Brandon Semenuk was photographed near his home on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast on August 2.
© KEVIN ARNOLD
MTB

Portrait of an Artist

Step inside the creative, deliberate and private mind of the world’s best mountain biker.
By Neal Rogers
23 min readPublished on
Brandon Semenuk is on the phone, answering variations of questions he’s heard before. He’s at his home on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, but he’s not sitting still. That’s not really something Semenuk does. As he speaks, he’s piecing together a bike rack.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about Semenuk, the Canadian freeride and slopestyle legend and only four-time winner of Red Bull Rampage: He doesn’t really care whether you read this profile. He’s a reluctant public figure, a natural- born introvert who happens to have spent his entire adult life in the spotlight.
What Semenuk does care about is progression—in his riding, his videos and lately his rally-car racing, for which he is nationally ranked. If answering questions for this story could help him progress as an athlete or creative, his viewpoint might be different. But it won’t. It’s not personal.
Here’s the next thing you need to know about Semenuk: He’s a magician. He makes the impossible look effortless. He’s the most decorated athlete at Red Bull Joyride in Whistler, the top event in slopestyle, winning five times between 2011 and 2017; during that span he also won three Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour series titles. His groundbreaking “One Shot” segment from Teton Gravity Research’s unReal collection, filmed in one uninterrupted take on a custom-built track in California, is said to have been viewed more than 60 million times.
This jaw-dropping tailwhip, shot in the forest on BC’s Sunshine Coast, captures the precision, amplitude and pure poetry of Semenuk’s riding.
This jaw-dropping tailwhip captures the pure poetry of Semenuk’s riding.
Semenuk’s history at Red Bull Rampage, the pinnacle event of freeride mountain biking, held among rugged sandstone cliffs in southern Utah, is without parallel. In 2008, in his first attempt, Semenuk won Rampage at the tender age of 17. In 2021, at age 30, he became its oldest winner, and the only rider to take back-to-back titles. There, riding a single-crown suspension fork, he also became the only rider in Rampage history to tailwhip off a flat drop—an impossibility on a conventional dual-crown suspension. He finished his run with a triumphant backflip tailwhip off the final jump to lock up the title.
And here’s the rub: Semenuk wasn’t at Rampage last year to set any records. He just wanted to try something new. He had a vision and wanted to see if he could fulfill it. “I’m not a numbers person,” he says. “I was just stoked on being able to show up and do something different.”
He may lack the same level of name recognition as other action-sports stars who have redefined what’s possible—athletes like Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater or Shaun White—but Semenuk occupies the equivalent mantle in mountain biking. He is the best there’s ever been; there’s no real debate about it. His riding is completely fluid, yet impeccably precise; there’s a level of grace and technicality that’s unmatched among his peers. Semenuk’s tricks aren’t just death defying—they’re adjective defying.
Bike magazine columnist Mike Ferrentino, who has covered mountain biking for five decades, describes Semenuk’s skill level as “otherworldly,” adding that “you could set it to jazz music, he makes it look so fucking easy.”
There’s a reason no one has won Red Bull Rampage more than Semenuk.
There’s a reason no one has won Red Bull Rampage more than Semenuk.
When presented with the idea that he is the GOAT, Semenuk characteristically deflects the praise. Why would he embrace it? That won’t help him progress. “I don’t agree with it,” he says. “There’s so many amazing people. It’s not that I haven’t heard that [phrase] used, but I don’t agree with it and I don’t particularly think a lot of people think that.”
And yet his artistry is unrivaled. “For me it’s always been evolving with my riding and just exploring—exploring mountain biking,” Semenuk says. “That’s just part of the idea of making it feel like art. If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it in the best possible way.”
