Rider reaching for the moon
Sam Reynolds is one of the world’s best mountain bikers - and a leading designer of trail obstacles for pro riders. At the Audi Nines MTB, he gives his imagination free rein.
He hurtles down the steep, dusty slope at breakneck speed. Then the launch off the ramp. High above the canyon gap, he stretches his legs out behind him, sailing vertically through the air. His only contact with the bike is his grip on the handlebars. He flies 22 meters Superman-style before landing safely on the other side of the gap. This jump at the Red Bull Rampage mountain bike event in the U.S. state of Utah was the feat that put Sam Reynolds on the map in 2015. The image of a cycling superhero soaring across a canyon went viral. Even today, the native of West Sussex in England is still asked about it - but he doesn’t consider that a reason to wax nostalgic. “It was definitely a high point in my career,” the 27-year-old says. “But I’m always looking forward to unique new tricks.” Sam Reynolds has been a professional mountain biker for nine years now. During that time, he has racked up countless international successes and pushed the boundaries of what is possible on a mountain bike. But cycling is not his only hobbyhorse - he also designs mountain bike trails. And ranks among the world’s top builders of wooden and dirt ramps. The two pursuits focus above all on one thing: progress.
So Sam Reynolds got the job of designing the trail for one of the most prestigious mountain bike events the world has to offer: the
Audi Nines MTB. At the end of the competition season, the invitation-only group of world-class riders set the bar for the following year’s tricks on the massive jumps. The event series debuted in 2008 as a freeski contest called Nine Knights. An additional summer event, a mountain bike extravaganza, launched in 2011. Originally held at various locations in the Alps, the Audi Nines MTB moved to the Hunsrück-Hochwald region, smack in the middle of Germany on the border between the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland, in September 2018. It’s here that
Bikepark Idarkopf - the biggest mountain bike park in Germany - is currently taking shape. And not too far away, the Audi Nines MTB organizers discovered the perfect location to build a mind-blowing trail devoted to tricks: an abandoned quarry close to the village of Birkenfeld. “It looked like an alien planet out there. It was perfect,” Sam Reynolds says of the barren, rocky landscape. The site immediately lent itself to the slogan: “Send it to the Moon!” On this “lunar mission,” Reynolds served not only as trail designer, builder and host but also as a guinea pig, since the seasoned pro is always the first to test out any new jump.
“There aren’t many people on the planet who can build the kind of jumps that propel you 18 or 20 meters. Sam has more experience at that than anyone else in the world,” says Audi Nines organizer Nico Zacek, who is himself a former freeski pro. But Zacek’s admiration for Reynolds extends beyond his skills as a trail builder to his performance as a participant: “His mountain biking experience on monster trails is just incredible. He rides with great style and has awesome control of the bike.” This skill is the key to his success. In 2018, the seasoned Reynolds claimed the honors for Best Freeride Line at the Audi Nines MTB. What sets the Audi Nines apart is that it is created by riders for riders. The competition is held over the course of an entire week. Photographers and cameramen document the mountain bikers’ runs over a series of obstacles. There are no external judges. At the end of the week, the participants themselves review the video footage and select the winners in various categories. “Being ranked by judges is a big problem in our sport because their scores are based on very personal opinions,” Reynolds explains. “But you can hardly argue with the best riders’ decisions. They know what’s tough. So it means a great deal to me when they like my performance.”
Reynolds discovered mountain biking as a kid, when friends showed him that you could do a lot more with this kind of bike than just pedal to school. “I was instantly hooked,” he recalls. “It gave me a sense of freedom and independence that I totally loved.” Reynolds started out doing time trials but soon switched to tricks over jumps. After racking up initial successes in national competitions, he turned pro at 18. From early on, he took a shovel to the UK’s forests to create his own ramps and trails. Then, in 2014, he built his first giant kickers for his own event, DarkFest, in South Africa. “At the time, those were the biggest jumps ever created,” he says. He has been designing the trails for the Audi Nines MTB with Austrian aces Andi Brewi and Clemens Kaudela since 2016. They study the specific conditions at the event location and discuss options. “I start out by proposing my absolute dream course,” Reynolds says. “Then Clemens and Andi decide what’s actually feasible.” Finally, a 3D drawing of the trail is produced on a computer. But once the backhoe and shovels are out, it merely serves as a no-strings-attached guideline. Sometimes, an obstacle can’t be built because there’s a boulder in the way. Or a new idea pops up during the build. “We always adapt to conditions on the ground,” Reynolds says. “And experience is a big part of that.” Each year, they make it their mission to produce ever bigger and more creative obstacles for the Audi Nines MTB.
Constant progress is the reason he’s still riding strong at 27. He admits that landing a new trick is the best feeling in the world. What spurs him on is the drive to taste that feeling over and over again and keep on improving. He considers the Audi Nines MTB the perfect playground for that. The team tweaks the jumps so the riders can continually try out new tricks. “That’s why there are more world firsts here than at any other event,” Reynolds says. “Fans everywhere just can’t wait for the latest highlights on video.” With that, the Englishman has hit on another standout feature of the Audi Nines: The organizers bank on the footage spreading on social media - with tremendous success. Millions of fans around the globe click through the videos. Offbeat obstacles such as a wooden knight’s castle at a previous staging and the giant satellite dish at this one pique fans’ interest in the shots. “The Audi Nines is definitely the most progressive freeride mountain biking event on the planet,” Reynolds states. What grabs him is the professionalism coupled with a mega-dose of insanity: “You need that to keep the adrenaline rushing and push the sport to its limits.”
As a mountain biker, Sam Reynolds shines not only because of his constant striving to reach new heights but also his exceptional versatility. Most of today’s top mountain bikers usually specialize in one discipline. But Reynolds is at home on all kinds of mountain bikes, from the small, maneuverable dirt bikes to the big, full-suspension freeride versions that make pulling off tricks more challenging. “I used to be seriously focused on competitions. But now I get to go wild on all bikes and in videos. My sponsors have given me their full support.” His move away from just competitive action is, however, also linked to a severe accident. “The 2012 crash in France when I cracked my vertebrae was a turning point for me. It changed my outlook on things.” Like so many stars in extreme sports, before the crash he felt he always had to go for the sickest tricks. He was not aware of the pressure he was putting himself under. Since coming back from the accident, he still pushes the envelope - but only according to his own rules. That caused a stir at Red Bull Rampage in 2016. A year after performing his legendary “Superman” jump, he refused to participate in the popular and highly publicized competition. The reason: the lack of safety nets, which he considered a serious risk. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Reynolds says, although he is more than happy with his current situation. “Nowadays, I get to travel to spectacular locations and shred radical trails with awesome people.” Nico Zacek is impressed that, for all his success, Reynolds has kept his feet on the ground: “Sam is a well-mannered guy who is an absolute professional with amazing skills. Plus, he’s hungry. He’s always thinking up new projects.” So it’ll be exciting to see what ideas he brings to the Audi Nines MTB in 2019.