Any fan of mountain biking is no doubt well aware of Crankworx. The festival has become so large since its inception in Whistler back in 2003, that it's now hosted in four locations around the world; first kicking off in Rotorua, New Zealand, then over to Les Gets, France, followed by a new stop for 2017 in Innsbruck, Austria, and finishing up in Whistler, where it all began. What many may not be aware of is that the team that prepares the event throughout the year is a small group of six. Still, that's far larger than when the festival's GM, Darren Kinnaird, took on his current role, at which point he was the only full-time staff.
Since that time the event has grown significantly and yet not many people really know about the man who heads up the team behind the scenes. Darren Kinnaird is a sports fan through and through, and he couldn't be happier to see that Crankworx has moved from the "strange sideshow" of the early days to the legitimate series that it is today. But over the years there have been a lot of rumors and ideas around what Crankworx is and what it could be, so I tracked down the man ahead of his travels to New Zealand to pick his brain on all things Crankworx and to learn a little more about the man that is involved in pushing our sport in a number of ways.
Darren, where do you hail from?
I grew up in a little town called Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta, which is about 20-minutes drive North-East of Edmonton. I went to the University of Alberta and when I finished school I went to Europe for a winter and just kind of bummed around. I got to as far as Greece and decided, no, I want to move to Whistler. I changed my flight plans and changed everything…
You were doing the Europe thing and suddenly thought, “I’m going to Whistler”?
Yeah, well I got as far as Athens and was going to go to the Greek Islands with the thought that maybe I would go there for a summer and be a bartender, hang out on the beach and do whatever, but when I got to the ferry terminal—and this is pre-internet or any of those really accessible information sources (like cell phones)—the ferry wasn’t going to leave until 6pm in the evening, and here I am, there at 9am in the morning. So rather than sit there all day long, I thought to myself, I don’t want to do this, I’m going to move to Whistler.
Did you know of Whistler before then, you must’ve… ?
Yeah, my dad was born in Scotland but he grew up in Mount Currie (Ed:
a small community, even to this day, just north of Pemberton). My Grandma moved my fathers side of the family to Mount Currie in 1948, and as a result, all of my relatives on my fathers' side were from Mount Currie/Pemberton. Because of that, we used to come out this way every summer for family visits... I remember as a teenager we would go skiing on the (Blackcomb) glacier in the middle of the summer and I would be completely amazed that I could do that!
I remember a second or third cousin once took me skiing in Whistler when I was 15 or something and I was completely blown away by it. When you’re used to skiing the little river valley hills in Edmonton—or if you’re lucky you get to go to Jasper—to ski Whistler was next level!
How long were you in Europe for?
I was there for about six or eight months. The original plan was to go to St. Anton and ski for a winter and while I did go there, it was before the season had really gotten started. Because of that, there wasn’t even anyone there to talk to about finding a job, let alone applying for one.
So the move to Whistler was on a whim?
Well, I always knew that I wanted to come to Whistler and when I had completed my level two ski instructors course back in Edmonton, the instructor who was running the course there had lived in Whistler for something like six years and knew all of the people in Whistler. He had offered, to the people in the course, that if anyone wanted a job in Whistler to get in touch with him. So when I got back (from Greece) I called him and he said to come on out. A week later I was in Whistler, and working, which was great!
What were you doing when you first moved to Whistler?
I started out teaching corporate ski lessons (Ed:
corporate group booked ski lessons—in the ski instructor world, it’s a pretty lucrative department to work in), then I did a bunch of Extremely Canadian stuff (Ed:
a higher level set of ski programs for longer term visitors), then eventually went on to be a supervisor for the corporate programs as well as managing the old Ski Esprit and Fire and Ice shows.
How did that evolve into your position with Crankworx?
I started out as a volunteer with Crankworx in 2005. At the time I had a back injury that took me out for the summer. I was helping with some sales sort of initiatives with the bike park guides programs, as well as doing a bit of guiding in the bike park. Jeremy Roche, who was the summer business development manager (of Whistler Blackcomb) and the Crankworx GM at the time, was looking for some help with promoting it at different events, setting up booths etc. at the Test of Metal XC race in Squamish, or at B.C. Championships and so on. I volunteered to help out again in 2006 and then in 2007, I took on an official role with Crankworx in client services, where I looked after some of the official partners of the event.
Being involved with the Fire and Ice show (in the winter) was where I built my experience in the event side of things. I was involved in growing that and when the Olympics came we did the Fire and Ice Remix, which was a choreographed show—I evolved a lot with that. I did do a little bit of Ski and Snowboard Festival stuff back in the day as well, where I was involved with running the women’s freestyle ski competitions.