The idea of poetry in motion takes on a different meaning when applied to rally-car racing, which Semenuk has been competing in for more than a decade and excelling in for several years. Rally races are a series of segments, raced against the clock across twisty gravel roads. Drivers compete on the same closed course, at speeds averaging 120 mph, aided by a navigator in the passenger seat. Piloting a WRX STI for Subaru Motorsports, Semenuk spent the 2022 season in a tight battle with motocross legend Travis Pastrana atop the American Rally Association’s overall standings.
Semenuk hoists the hardware to celebrate victory at the 2021 Red Bull Rampage. The title marked his fourth at the legendary event.
Semenuk celebrated victory at the 2021 Red Bull Rampage.
For Semenuk, rally racing has evolved from a passion to a serious venture.
For Semenuk, rally racing has evolved from a passion to a serious venture.
Another thing you should know about Semenuk: He’s a visionary. Along with his innate desire to create comes an innate desire to be in control. He’s involved in every aspect of his highly anticipated videos, from location scouting to course building to arranging food and housing for the crew to the performance itself, as well as video editing, music selection and social media promotion.
Unlike many extreme-sports stars, Semenuk is not flashy. There’s no bling. He’s not covered in tattoos. He doesn’t close down the bars. He doesn’t share his personal life on social. He’s reserved, and because of this, meaningful glimpses into his world may be gleaned from his friends, sponsors and competitors as much as from the man himself.
Take American freeride legend Cam Zink, another pioneer of the sport, who, at 36, is five years Semenuk’s senior and was one of his early influences. Like Semenuk, Zink has won Rampage and Joyride; they’re friends and competitors. “Brandon is very introverted, quiet and usually unassuming,” Zink says in a text message. “He keeps his personal life and training hidden to let his riding do the talking.” Zink adds that Semenuk is “the greatest and most captivating” rider of all time.
It’s no accident that there hasn’t been a definitive profile of Semenuk to date. As Zink says, watch the videos—that’s how Semenuk expresses himself. Probe further and those in his inner circle will use terms such as “focused,” “sincere” and “loyal” to describe the enigmatic rider.
“There haven’t been a lot of outlets where I’m like, ‘Yeah, this feels like this is gonna go somewhere and can improve something for me.’ Or be worth someone’s time,” Semenuk says when asked about his aversion to interviews. “If there’s nothing that’s gonna improve the silence, then why talk at all?”
It’s safe to say that Semenuk is not hungry to be understood. He’s not an open book. However, it’s hard to describe someone who has spent so many hours in front of a camera as walled off. Perhaps it’s best to view his true personality as hidden behind a paywall, and the currency required to gain entry is trust.
Semenuk’s compound includes an airy outbuilding with ramps and an array of his retired bikes adorning the walls.
Semenuk’s compound includes an outbuilding with ramps and retired bikes.
There have been two big moves that really altered the trajectory of Semenuk’s career. The first came while he was still a teenager, when he moved from his hometown of Whistler and bought a home on a few acres on the Sunshine Coast, across the Georgia Strait from Vancouver Island. The backyard became a private slopestyle course, complete with ramps, jumps and an air bag. Riding buddies could crash in spare rooms. Training on these jumps, he says, sped up his progression significantly. “It’s kind of a no-brainer; if you have that stuff in front of you, it’s just so much easier to wake up with an idea and then go try it or play with it or build something new,” he says. “It’s my space—I can change things and do what I need to do.”
The second pivotal decision came at age 24, when Semenuk started the video brand Revel Co. with filmmaker Rupert Walker. That move gave Semenuk creative control over his content, accelerating a transition from pure competition to bringing his riding concepts to realization.
Semenuk explained the thought process behind the move from contests to video during a candid two-hour conversation on the Unclicked podcast with decorated BMX pro Dennis Enarson and co-host Ryan Fudger. The 2021 interview reveals Semenuk at his most relaxed and enthused. Enarson ranks among the action-sports athletes Semenuk most admires. (Semenuk’s BMX skills are considerable, as demonstrated in the 2016 video “Street Sweeper,” shot by Walker over five nights in Barcelona.)

