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Mike Hopkins Interview

Two Seasons - One Rider

Words by Cam McRae.
April 30th, 2009

I remember wondering who Mike Hopkins was when I first started seeing him in ads in bike magazines.  He was nailing big moves but how did he get sponsored and stay under the radar?  It turns out Mike was at cruising elevation – well above the radar – in the world of freeskiing, when he was signed by Scott bikes.  Since that time Mike’s been making his mark on photoshoots in films like Kranked 7 and the soon to be released Life Cycles as well as putting a burly stamp on the 2008 Red Bull Rampage.  Following the footsteps of Richie Schley and Brett Tippie, pioneer freeride crossover athletes, Mike gets paid to ride on snow and dirt – and he’s stomping it all year long.  Here’s a look at my effort at getting to know Mike a little better.

nsmb – Please give us a Mike Hopkings geography lesson.

Mike Hopkins – I first experienced the light of day in the coastal utopia known as Victoria B.C..  From there I moved up in the world, way up … to the 6000 foot pastures of Rossland.  This is were it all began, an old mining town turned to athlete breeding ground.  With nothing to do but ski in the winter and bike in the summer, it’s the perfect place for me to train and that is why I am still based here.  


 This is how Mike stays busy in the winter months.

How old are you?

I have been around the sun 23 times.

Started skiing when/where?

My dad first pushed me down the hill when I was 7 at Red Resort (in Rossland B.C.).


 And this is how his summers go down.  Photo ~ John Wellburn/Kranked 7

Who were the athletes you admired growing up?  What about now?

I spent my whole adolescent life chasing around my big brother, so I think as a kid it was definitely Joe (Hopkins). Now I really like how Jon Olsson and the Athertons approach their careers.  Jon is always trying new things, not only on the slopes, but from a business standpoint as well.  He takes advantage of every opportunity and is innovative in the process.  For example, he took the initiative in posting a website to broadcast the initial, and newest craze in action sports media “the video blog”, which has now become an industry standard.  He has also organized the single most anticipated event of the winter season, the Jon Olsson Super Session.  Somewhere in there he manages to maintain the highest level of athletic performance. It’s pretty unreal what the guy accomplishes in one rotation of the sun.  Then there are the Athertons, much the same as Jon they are highly motivated and they just plain work for what they have.  The whole family is on top of the world because they are taking a world class approach to the sport, true professional you might say.  Sure there is a ton of natural talent (while it’s probably in their genes), but they haven’t relied solely on their abilities, they have taken that next step.  Basically I am inspired by athletes who understand how to make the most of their unique situation, it’s a balance between pushing yourself as an athlete and finding new means of keeping everyone “in the know”.


 Not afraid to go big in the mountains.           

Favorite place to ski/ride?

Skiing I seriously have to say Red Resort.  It wasn’t until I started bouncing around the globe, that I realized how good I have it.  Snowbird is up on the list as well.  For biking Whistler is pretty much the bee’s knees.  You bag more vert than anywhere else.  Also places like Chatel in France, Nelson, Rossland, Kamloops … pretty much anywhere two wheels can spin I am going to have a good time. 

What was life like growing up?  What sports did you do?  Were you a ski racer?  What was your local hill?  Where you already riding a mountain bike as a kid?

Life growing up was rough.  Up-hill everywhere, always in four feet of snow (when your physically barely cresting a meter in altitude it’s a bit of a struggle getting around).  Nah jokes, I couldn’t have had it any better.  Living in a small town you get to know everyone, so there is a real sense of community.  I was a pretty restless kid so my mom put me in every sport out there soccer, rugby, tennis, swimming, ski racing … I don’t know if it was more for her benefit or mine but I was all for it.  All other activities took a back seat when I started ski racing.  I loved it, couldn’t get enough of it, I would watch guys like Hermann Maier every week and then skip out of school to go train gates at Red.  On weekends we would go to races where I got to hang out with friends …  it was awesome.  My Mom pulled out all the stops and made everything possible.  As long as we did well in school she was backing, us kids 1000%.  Biking was a little different.  I rode my bike everywhere as a kid because I had nothing else to do.  Then one fateful day my Dad took my brother and I to a World Cup race. Once I saw John Tomac and Missy G it was all over.  All I wanted to do was ride my bike.  That’s how it was growing up, I had a dream childhood.

red bull rampage 2008
Hopkins was one of only four riders to attempt the monster canyon gap at Rampage this year. Photo ~ David Ferguson.
       
I know you’ve had some results in skiing comps.  Can you tell me about those? 