What are your official job titles?
I’m one of the board members for the EWS, which also includes; Chris (Ball), Enrico (Guala), and Fred (Glo). We worked together to create the proposal for the UCI and when it didn’t go through the four of us thought, let’s do it anyway!
At Crankworx I was involved in Client Services for a year. Richard Juryn, who wore many hats in the organization, passed away in October of 2007 in a tragic accident. His accident resulted in Jeremy (Roche) needing someone to step in and help. I did that for a little bit but saw that Jeremy needed more help because he was doing a lot of stuff. I offered to help look after the sponsorships in addition to looking after and organizing the expo. He was thankful for the offer and took me up on it. From there I officially became the sponsorship manager for Crankworx until Jeremy decided to leave in 2010. When he stepped aside he asked if I would be interested in the General Manager position and I said absolutely. So in September of 2010, I officially became the GM for Crankworx.
I’m also a member of the FMB board. For the last four years I was a member of the advisory board for the FMB, but just recently I was appointed to the actual board of directors, which consists of three people.
So you’re the GM For Crankworx, what does that actually entail on a day to day?
I think that it’s a really cool opportunity to work with a lot of great people. From our team to our partners, media partners, and athletes. Working with all of these groups results in a lot of meetings, conference calls etc. Lot’s of communicating and feedback on what we could do better, from a lot of different angles. Anything from overseeing the management of the brand and where Crankworx is going, as well as guiding that direction. Coming up with new ideas for the sport in order to make it as interesting as possible. Lot’s of different things on a day-to-day basis mean there is no real singular 'day in the life' sort of thing for my role.
It’s a lot of fun and I feel that I have one of the best jobs in the industry. I get to work with a lot of cool, great people that are really passionate about mountain biking and are involved in it because they love the sport. My position means I need to try and be involved in a lot of what’s being discussed around the sport and Crankworx. I try to have a touchpoint on the pulse for everything that we’re working on.
Since I started as the GM a little over six years ago our team has grown significantly (I was the only full-time, year-round employee at that point, now there are six, plus a number of contractors that are working almost full time), which enables us to do so much more, but also means that there is a lot more going on that I need to keep on top of.
Crankworx itself has expanded pretty substantially in the past few years, was that always the goal (since your involvement) or has it naturally snowballed?
The growth has naturally snowballed. There have been various groups that have either visited Crankworx or Whistler during the summer and have seen what is going on. They’ll be here for the event and see that, and ask, "how do we get this in our town?" That is literally how Crankworx ended up in France—the director of the tourism office for Les Deux Alpes was here at the event and started asking questions. The result is a number of meetings and conversations that finish with something coming together.
Since that initial expansion overseas there has been more interest—phone calls. People are reaching out to us and asking, what would it take?
So that overseas event helped people to realize that this is not just a Whistler festival and that it could be taken elsewhere?
Yeah, that it could be transportable. It took a little while for us to get the right mix of all of the elements that make up a Crankworx Festival, in order for it to really work outside of Whistler. The first year at Rotorua really cleared that up for us. There, we realized that this is the example of what Crankworx should be outside of Whistler.
Whistler is a behemoth. People come to Whistler and they’re like, "holy smokes, this is real!?" What they do in Rotorua is achievable and sets a really good example, and standard, of what Crankworx can and should be outside of Whistler.
Can we expect to see this expansion continue in the future, and where do you feel it maxes out if there is room for more?
Yeah, there are still people reaching out and inquiring. We haven’t really defined what the maximum could be, though. For us, we want to be in the best mountain biking locations—from the perspective of riding, trails, culture, and passion for the sport. That’s what it’s really about for us, finding great trails, great people, enthusiasm for the sport of mountain biking. I think right now, with the other three locations, we’re getting that right mix.
Before it was an event, I flew to Rotorua for a weekend and within hours of being there, I could sense a genuine passion for mountain biking. The people there really have an understanding of what it’s about and how hosting a big event like Crankworx could share that passion for the sport. Same thing in Les Gets, they really, really get mountain biking there, they have tons of great trails in Morzine and Port Du Solei. Innsbruck has a big underground scene and they’re trying to get it to the forefront. The city there is getting super involved and is building trails and bike parks, so yeah, it’s more about the right locations with the right mix than how many locations are on the Crankworx calendar.
Crankworx offers athletes a solid purse for events and more notably, equal prize winnings for men and women, how did this come about?