3 min

See Semenuk's winning run at Rampage's 20th anniversary

Watch the winning run from Red Bull Rampage 2021 to see Brandon Semenuk make history yet again in Utah.

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“I was getting kind of burnt on contests,” Semenuk said. “Eventually it was like, ‘I feel like I’ve done it all. I don’t need to try to keep winning the same event.’ If I win, I feel content. If I got second place, I feel like a failure, because everyone expects me to win. I didn’t want to get stuck just riding contests. I needed to do the projects, get these tricks and features out of my head. There was a number of years where I pretty much spent all my salary on just filming and making cool stuff. Now I get cool opportunities where I don’t always have to spend my money to do this stuff. It was an investment in my future.”
If there was a genesis for Semenuk’s move into video production, it came from the Red Bull video series Life Behind Bars, which ran between 2012 and 2014, starring Semenuk and a crew of freeride pals traveling, riding and living the charmed life of young shredders. When he looks back on the series now, Semenuk says he sees someone “very different” but adds that the experience informed his decision to take control over his content.
“It was a cool experience doing those videos. I learned a lot, but it was definitely an endeavor that helped me get the experience of doing what I really wanted to do,” he says. “People love them, which is great, but it wasn’t something I was overly hyped on. It was just a cool opportunity and I learned from it and kind of figured out what path I wanted to take beyond that.”
Semenuk and his friend Ryan Howard ride together during the filming of “Parallel” in February 2019.
Semenuk and his friend Ryan Howard for the filming of “Parallel.”
A case study in Semenuk’s vision and execution of a project is the 2019 video “Parallel.” For starters, he and Walker, along with photographer Ian Collins, Trek rider Ryan “R-Dogg” Howard and longtime crew members Evan “Intern” Young, Justin Wyper and Daniel Fleury, built a course on private land in Central California belonging to Ferrentino.
For three weeks, Ferrentino watched them hand-cut the trail from sunrise to sunset, mostly in rain-soaked mud, “scraping, digging, packing, carving out of an oaky hillside a pair of trails that are not on any map,” Ferrentino wrote for Bike. “They are lines in Semenuk’s head, something he and R-Dogg are coaxing out of the blank-canvas possibilities offered in the slope between the trees.”
The finished product, two minutes of action, shows Semenuk and Howard riding side by side down tracks, weaving through a grove of Royal Oak trees and open grass fields. Howard calls the project a highlight of his career.
“Brandon is the one coming up with the ideas and the locations,” Howard says. “A lot of people might think it’s all handed to him—here’s a location, here’s these insane jumps, here’s a house, we’ll get everything catered for you. But he’s doing all the behind-the-scenes work.”
A more recent example of Semenuk’s artistry and athleticism is a Red Bull Raw 100 video he and Walker produced in 2020, shooting at an abandoned mine in Merritt, British Columbia. Semenuk discovered the location on Google Maps, and, in Walker’s words, “brought the zone to life with his ideas.” The clip ends with a 360 inward tabletop into a manual into a heart-stopping backflip off a massive flat drop. The setting, the cinematography and editing and Semenuk’s powerful, visionary performance—it’s breathtaking. The clip has a million views on YouTube; among the 1,700 comments are quips such as “He is literally only competing with himself at this point. What an artist.”
Cam Zink, another freeriding pioneer, calls Semenuk “the greatest and most captivating” rider of all time.
Cam Zink, calls Semenuk “the most captivating” rider of all time.
There are scores of videos of Semenuk on the internet that have been watched hundreds of millions of times, but there are few in- depth interviews to be found. Perhaps the most revealing was published in the November 2012 issue of Dirt magazine, written by Seb Kemp, who is now global brand director at Santa Cruz Bicycles.
In that piece—titled “Where Did the Robot From the Future Come From?”— Kemp explored Semenuk’s origin story: growing up in the mountain bike paradise of Whistler; following his brother’s footsteps into cross-country racing; being discovered at the Whistler dirt jumps by World Cup downhill winner and Trek brand ambassador Andrew Shandro; ultimately turning pro and quitting high school at age 14 to compete. The article also touches on Semenuk’s family life: growing up with his father, Mark, and half brother, Tyler West, who is seven years older, while his mother, Linda, lived a few hours away on Vancouver Island.
Jenine Bourbonnais, owner of Whistler’s Evolution shop, became his first sponsor when he was just 7 years old. She remembers him tagging along with Tyler, whom she already sponsored. Brandon handed her a handwritten résumé of what he liked to ride and told her, in a serious tone, “I’d like to be on your team.”
