The British slopestyle star's first Red Bull TV series – Design and Conquer – sees him tear up the MTB-trick rulebook. We caught up with him to get the lowdown on his most ambitious project yet.
In the formative years of freestyle mountain biking, you couldn’t move for world-first tricks. Each competition or edit saw riders pushing the boundaries of the fledgling sport further and further – adding another rotation here, a combo there – and landing tricks that previously were the reserve of video games.
Nowadays, the phenomenon of world-first tricks are fleeting moments. No more is it enough to go down the repetitive route – doubling or tripling a trick – or to throw a barspin just in the nick of time. Never-before-seen tricks require riders to think outside the box, pairing creativity with the determination to see it through to completion, even if that takes months of practice and hundreds of failed attempts.
I did want to throw in the towel a few times because I just thought ‘when is this actually going to happen?’
So when a project comes along where the athlete is attempting not one, but two world-first tricks, people sit up and take notice.
British mountain bike slopestyle athlete Matt Jones’s latest series for Red Bull TV, Design and Conquer in partnership with Ford, does just that, showing the hours of dedication, pain and suffering that go into attempting the world's first gainer and hitching post flip to feet to front flip on a custom-built course on a compound in Devon in south-west England.
Congratulations on an epic new series, Matt. What was your inspiration for the project?
I’m always thinking of ideas and what’s possible on a bike, but usually my ideas disappear as quickly as they come because I know that there’s not the perfect jump out there to do them on. The opportunity arose to build a course, meaning I could think outside of normal slopestyle tricks and attempt some dream tricks, taking my sport to the next level. Both of the ones I'm attempting have been in my head since Frames of Mind, so for at least three years.
What was stopping you just trying them before?
I really wanted to put it into a proper production and not let them be lost as an Instagram clip. The stars aligned and I thought now is the time to train and make it happen – especially the gainer. That’s an idea I’ve had for a long time and I knew I just had to pull the trigger on it – I was almost paranoid that someone was going to beat me to it. It’s a slopestyle trick that anyone could have tried, especially as it’s off a drop into a landing. I can’t believe no one has done it, but then again I can because it was so hard compared to what I thought.
Is that the first time you’ve ever had to take your bike to a swimming pool to practise something?
Yeah, 100 percent. People were confused. Some people don’t ask, they just frown. Other people want to know everything. The swimming pool was super helpful, but it wasn’t actually the full ticket. It made me realise I could flip backwards while moving forwards, put my feet on the pedals and grab a grip, but adding the weight of the bike, and the fact that I actually had to run and swing the bike off the side of something, meant there was a lot more to figure out, which took forever.
I did so much practice on the gainer in my compound that isn’t in the series. I took the whole of August off from filming YouTube videos and did it every day – changing the height of scaffolding, stuff with my airbag, figuring out ways of making it work. I didn’t land one until going down to Devon. I took my airbag, pulled one there and then did it to dirt the next day. I only did it once and I’ll probably never do it again.
Your brother, Jono, was by your side throughout. Was that a help or a hindrance?
It was really cool. A lot of people can dip in and out of these things and offer advice, but to have someone who has seen it from the beginning is super helpful. Jono built an understanding for the tricks as I did. It’s nice to have someone to feed back and forth with who sees it in a very similar way to me. Or sometimes in a different way, which is as much as a benefit – getting that second opinion. He had more belief than me most of the time, but then he’s not doing the tricks, is he?
The series also saw you visit Gee Atherton and Kriss Kyle to get some advice. Have you ridden with them before?
Yeah, but I’ve never seen Kriss [Kyle] ride Unit . It is his second home – he even lived there for years in the park. That was next level; he’s unreal there. I’ve always thought it was a treat seeing people ride their local jumps on a mountain bike, but seeing Kriss ride Unit blew my mind – it was sick.
Did Kyle inspire you creatively with the body slide?