It’s a funny story actually. About 3 years ago, there was an Always commercial (Canadian female hygiene products) going viral on Facebook; the “Like a Girl” campaign. It came up on someone’s feed in the office, and somehow we all ended up watching it in the office right around the time we were deciding on the King and Queen of Crankworx format. The campaign just spoke to this need for not just equality for women but this opportunity for young women to feel like they could achieve anything—it gave new meaning to what it meant to do something “Like a Girl”. We felt there was an opportunity, or even a sense of responsibility, that women in mountain biking should be heroes for young women that could ride, compete, and win “Like a Girl”. It only makes sense to award women equal prize money, equal exposure, equal opportunity, and in the same vein as the Always commercial, inspire young women to do things, “Like a Girl”.
It sounds kind of ridiculous that that’s where it came from but that was part of the spark for the whole thing. Sitting around in the office one day, this ad comes up in someone's feed and we think to ourselves, we should be doing that for women in mountain biking! It was the right thing to do and the time was right, but it’s funny where the spark came from that spurred on the thinking for that direction.
So, what was the first year that we had equal women’s prize money?
2015 was the first year, so it was October/November of 2014 that we decided, this is it, we’re going to offer equal exposure, prizing, all of it. After it was decided we went to the team in New Zealand and mentioned that we were thinking of going this direction (offering equal prize winnings), but they turned around and said that’s how it works in New Zealand anyway! That made it easy for us to make it a rule across the board for all events, and the rest is history.
There has been plenty of rumors over the years surrounding Crankworx Whistler and a UCI World Cup event. Why have we never seen a World Cup as part of Crankworx?
It’s mostly about scheduling. Trying to find a way for it to work in the schedule is yet to happen. There are a number of obligations that the World Cup has that require people to be in a particular place at a certain time. Unfortunately, we’ve tried a number of times but it hasn’t worked out yet.
So it is of interest?
Yeah, yeah! We have a huge respect for the World Cup and what downhill World Cup racing means to the sport of mountain biking, so, maybe...one day.
Winning a World Cup Downhill event can see a racer take home just shy of about $4,000 USD while winning a Crankworx Gravity event can see athletes pocket around $7,500, making it more appealing for an athlete to come to a Crankworx event. Why do you offer such good prizing?
It’s directly related to being athlete focused and trying to support the athletes being involved with CWX—giving them another reason to be involved. It’s also given our events a certain level of prestige. The Canadian Open Downhill is the largest prize purse at a downhill event in the world—at least it used to be, and I think that it still is. So it’s not a coincidence, but it’s something that we’re able to do and I think that the athletes really appreciate that.
There are a lot of different events for athletes to compete in at CWX, and with the addition of King and Queen for the series, it seems that you are encouraging riders to participate in as much as they can. Despite this, do you ever see the more traditional DH or XC events competing with the UCI World Cup events?
I think for us, Crankworx is about all disciplines of gravity mountain biking, so we’re not necessarily focused on one form of mountain biking, persé. We already had the King and Queen of Crankworx Whistler, and King and Queen of Crankworx Les Deux Alpes, and when we expanded to the world tour to three stops there was this opportunity to create this inner competition. It allowed us to share our story of what CWX is truly about—all the different disciplines in mountain biking and having a competition that shares what we believe Crankworx is.
To celebrate the versatility of the rider?
Yeah, becoming the King or Queen of CWX is a fair statement that you’re probably one of the most well-rounded mountain bikers in the world. That for us is what CWX is about—everything; pumptrack, a bunch of events we’ve made up on the fly etc. The King and Queen ranking have really allowed us to tell that story.
What’s really interesting is in the two short years that we’ve been doing it (on a series level), the interest, focus, and awareness of it, and the athletes wanting to compete for that overall title has really grown. We’ve been working on some content for the news section of our website with the athletes and the number of them mentioning that they want to get in the mix with the King and Queen title is surprising. What’s also been really cool about it is that is has born new stars of the sport, like Adrien Loron, who previously had never been heard of and is now one of the best pumptrack racers in the world. He’s now been able to make more of a career out of this and is a prime example of bringing new stars to the sport. Loron ended up in second overall the first year that we had the King and Queen series format, just from doing his best in a variety of events and obviously winning and doing well in the Pumptrack challenges.
