Freeride mountain biking is a rough sport, but for Reno's Cam Zink it's been a rough ride since the last time he won in Whistler back in 2006. Not only was that the last time he's won a major event, it was pretty much the last time he's been healthy.
Still, Zink kept thinking positively, training new tricks, and making comeback after comeback until he redeemed himself on Saturday night with a huge win at the Monster Energy Slopestyle - the crown jewel of the Crankworx festival and one of the biggest freeride competitions in the world.
"It just feels great, after all the injuries, all that time," he said. "The last time I won a contest is when I won here, which was the last time I was really healthy. I wanted to show everyone I could do it."
Zink said he didn't even think about the prize money, which was $15,000 to the winner. "The win was the only thing that mattered to me."
Of the 24 invited riders, only 17 turned out to this year's event as injuries have taken their toll on the now international Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour. Of that 17, at least five others were injured during the show on Saturday, although all of the riders managed to make it off course on their own two feet. Greg Watts, the 2009 Crankworx champion, also had some bad luck and flatted out his back tire off the Monster Drop - then proceeded to launch the bottom air anyway.
Canada's top hopefuls went out in the qualifiers. Darren Berrecloth put in a spectacular run that included every kind of spin and trick you can do without getting inverted, but crashed on the final kicker and injured his hand. Whistler's Brandon Semenuk - who is currently leading the freeride tour points list with wins at Crankworx Colorado, the Claymore Challenge and Chatel Mountain and a second place finish at 26 Trix - gave the crowd one of its scariest moments after under-rotating a backflip off the bottom air. He managed to walk off course, but was done for the day. Without the crash his run may have been good enough to win the contest.
Zink's winning run featured a long back flip off the bottom air, a few variations on 360 spins and a daring front flip off the Volkswagen jump - the only one landed this year, and the first of Zink's career.
"I've never done one before," said Zink. "The last time I tried one was at last year's Crankworx and I broke my ankle. I knew after the first run in the qualifier that I had to crank it up a notch and that was an option I looked at. I don't think I knew I was going to do it until I was heading into the jump, but I'm so happy I did it and that I'm walking away healthy."
Zink also said it was unfortunate to have so many injuries. He was hoping to get a showdown against Semenuk in the finals.
"The reality is that we're all good friends, and seeing your friends go down is never fun," he said. "For one thing you have to go back out and ride the same trick that your friend fell on, which gets into your head. But the worst part is being up top and knowing that your fiend is hurt. I was really relieved to see Brandon walk away from that, it was supposed to be one of the easiest tricks on his run."
Zink's run was worth 95 points, while Mike Montgomery - an up and coming American rider - placed second with a 91.5 to earn $7,500. Kelowna's Casey Groves, who got his start in Whistler during a small slopestyle contest called the Air Affair two years ago - placed third with a score of 89.5 and earned $3,000. Sam Duek of Chilliwack and Kelly McGarry of New Zealand rounded out the top five.
For Groves, a podium finish was better than he expected.
"I feel amazing right now," he said. "I came here just to ride and to try to get in the top 10. To get a top three is totally amazing, this will change my life."
A win at the Air Affair in 2008 gave Groves an automatic entry into Crankworx. He had a solid performance in the Volkswagen Trick Showdown, then crashed in the slopestyle. He also crashed last year, but turned a few heads in the qualifier and picked up his first sponsor as a result.
Groves kept at it and focused on learning new tricks and taking his riding to another level. But what really inspired him was to see the crowd of 20,000 (estimated) lining the slopestyle course.
"Being up at the top and looking out and seeing 20,000 people - it was just ridiculous, my heart was pounding," he said.
Despite his crash, Semenuk ended his day in eighth place, while Berrecloth was 11 th . Mitchell Chubey of Langley, who previously lived in Whistler, was 14 th .