Firstly, this is an amazing feat, how did this idea come to be?
Thanks! In 2012 I recorded a clip in ParadiSki (France) with a Downhill and Enduro bike and also another video on a trial bike on top of a cable lift. At the time they asked me what else I wanted to do. My answer was 'ride over a slackline between two rocks.' I had a big mouth back then, I guess…(laughs).
Planning and executing an event like this does not come without time and work. What went on behind the scenes to allow you to do this?
Well, it was much more planning than I could ever imagine to be honest. I had the idea for about four years already so I thought about the perfect setup quite often. But reality showed that every time I thought I found the perfect setup, my safety manager and pro slackliner, Lukas Irmler from the Adidas outdoor team pointed out another problem. I installed a first lowline the very first time between two vans and rode from the one van in to the other, but that was after several tries and only 8m long at 50cm from the floor. The first couple of tries I was like a five-year-old trying to ride a bike again, very weird. Then I installed longer and longer lines and after 6 months I went from 10m up to 25m in distance. And really tried to control that so much, I could actually stand still and have full control, even let go of the handlebars. That was my aim. Another goal was to be able to walk it every go, that came pretty fast and became my daily warmup. Actually slacklining is a great core workout too.
The next step was to build a highline between two scaffolds, 9m up in my neighbours backyard, which took us a week of hard work to build everything. Then Lukas came in from Munich to assist, because... um 'how does an 8 knot work'? A climbing harness... I don’t know… I really had no idea or a clue about climbing, ropes, carabiners or any of that gear. One day I stood in a climbing shop and told the sales man, 'I need safety gear to ride with my bike over a slackline.' No need to say I could see disbelief in his eyes!
We tried a couple of leash falls to be sure the system worked and that I could not cut the slackline with my disks, hang myself or get stuck between the bike frame with my leg for example. I had so many nightmares of all sort of fall scenarios that I woke up every night soaking in sweat for 5 months. Then when the snow was gone in La Plagne (France), sometime in June we went to do the site check and after two days of desperately searching for the ultimate spot we finally got pointed in the direction of La Roche Fendue (split rock). It took us an hour of climbing and crawling in the remaining snow. When we finally got up there with Lukas and the cinematographer STL Visuals to see if it’s visually okay. Lukas started screaming… ‘Kenny, this is the spot man. If you want to be the first highliner on a bike, this is your spot!'
And I was like 'hell no!' To be honest, I was hoping to find a spot that looked crazier on tape than it actually was. Unfortunately for me and my vertigo (yes I had that) this spot was just mental. The drop was 112m straight down. I was clamping on a rock, 4m from away from the edge and kept saying ‘Lukas, no way man.' But after about 30 minutes I took all my courage, went to the edge, looked at the landing spot and said ‘OK, f*ck it, I will do it here,’ turned around and went straight to the car, drove back home and started training very hard. I trained so hard for this between the site check and the filming that it felt like I was training for a World Championship almost. Think I rode the lowline at least a 500 times. Unfortunately I could not train the highline on my bike too much because I really needed someone with me who knew what he was doing when I would get in trouble.
Then the shoot - we shot all the other action shots before I filmed the slackline because of some people’s schedule but secondly because I wanted to be sure to have the orientation action shots on tape. The slackline ride was one big risk of getting injured so at least I needed to secure that the footage was on tape. In that shoot, I rode down glaciers, ridges and other undiscovered terrain where no one had ever ridden thier bike before. Because the subject of the video was balance, I didn’t look for ultra fast trails. I wanted to ride the unrideable in a very trials-y way and make square rocks look round, not always easy.
In total we hiked with the crew about 50km with 4000 vertical meters, we slept in mountain huts at 3200m and even used donkeys to get the camera gear up the mountains. It was insane, yet the best adventure ever of the whole crew!
