Crankworx announced yesterday that the Crankworx slopestyle events - including Joyride - will have women competing alongside the men going forward. After watching the Joyride course ladies' jump jam this summer, I'm all for it. The women riding today are doing things many of us never even imagined possible, and the future just looks brighter.
Upon hearing the news, Brian Park and I caught up with the person who knows it best: Crankworx Managing Director Darren Kinnaird has been involved with Crankworx since the early days so he's seen almost the whole progression and clearly wants to help the sport be the best it can be.
The full podcast was originally published here. Find it also at the bottom of this article and wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a text version of the highlights, essentially the parts of the conversation I found most interesting with filler words taken out and some light edits for clarity. If you can't tell, we're excited to see the direction Crankworx has taken. It's great to see our sport step up to provide opportunities to the athletes.
Darren, you've got some very cool news for the freeride mountain bike world.Darren:
We’re really excited to announce that starting in 2024, women are going to be competing in slopestyle at Crankworx. They'll be competing at all four stops of the Crankworx World Tour next year in slopestyle. Alicia:
How would you describe where women's slopestyle is right now in general?Darren:
In the early days I would say, in the sense that from a competitive perspective, we've had women competing at Bronze and Silver level events on the FMB the last couple of years. The challenge with those formats though is that you haven't had the best women all come together at the same time to go head-to-head. So they've been competing for points, but not against each other. Now this is going to bring the best of the best female slopestyle athletes to compete against one another.Alicia:
How did you know we were at the tipping point when the women's freeride world was ready for that?Darren:
This summer when we hosted the women's event at the Summer Series in SilverStar, the women having a full week to train on that course and then seeing what they were able to do and what they were able to unlock, it just became so obvious to me. I think in the back of our minds, we always thought that 2025 would be the year, but after witnessing that, it was, “No, let's make this happen. The industry is ready for it. The women are ready for it.” I didn't want to hold them back any longer.Brian:
Is this a reaction to the pushback when there wasn't a women's category at Rampage? It doesn't seem like it, at least from my standpoint.Darren:
No, our push to have equality in mountain biking for women goes back to 2014, 2015, when we were one of the first entities in action sports to offer equal prize money, equal broadcast opportunities, and then the shared podiums for men and women across all events in the World Tour. This announcement sort of completes the full cycle with all of the events.
This past year, each of the different local organizing committees found ways for the women to have opportunities to ride the slopestyle courses. Even in just a few hours that they got on the courses this past year, you could see the enthusiasm and the excitement and the emotion and what it meant to women.
It wasn't just that they were just riding it, they were hitting the jumps and hitting the features. And there was just a sense of “We're ready, let's go.”Alicia:
I'm trying to understand the push-pull between the idea that events need to provide women the space to show up and ride and prove themselves, and the idea that women need to already be riding at that level to prove that they need that space before the events provide it. How do you navigate that balance?Darren:
I think Caroline Buchanan says this all the time, that if you can't see someone doing it and you have no one to look up to, then you have nothing to aspire to. I always tell the story, I think it was 2013 or ‘14, and there was the Always ‘Like a Girl’ commercial that was going viral at the time. And I remember as a group, we watched that a few times and sort of thought, you know what, we never ever want people to say, “Oh, she mountain bikes like a girl.” Like it was “She's an amazing mountain biker.” It's been super important for us to find ways regardless of the resources, the cost, whatever, to provide those opportunities. It takes tremendous support from partners to allow these things to happen. You touched on Rampage, and Red Bull has been one of the biggest supporters of us making this happen. We just entered into a new partnership a couple of years ago with Red Bull and as we were discussing this new partnership and aligning values, having women ultimately compete in slopestyle was a key goal for both of us. It's partners like that helping us with the resources along with brands like SRAM and Maxxis, this has been key for them as well. Like I said, just the belief that if we provide the platform for women to compete, they will kick the door down.
We've seen that in every other discipline we've done this in. I'm really excited to see what they're capable of this next year when they have four or five days of practice on those courses and a true opportunity.Brian:
I assume most of the top ladies already know, and I think that that's going to be really important between now and when the first event is. Knowing that they have a platform to compete on for all the marbles is going to be such a cool motivating factor in the off-season.
I have a bunch more questions about women's slopestyle, but before we go into the nitty gritty of that, let's zoom way out. Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you end up in the position you're in? You've been doing this for a while – we figured out before the podcast for 14 or 15 years. How did that happen?Darren:
I moved to Whistler in 1999. I wanted to be a ski bum. And then I spent over a decade skiing in Whistler. Somewhere through, early 2000s, I got introduced to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park and went up with a buddy and an old girlfriend. Our first lap was down B-Line and I felt like a seven-year-old kid all over again. It was just amazing. I got more and more interested in mountain biking, became a volunteer with Crankworx actually in 2005. I volunteered for two years with Crankworx. Then in 2007, an opportunity for a paid role came up so I jumped at that for a small contract and just kind of took on more and more until 2010 when they asked me to take over as the general manager. I've been doing it and leading the charge for Crankworx ever since.Alicia:
I'm pretty curious, you touched a little bit on the Crankworx culture there, but that must have changed so much from when you first got involved in 2005 until now. What's that growth been like to be part of?Darren:
It's been pretty crazy. I mean, I wouldn't say it's been exponential. It's been kind of step-by-step. I've lived through it for the last 14, 15 years or whatever, so for me, it's felt incremental. But the whole world of mountain biking comes to Whistler once a year to be a part of this. All of the other stops in the World Tour are ultimately about building up to that. Crankworx is also about more than racing, it’s also about being an opportunity for photographers and filmmakers and product launches and film launches, to be this platform for all of these things.Brian:
This seems like a silly question, but how do events like Crankworx make money?Darren:
It's an interesting question. I would say that honestly, the goal of the Crankworx festivals is not to make money, but they're really tourism drivers. There's the benefit that you get from having all of those people come to your town, come to your resort.
