other than his appearance feels familiar anymore.
Forever the Frontier
"The bottom line is he was super fucking visionary. And what people are doing now is what he believed could be done 18 years ago," says Derek Westerlund, the mastermind behind Freeride Entertainment and the early movies that made Bender famous. "But there were a lot of people who didn't really like him, like what he stood for. He was a bit of a misunderstood guy, for sure."
Fifteen minutes up the quiet, lonely road from Georgetown is Garden Valley--a spot even native Californians can't place. The forest hideout is a bedroom community of retired people and small-scale farmers in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, abutting Eldorado National Forest. Bender and Currier have spent the last five years hand-clearing a small chunk of an 18-acre parcel of an old mill they bought for $45,000. They live in a 16-by-16-foot, two-story, off-grid cabin Bender's dad helped put up so they could move out of their RV when Currier got pregnant. Electricity comes from a solar panel and they have an outdoor propane shower. Currier's 13-year-old black lab, Sarah, runs around spryly. It's dreamlike, and a strange contrast for a man who used to speak in sound bites like, "Life's too short not to go big, got to go big." Bender is actually strikingly lucid and articulate, with well-collected thoughts and boundless energy. He radiates positivity and imagination. All things are still possible to him.
We sip yerba mate and take in the stories. He grew up in North Pole, Alaska--a surreal candy-cane-themed village in the midst of the Arctic dark. He's the middle child of a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and is 12 credits shy of a degree in criminal psychology. He met Currier at the Sea Otter Classic in 2007 while sleeping on top of the "Drop In" TV series' tour bus. They got together in 2011, and moved to this chunk of land soon after.
"When we first got to the property," Currier says, "there was really bad cell service, but I was like, 'I bet if I went up in that tree I could get a signal, and then maybe I could have a typewriter up there.' Our friends were like, 'You're losing it, you really are losing it. But I still aspire to have my tree-fort office.'"
Currier puts on collegiate events for USA Cycling and has taken charge of the Benduro race series--which sends riders down the gnarliest trails they can find, and has rattled some racers. The couple is also freshly back from Red Bull Rampage. As the man who dreamed up the original competition, 'Uncle Bender' is one of the most well-loved staple judges.
"Rampage didn't catch on until the last couple years," he says hunched over a stool in the sparsely furnished cabin. "Now, finally, riders are thinking outside the box. I think the next thing is riding fakie," he says.
"Oh, like landing drops fakie?" Krabbe asks.
"No, dude. Like riding fakie--freeriding switch."
Trail 9 is a tunnel of madrone and manzanita. It seals us in just above head height as Bender smashes powerfully down the doubletrack on his full-steel Terraplane enduro bike. He uses a 27.5-inch rear wheel and a 29-inch front. His neighbor, Brian Hapgood, welds the bikes in his garage and is rallying along just behind Currier. Bender throws his bike forcefully into corners and holds his lines with precision. He's difficult to keep up with, even when it comes time to pedal.
"It's usually just me and Lindsay and we take turns shuttling and watching Saffron," he tells us once we spill onto the dirt-road finish, 20 intense minutes after dropping in. "Seriously, dude, Virgin was just as unknown when I first got there."
Bender and Currier have recently launched the Rubicon Area Mountain Biking Organization (RAMBO), to develop the trails here, and Eldorado is now a stop for Benduro. Today we're shuttling with 10 keen locals who only know the former Evel Knievel of mountain biking as a well-rounded rider, something he hasn't always been.
"It was a totally different activity because of the bikes I was riding back then," he explains. "Trail riding was pretty spandex-y. I rode downhill rigs."
In fact, he rode the mother of downhill rigs: a custom Karpiel Apocalypse that was full steel with 13 inches of rear suspension delivered by two shocks. It had a 12-inch Marzocchi Super Monster fork made just for him in a limited run, and was so tall it needed 24-inch wheels to compensate. He sold it in Virgin when the local club needed funds to build a BMX park, and donated the money.
