In the beginning - before the North Shore, before cedar skinnies and teeter-totters, before Kranked - there was “Dangerous” Dan Cowan. Infamous for both his iconic trailbuilding and balls-out riding on a rotating fleet of clapped out bikes in the North Shore Extreme film series, the North Vancouver-raised legend was recently inducted into the Marin County Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Alongside longtime friend Todd “Digger” Fiander, the duo is credited with creating 35 trails - over 55 kilometres worth - in Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains. More importantly, their work defined the style of trail that came to be known worldwide as “North Shore”: towering skinnies, massive wheelie drops, and cedar-slat ladder bridges. Dangerous Dan moved to Bowen Island in 2001, and now he teaches math, physics and science at West Vancouver Secondary. We caught up with the newly minted mountain bike icon by telephone to chat about the Hall of Fame induction, fatherhood and the steep and gnarly he still rides.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Dan. Tell us a bit about your origin story.
The whole shamdangle started in the early ‘90s. I lived on the North Shore for most of my life…I moved there when I was 10. I didn’t start mountain biking until I was 21, but I got into it quick and got good quick. In those days, there was this crazy energy going on. There was really only a half dozen of us out there constantly building, and Digger and I were the most prolific ones.
Going back to the start. Dan on Bookwus, image by Digger.
Dan in the early years of the Flow Show and Flow Riders, unknown photographer.
It’s fair to say that era of mountain biking - the beginning of freeride - was a big shift in the sport. How long do you think that shift happened for?
That spirit of freeride thing went all the way through to the late ‘90s…into the 2000s. That’s when things started to change, in a sense that it was no longer “new.” Of course, freeriding is still happening, but the new stuff since then hasn’t had a paradigm shift like back then. It was a fascinating time to be a part of.
You and Digger have always been recognized for your pivotal roles in that progression, but how does it feel to be officially recognized with your induction into the Hall of Fame?
It’s pretty cool. It’s nice to be part of the history of something like mountain biking. If I wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame, I’m sure I would have been remembered still, but it’s a big honour to be alongside big names like Nicolas Vouilloz, Hans Rey and John Stamstad. These guys are legends for different reasons, but legends nonetheless. I’d never refer to myself as a “legend” but when you get inducted you realize people think of you as something. I’m older now and withdrawn from the bike industry now so the recognition is cool.
How do you feel withdrawn from the industry? Do you mean because the North Shore was a new thing?
I’ve always felt withdrawn from the industry, because of lots of things. There was a time when the [Flying] Circus was in its prime, and that trail was my pinnacle as far as the North Shore went. I was proud that we were building and riding something no one else in the world was doing, but I wasn’t like Wade [Simmons]. I mean, I was a decent rider, but those guys made everything look easy. I guess I did ride stuff that Wade would have problems with…
That stuff on the North Shore was a first for mountain biking. A whole trail would take a year or more to build. It was an investment. One of the things that made me different was the time and effort I was investing without monetary gain. I wasn’t making any money, or doing it for a film shoot, or to impress friends. It was never about that. It was about riding whatever I could imagine myself riding. I didn’t really have any financial end goal.
You didn’t make any money?
I did end up making some money - I made a whack load on an international commercial. But I never planned on it. I got a phone call one day. It was for a commercial for Nissan Xterra about extreme mountain biking. I got the job because no one else could do what I did…it was on The Flying Circus. I did two days of work and made $80,000 or something over two years of residual payments. It was a big payout…then again, I guess you could say I was paid like $30-40/hour if I put, say 2000 hours into building The Flying Circus! In that sense, I guess it paid off, but in the end, I did it purely for the love. I didn’t have a bike or apparel sponsor that I was promoting. It was just for love.
There’s a funny story actually…the day before the Nissan shoot I was up on the Circus shooting with Jorli Ricker for Ride to the Hills. I never got paid for those kinds of shoots. I was hitting the Lobotimizer 2000 over and over. There was just us (Jorli and myself) and a photographer. The next day with Nissan, I’m there with 50+ people, smoke machines, massive lights, bacon-wrapped scallops for lunch. I was about to ride the sky bridge for the 20th time and I turn to tell a dude about the "mountain bike film" shoot the day before to make the contrast. It turns out the guy was a head honcho from Nissan..he was like ‘good thing you didn't hurt yourself.’ Back then, that would have never occurred to me, but he sure was right!
Dan also filled in for Lance Armstrong in this road/offroad commercial that you can view in low res here.
Tyler Klassen and Danger filming during the paradigm shift era in freeride. Images by Ian Hylands.
Tell us about the new course you’re teaching.
I’m teaching a sustainable resource course at West Vancouver Secondary which is kind of for alternative courses. One of the things we are doing is going out and doing trail building class on North Shore. Mountain biking is a resource on the North Shore, and it’s sustainable, so we’re bringing kids out to make ‘em dig!