It was interesting because we had Loron and Bernard Kerr standing in the finish corral in Whistler—who would have thought that? They don’t really ever compete against each other, with the exception of Dual Speed and Style and Pumptrack but you don’t see Loron up on the downhill, and here we are in the finish corral in Whistler with both riders nervous as heck with who is going to take away $25K for the overall title. The same thing happened this year, with Sam Blenkinsop and Tomas Slavik—two people from two completely different parts of mountain biking—and there they are competing for the overall crown of Crankworx. That to us is unique and a great story to tell.
Slopestyle riders seem to be the least interested in competing across separate events during Crankworx. Do you think that’s just because of the risk involved and them wanting to be fit for the Slopestyle event, or is it that slopestyle is all they really care about? What are your thoughts on that?
I think that the guys that are at the top of their game in slopestyle are probably some of the most focused athletes that I’ve ever met in my life, in any sport. If you have a conversation with any of these guys, like with Brett (Rheeder) or with Brandon (Semenuk) and that’s their focus—they go to these events to win, they’re not going there to show off and get some photos taken and participate. In order for them to be competitive, they have to stay focused on their discipline. For the most part, the guys that are really at the top of their game try and block everything out, put the blinders on and focus on that, come event time “this is what I have to do.”
I guess they have a lot of training during the week too that coincides with the running of other events?
Yeah, we try our best to schedule training around other competitive events so that if they wish to do some other things, they can, but most of those guys are just focused.
With all of the expansion, you're beginning to put a more legitimate reason for athletes to come to, or even begin to focus on these events. Is there a goal to possibly become a viable alternative to World Cup racing?
No, we have such a great respect for the World Cup and what downhill racing at that level means to the sport. I touched on it earlier, but with creating the King and Queen of Crankworx, we’ve been able to show what we’re about and tell our story. So that’s really our focus; a story that talks about the best all-around, King and Queen of mountain biking type of concept. That said, we try and put the best prize money up that we can for an event and cover them the best that we can.
Is this why the traditional DH format events seemingly played a more background role in Crankworx festivals in the past?
The buzz and energy of slopestyle naturally meant that people peaked (on the slopestyle). So it made sense for us, for a number of reasons, to have slopestyle on Sundays and I mean, we kind of fell into it a couple of years ago. Having slopestyle moved to Sunday meant more people could watch it online, it meant more people, or a wider variety of people, could actually attend the event, and that allowed us to position the downhill as an event that helped with the overall ramping up to the culmination of the Crankworx festival.
So was having the Slopestyle on Saturday just a result of Crankworx pretty much being just the slopestyle event back in the earlier days?
Originally Crankworx was modelled after the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF), where you had the Big Air event on a Saturday night, which certainly draws the most spectators with most people able to come up for the weekend, enjoy it, have a show, stay over and that’s kind of how it landed on a Saturday night.
There’s no question that Crankworx has evolved, in not only all of the disciplines, but especially slopestyle in the sense that it’s made it more about a sport and not just a show. Back in say, 2006/2007, those guys were taking it seriously, but I don’t think the fans knew what was going on. Now it’s truly about sport, from the coverage, how serious the athletes take it, how knowledgeable the fans are, how knowledgeable the kids are—I mean you walk into a school here (Ed:
in the Sea To Sky, which includes everything from Vancouver, to Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton) and every kid has a Semenuk hat on, or a Crankworx hat on or some sort of bike brand. This whole area—people just know and love mountain biking.
We’ve evolved from being a strange mountain bike sideshow into a developed sport and I think that is what gives, and will continue to give Crankworx longevity. It’s about the sport and about who is the best at XYZ.
Did you see an increase in participation in the Canadian Open DH after moving it to Saturday? What about spectators?
There were certainly more people able to watch it online, particularly in Europe, and it was certainly busy on the hill. We thought it might be a little less busy (on the hill) by having the pro’s race early but that was not the case. From a participation point of view it’s always close to or is sold out, and nothing changed there.
What about the slopestyle, was there a change in attendance there with having it on a Sunday afternoon?
I don’t believe so. I think we saw a bit of a different mix of people spectating. There was a heck of a lot less garbage on the hill, so that’s a plus, but I think that generally, things are the same—there’s still really strong interest. Also, like I said before, the reason for the interest is changing in that they’re more knowledgeable of who the athletes are, about the sport, what the tricks are. That interest means there is less of a reliance on when the event is.
Crankworx slopestyle events seem to overshadow the FMB World tour, but are still part of the tour, being Diamond Events (along with District Ride and some others in the past) are you concerned that from the outside many likely see Crankworx as the Slopestyle World Tour, and aren't even aware that the FMB exists?