I have done well in ski competitions in the past. Now I don’t compete anymore.  My main focus is filming and shooting, but to get there, you have to compete.  2006 was my big break, I did the Canadian Big Mountain Tour which is composed of all the IFSA (International Freeski Association) stops in Canada (only three). I competed in the Canadian Championships at Red Resort, The Big Mountain Challenge at Lake Louise, and the Big Mountain Challenge held in Fernie.  I crashed at Red ( I always struggle on home turf), but placed 2nd in Lake Louise, and backed that up with a win in Fernie, so I snagged the Canadian Title.  From there things snowballed, I picked up a few new sponsors, kept doing well in competitions and the next thing you know, I am where I am today.
 
There haven’t been many two-season athletes in the mountain bike world.  Richie Schley had a pretty good run as a sponsored skier before freesking really took off and obviously there is Palmer but he seems to be able to do anything he wants.  Brett Tippie is another – he was a sponsored alpine snowboarder who travelled the race circuit. I think both Richie and Brett started out their sponsorship careers on the bike.  Which did you start out with and when?

I picked up my first sponsor when I was 17.  Pretty funny story actually, I was standing at the top of a pretty decent sized cliff when a guy popped out of the woods behind me, and calmly asked “If your going off there can you wait until I get to the bottom?”.  I waited and luckily I stomped the landing.  Once I rode out, the same guy came up to me handed me a business card reading “Mike Clarke” and asked if I would like to ride for Rossignol (thanks again Mike).  People say timing is everything and I believe it, that day is when it all started.  Biking came later, skiing lead the charge.

red bull rampage 2008
 Mike has a higher profile on snow than dirt but he’s moving up the mtb ladder as well.

When did you decide to pursue a career as a sponsored mountain biker as well?

Skiing had been going really well for a year or two but I was always biking.  It wasn’t until I met the likes of Derek Frankowski that the biking career started to take shape.  Not everyday does the senior photographer for “Bike” magazine move into town.  Derek and I met through Tyler at Revolution Bike Shop (Thanks Ty), and we’ve been teamed up ever since.  D-rock has helped me throughout my career and I wouldn’t be where I am without his influence (But then again, I probably wouldn’t be addicted to coffee.  For the record if you work with Frankowski keep in mind, he’s a caffeine “pusher”).  After our first season of shooting together, he pointed Adrian Montgomery from Scott Bikes in my direction and once I got that phone call I was thinking “I could actually do this.” and from that point it’s been full steam ahead.

red bull rampage 2008
 Through the Emerald Forest for Life Cycles.  Photo ~ Derek Frankowski

When did you start riding mountain bikes and how did you get hooked?

The first world cup I attended, 1996.

Did learning about sponsorship in one sport give you a leg up in the other?

At first I didn’t really know what to expect.  I was pretty nieve when it came down to the business logistics and knowing how to manage myself, but I was working with people who always treated me fairly, so that definitely made it easier.  One again Frankowski coached me through my first couple years but now I know what I am doing. 

red bull rampage 2008
 Riding at Silver Star for  Life Cycles.  Photo ~ Derek Frankowski

Most of the athletes in each sport can focus on just one.  Do you think it’s harder to pursue two sports rather than focus on one year round?  You could be doing the endless winter or summer thing if you only did one sport.  What are the pros and cons to that?

It’s definitely difficult balancing both.  I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be in the position I am, but it is more difficult than I originally anticipated.  The hardest thing about doing both professionally is the “Catch-up Period.”  In the spring when I finish skiing, I have to take a look around the bike industry and access how high the bar has been raised.  I usually have a month to bring my riding up to a competitive level.  With more athletes riding year-round and the speed the sport is progressing it’s making things harder and harder.  A huge part of biking and skiing is having the right mindset.  The two sports are mentally very similar and by keeping my head in the right spot eases the transition.  It’s difficult to find myself off the pace before the season even begins, but in a way it’s to my benefit.  Skiing gives me a break from Biking and vice versa.  In-turn this keeps things fresh, when the bike season starts I am stoked (in the true sense of the word).  There is always something to learn which is the fun part for me, and I work twice as hard because I am having fun.  I could be doing just one year round, but given the chance I think anyone would do both. 

red bull rampage 2008
Mike and his Scott Gambler. His experience in freeskiing comps was evident at Rampage. Photo ~ Cam McRae

It seems like there is more money in the ski side and that there are more spots to go around.  Is that true?  How would you describe the two worlds in terms of competitiveness, cash, movie parts – the whole deal?