Back at the homestead, he shows us the bike he replaced it with: a 67-pound, steel, 12-inch-travel Canfield with narrow bars and a super-tiny cockpit--Bender's only about 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds. He calls it his "secret weapon," and says it's the only bike you can ride 'Gnar Canyon' with. He walks us to the edge of the property to show us a dry creek bed full of love-seat sized boulders that looks unimaginable to ride. "You want me to hit it for you guys?" he asks.
The Wild Inside
"Obviously he's a dad now. But he's still a loon," says Westerlund. "The guy still monoskis for fuck's sake. He'll always be who he is. He's from a crazy family in Alaska and he's a wild man. I think he's mellowed out and knows that he's taken a lot of pretty serious hits to the noggin. Post-concussion syndrome, I think that's somewhat prevalent. But I think he's done a good job of taking his risk down."
Meanwhile, Krabbe and I exchange nervous looks as Bender dumps piles of weed on a table in a remote building at the end of a non-descript road farther up county, assuring us it's totally legal under California's medical laws. We help nip at the sticky buds to prepare the 'medicine' for market, and tap his memory, which flows like water.
"I just wanted to go out there and jump the biggest cliffs, and not worry what the story was," he recounts. "Westerlund was like, 'If I pay for your flight and your hospital bill, will you come up to Canada and amp it up for us?' And I was like, 'OK, man.'"
Bender refers to himself frequently in the third person, and the past is like a movie to him. At times, it's so acute it seems like it's on a loop.
"I had seven weeks of memory loss after the Jah Drop," he explains. "Then I went to pick up my bike in Deer Valley, Utah, because it was being fixed and people were like, 'Dude, Bender's here he's going to go huge.' I'm like, 'Really? OK, I better do something.'"
He jumped a double retaining wall and hit his head again. This time, he says, the lights turned back on, and it fixed him. What it couldn't fix, though, was what people were beginning to think.
"He was only landing one in 10 of those big-ass jumps and taking a bunch of beats along the way," Westerlund remembers. "He crashed super bad in front of a bunch of local media in Park City. You know, he was kind of making a mockery of the scene in some ways because he was just eating shit. We went on to make a couple movies together before he was physically unable to go on at that level."
By morning he walks with a thumpy wooden stride. He has two metal plates holding his spine together from a 2005 crash, and two rebuilt ankles. But once he warms up, his posture is perfect. He doesn't offer the distortions any space or acknowledge any pain. He's still lean and strong like a 25-year-old. He trained like a football player to take hits back in the day. Some, though, were harder than others.
"He'd walk into a room and his hands were already in the air, like, 'I'm here, the god is here,'" remembers former pro "Superheroes" rider Randy Spangler, one of Bender's oldest and closest friends. "I think it just switched on him so quick he didn't know what happened. Here he was in the limelight, next thing you know people are pulling away."
It was part of Bender's persona to take everything as far as he could, though, so amid the confusion of his declining career, he spent the better part of the next 10 years being as audacious as he could, living out of his van and partying hard.
"There was so much pressure on me for going huge, for the progression of the sport and the progression of the industry," he says. "And it was like, 'Do it, dude, because nobody else is going to.' No one would ever give me time to rest. Sponsors, filmers, people would push you back then. You know, it was a learning process for everybody. I was never going to turn to hard drugs or heroin or anything. Alcohol had always been an outlet for me growing up as a kid in Alaska."
Sober five years now, he still disassociates himself from the really shitty things he did during that time. When he blacked out, he wasn't Bender, he was 'Benny Darko.' He talks openly and cheerily about even his lowest moments because he doesn't believe they were his--like when he bit his 3-year-old goddaughter.
"That was pretty crazy," Spangler recalls. "The year it got really dark with Darko, he went through this biting thing. I was at Sea Otter, I got a call from my wife and she was like, 'Yeah, he bit me, and he bit your daughter and he chucked her bike and broke her bike.' I went into daddy mode and I grabbed him by the neck and pushed him up against my trailer and was like, 'Dude I don't care if you're Bender or if you're Darko, that's my kid!'"
That's when it was finally time to put Benny Darko to bed.
"It was like, 'OK, dude, you can keep drinking and keep being a belligerent asshole, but nothing's getting better, so let's switch it up.' I was drinking since I was around 10. I was in my late 30s, so it's like, 'Let's try not drinking for the next 30 years and see what happens.'"