I really believe that the FMB plays a vital role in developing and creating a pathway for athletes to get to the Diamond Series. We’re (Crankworx) lucky that a number of those Diamond events are held at Crankworx, but without the FMB you don’t have the Emil Johanssons, or the Nicholi Rogatkins coming up through the system. Through the FMB and through its structure guys like them have gotten the opportunity to compete in these silver and gold level events and get that opportunity to suddenly jump up to a Joyride or similar. Guys like Ryan Nyquist came up through the FMB! I think it’s a super important part of the sport and that’s why I am actively involved with the FMB, to help guide it and help support it.
Is the FMB trying to build the smaller events up to get more airplay and recognition, or are they happy being the smaller qualifying series?
No, the FMB Diamond Series is the top level of our sport, this year just happens to be four of the Crankworx events and District Ride. A recent update is that athletes can now count their best Gold Event result in their overall standings too, essentially bringing Gold Events up to the same level as Diamonds. That’s brought the profile of the athletes attending and competing in those Gold Events up as well but also resulted in more athletes that would perhaps only focus on the Diamond events for the year, now attending some of the Gold events too. The FMB is the overall structure of the sport of slopestyle and Crankworx is happy to be involved.
With the most successful event being the Whistler Crankworx, which runs over 10 days, what’s the thought process, or desire, to running two smaller events back-to-back in Europe for 2017?
It was really just about the mountain bike calendar overall. The only two weekends that were available that we could hold Crankworx Les Gets and Innsbruck were during that window, and it was also when the hosts wanted to hold the events. At the moment it looks like in 2018 we’ll actually have a weekend in-between, so people will be able to relax and do whatever they need to in between the two at that point.
It’s funny how the calendar gets so full, isn’t it…?
Yes! I think that in the race for the King and Queen, that’s going to be a very interesting back to back weekend.
Is there a fear of losing the festival draw to each stop and it just being another event for athletes to go to?
No, I don’t think so. What’s really cool is that each location has taken the raw materials of what is a Crankworx, but then they’ve each added their own cultural or entertainment elements to it as well, making it more than just sport with all of those additional cultural components of mountain biking in there. It’s about taking those basic, core elements of what Crankworx is and adapting it to share their own version and culture of mountain biking and that has made Crankworx different than other mountain biking entities. It’s not just about the sport, it’s about these other things as well.
You’re allowing people to add their flavor to it…
Yeah! I think the longevity of Crankworx will be in the sport, and people will be interested in it as a sport, but that festival feel, that will always be present on site, for sure. That’s a big part of it. We always say that Crankworx is the defining celebration of mountain biking; well that’s more than just sport, that’s film, photo, party, dancing, you name it—music, culture. It’s all the things that people love, not just about mountain biking. Each of these communities has the trails, the culture, the bars, the fun, and the passion for the sport, and the characters. Each town definitely has their characters.
Looking at the Crankworx calendar I noticed that a number of the locations hosting a Crankworx have held a World Cup mountain bike event in the past. Do you think that ignited the culture in these areas, or do you think that they had it already and that’s why they held these World Cups, and are now chasing Crankworx events?
I think that in the case of Les Gets, that’s probably one of the European birthplaces of mountain biking and it has such a rich history of mountain bike racing. When we first met with them—in a mostly out of the blue meeting with them in Whistler—the conversation naturally flowed to okay, let’s do a Crankworx there. Hosting a Crankworx there has allowed them to show more of their culture than they were previously able to.
With Rotorua, they’ve hosted the world champs in the past, and they had the Rotorua Bike Festival, but I think they were just looking to do something that would be more internationally known and through random phone calls and connections we were connected with those guys and they were super interested in hosting as well.
It’s more to do with the people in the area?
Yeah. There’s a desire, a will, to showcase their mountain bike region, or product, whatever you want to call it, and Crankworx has been a great vehicle for these areas to do that.
Okay, to end the interview; What is the key goal for Crankworx?
It’s to continue to grow mountain biking. I mean, I think that’s why Crankworx started - it was to grow mountain biking in Whistler. As the sport has grown more and more people have gotten involved in it and that’s one of our key missions - to get more people involved in the sport. Whether that’s coming as a spectator to observe or to watch and learn or to get engaged in the expo side of the festival, learning about new products or riding new bikes. It’s really just about wanting to grow the sport in every aspect that we can. For our partners, the athletes, our media partners...hopefully through the stories that we’re able to tell it continues to grow the sport and gets more people wanting to ride bikes, that’s really what it’s about, more people on bikes.