And then there's the benefit of all the people that tune in and watch or follow on social media. There's the marketing benefit of all of that. I always say that the best way to sell a ticket to an event next year is to show them how awesome it was on broadcast and social this year. The true win is for the resorts. We did an economic impact study for at Crankworx Whistler this past year in 2023. The total visitors spend in Whistler over the 10 days was just over $50 million Canadian on hotels and restaurants and beer, it’s crazy.Alicia:
Are you hoping it grows into a bigger series? What are your goals for the future?Darren:
The four core festivals, that's probably the right number in terms of the big, large core festivals. Where we're seeing growth is sort of through the Crankworx Summer Series concept. That was a COVID pivot, like “How do we keep the lights on thing during COVID?” It's sort of spun off into its own thing. This upcoming year, we're going to see the Crankworx Summer Series New Zealand, there will be a mini festival in Christchurch. We’ll have a downhill race and a pump track race and a bunch of other sort of Crankworx-type things take place there. But what's going to be different this year with the Summer Series in Christchurch is that those events are actually going to count toward the World Tour, like the King and Queen, our series overall events. I think there's some opportunities for growth there for more of smaller mini Crankworx experiences or a Crankworx Canada Summer Series. We may have three or four different mini-festivals next year as well that are creating pathways for athletes, in particular, youth athletes into the Crankworx sporting world.Alicia:
I was curious too about the format of enduro and all the recent changes and all of that, it seems also like you're in a pretty unique position with downhill racing and you’re in a unique position right now where you sort of get to decide a lot about the future of downhill. What's going on with that?Darren:
We’re mainly just trying to provide opportunities for athletes to race their bikes. We have a really great partnership with Red Bull Media House and Red Bull TV to broadcast our events. Getting to work with Rob and Elliot and Tracy is such a special opportunity. They do bring so much to the table. And yeah, the world of downhill is being talked about at length these days. There's so much speculation about what's going on.Brian:
But what's your take on World Cup downhill racing in 2024 and 2025? And how does Crankworx fit into that?Darren:
It's exciting to watch. You hear the rumors of where the sport might be going. I think it's really tough to speculate on rumors. The goals are to make it bigger and better, obviously. It's a big beast and it's a hard one for them to navigate. I don't know. Like I said, we want to provide opportunities for athletes to race in world-class locations, on world-class tracks, with world-class coverage. That's our goal. The most important thing is that we want it to be fun. Crankworx is about fun.Brian:
Let me ask the leading question in a different way then. With where we think
downhill racing at the World Cup level is going, does that create an opportunity for events like Crankworx to step up and become more prizefighter leagues?Darren:
Yeah, I think there's an opportunity there for Crankworx to provide an opportunity for all sorts of people to come race and ride their bikes. If the rumors are true that the field is going to get smaller and smaller at the World Cup level, then people are going to look for other places to race.Brian:
This year in 2023, 1199 might have been the best downhill race of the year in terms of the track, and the coverage was excellent. There was one thing missing. It would have been great to see more of the top athletes there. What's it going to take to get those folks into your DH events?Darren:
I think we were a bit of a victim of circumstance last year with the World Champs taking place in Scotland in early August. It meant we were moving Crankworx Whistler into July and that's where we're going to be again in 2024. Because of the World Champs being so close and so early in August, it made it difficult for people to travel over to Crankworx this year. In particular with Red Bull Hardline being scheduled the weekend prior, which was unfortunate. I think that because of the schedule next year, we're going to see a lot more athletes come to Crankworx Whistler. And I think just the notoriety of the track, the vibe, the coverage, the whole thing, I think we're going to see a lot more athletes attend the race next year. We're working on some ideas and concepts that we haven't fully fleshed out yet…Brian:
Is one of those concepts putting a lot of money on the line?Darren:
It's one of the things we are discussing. The challenge with the prize money conversation is that in a team sport, and let's not kid ourselves, at the elite level of World Cup racing, mountain biking is a team sport, individual prize money isn't as big of a driver as you would think it is. The opportunity for an individual that has a contract with a team to go chase prize money doesn't always align with the team's goals.Brian:
Sure, but I imagine especially in 2024, when team structures are getting a bit weird, there will be some former champs that are unlikely to win a World Cup in ‘24. Could they come and have an amazing run at Crankworx Whistler, have a great time, maybe top three, and make some money? Probably. I think it would be hard for their teams to tell them that they shouldn't go and do that.Darren:
Yeah, I will say in my most politically correct way that there will be lots of opportunity for that at Crankworx in 2024.Brian:
I hope to see some serious talent there, because it would be very cool. It was such a good track. Downhill racers who are listening, please come. It looked like a wild time.