So you’re still building?
Well, I have two kids so it’s been slow going on the building lately. I loved building, but I know how much time it takes. It’s just not enough time these days to ride. I used to build for 15-20 hours a week. But that’s not realistic now. I guess I could build at night after 9 when the kids go to sleep...[laughter]. 70% of what mountain biking was about for me was building.
Dan had the time before two kids and a teaching career to build wild contraptions like this for his world reknowned Flow Show featured above and right. Unknown photographers.
Do you still ride the Shore?
It’s a bit of a long day to get over there and ride, but Digger and I met up recently because we got inducted together. We hadn’t seen each other in two or three years. It was awesome. I thought ‘I gotta come back here more often. This is wicked.’
What did you think about the trails?
I know there’s a lot of grooming going on in the North Shore now…a lot of “sidewalks in the woods,” so to speak. I’m don’t really like that kind of riding…it’s not what I grew up riding. I like the gnarly, rooty, “which line do you take,” stuff…that kind of thing. I rode Bookwos, one of Digger’s old trails. It hadn’t changed. It was awesome. Even Ladies [Only] was still like that.
Dan liked them tall, skinny...
... and difficult to conquere.
Behind the scenes video from 2009 filming on Bowen Island, filmed by Brody Darough:
Hey, it’s like riding a bike! Maybe six months or a year ago, I took some Russian buddies out for a ride. These guys are in their twenties and they were on a tour of B.C. I took them on some of my Bowen trails, with 15-20-foot drops, and I was able to ride no problem. If I stick to what I know, then I can do it quite easily. I never go up to Whistler or to Coast Gravity Park, but I talk to people who go there, and it sounds like I might be a little scared of that stuff. It’s not what I am used to. It’s all high speed. If I ride on Bowen I am used to this steep, gnarly stuff. The young riders shake their head a little bit. I did Lower Ladies no problem at all when I rode it recently so I am riding at a fairly decent level.
Steep rock with a janky run-in, just how Dan likes it. Image by Derek Dix.
Now that you’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame, what will your legacy be?
I believe my Hall of Fame inclusion is also a product of the other hardcore [trailbuilder] contributors around at the time. Like Digger, of course. He definitely influenced me. I also had friends who helped me with building on many occasions - people who were so stoked with the whole scene that they inspired me to work even harder.
I think I have inspired people to build and ride just for the love of it, which is cool. That’s what it’s all about. I love seeing people building North Shore-style trails all over the world. That’s what is cool to see.
I'd like to thank some people who were an influence on me...in the early days and into the 2000s. Not necessarily in this order...
The Main Flowriders over the years: Mike Laudrum Andrew Baker Dharma Fontain Kyle Johnson Tyler Klassen Doctor Donald D. Diamonds (aka Mike Debuc) Erik Burgon Steve Popma Ryan Hayes Richard Gaspiroti Jonny Rox
The Original Flowriders (and team Herberber Pro): "Mountain Bike" Mike MacGreggor Gabe Szczurek Chad Hansen Todd Lancaster Ian Moult Darryl Steen
Trail builders: Todd Fiander GMG (Gabe, Mike, and Gerry) Ross Kirkwood (7th Secret) Jeremy Powers
Riders: Wade Simmons Brett Tippie Richie Schley Hans Rey Johnny Smoke Cam Rodgers Andrew Shandro Mike Kinrade And all the super talented riders I have had the honor of riding with on the trails and in the Flowshow over the years...probably forgetting some...sorry...but thanks!
Also I should recognize that I was payed by a few bike companies over the years: Yeti Lizard Skins Ellsworth And I received frames from Brodie, RB Bikes and Banshee.
I'm currently riding a Cove Bike...thank you Chaz!
Also big thanks and props to Pinkbike! You guys have being around long enough to fully understand and appreciate everything which the North Shore and "Dangerous Dan" stand for. You guys keep the spirit of the sport alive and meaningful. Hats off to you all!
- "Dangerous" Dan Cowan
If you ride or have ridden on the North Shore, then you can thank guys like Dangerous Dan, Digger and more for laying the groundwork for a revolution in mountain bike riding and trail building styles.
From 5.09 in this vid www.pinkbike.com/video/385197 Dan rides some of the stuff on Bowen in 2014.
I went as far as to build a replica discombobulator about 5" off the ground. I think I was the only one of our crew back in the day that ever cleaned it.
Ahhh the good old days.
I used to watch the early NSX tapes every night after work dreaming of the weekend and when it came i would go and push the most technical stuff I could find in my area. You truly pioneered our sport and shifted it into territories that may not have been.
The word free ride has been fought over, copyrighted, hated, loved and practiced ever since then and in my world, as I am sure many others, that word and what is means to us all will carry on for the rest of our days. I still have a lot of scars and great memories from trying to ride "the shore" lines as we all have called them.... Thank you Dan!! Best wishes brother!