Skiing is an older sport, it has been developed and refined over the years.  There is more money in the ski business but it’s a much larger industry.  There are more competitions, more movie companies, but there are also more athletes, everything is relative.  From an athletes perspective both sports are extremely competitive, and to make it to the professional level you have to work your ace off, but it doesn’t stop there, you need to keep working, keep evolving because there are thousands of guys that will do anything to take your spot.  For me it’s an exciting time to be a mountain biker, the sport is young and influential.  There are huge opportunities because there is so much that hasn’t been done.  Biking still going through it’s growing pains.  For example when I go to a ski movie premiere, I know what to expect from each production company, but bike films are still young and seem to be reinventing themselves one season at a time, it’s unreal.  As for competitions, it’s hard to watch skiers win $25,000 at any one of the handful of Superpipe competitions, when we’re at events like Red Bull Rampage risking our careers for a fraction of that prize money, but once again you have to look at the whole picture.  I have heard mountain bike athletes complain that they don’t make enough for what they put themselves through.  In a way I can sympathize with that (when comparing with other sports) but we (the athletes) have to realize that it’s a small industry so there’s not a large amount of sponsor money to go around.  If the money’s not there then it’s just not there.  Biking will one day be what skiing is today, but it’s going to take time.

red bull rampage 2008
 Photo ~ Dan Milner   

What films have you worked on in both summer and winter?

I am really amped to be involved in what will be the most aesthetic bike movie to date.  “Life Cycles” is going to blow the roof off the bike world.  I have worked with Derek Frankowski and Ryan Gibb through this past season and I will be continuing filming into the 2009.  I am talking with a couple other bike production companies about this summer but nothing is set in stone yet.  This ski season I am working closely with Rossignol on a couple of different projects, mostly web videos, but I will keep you guys posted. 

How would you describe the process for each?  What do you enjoy about each and what is a bit of a hassle?

It’s usually a good time.  There is a lot of standing around waiting for the right conditions, but you get used to it.  Wether it’s snow or dirt both operate about the same … stand around till your cold and not feeling it … then flip the switch and throw down.  Pretty standard. 

Most sponsored athletes have a niche these days.  How would you describe your style for both sports?

Describe my style eh? I hope people would say I am versatile or well rounded.  My style is my style, kind of hard to describe, that’s like someone asking you to describe your personality.  I ride a little bit of everything but the majority of my time I spend working on downhill.  Ideally, I want to be fast, fluid, and smooth, on features of all sizes.  If my riding says that, then awesome.  “Style” is a huge component of both sports and it’s the reason I focus on filming and shooting stills. Some guys are geared towards competing, but I am not a competition rider.  I make my mark on the printed page and on film.  Different strokes for different folks.  On a riding basis, I really enjoy challenging moves, not necessarily who can throw the biggest trick, but more along the lines of “is this possible” or “will it work”.  It doesn’t have to be on a massive scale either, it can be smaller and technical, something that’s difficult to ride.   I am a bit of a perfectionist and I know how I want things to look, so I will keep doing something till it works.

red bull rampage 2008
Whistler is Hopkins’ favourite place to ride bikes.  Photo ~ Ian Hylands

How many free ski athletes does Rossi sponsor?  Can you tell me a bit about the group?

Well the International Team is pretty tight.  There’s only ten of us on it. Everyone is a character and we all get along super well, which it makes for a relaxed environment.  Rossi has really taken the next step in team development.  Most of the time when you’re on a team you may ski with a teammate once or twice a year, but Rossi has put together trips where the whole team travels together.  I just got back from a trip with Sage, Austin, Ian, Kye, and Lindsay.  It was sick.  
 
How did you get hooked up with Scott?  

Frankowski talked with Adrian Montgomery at Scott in 2004 and it just went from there.

They are involved in the ski world as well – did that help?

Well it did, I signed with Scott for skiing the same time I signed with them for biking.  The guys at Scott are awesome and have had my back since day one.

You must get a lot of winter heli time.  What would you call your best trip recently?  How did that go down?

Well I am heading to France in a couple of days where I will be filming in the Alps for a two weeks.  Heli in the Alps … no big deal, haha.  

red bull rampage 2008
This was Hopkins’ landing procedure after the canyon gap.  Somehow he managed to ride it out. Photo ~ Cam McRae.

Safety must be an even bigger deal in the winter.  How do the filmers approach avy safety etc?  There must also be pressure to push the envelope.  How do you deal with that?

Safety is always our biggest concern.  When we’re filming, everyone involved has taken avi courses, is knowledgeable of the conditions, and using the proper avi equipment.  We also have professional guides with us, who have been monitoring the snowpack around the clock.  The majority of crews have been involved in avalanches and respect the risks involved.  I have never met a cinematographer who forced me to do something or put in a situation where I didn’t feel comfortable.  Everyone understands that we are walking a fine line, and ultimately it’s the athletes call.  As an athlete you have to know when it’s time to step outside of your comfort zone, but everything hinges on mother nature.  When the stars do align, the pressure I feel comes from myself, because I know the window of opportunity is limited.  In that short amount of time I know I have to be on my game.  All in all we’re as safe as we can be, things still do happen but we try our best to minimize the risk.   