Now, let's tie a bow in downhill racing and bring it back to women in slopestyle.Alicia:
What were the biggest limiting factors up until now preventing you from bringing women in?Darren:
That's a good question. I think having enough competitors to make this happen. I'm a part of the board of directors of the Freeride Mountain Bike Association as well, and one of our goals as far back as 2017, 2018 was to build this pathway for women in the sport. There were three women that sort of put their hands up to volunteer to say, “Hey, we want to work on this and we want to figure this out.” One of those was Nicole Freeman, who is our director of sport now. She’s the chief administrator of the FMBA as well. But before she had sort of come back to working for Crankworx, she was volunteering her time to lead this project. And then Louise Hatton, who's done a bunch of work on Rampage and has worked on the Big White event. She was putting in some time. And then Lauren Hume, who was our Crankworx athlete manager, the three of them were putting their heads together to sort of work with the female riders to understand like, how do we do this?
Then unfortunately, because of COVID and the whole world shutting down, that set the whole women's progress back a couple of years. And so it wasn't until 2022 that the FMBA was able to introduce female events with female categories and rankings for women, which we've done the last couple of years on the FMBA with bronze and silver events. And one of the things that was, even in the last couple of months was controversial amongst our own team was the question of whether we skip and go straight to Crankworx. We've had bronze and silver events, but do we go straight to the top? And my argument for that was, well, that's where the men started. When we started this whole thing, the men had Rampage and the Crankworx Whistler slopestyle. Why are we doing this different for the women? Let's give them this opportunity to compete on the biggest stages, compete for the biggest prizes, the Triple Crown for women and win a Red Bull Joyride ring for women. All the things that the men have enjoyed for the last 20 years, let's create those opportunities for the women.Brian:
I think you've answered this already, but just on the detail side. It's the same courses, same prize money?Darren:
Yeah, so there'll be six women invited to each Crankworx event and there'll be 12 or 14 men invited so the payout to sixth place will be equal.Brian:
So same judges as well, same judging criteria. Everything's just the same?Darren:
Yeah, same judges, same course. [The judging scores will] be scaled for what's possible, but yeah.Alicia:
How do you envision Crankworx events sort of fitting in with other events that already invite women like Proving Grounds and Swatch Nines?Darren:
I think that the difference is that this is a true sport competition. I think those other events are more about a media component and creating film, picture, image, content, whatever, but this is going to be about the competition, I think that’s going to be the major difference.Brian:
Can you say who the six riders are yet?Darren:
Yeah, it goes based on the ranking and all invitations are set six weeks prior to the start of an event. That said there's one bronze level event left this year in it's in Australia. I think it's this weekend which won't impact the current top six. Patricia Druwen, Alma Wiggberg, Robin Goomes, Harriet Burbidge-Smith, Shealen Reno, and Natasha Miller are the current top six. They will most likely be the ones that receive those first six invites to Crankworx slopestyle, the first of the year. And then after that, it's kind of dependent upon, you know, those rankings change all the time. It's usually the rankings are based on an athlete's best three results within a 52 week period. And so that's how athletes will be invited.Alicia:
It is sort of promising to me because it seems like a while back, racing was pretty much the only pathway to the top of mountain biking. This seems like a huge step toward just broadening the ways people can show that they can mountain bike. And that's an amazing opportunity for so many up and comers right now.Darren:
100%. Yeah, and that's the goal, right? I mean, give these women a platform, show what can be done and inspire the next generation. And someone chase after Patricia.Brian:
I'm sure that next summer, the person to level up and beat Patricia in a few years will be watching. I'm sure as the leader at Crankworx, you've probably been getting criticism on decisions like this from all sides over the past, well, forever. It's never easy to be the head of a thing like this. How do you deal with that?Darren:
I think it's important to listen, to be selective in how and where you choose to engage, which is not always the easiest thing to do. To try and remove personal emotion from those decisions on when to engage, that's a challenge. You have to be self-aware enough to know where, when, and how. And you also have to be prepared and expect that it comes with the territory, right?
A lot of people care way too much about riding mountain bikes. People are passionate about what they're watching, what they're attending, what they're seeing. The most valuable thing someone can give you is their time. So don't waste it and don't disrespect it. And my other rule is to never self-gloss. Never talk about how great you are. Let others tell your story. Yeah, that's my motto.Brian:
It's an interesting place to be for sure coming into 2024. There's a lot of self-gloss out there.Darren:
I wouldn't want to be doing anything else, I'll just say that for the record. I cannot wait. Our sport manager Jimmy and I always joke that we would do this 340 days a year if we could, just go on the road producing Crankworx. It'd be the most amazing fun time. Our partners would probably kill us, but yeah, I cannot wait for 2024 to come around, in particular that first slopestyle contest in Rotorua. It’s going to be awesome.