And the toughest still had to come - after six days of intense shooting, I still had four days to setup and to ride the slack line, 'a piece of cake' I thought. Because I was so confident of making it first try (after all I could ride a lowline like it was nothing) I was convinced of doing this quickly so I could go home.Well, there I discovered that everything has a limit and that sometimes with the best will of the world, certain things are just impossible and if I wanted or not I was going to accept that. I had so many factors to take care of; first of all I was extremely tired from the hikes, rides and the filming, secondly there were things like wind for the drone, clouds, thermal winds coming out of the crack and rain. So in theory I only had time between 6am and 11am to get it done. This was not enough.
And the most important factor was that a highline is just nothing like a lowline - not on the bike, not on foot. The rule in highlining is that you have to be able to walk minimum twice as far on a lowline, to be able to walk any highline. First of all it’s the height, every person deals with this differently but what happens is that you loose a lot of your skills to keep balance at such height and it takes days to get over that ‘inner fear’.
Then there is the exposure, on a lowline I had the ground and many fixed obstacles around me to know my speed, my body position and the movement on the line. At 112m, you don’t have any of that. So it took falls, blood, sweat and tears to get over all those things and to really master a highline on a bike. Thinking back to it, it’s the hardest thing I have ever done in my 23 years of riding. Just mental. So, all frustration after about four days of trying, seventy leash falls (and climbing up after every fall) and with a completely hammered body full of scars from hitting the rocks, I had to go home and give up. It felt like loosing an important competition. I was finished!
We went back 2 weeks later, fully recharged, mentally and physically. This time we gave ourselves six full days (well from 6am to 11am remember). I had lots of stress and was under deep pressure, because what if I still wouldn’t make it? I would throw my sponsors money away and not be able to realize my ultimate dream? I did not want to let that happen!
On day 1 it rained so we couldn’t go up again. On day 2 I fell like 10 times again, then on day 3 in the best weather conditions possible, I finally nailed it. An incredible feeling!
Can you tell me about your bike choice for this? Why not use a trials bike?
I chose to ride an enduro bike because that makes more sense in that kind of landscape. Especially coming off glaciers. And secondly, I am an all-round biker. I've ridden mountain bikes since I was 11 and when I have the time I ride enduro races, I just love the freedom of the mountains and going fast. Trials is where my heart is but sometimes I need to broaden my horizon.
What goes through your head while you are in the middle of the slack line?
From, 'yes yes this is it, now I am going to do it' (and then fall because your wheel falls off) to 'I shouldn’t have taken off in the first place because I feel I am not ready for it mentally' (and then fall of again). But the one time I nailed it I was ‘in the zone’ just like an animal that goes for his prey and doesn’t think about failing.
Can you describe how you felt immediately upon completing it?
At first I didn’t believe I actually had my foot on the other side, then it took me a couple of seconds to catch my breath and realize it. Then pure joy and happiness kicked in, it was indescribable.
What support roles have your sponsored played in helping you to produce this?
Red Bull, Adidas outdoor and Volkswagen were the main partners. Co funded by Paradiski, IXS , Sapim racespokes, Econopolis and Adidas eyewear. Without them and their support, it wouldn’t have been possible! So big thanks for believing in me.
What did your wife think about you doing this? Did she watch?
When I had the idea and told her I was going to do it she kept supporting me even she knew it was dangerous. Every time I woke up at night and said "I dreamed again of hitting that rock at the end and breaking my neck," she always answered, "no no, that’s not going to happen". Later, she told me that she was really scared of that happening but she never wanted to show me or tell me. She was also part of the crew and sat in the back with a radio and every time I fell, it went like this, "Kenny down, Kenny down." Then she took the radio and asked "yes, but is he ok?" Great memories though.
In 2009 you set the Guinness World Record (and beat your own previous record) for the most 180º jumps on a bike in 1 minute (35), do you have your sites set on any other world records?
For the moment nothing planned like that. I need to catch my breath from this intense project first and go on a holiday. Then I am just going to explore the world further with projects and shows. Make some new videos and especially tour all over Europe with my new show www.pedaltothemedal.be. Of course I still want to be good on my trials bike too. Last Worlds in Andorra I still got in third, that was my 12th medal out of 14 elite participations. I want to keep that level as long as possible.
Actually, as long I can ride my trials or enduro bike and broaden my horizons I am the happiest person in the world!