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The Outsider: Is slopestyle competition sustainable?

Public reaction to the slopestyle protest at Crankworx Rotorua has been mixed
Crankworx Rotorua showcased its first-ever women’s slopestyle event this month. The 16 men chose not to compete in protest over safety and sustainable remuneration for riders.

Last weekend, the flagship event of Crankworx Rotorua—the Men’s Slopestyle—did not proceed as planned. Rather than the usual factors we hear about for this sort of cancellation such as weather or unsafe riding conditions, in this case it was due to the 16 competitors refusing to. The riders collectively signed a statement which you can read in full online, but the meat of it is here:

“[W]e want to secure a stable and sustainable future for Slopestyle—including the current and future generation of riders. This decision was made to ensure a minimum industry standard is achieved moving forward with rider welfare, safety, compensation, but also communication and decision-making established. Not just singularly for the Crankworx Rotorua event, but for the whole Crankworx and FMB World Tour.”

If you’ve ever witnessed the Red Bull Joyride slopestyle in the Whistler Bike Park’s Boneyard area at the base of Whistler Mountain, you know what a spectacle it is. And if you’ve been around for as many Crankworx events as some of us, you’ll also know how much this particular discipline of mountain biking has pushed the sport, and rapidly at that. I’d argue Rampage (another Red Bull event) is the only other event in the same tier. Rampage is a livestream spectacle where some of these slopestyle athletes compete as well, and raised the bar of big mountain freeride even further.

Further, if you’ve ever witnessed a rider go down during a slopestyle competition, you know how much risk these athletes expose themselves to. Yes, they train for it. Some even make a living through competition and sponsorships. But regardless of how much the sponsors are chipping in, the risk keeps going up as these riders continue to push what’s possible on a bike going off a big-ass jump.

The public reaction to the slopestyle protest at Crankworx Rotorua has been mixed. Many folks sided with the riders, believing them overdue in putting their collective foot down. Many others sided with the disappointed organizers and spectators, who had a flagship livestream event pulled from underneath them.

And therein lie the nuances. This isn’t David standing up to Goliath, far from it. At the end of the day, this was an ill-timed negotiation where neither party was going to walk away with what they wanted.

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit. Of the three demands from the riders, the two Crankworx immediately fulfilled were: covering hotel accommodation for all invited athletes, including alternates; and scheduling the slopestyle final before noon to avoid wind delays and maximize chances of a full livestream.

These two points are a no-brainer. Covering accommodation for the athletes of the biggest-ticket event is not hard. Understandably, it’s not feasible for every athlete at a Crankworx festival. But for 16-ish riders? That’s eight hotel rooms that can easily be covered with an accommodation partner. As for moving the scheduled start of the livestream, I’m sure Crankworx scheduled the slopestyle event to maximize viewership, both online and for the spectators coming out to see the event itself. This may work for most racing events, but slopestyle can’t have unpredictable gusts of wind or a setting sun blinding the riders mid-trick.

If you were watching the 2023 Red Bull Joyride last year, that’s exactly what happened. It delayed the event for hours, and the riders didn’t even get to complete their two runs. If 16 of the best slopestyle riders in the world are telling you it has to move earlier to be safe and provide the best conditions for a fair, complete competition, then do it.

The last point is where things get sticky. Requesting an “appearance” fee of 2,000 euros per rider, per event, ads up quite fast. With 16 riders, that’s 32,000 euros per event. With four Crankworx events, that’s 128,000 euros per season. The Crankworx team can’t pull that amount of cash out of a hat, even if riders have asked for it for years.

Last year was the single worst year for the cycling industry globally. Marketing budgets have all had their belts tightened. You can imagine what the conversations would look like for sponsorships and partnerships when Crankworx needs to cover another six-figure line item.

Initially, when I read the riders’ statement, I was on their side. I believe they should be taken care of and they should be set up at these events, whether they win a spot on the podium or not. Crankworx raised their prize purse substantially for 2024. But that’s not the point, say the riders. The guy who places seventh in the field is still taking the same risks as the guy who wins.

What I didn’t approve of with the riders was their strategy and timing for this, well, let’s call it a publicity stunt. Handing over a list of demands with a sub-48-hour deadline, then refusing to compete, threw a lot of hard-working event folks under the bus, not to mention the spectators in New Zealand who paid good money for their festival passes (Crankworx Rotorua is not a completely free event to view like Whistler). This all could’ve happened months ago by sending an open letter to the organizers and the freeride community saying they were not going to compete in 2024 unless they saw change.

Lastly, the whole debacle overshadowed the first-ever women’s slopestyle event at Crankworx. The significance of the women competing in slopestyle on the same course as men can’t be overstated. This is something Red Bull Rampage wouldn’t do, or at least won’t do yet. So bravo Crankworx for making it happen, and awarding women with an equal prize purse to the men.

Both parties in this debacle have a bit to answer for. The riders need Crankworx as much as Crankworx needs the riders, so I’m sure they’ll agree to meet in the middle at some point. But with three more Crankworx events scheduled for this summer and certainty of the flagship event in question, the future of slopestyle competition hangs in the balance.

Vince Shuley’s best bike trick is a half-assed moto whip. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider, email [email protected] or Instagram @whis_vince.

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