That came from my head, but I thought it’d be a nice link to having seen him do things like that. It’s bloody hard. It didn’t work out quite as I’d planned – the amount of friction with the full weight of your body and your bike is ridiculous. It wasn’t seamless, but I managed to get the whole way around the wall.
What advice did Atherton have for staying strong mentally?
It seems cliché but believing you can overcome fear and doubt at any point in life means you can do it again. That’s how Gee Atherton calls upon his struggles to win races, knowing that he’s won those races. It’s super interesting.
I had loads of doubt because I’d never done loads of these tricks – onto an airbag isn’t truly pulling it or landing it. I did have to believe in my vision – if I thought of them and visualised them working, they are possible. All of it took more perseverance than I thought, which makes it feel more like a win, but it also consumed so much time that there are a lot of tricks that got away from that edit that I’ll have to put in another one one day. But you can’t win – it’s always been the same. Either way, I’m stoked with putting two new super-creative tricks in one video.
Was this a lot harder, mentally and physically, than your first edit, Frames of Mind?
Yeah – it became a less rounded mountain bike video and more of an experiment figuring out how to do these things that I’d called out. Having the behind-the-scenes series made it more difficult because I’d claimed “I’m going to do this, this and this” from the start. I had to deliver that – there was no scope to change my plan or come up with something different. I had to deliver on my promise and that’s a good lesson learned – sometimes it’s not as easy as saying it, but I managed it.
You can see how much of a beating your body has taken too. How do you prepare yourself for those hits?
I remembered from Frames of Mind that you can do all of the calculations and all the thinking, but it won’t happen first go – but it will happen. I just try to be patient, take the slams, take the beatings, knowing that it will come together. It’s weird accepting that and not letting the frustration make you quit. I did want to throw in the towel a few times because I just thought ‘when is this actually going to happen?’. Every time I thought I had the perfect speed, perfect rotation and then one of my legs would miss the logs and it killed. But the next one might be almost perfect.
The hitching post trick is about having the focus of a tightrope walker, but the commitment of a BASE jumper
The hitching post trick is a strangely technical move. I can commit to a double flip first thing in the morning, because I just have to tell myself ‘do it’. But this isn’t that sort of thing. It’s about having the focus of a tightrope walker, but the commitment of a BASE jumper to pull the trigger on the front flip. You don’t know whether it’s coming though – it’s a really weird balance of commitment and focus that I’ve never had to put together in one trick.
When it happened, it happened. Everything I was doing was so consistent, but the result was so inconsistent and that was all just to be in the position to try a front flip that I then might not land anyway. That was quite tough to take, struggling with the first half of the trick, which isn’t even the big bit – the front flip was the new bit. There are 350 attempts on camera and I would have done 100s of other front flips and things in my own time. I’ve never worked so hard on anything, ever.
It took two trips to the course to land the hitching post trick. Did you feel extra pressure on that final journey down to Devon?
I always knew it would happen, but I honestly thought there wasn’t enough time – I thought I was going to go into the thousands of takes before it all came together. Filming in winter reduced the number of attempts I could have a day – that muddy clay meant I had to clean my bike, my shoes, my tyres for every single attempt. I lost confidence in it, but I didn’t lose perseverance – I knew it would happen.
On that trip down, I thought it might be going on into 2021. When it came together, it came together in a really weird way. I’d usually get one or two front flips in a full day of attempts and then suddenly I did six in a row. Something really clicked. It’s a weird trick – I’ll never do it again. I don’t think anyone will ever bother with that.
I ran out of time for the 720 no hander to barspin, but I’ve called it so I will do it
Do you think you’ll try either again in a competition or an edit?
I’d love to do the gainer into a competition run. It’s such a crazy feeling of getting on a bike blind upside down with no hands or feet on.
There was one trick that didn't make the cut – the 720 no hander to barspin. Is that still on the table?
That’s quite a complex trick as well, but it's one that another slopestyle rider might do and I want to be the first. You need a good amount of air time and that jump down in Devon was perfect. I ran out of time for this video, but I’ve called it so I will do it.