The Scarce Life
The granite rock cap of the Rubicon Trail flows with endless, open riding options. The famous jeep trail is one of Bender's favorite spots. From a high ridgeline where he prepares for a steep chute, he yells to Currier that there's another couple with a kid the same age as Saffron wandering around the edge of Loon Lake. She insists on staying and watching.
"If he had support and could train, he could totally still be sending it," she tells me. Currier had pro aspirations herself, it's part of their bond. They met at the tail end of the Benny Darko days. She mostly knows 'Josh' as a kind-natured, supportive partner and an attendant father. The one sticking point is his penchant for minimalism, at first refusing to get furniture for their cabin and just sitting on buckets.
"I never really thought I'd live like this," she laughs. "I thought I'd have an A-frame maybe, but not a set up like this, and not in Georgetown."
Isolated and far from friends or any kind of scene, the homestead hasn't always been a dream. Bender only makes a small living from events and he's had to supplement his income over the years with odd jobs like handiwork and cooking in restaurants. One year, while the couple was away at Rampage, their entire season's off-site cannabis crop was cut down and stolen, which was devastating.
Currier is intent on hosting riding camps and events but there's much work left to be done. With the Benduro series on hiatus now until they can get some extra support, they both seem a bit disappointed they don't have more help from the industry.
"From the beginning, I didn't have enough support," Bender says after successfully greasing the intense chute. "You'd have photo incentives and they'd be like, 'We can't read the logo on the handlebar and you don't get anything.' And it's like, 'Fuck you, bike industry.'"
Westerlund, though, remembers the problem differently.
"In the beginning, he was very flamboyant and talking a lot shit. He was surrounded by some people that took him in the wrong direction. And nobody wanted to show Bender breaking their bike into multiple pieces."
Yet Freeride Entertainment's sold more footage of Bender than any other rider--a lot of it to reality TV. We consumed him. We made him. Did we also spit him back out?
"Some would say so," Bender softly answers pedaling back to the car. "Some would say I didn't take the opportunities. People always ask me what I make off Rampage, and I'm like, 'Nothing.' It's kind of like the purist attitude, just get it done. But I'm always looking for more support, I feel I have more to give back."
The Confluence trail near Auburn follows the north fork of the American River in an open, grassy slope with few trees. The line is mellow enough for Bender and Currier to take turns riding with Saffron on their backs. "Get some!" He yells excitedly as Currier laps a berm with their daughter giggling.
"I didn't really want to stop or hang up the torch until I had jumped 100 vertical feet, and jumped a 200-foot gap," he tells me. "I got stopped short. I wasn't able to physically do that. Now, more times than not guys are doing step-downs. They're not looking for the straight anvil drops. I've always kind of been like, a cliff for me is: How far are you going to fall if you just step off the edge of it?"
Before his injuries piled up, Bender almost did the 100-foot drop for an eager TV crew, but Westerlund intervened.
"These people were calling me to go, 'OK this dude's going do a 100-foot cliff onto a wood transition.' I was like, 'You're going to watch someone die in front of your cameras.'"
The shoot was cancelled, and Bender laments the fact no one's stepped up to that mantle since. Also that people have shifted from riding pure, "unedited" backcountry. "I don't feel like I have a legacy," he answers when pressed.
"But, isn't Rampage your vision?" Krabbe asks.
"It's one tentacle of it," he answers. "But something like Rampage, it has its own energy. It takes so many people to pull that off. And you can still see the fear, you can see those guys scared. They're not willing to die."
Our last morning at the homestead, Bender watches his daughter crawl up the stairs and learn to climb. There's no railing, but she's moving solidly. "Yeah Saf!" He cheers. As breakfast warms on the woodstove, an unknown car pulls in the driveway and he thunders over protectively. It turns out to just be a fan who found out where he lives. Seated with his wife, the guy lavishes Bender with praise, "Seriously, man, you're my favorite mountain biker of all time!" Bender indulges reluctantly for a few minutes, then peers back over his shoulder at the cabin. "Thanks for stopping by," he says. "Breakfast's on the stove, I have to get back to my family."