Have you had any close calls this year? It’s been a tough one.

Nothing too crazy, I was buried on my last trip at Snow Water but that was the result of over-shooting a jump … good times.  I was also hit by a slough from someone cutting above me at Red Resort and was flushed through a bunch of trees.  That was fairly intense, narrowly missed being wrapped around a few trunks.  Other than that it’s been alright.  This isn’t the year to be out there pushing the limits, so I have been keeping it fairly mellow. 

Rampage was a break through for you on the mountain side.  Did your skiing experience came in handy there?

Rampage was so much fun. That whole event defines what mountain biking is.  It was really similar to being in a big mountain ski comp, but you had to build and ride your lines rather than just ski them.  It was my first time attending so I didn’t know what to expect.  I had heard so many people refer to it being just like a ski event, so I treated it that way.  In skiing qualifying is huge and the majority of competitors don’t make it to finals because they get over excited.  At Rampage I played it safe on day one (almost too safe), and waited for finals to cut loose.  I went into it with the same principles as I would a ski comp and it worked out, so it was a huge crutch.

red bull rampage 2008
 You can’t get any lower.  From Life Cycles.  Photo ~ Derek Frankowski
 
How did you like the contest over all?  Anything you would change?

Really good, I did everything I wanted to do, rode the way I wanted to ride, and ended up 6th. I couldn’t have asked for much more than that.  I had a minor glitch in my finals run but all in all it was an amazing experience.  I feel it is “The” event that has been missing in mountain biking.  When you have a handful of the best bike handlers in the world competing on a venue of that magnitude, you can physically witness the sport evolving.  It’s RAD!  This years event had it’s set backs.  The one run qualifier wasn’t really a hit with the riders and we could have used an extra day to build lines for the finals.  I know a lot of guys guinea pigged features on their lines in the first scoring run.  It was too rushed.  This aside I thought that the organizers did a great job. The weather threw them a few curve balls and changes had to be made.  Given the circumstances it went off without a hitch.   Big thanks goes out to Todd Barber and Derek Westerland for making it happen, and Scotty Carlson and Chris Lawrence for supporting my cause.
      
What would you like to accomplish on the bike in 09?

Film, Film, Film …  I want to finish up shooting for Life Cycles, work with another bike production company, launch my video blog, film with a major ski production company and the list goes on …  I have my goals and if all goes well it should be an interesting year.

hopkins kranked 7
 More of Mike from Kranked 7.  Photo ~ John Wellburn.

What could the mountain biking world learn from skiing and vice versa?  At Rampage and other mountain bike events on the freeride side the riders are all pretty friendly and cool with each other.  Is it similar in the ski world?

Well first off, both industries are a twisted combination of self-centered, over paid, under-educated clowns whose lifestyles are fueled by pestering media outlets like a certain mountain bike websites that I may or may not be doing an interview with right now, haha, I kid I kid.  Everyone gets along with everyone, I am quickly learning that “high fives” are considered an international language.  The two industries are really similar in that respect, I mean we’re skiing and mountain biking for a living … what’s there not to be smiling about.  

Who are your winter sponsors?  Summer sponsors?

Summer:
Scott, Titec, Shimano, Marzocchi, E-13, Giro, Dakine, Rossignol (clothing), Skull Candy and one more big one but it’s not finalized, so I will keep it under wraps.  Still looking for a tire sponsor, so if there’s any one out there interested …

Winter:
Rossignol, Scott, Skull Candy, Giro, Dakine, Red Resort
   
Your Web site has a very ‘freeride entertainment’ feel.  Who was the designer?

Well, I owe it all to Jer Kenning and Scotty Carlson at Juicy Studios (juicystudios.com).  These guys are the multi-media pimps of the modern world. They do a huge amount of work in the action sports industry, including Freeride Entertainment, so I guess you could say my site has a little NWD flavor.  Jer and I have been working on this for a year now and it’s SICK !! (from my point of view).   I am in the process of putting together a video blog that will follow me through my travels in both the ski and bike seasons.  Be sure to keep an eye out for it and I update my blog weekly, if your ever interested in what’s happening in the world of “Hopkins”. 

mike-hopkins.com

Stay tuned to hear what Richie Schley and Brett Tippie had to say about being a two season sponsored athlete.

Anything to say about Mike Hopkins or his life on snow and dirt?  Right this way…