“From that moment, he became a little buddy of mine,” she says. “We helped him however we could, with parts and tuning his bike. We were part of his life. He rode so much, he needed stuff all the time.”
Over time, Bourbonnais took on a role as a maternal figure in Brandon’s life, periodically checking in on him, assuring he was doing his homework, mending his ripped-up jeans. She recalls that he was not only skilled as a mountain biker but also as a skateboarder, snowboarder and alpine skier. At age 12, Semenuk won the Canadian under-14 national cross- country title; a year later he won the 38-kilometer British Columbia cross- country championship, beating his closest competitor by more than 13 minutes.
As he developed, Bourbonnais fostered relationships with several of his first sponsors, often through brand reps that sold to her shop. “When he was 14 and I was initially getting him sponsorships, I would say, ‘Call Brandon and speak to him. You will understand that he is the type of person you want representing your brand,’ ” she says. “Brandon has always been himself— quiet, confident, polite and honest. When you see him do interviews, he doesn’t jump to say things. I wonder if that is part of his incredible skill; he maintains this calmness underneath everything, all the time.”
Semenuk goes for a spin on the otherworldly structure called the Sphere, which he helped design.
Semenuk goes for a spin on the Sphere, which he helped design.
Shandro met Semenuk at the dirt jumps with his young son, Ethan, who took a tumble. Before Shandro could get to him, the talented teenager was helping the boy up and dusting him off. So when they ran into each other again at the jumps a few weeks later, Shandro asked about getting him on a Trek. Semenuk has ridden for the brand ever since. Shandro ultimately signed Semenuk to Trek’s burgeoning C3 freeride program and remains a mentor to Semenuk to this day.
“I was intrigued because this kid was really good,” Shandro says. “There was also a sense of a 14-year-old kid helping out my son. He didn’t know who I was, but I could see this kid has a good heart. If you look at what he’s done from age 17 to now, it’s unbelievable. Every year of his career he has produced, from winning competitions to getting into the film world to winning Rampage, while still putting out incredible projects and progressing the sport—doing things on a bike that other people have never done.”
After signing with Trek and Nike’s 6.0 action-sports brand, a 15-year-old Semenuk took his first trip to Europe, to compete in contests. Around then he also began spending his winters with friends in Aptos, California, a small beach town set among the redwoods that for two decades also served as home to the Post Office Jumps, one of the most iconic dirt-jump spots in the world. When Semenuk’s friends would head north and rent a house in Whistler for the summer, he would stay with them instead of his family, sometimes sleeping in a closet.
Semenuk says he has operated with a high degree of autonomy as long as he can remember. “My parents weren’t super controlling, they weren’t super concerned. They let me just have my freedom,” he says. “I’ve always been self-reliant and self-dependent, just because of those things. I never really had to report back. I could go home, I could leave whenever I wanted. I could stay at my mom’s, I could stay at my dad’s—it just didn’t matter. My brother is much older as well; he had already had his freedom, and I think I was kind of piggybacking off the fact that they were loose with him, so they were loose with me. I just got to do my thing.”
Semenuk and his fiancée have been together for five years and are set to be married later this year. This is not a topic Semenuk wants to discuss for this story. “I’d rather just keep my personal life personal,” he says. “I put out the things that I want to show people.”
“To force myself to step away from the bike is sometimes a good thing."
“To force myself to step away from the bike is sometimes a good thing."
Back in August, Semenuk was staring down an important decision. Digging and line selection for the upcoming Red Bull Rampage was scheduled to begin on the same October weekend as the final stop of the American Rally Association’s National Championship series. As this issue went to press, with two events remaining, Semenuk was leading the overall driver’s championship standings. Since signing with Subaru Motorsports in the spring of 2020, he had finished second and third overall, but had not yet won a series title. For an individual who is “inspired by new things all the time,” it was tempting to guess where he would prefer to be.
