Steps to the Top | R-Dog
It’s about 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Rotorua, New Zealand. Time to kick off Crankworx Rotorua with the Oceana Whip-Off Championship, the opening event at this new Crankworx venue. The competitor list is a mixed bag of freeriders and racers; it’s easy to tell pick out the racers, they’ve got the bikes with number plates, perhaps still a bit dirty from downhill practice just a couple hours earlier. Whip-Off Champs isn’t about clocks, though, but about a bunch different mountain biking disciplines coming together to have some fun and show off a bit of style. Here, the definition of style is soulful—maybe even a bit old school by some accounts. Here, it’s all about how ‘sick’ a rider can whip. And the amazing thing is that while the panel of judges will use small imperfections in each jump to determine the podium, everyone can recognize when a rider gets it right.
Perhaps that’s the thing that makes this event so wildly popular with riders and spectators—it’s an event that focuses on one simple, yet very complex thing. Style. “You can’t buy style,” says event founder and judge Sven Martin. “You can’t learn style. You can’t teach style. Everybody wants style. It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest, or the most technical, or the best—if you don’t have style, you don’t get respect. Whether you’re a racer or a freerider, the thing that sets you apart is style.”
Riders begin rolling in toward the 40-foot-long tabletop jump that serves as the judges’ one and only scoring reference for each run. The run lasts only a few seconds, and then the riders push their bikes back up the steep hill, get in line, and then give it another go. For about an hour, this is really all just for fun. The judges are paying attention, but won’t start getting critical until the official competition starts at about 6:00.
The atmosphere is infectious, as rider after rider drops in, throws the biggest whip he or she can muster, and then pushes back through the increasingly dense sea of spectators. There are clearly some favorites early on. Buzz at the venue earlier in the day had Ryan “R-Dog” Howard feeling like a favorite, which wasn’t much of a stretch, since he was awarded “Best Overall Style” at the 2014 Whip-Off World Championships at Crankworx Whistler.
Other early frontrunners were less likely. Connor Fearon, a possible contender for honors for Friday’s downhill, wasn’t even sure he was going to join the contest. “I wasn’t even going to do it,” says the 21-year-old Australian. “But then I was like, ahh, I’ll do one…do one again. I keep going [back] up.” The judging starts, and the riders begin doing laps for real. Riders go bigger, the crowd is louder, and breaks in the action, to tend to those who have crashed, get longer.
After a half hour, those who didn’t make the cut are asked to become spectators, and the finalists push back up the hill for more runs. For some, the long day of practice for Slopestyle, Speed & Style, Downhill, Enduro—or any combination thereof—begins to show, as jumps become less consistent and the push back toward the drop-in becomes slower. But R-Dog is just getting started. He’s throwing the back of his bike to the right on one run and to the left the next. And he’s seems to be going bigger on each attempt.
As the clock ticks down on the Oceana Whip-Off Championship, the rider from Aptos, California, picks up the pace on his return trips to the top of the hill. When he can’t pedal through the crowd, he runs, passing other riders who are taking it easier, or just catching their breath. For the better part of two hours, R-Dog has been doing this focused lap, looking to deliver the best whip he possibly can. After the five-minutes-to-go mark, he manages three more runs. Most others only get one or two—if that many. The contest ends, and the fact that R-Dog is the champ isn’t even in question. He’s got all the style and plenty of desire on this day.
“I’m just addicted to bike riding, so I had to get it in,” he says. “This is my favorite type of riding…just jammin’ with all the boys…it doesn’t happen enough. I’m just taking advantage.”