He did, however, deflect the notion that he feels compelled to be at his sponsor’s flagship mountain bike event as its defending champion. “I wouldn’t say there is pressure,” he says. “I’m sure they would like me there, like a lot of people. But a lot of people would like me at the other thing. How many more years am I realistically going to do Rampage? At some point I am not going to do it. If I didn’t do it this year, I could always go back next year.” (Despite such hedging, Semenuk’s name was there when Red Bull announced the confirmed slate of riders for Rampage in late August.)
If it’s hard to wrap your head around Semenuk’s success in rally-car racing, it’s useful to study his rise in slopestyle. He became a pro because he loved it and his skill kept improving. The same is true in rally racing: He began doing it for fun, got very good at it, and since he signed with Subaru Motorsports in 2020, it’s become economically viable—no more renting a car and personally insuring it for events.
“I’ve been fortunate to find one thing I really enjoy to do, and be successful at, and then rally is just another thing that I’ve been passionate about for a long time,” he says. “After 10 or 11 years of doing it just for pleasure, there was honestly no thought that I would ever do it at a professional level. It was always just doing it because I like to do it—same with biking. But I think being OCD and always trying to find the limit with things, I was able to progress with it.”
Building an elaborate and adaptable slopestyle playground in his backyard helped Semenuk alter the trajectory of his own career.
Building an adaptable slopestyle course helped Semenuk alter his career.
Obviously, rally racing and freeride mountain biking are radically different, but there is overlap on a subset of skills required for both—extreme focus, nerves of steel and quick assessments of tire grip on loose terrain. What’s just as important to Semenuk, he says, is the way his two passions complement each other.
“To force myself to step away from the bike is sometimes a good thing,” he explained in a recent video. “And then when I come back to riding, I’m so excited about the time I spent in the car, and I’m excited to get back on the bike. It gives me this burst of energy and stoke.”
The highest level of rally racing is the FIA World Rally Championship series; the next tier is World Rally Championship-2, with races contested on the same courses over the same weekends. For Semenuk, contesting races at the World Rally 2 level is the natural next step, but it’s not so simple. On the 2022 schedule, 10 of 13 events are in Europe, with none in North America. He’d like to test his skills against the best in the world, but he’s pragmatic about how he won’t reach the heights he has in mountain biking.
“I’m never going to be the fastest driver in the world,” he says. “I grew up mountain biking at a young age, and to be at the level I’m at now, it took starting at that young age to get to where I’m at. Not to say that I can’t get to a level where I can be competitive at a world level, like World Rally 2, and compete with other really talented drivers, but I’m never gonna be the fastest driver. But sometime I will do it, just to see how the events operate and how the other drivers perform. It would be a fun experience.”
Whether he’s in his rally car or on a mountain bike, Semenuk regularly straddles that thin line between risk and reward. His smooth freeride style and winning rally record may convince some that he’s impervious to miscalculations; Shandro insists Semenuk has “catlike reflexes.” However, Semenuk is not immune to pilot error. He acknowledges a broken wrist that required surgery in the winter of 2020, and a broken collarbone from earlier in his career, but he’s not interested in cataloging his physical setbacks throughout the years. It’s not helping him to progress, so why would he?
More than anything, Semenuk works hard to avoid injuries because they interfere with his busy schedule. “I definitely prepare a lot,” he explained on the Unclicked podcast. “The last thing I want to do is go into something unprepared, hurt myself and then not get to enjoy riding my bike for a number of weeks or months. That’s what honestly scares me more than anything else.”
And what about his relationship with mortality? How does he reconcile frequently threading that needle between life and death, or at least between life and severe injury? “I don’t really think about it, to be honest,” he says. “It’s not really something I need to dwell on.”
Semenuk displays his signature style and seemingly effortless grace during the filming of “Realm,” a reimagining of slopestyle riding.
Semenuk displays his signature style in the filming of “Realm.”
One final thing that’s important to know about Semenuk: He’s been with most of his sponsors for well over a decade now, an anomaly in action sports. Those sponsors include Red Bull, Trek, SRAM, RockShox, Troy Lee Designs, Maxxis and Smith Optics.
This list illustrates that not only are Semenuk’s sponsors satisfied with the return on investment they receive—a Trek marketing manager called the long- running relationship a “no-brainer”—but it also means that he’s content with the equipment and support he receives. He’s achieved an elusive status—he’s a franchise athlete, one of those rare talents that brands strive to be affiliated with for the duration of their career.
“I’ve held out for a few of those brands,” Semenuk says. “I had other opportunities, I could’ve maybe made more money elsewhere, but it was always about being in a place that made me happy. I haven’t really been one of those athletes to go fish around for money.”
In line with the mythology built around his image, Semenuk’s social media approach is to only post high- quality riding images and videos— nothing personal and only on his time frame. Once again he’s an outlier in the cycling space, where the social accounts of many athletes are an endless stream of self-promotion and sponsor activation. Semenuk’s Instagram account, which has 643,000 followers, posts no selfies, no impromptu smartphone videos, no gratuitous sponsorship-appreciation posts. Captions often just consist of a few words.
Semenuk disputes the suggestion that infrequent and impersonal posts might be the luxury of being the world’s greatest mountain bike rider—the notion that he doesn’t need to promote his sponsors like other athletes. It’s actually more work, he insists, to curate his social media presence than it would be to post whatever comes along. Anyone can walk around pointing an iPhone at what’s in front of them and put together an Instagram story. In his mind, it’s not that he’s coasting because brands are happy to be affiliated with him; he’s working harder to provide value to his sponsors. “It’s not about being the greatest, and it’s definitely not a luxury,” he says. “I could just take the easy route and just constantly feed people things, but I don’t want to do that.”
As always, Semenuk does things his own way. And it’s clearly working. He’s perhaps the sole mountain biker who transcends the sport. “Obviously, it’s down to [sponsors] trusting me to just do my job and create my worth for them,” he says. “But at the same time, this is a passion. I do it because I love it. If I start to do it in a way where I’m not gonna love it, then it’s not really worth it to me anymore. I’m not gonna risk my life if I’m not in it—if I’m not super down for it.”
Yet, while his riding and content creation are driven by passion, and he enjoys a lifestyle that many would envy, Semenuk still grinds. “He is the hardest- working dude I’ve ever met,” Howard says. “We will ride in the morning, then he’ll rip emails for two or three hours, we’ll ride again in the evening, then he’ll do emails until midnight. I’m like, ‘Dude, relax, you should be enjoying your lifestyle.’ He enjoys it, he’s very passionate about it, but it’s also his job. He wants to be the best. And it shows.”
Semenuk admits he works tirelessly. “Just like with any entrepreneur, it’s just work 24/7,” he says. “It’s a lot of effort, but I don’t look at it like work.”
And what about the future? Where does he see himself in 20 years? How many more times can he hurl his body down a cliff in Utah? Does he have a vision for the next chapter?
“No, not really,” he says. “I have goals and aspirations, but it constantly changes, and I work with the opportunities that I’m given,” he says. When asked to elaborate, his answer is characteristically opaque. He speaks of racing at the World Rally 2 level and hints at projects that have been on his mind for a while. Nothing explicit.
And perhaps that’s fitting for someone who is as much a magician, a visionary, an introvert and an artist as he is an athlete—from someone who has seamlessly transitioned throughout his career from slopestyle champion to prolific video producer to freeride luminary to rally-race winner. Semenuk seemingly excels at everything he puts his mind to. If you’ve got that kind of track record, you don’t need a long-term plan.
“I just want to continue to work at the stuff that I’m already doing and find new avenues,” he says. “You know, not just going back to doing the same thing over again—just trying to find new avenues to make it interesting.”

Keep up with Brandon:

Instagram: @brandonsemenuk
Brandon Semenuk will be participating in Red Bull Rampage in Utah on October 21, 2022.
For more of Brandon, watch, Steps to the Top, a new documentary available now on RBTV:

37 min

Brandon Semenuk – Steps to the Top

Get an inside look at the creative process behind Brandon Semenuk’s Red Bull Rampage winning run in 2021.

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Red Bull Rampage

Watch the full Red Bull Rampage 2022 replay now! The best freeride MTB riders took on the steep and unforgiving terrain of southwest Utah for some wild action.

Brandon Semenuk

One of the best freeride mountain bikers ever, Brandon Semenuk is the most successful rider ever at both Red Bull Joyride and Red Bull Rampage.

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Brandon Semenuk – Steps to the Top

Get an inside look at the creative process behind Brandon Semenuk’s Red Bull Rampage winning run in 2021.

37 min